When novelist Douglas Stuart writes about his home city and its people, he wants his reader to feel immersed in working-class Glasgow.
His 2020 book “Shuggie Bain,” about a boy dealing with his mother’s alcoholism and his own sexuality, won the Booker Prize. This year, he published his second novel, “Young Mungo,” about a queer romance that leads to a perilious fishing trip.
Stuart gives his readers vivid descriptions of Glasgow. But he wants them to take away something universal about being an outsider, struggling with addiction and caring for one another, he told Here & Now’s Emiko Tamagawa during a live event at WBUR’s CitySpace.
“I think many people can relate to Shuggie, because they’ve felt like an outsider in the place that they live,” says Stuart. “Or they can’t fit in. Or they’ve tried to change themselves in some way.”
Both novels dive into heavy material, Stuart says, but that darkness serves a purpose.
“I only ever use darkness in my fiction to really compress the diamond at the heart of it,” he says. “Love is no good unless it’s tested. If you’re just a wonderful person, and I just love you, that’s lovely. But unless someone that you love really is failing or is flawed, then your love is not tested, and what is it really worth?”
On growing up in Glasgow and how much of his own story goes into his book
“Glasgow is a beautiful, diverse city. It has a very proud working class. But unemployment under the [Margaret] Thatcher government went to the high 20 percents. … My own family went from a very working class family, where everyone had work, to a place where we couldn't find enough work some days.
“My mother became a single mother through no choice of her own. She suffered with alcoholism my entire childhood from my earliest memories up until she died one day when I was 16, quite quietly. And so from that place of grief and loss and just that human struggle is why I wrote ‘Shuggie Bain.’
“I wouldn't ever look at the book and say some of the events happened to me. That's a wrong way to read it. And certainly, Agnes is not my mother and I'm not Shuggie. But I was as poor as, as queer as, as touched by addiction as Shuggie is.”
On how “Young Mungo” is different from his first book
“ ‘Young Mungo’ is a lot more fictional … but a lot of what Mungo goes through is trying to fit in quite a narrow world of masculinity. There was a very tight way that boys were allowed to be. You had to be hard-fighting and love football and hard-drinking. And Mungo's just so far to the outside of it.
“Part of that draws on my own experience of being really terrified and terrible at performing my masculinity. By the time I turn like 14, 15, 16, I become my number one oppressor because I'm internalizing all those things and I just want to be straight. I just want to be normal because I just want to be invisible. I want to be left alone.”
On working through his own history with the books.
“I came up in a time before email or before the internet, or before any gay pride had come to anywhere but a capital city. I came of age under the fear of AIDS, and there was no positive representation of gay people in the media, and so I felt entirely alone. Nobody in my community would also say, 'Hey, I'm gay' because there was such fear of retribution or violence.
“So, in a way, writing ‘Young Mungo’ was answering some kind of wish fulfillment for me. Because Mungo does something very simple. He looks out the window and across the back of the other apartment blocks. He meets another boy and he just sees them, and they're that close together and they have a beautiful relationship.”
On his goal for his novels
“I think good art's only obligation is to move you, to make you feel rearranged. If you're going to give me 16 hours of your time, then I'm going to try and move you as best as I can to make you think. I like to create an immersive world for my readers because I think most readers might never see a working-class community or people living with poverty or travel to Glasgow. … Before I'm a writer, I'm a reader. And for me, the thing I love most in a book is when I close the last page, I want to think, 'Don't go, stay with me, or tell me what you're going to do next.' And that's all I really tried to do with my books.”
On getting responses from readers
“I think so many people deal with addiction or with loss or grief or some kind of trauma, and we do it in silence, you know? … Society doesn't like to look, and people don't like to engage with it. And there's a lot of pain there because actually what you need a lot of time is to be able to share that and to be able to reach out for help. What Shuggie has done for me is allowed me to get help in that way. It's allowed a lot of readers to come forward and say, 'Actually, I grew up in Wisconsin and I was Shuggie.' … A lot of people say that they've never had anyone else they've been able to tell that to.
“I don't know if it's true, but they write me lovely letters.”
Book excerpt: 'Young Mungo'
By Douglas Stuart
As they neared the corner, Mungo halted and shrugged the man’s hand from his shoulder. It was such an assertive gesture that it took everyone by surprise. Turning back, Mungo squinted up at the tenement flat, and his eyes began to twitch with one of their nervous spasms. As his mother watched him through the ear-of-wheat pattern of the net curtains, she tried to convince herself that his twitch was a happy wink, a lovely Morse code that telegraphed everything would be okay. F. I. N. E. Her youngest son was like that. He smiled when he didn’t want to. He would do anything just to make other people feel better.
Mo-Maw swept the curtain aside and leant on the window frame like a woman looking for company. She raised her tea mug in one hand and tapped the glass with her pearlescent pink nails. It was a colour she had chosen to make her fingers appear fresher, because if her hands looked younger, then so might her face, so might her entire self. As she looked down upon him, Mungo shifted again, his feet turning towards home. She fluttered her painted fingers and shooed him away. Go!
Her boy was stooped slightly, the rucksack a little hump on his back. Unsure of what he should take, he had packed it with half-hearted nonsense: an oversized Fair Isle jumper, teabags, his dog-eared sketch-book, a game of Ludo, and some half-used tubes of medicated ointment. Yet he wavered on the corner as though the bag might tip him backwards into the gutter. Mo-Maw knew the bag was not heavy. She knew it was the bones of him that had become a dead weight.
This was all for his own good and yet he dared stare up at her with a doleful look. It was too hot for his nonsense. He was fraying her nerves. Go! she mouthed again and took a swally of the cold tea.
The two men idled at the bend. They shared a sigh and a glance and a chuckle, before putting down their bags and lighting cigarettes. Mo-Maw could tell they were itchy to be gone – these narrow streets didn’t like unknown faces – and she could see it took patience not to goad her boy on. The men were canny enough not to pressure Mungo, not so close to home, not when he could still bolt. Their slitted eyes kept flicking towards him, watching, waiting to see what the boy would do next, while their hands ferreted inside their trouser pockets as they peeled their ball sacks from their thighs. The day would be muggy and close. The younger man fiddled with himself. Mo-Maw licked the back of her bottom teeth.
Mungo raised his hand to wave up at the window but Mo-Maw glowered down at him. He must have seen her face harden, or perhaps he thought waving was childish, because he aborted the gesture and grasped a fistful of air, which made him seem like a drowning man.
Excerpted from "Young Mungo" © 2022 by Douglas Stuart; reprinted with the permission of the publisher Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc.
This segment aired on April 19, 2022.