‘Shuggie Bain’ author Douglas Stuart: ‘I have a radar for the suffering soul’

Around half an hour into my lunch with Douglas Stuart, we encounter a problem. The circular table at which we are sitting is impossibly small, more suited to a cup of coffee than a succession of Mexican sharing plates. We have barely made a dent in the guacamole or scallop ceviche before a generous portion of beef tacos arrives, accompanied by a “gringa”, a deconstructed quesadilla that spills over the side of the dish.

“We’re running out of space,” Stuart says, before scooping up a handful of saucer-sized tortilla chips and depositing them in a different bowl. “Do you want to pick up your phone?” he asks as he sets about rearranging things to make just enough space to accommodate the extra food.

Stuart, a fashion designer by trade, knows how to make things fit. The first draft of his debut novel, which won the Booker Prize in November 2020, ran to 1,800 pages before he started making cuts. “The book distilled a huge amount,” he says of Shuggie Bain, a haunting story that hews closely to Stuart’s own experience of growing up in 1980s Glasgow with an alcoholic mother.

Unlike most novels set in a Scotland reeling from Margaret Thatcher’s industrial policies, Shuggie Bain concerns itself not with the picket line or the pub, but rather a domestic world inhabited primarily by women. Much of it takes place in stuffy council flats, where cans and bottles of alcohol bought from off-licences — known as “carry-outs” in Glasgow — are shared over a haze of cigarette smoke.

At its heart is a love story between a son and a mother who is at once dazzling and deeply flawed. The novel is unflinching in its description of what it is like to be brought up by an addict, the role of carer and dependant being all too often inverted — but it never veers into recrimination. “It isn’t an angry book, it’s often sad, it’s frequently harrowing,” Stuart says. “But I didn’t want to write something in anger because I think if I’d written it in anger, it would have obliterated the love.”

Now Stuart is preparing for the April publication of his second novel, Young Mungo, a tale of two teenage boys who become star-crossed lovers in a Glasgow besieged by gang violence and riven by the sectarian Protestant-Catholic divide.

We meet on a crisp, sunny day in New York, the bright light bouncing against the walls of Atla, a stylish Mexican eatery a short walk from Stuart’s East Village apartment. “On a winter’s day, it’s really nice here because the windows are so big,” he says. The environs couldn’t be further from the Glasgow depicted in Shuggie Bain, a dreich city where, as the narrator puts it, constant rain keeps “the grass green and the people pale and bronchial”.

Stuart is dressed in the kind of understated yet effortlessly stylish garb that only people who know their clothes can pull off, with a black quarter-zip blazer over a light textured T-shirt. His salt-and-pepper beard is neatly trimmed.

After taking our seats and each ordering a glass of white wine, we share memories of Glasgow and swap stories of how we ended up in Manhattan. My parents both grew up on the same council estate, or “housing scheme” as locals would call it, on Glasgow’s South Side, around four miles from Sighthill, where Stuart lived as a young child.

He arrived in New York in 2000 aged 24, after being offered a job as a designer at Calvin Klein while studying for a Masters at the Royal College of Art in London. It was the culmination of an escape of sorts. His mother had succumbed to alcoholism and died eight years earlier, leaving him orphaned and living in a bedsit while he became the first person in his family to finish high school.

“You have an imperial period in New York,” he says of his early years in the city. “When you’re a young man, you want to work really hard, you want to have a good time, you want to take in everything it has.”

By 2008, Stuart had — on the face of things at least — made it. He was living with his long-term partner Michael Cary, a curator at the Gagosian gallery (the pair married in 2018), while quickly working his way up the ladder of the fashion industry.

“It was actually at the height of my career. I was the senior director of design for Banana Republic,” he recalls. “That was a $4bn business, and it was an incredibly demanding job. I would travel every four or five weeks overseas, lots to Asia, lots to Europe.” But something wasn’t right.

