‘I’m always looking for tenderness in the hardest places.’
By Douglas Stuart
Published by Picador
Congratulations on Shuggie Bain’s publication ! This novel has been a long time coming; could you tell us about how the novel came together?
I began writing Shuggie Bain about twelve years ago, and worked on it for about ten years. When you grow up poor, it’s difficult to imagine yourself pursuing a literary life. I went to high school in Pollok and academia and writing were not seen as something that ‘boys like me did.’ I always felt like I’d furloughed my writing dreams, so in my thirties I sat down to write Shuggie for the pure pleasure in writing it. I love Scotland – I’m so proud to be from Glasgow – so I loved spending time with these characters. I even grew quite protective of my relationship with them.
And another mighty congratulations are in order too – Shuggie Bain has been announced as a contender on the Booker Prize longlist. You must be delighted at the reception your book is getting. Is your publishing experience surpassing all expectations?
It’s truly wonderful. I’m an outsider in the publishing world, so I wrote what became Shuggie Bain with absolutely no expectations, it was enough just to write. It was too intimidating to even imagine it published, I might have psyched myself out. So I just kept my head down and wrote the book I’d been carrying around in my heart for so long. It is amazing to me that it has been able to connect with readers in the way it has.
The book was published first in the US earlier on the year to great acclaim. Did that make you nervous about its UK publication? Do you feel better prepared for your home crowd?
A book never changes, it’s the reader and their perspectives that shift. What’s been both heartening and disheartening is realizing how common the themes of Shuggie Bain are in readers’ lives. I had thought of it as a very Scottish book, a very specific Glaswegian story, but women and families are struggling with poverty, patriarchy and addiction all around the world, and it’s been so humbling to see readers take Agnes Bain and her plight into their hearts. I’ve been waiting for Shuggie to come home to Scotland for such a long time. It’s always nerve-wracking publishing something and Scottish folk will always tell you exactly what they think!
The novel shares elements of your own life story. How did you approach the balance of negotiating your memories and creating a fictional world?
Shuggie Bain is a work of fiction although I do write from the experience of being the queer son of a single mother who lost her own battle with addiction. I never had to worry about balancing my own memories, because the book is quite panoramic and quickly dwarfs me and my life. Within the first few pages the characters started to take on lives and voices of their own, and all I really had to do was get out of their way and listen to what they were telling me. The book is more than simply a portrait of the Bain family, it’s a larger, interweaving story of lots of different Glaswegian voices, all navigating one of the toughest times in the city’s history.
Novels looking back at 1980s Scotland are having a bit of a moment, we’re thinking of This is Memorial Device by David Keenan, Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes and Andrew O’ Hagan’s forthcoming Mayflies. What is it, do you think, about the time and the place that is capturing writers’ imaginations just now?
The 1980’s was a time when honest people’s lives were turned upside-down by an ideology they neither supported nor had the power to resist. Sadly, we still live in a world of growing inequality. But it’s very Scottish to face difficult things square-on. The hardest-done-to Glaswegians are the most compassionate and giving people I have ever met; the kind of humility that even resists anyone thinking they had it especially bad, because everyone suffered through a difficult time under Thatcher. The full strength and humanity of our country is most evident in ordinary lives in that period of Scottish history; how could you not be inspired by it?
Looking at the reviews you received in the US, the critics are mentioning James Joyce, DH Lawrence and Irvine Welsh. Were there any particular books or writers that inspired you in writing Shuggie Bain?
Too many to mention. I have always revered Agnes Owens’s Gentlemen of The West for how it juxtaposes industrial grit with a motherly tenderness. I love James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late. The courageous, intimate portrait of Joy in Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing helped me to see the character of Agnes Bain with more clarity. I am inspired by the sweep, the struggle for betterment and impending doom in Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure. The tenacious working-class hero, Billy Casper, from Barry Hines’s A Kestrel for a Knaves never far from my thoughts.
You live in New York, and have done for many years. How do you observe Scotland now? Is it easier to write about it from a distance?
My parents died when I was a boy. After I lost my mother I was fairly untethered, it wasn’t that I left Scotland, but without a parental anchor I was just sort of swept away. The characters in Shuggie Bain couldn’t exist anywhere else; Glasgow is as much in their blood as it is in mine. When you come from a place of such strong character – oppressive, resilient, loving, hilarious, aggressive, compassionate – it shapes who you are for the rest of your life. Childhood in Glasgow was tough, but distance brings clarity, it also brings love and regret too.
I hope your own experience of the current pandemic has not been too stressful, but it has impacted on your ability to come over to promote the novel. What were you looking forward to in coming back to Scotland? Can you see yourself making the trip at any point? We’d love to see you!
I’ll be home as soon as I can. I had my heart set on being on Sauchiehall Street on publication day, and what a homecoming that would have been. I was absolutely gutted when the Edinburgh International Book Festival was first cancelled, but now I’m so thankful to be appearing remotely. It’s amazing how booksellers and festivals have adapted and innovated in such a short period of time.
You’ve already finished your second novel. Are you ready to talk about it yet?
Ha! It’s not quite finished. But I’m working on a book titled LOCH AWE, set in mid-nineties Glasgow. It’s a love story between two young men who are separated by territorial gangs, across sectarian lines. It’s about the pressure we put on working-class boys to ‘man-up’ and all the terrible things and violence that can flow from that. I’m always looking for tenderness in the hardest places.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is published by Picador, priced £14.99
You can catch Douglas Stuart talking with Damian Barr at this year’s online Edinburgh International Book Festival. Book your free spot here.