All in all, it was a pleasant November for Douglas Stuart. It could get even better, in fact. Shuggie Bain, Stuart’s debut novel, was named Scottish Book of the Year by bookseller Waterstones this week. Nicola Sturgeon, no less, called the novel in the New Statesman last week as one of her books of the year. And it’s likely later tonight that Stuart will pick up the biggest literary award of all.
Shuggie Bain is the pick, according to the bookies, for this year’s Booker Prize, which will be revealed tonight. If he wins, following James Kelman, who was a controversial winner in 1994 with his novel “How Late It Was, How Late.” he will be just the second Scottish author to win the prize.
For Stuart, winning the Booker will be a remarkable ending to a remarkable year. To great acclaim, Shuggie Bain was released in the United States, where he now lives, in February. When the book was released in August in the United Kingdom, still further acclaim followed. And for a debut novel, all this.
A fierce yet tender tale of poverty, addiction and gayness in the Glasgow 1980s, the book, which took more than a decade to write, is a novel. Stuart’s own life had all those components in it. “Shuggie is definitely a work of fiction, though I’m the gay son of a single mother who lost her battle with addiction.”
Read more: Douglas Stuart – Interview with The Magazine
The novel is the story of Shuggie, a young child, and Agnes, his alcoholic mother. It may be rejected as bad porn on the face of it, but it’s a novel that, while hiding nothing from the painful truth of their complicated lives, is full of love, compassion, and an appreciation that comes from the experience of life.
In reviewing the book in The New York Times, Leah Hager Cohen wrote, “He shows us a lot of monstrous behavior, but not a single monster – just harm,” “If he has a keen eye for brokenness, he is even sharper for the inextinguishable flicker of love that remains.”
“To see a Scottish voice embraced in that way, especially in America – and a book written in a very broad Glaswegian dialect – was phenomenal,” Stuart said. “It was just so encouraging, and I’m really proud of it.”
Born in Sighthill and raised in the East End of Glasgow, Stuart grew up on welfare. “Working class is a stretch,” he told the paper, “because I never saw my single mother work.” He was bullied everyday from the age of seven to 14, he claims, because he was deemed different. He was the target of homophobic harassment as well.
In the meantime, at home, he stayed with a mother who was suffering from addiction. “Alcohol was always a factor in my childhood, and even when my mother was in a period of sobriety, there was always an unpredictability of how long it would last and when it would lapse. And so it was always the mountain that you could see, whether you were on the mountain or just beyond it.”
When his mother died, Stuart was 16. He dedicated himself to education after her death while taking care of himself. “I had to work four nights a week at Texas Homebase, and all day Saturday and all day Sunday just to get through high school.”
He left Glasgow to study textiles in Galashiels at the age of 18. Stuart then went to the Royal College of Art in London, where he landed a job at Calvin Klein in New York for his graduation show.
He has spent the last two decades working in fashion, but he fulfilled a lifelong dream with Shuggie Bain: to be a novelist.
He’s a full-time writer now. He has written short stories for The New Yorker in addition to that book.
He told a magazine in August about his plans for a second novel. “I’m essentially writing a love story between two Glasgow boys separated along sectarian lines, which I’m putting the finishing touches on right now. It’s about toxic masculinity and what we expect of young men and how narrowly we see them in the world.”