Queer eye for the literary high
Shuggie Bain is a Glasgow-set tale of crumbling families, ruinous addiction and blossoming sexuality. It’s also the Booker-longlisted best book of the summer. Its author, New York-based Scotsman Douglas Stuart, explains his hard road to publication, both on and off-the-page.
In his brilliant debut novel Shuggie Bain, a coruscating and heartbreaking account of a lonely kid and his disintegrating mum on Glasgow’s impoverished frontline, Douglas Stuart knows of what he speaks.
“I’m the queer son of a single mother who never knew his father,” begins the Scotsman, “and I was raised on benefits. I never knew my mother sober. And that doesn’t mean she was a bad person. She was a wonderful, gregarious, beautiful woman, but she was very unwell. So by the time I came along – I’m the youngest of three – my mother was already in the throes of her addiction. And she passed when I was in high school, when I was 16.
“So, much as in the beginning of the book, I had to find myself a bedsit and put myself through the rest of high school.”
All that said, he clarifies: “The book is fiction – I wouldn’t treat it as memoir, other than to say I write about that from the inside.”
From the inside, and also from the dirt-poor ground-level. Shuggie Bain is both sweeping (across two timelines – broadly, the early Eighties and the early Nineties) and granular (rich with the everyday detail of working class lives in Scotland’s biggest city). It chronicles the gradual collapse of Agnes, brutalised by west-coast-Scottish patriarchy and poverty, and the faltering rise of her youngest child Shuggie (Scottish for “Hugh”) into adolescence and the challenge of exploring his sexuality in a culture that couldn’t be more hostile.
Taking 10 years to write, running to 430 pages, crafted in evocatively poetic Glaswegian dialect and just nominated for the Booker Prize longlist, the book is a magnificent achievement on multiple levels, not least the personal one. Stuart broke free from his background, got himself to the Scottish College of Textiles in Galashiels, then London’s Royal College of Art, and – courtesy of his 2000 graduate collection (featured in i‑D, rival fashion title fans) – a job as a designer with Calvin Klein in New York.
Twenty years later, he’s still there.
Well, not exactly.
This morning the 44-year-old is zooming from isolation on the deck of his handsome-looking wooden home in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York (“we’ve been here a while; it feels like a holiday”), although normally he lives in Manhattan’s East Village. Equally, Calvin Klein was fun while it lasted.
His first job was in the menswear department, showing twice a year in Milan, “at the height of the end of minimalism. So it was my dream job, exactly where I wanted to be. Then I went to Ralph [Lauren] for a little while, then I did 15 years at The Gap.”
That job, he admits, was ultimately more congruent with his egalitarian and socialist Scottish roots.
“I found collection-level work not quite to my own personal taste – it was about making everything more expensive and out of reach of people. That was hard for me; I found it quite emotionally draining. So I much preferred working at The Gap – and I’m probably in most men’s closets across the country!”
Most recently, he was Head of Design for Jack Spade, although he’s now “trying to manoeuvre myself more into writing full-time. But I’m still figuring it out – fashion and design is [still] how I make my living.”
At the beginning of this year, Stuart teed up the American release of Shuggie Bain with a short story published in The New Yorker. Found Wanting is the empathetic, occasionally unsettling story of a shy 17-year-old Glaswegian who tries to meet other gay men via the only medium possible in the early Nineties: lonely hearts adverts in magazines.
In an accompanying interview, Stuart said his background meant “if you were queer and poor… you could easily slip through the cracks of society”.
Which begs the question: what stopped him falling through those cracks?
“I think being queer and poor, actually. Had I maybe just been one, who knows?” he replies with a smile. “Glasgow wouldn’t let me rest, because I couldn’t find myself in the city.
“Everybody around me was just struggling. And I just couldn’t imagine that, and I couldn’t see myself in the people around me, because none of them were gay. I didn’t have any queer life. This was way before Grindr and Tinder and sliding into somebody’s DMs. So I’d write letters to other boys I found in the back pages of [defunct pop-style magazine] Sky. It sounds like Jane Eyre now!” he laughs. “Another world!”
So, parentless and homeless in his mid-teens, Stuart hitched himself to the only life-raft available: his education.
“But I’d missed so much of it because I was being bullied for being gay, because my mum had had a bad week, because on Tuesday, on benefit’s day, I couldn’t go to school because if I left, there’d be no money left. I had to be the adult in the house aged seven, eight, nine, 10. So, huge pockets of my education were just gone.
“But thank fuck I grew up in Scotland, a socialist country that gives access to higher education to its poorest kids. If I’d gown up in America, I wouldn’t have made it. I wouldn’t have been able to improve my life.”
Still, he’s beyond pleased that his “love story” to a Glasgow that no longer exists has been well received in his adopted homeland, where Shuggie Bain was published in February.
“That’s been weird, because it’s a Scottish story,” he says in an accent not much dimmed by two decades on the other side of the Atlantic. “But addiction and post-industrial cities – look at the rust-belt here in America – that’s a universal thing. And we don’t talk enough about addiction, or the stigma of it, especially when it comes to women – even more so with mothers.
“But that’s rattling so many people now. So the amount of readers who feel like they needed the book has been amazing.”
This summer and autumn Stuart is “appearing” remotely at various book festivals around the world, chasing the acclaim deservedly afforded his literary debut. He has more short stories being published this autumn, and is “wrapping up” his second novel. Again set in Glasgow in the early Nineties, it follows two young queer boys who fall in love across the sectarian divide.
Before he goes, I ask a roundabout version of the old “how much of this is true?” question. That is: how gruelling was it writing the more harrowing, gut-punching scenes of pain and despair (and there are many, all written with intense, gripping feeling)?
“I actually find it more gruelling talking about it like this,” Douglas Stuart answers, swallowing a little. “Writing is a healing thing for me. I wrote the book never thinking anyone would see it – it was six years and six drafts before I let my husband see it. So, actually, it flowed out of me.”
He knew, then, what the story of Shuggie Bain was going to be, and how it was going to hurt. But in the writing, “I just found it healing.”
Shuggie Bain (Picador) is published on 6th August