“I was unhappy, I think. And I was becoming tired of everything I was doing in fashion,” he recalls. “There was never anything that was private, far too much stuff by committee. So in 2008, I sat down to begin writing Shuggie.”

Stuart has been to Atla “a bunch of times, but it’s not a regular” (an important distinction in New York), and he orders for us both from the short menu of Mexican dishes. Our palates cleansed by the ceviche, he cuts me a slice of the delicious pork al pastor gringa, which oozes with chunks of greasy meat and cheese that are balanced out by a piquant pineapple relish. “The food is perfect,” he says approvingly. I concur.

It would take Stuart a decade to complete Shuggie Bain, during which he wrote in furtive fits and starts at the beginning and end of 12-hour days. “I’d maybe get 30 minutes to write in the mornings, on a plane, if I had a Sunday off. By the time the first draft was finished, it was a very loose collection of about 35 short stories or vignettes. I couldn’t admit to myself that I was trying to write a book. It was far too intimidating.”

Nor did he feel able to tell his “fashion friends”, for fear that they would mock him or dismiss him as an LA type who is “always writing a screenplay or something”. He shared early drafts of the novel only with his partner. By 2018, he had cut the manuscript down to 550 pages, stringing the “pearls that weren’t quite connected” into a novel, and signed a publishing deal with Grove Atlantic.

372 Lafayette St, New York 10012

Guacamole $18
Salsas $8
Scallop ceviche $22
Gringa $19
Taco de suadero x2 $16
Glass of Xarel-lo x2 $32
Espresso $5
Americano $5

Total $136.09

Stuart quit fashion as soon as he had a contract and attended a big farewell bash at Cipriani in Grand Central Station. The evening confirmed his suspicions about the vacuity of the industry. “Not a single one of them asked me what the book was about. Every single one of them asked me if I was going to design the cover.”

Young Mungo is something of a departure in that it draws less heavily on his own life story. “It is still quite squarely based on a lot of personal experience, but not the plot or the characters, the themes,” he says. “I’m writing about a sense of belonging — and where you are if you don’t know where you belong in that family, or on that housing estate.”

With just a few months to go until publication, Stuart admits to having some anxiety about how the book will be received by critics following the rapturous reception for Shuggie Bain, which sold 1.5m copies globally. “I think with Mungo, I would be naive if I didn’t think there would be some kind of balancing of accounts. I would imagine there would be some people that would be sceptical of my success, and wanting to . . . ” he says, trailing off.

As he rolls up a beef taco covered in fresh herbs, Stuart recounts how difficult it was to find a publisher for Shuggie Bain, a novel that he suggests did not quite fit the times. “It came from so far outside what we were thinking about as a collective . . . the #MeToo movement, Trumpism, race in America. It was this family in Scotland from another time, another place. People just couldn’t see how to insert it into the conversation. What shelf does it sit on? How do you tell Oprah Magazine she has to care about it?”

He was under the false impression that Shuggie had been knocked back a mere 20 times, but was disabused of that fact when he repeated it to a journalist. “My agent prodded me and said, ‘Actually it was rejected 44 times, I just stopped telling you’.” Some publishers described it as too sad, others too long. One predicted it would win the Booker but said “I still don’t know how to publish it.”

Stuart was the sixth person to win Britain’s top literary prize with a debut novel. But his success was tempered by the lockdown, which forced him to accept the award via video link from his apartment. Still, the stages of the pandemic have served as bookends to the changes in Stuart’s life. “I began it as an ex-fashion designer who was about to publish a book, and I’ve come out as a Booker winner who is about to publish his second. Not a single part of my life resembles the same. It was hugely transformative.”

When he was finally able to go on tour, it was not without its irritations. One reader asked why Stuart — whose accent has, admittedly, lost some of its Glasgow twang — “was so beautifully spoken for someone who is so rough”.

He expresses some relief that the Booker baton has since been passed to South African author Damon Galgut. “I’ve missed that place of solitude. I think my best work comes from it and I just wasn’t able to concentrate for a year. I’m excited to get back to my writing.”

There are many qualities that elevate Shuggie Bain above books that are pejoratively described as “misery memoirs”, but Stuart’s prose — cinematic and impressionistic — is chief among them. That is all the more surprising because he had no formal training and little experience of writing professionally before embarking on the novel. I ask, then, if he is an avid reader, one of those writers who learns via a process of osmosis. Apparently not.

“I didn’t really start reading until I was about 17. And then, oftentimes, I was too busy to read, doing too many things in fashion,” he says. “I’ll always feel remedial, like I haven’t read enough, that I’m playing catch-up. People are always asking me if I’ve read Tolstoy and Proust, and Dostoyevsky. And the truth is, I haven’t read enough of that. I’m often compared to Charles Dickens. I’ve never even read Dickens.”

Instead, he attributes his talent to a solitary childhood spent indoors while his mother drank herself into oblivion, unable to play with neighbouring kids who had spotted he was different from the other boys. “I inhabited imaginary worlds and told myself counter-narratives to the things that were actually going on,” he recalls. “Whether it was because I was being bullied, or because my family had addiction in it, my imagination was something I relied on to make a reality that was different to the one I was living in.”

Shuggie Bain is fiction, not memoir, but it was nonetheless the product of a deep, painful excavation of Stuart’s childhood. During our lunch, he frequently describes the character of Agnes as “my mother”. “I had to unpick a lot of times when I felt very angry. But even though I wouldn’t wish my childhood on anyone, at the end of the day, the loss is my mother’s. No one loses more than the addict themselves. It’s been a lot of my life’s work to come to terms with that.”

As we polish off our wine, a citrusy Xarel-lo from Catalonia, I confess to having wondered before the interview whether Stuart was a teetotaller, given the agonising description of alcoholism in Shuggie Bain. “I have a very pedestrian relationship with alcohol. I don’t drink cocktails or beer, because I don’t like them, but I do like wine, so I enjoy it,” he says. “But I think I keep an eye on it. None of us know what’s going to come for us, whether it’s drugs or alcohol, or something else. It might happen at some point. But right now, I’m addicted to my phone. It’s terrible for a writer.”

I ask whether he can spot addiction in others, having spent his early years studying its different faces. “Not really, but a little,” he says. “I can spot when people are feeling wounded and lonely. I have a real radar for the suffering soul.”

Over coffee, we chat about the unique place that alcohol has in Glaswegian society. My late grandfather, whose own consumption became problematic (although we never used the “A-word”), would often say “drink is stronger than man”. I muse about why it seems to be so much more of a problem there than in cities in the north of England like Manchester or Leeds.

“When I started writing the book, I had a very New York idea of alcoholism,” he says. “I thought something bad must have happened to [my mother] and she reached for the bottle. But when I went back to talk to family, I realised it was a very heavy-drinking society. I was keen to find that one moment my mother had a bad week, and wanted to know why someone hadn’t said ‘stop it now’.”

“I asked my aunts; they just couldn’t say. Everyone liked a night out, a party, and suddenly there’s a bad night, and then another and, before you know, it the person’s gone to a dark place. The truth is, in many places in the world, the break line between a good time and a bad time is easy to find. And in Glasgow, it can be hard.”

We linger for a while and gossip about this and that. It is with something of a jolt that Stuart remembers he is being interviewed when I tell him I need to take a picture for the illustrator. He frets too when the cheque arrives. “The bill goes in the paper?” he asks nervously. “I don’t want us to look bourgeois.” I assure him that it is cheap by the standards of Lunch with the FT. And with that we take our leave, stepping out on to the sun-drenched sidewalk, him headed eastward and me south to the FT’s offices. Before we part, I ask if he intends to stay in New York for good. Perhaps not: Glasgow still exerts a pull. “I’ve always felt like my time here might be temporary. It’s just, I suppose, 21 years is arguing against that.”

David Crow is the FT’s US news editor

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