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Douglas Stuart, author of “Shuggie Bain,” on leaving fashion for literature.
I’M SITTING AT my laptop in a dove gray cashmere sweater (men’s, oversized, crewneck, with the smallest coffee stain I’ll never forgive my boyfriend for). The elegant, understated piece has been a staple in my closet for years. I could wax poetic about it for days, but the most interesting thing about this garment actually has nothing to do with its fit or fiber. It’s the person who designed it: Douglas Stuart — first-time novelist and 2020 recipient of the prestigious Booker Prize for his worldwide sensation “Shuggie Bain,” and author of a much-anticipated second novel, “Young Mungo.”
Stuart’s second act is a spectacular one. Until about two years ago, he had been leading a successful career in fashion. He worked in the industry for 22 years for the likes of Jack Spade, Banana Republic, Gap, Calvin Klein, and Ralph Lauren. However, most people didn’t know that for the last 12 of those years, he’d been secretly writing “Shuggie Bain,” inspired by the events of his own life. It’s an enormous tale of heart, heartbreak, and a young boy’s experience growing up with an alcoholic mother in post-industrial working-class Glasgow.
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From my remote working perch in Mexico City to his couch in Upstate New York, we connect over a video call to discuss this most recent chapter of his life and the story that catalyzed it all. Leading up to our interview, I had been following his book-related trips and tours on his Instagram, where he recently posted a discussion with himself and the Duchess of Cornwall. So I open our conversation with a subject that feels the most topical: fame. “Was it having an impact?” I ask him.
“As a writer, I never craved the spotlight,” he says. “In fact, writing is such a solitary pursuit that I'm happiest when I’m by myself and incredibly anonymous. But winning the Booker propelled me from the outside right into the center, right to the inside. I was unprepared for it, but I’m grateful for it.”
Stuart explains that this newfound attention is at odds with how he started out — as an outsider. He was completely self-taught, had no circle of writer friends, no Creative Writing MFA, and no agent. Speaking with the author now, this is hard to believe. In a lyrical Glaswegian lilt, his manner of speech is downright scholarly. Mesmerizingly articulate, his every thought tells a cohesive micro story; nothing drags or overlaps. The impression is of a veteran creative mind containing multitudes, a composure born of quiet discipline and great depth.
Fashion was his first love. But he left because of the industry’s increasing focus on consumption and what he felt was a loss of interest in storytelling. “I had a desire to move people, and I wasn't able to do that anymore through fashion.” So at the height of his career, he started his second life. “When I began as a designer, it was in the mid-’90s. It was the time of Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, Ann Demeulemeester, and John Galliano. There was so much storytelling and research and emotion in the work then. And I felt that that just didn't exist anymore. Fashion has become this multimedia entertainment industry, run by influencers and no longer about the expression of the single creative voice.” For him, writing was a way to reconnect with narrative.
But why do it in total secret? In the age of oversharing, progress posting, and group affirmations, such a long period of silent labor is almost unheard of. In response to this question, Stuart reflects on the lost art of creativity in isolation. “I think too often we're telegraphing today what it is we intend to do or who we hope to be. And sometimes I think we have to sit in quiet reflection and just do the work without any expectation or anybody else's desires being imposed upon it.” Our culture is so saturated in collaboration, it’s become a buzzword, he contends. “Sometimes as a creative, you just want to do something by yourself and be quiet, be reflective.”
Compared with the fashion industry, a world known for collaboration and critique, the solo journey of writing can seem like going from day to night. But while these crafts do come from “the opposite ends of the art spectrum,” in Stuart’s words, there were actually places where he was able to apply his fashion brain; it just took a while to find that footing. “When I first began writing, I was having a difficult time finding my voice. Then I realized that I'd always been thinking about the sensory world ... how light crosses a room, how dress surrounds someone, how colors sit together in nature. All these things that writers can struggle with being able to see and to perceive, I'd always been able to perceive them.” What he initially viewed as a weakness soon became his strength.
Textiles mirror writing in certain ways, Stuart went on to discover. “The thing that unites textiles and literature is patience,” he says. Both require focusing on minute detail and trusting the process, believing that each small word or stitch will create a larger, cohesive tapestry. This parallel between weave and word helped him with plot, leading him to see how pulling a thread over here can affect something over there, 200 pages down the line.
Stuart and I go on to discuss the themes running through his work. Much of the narrative tension in his writing focuses on the intersection of being working class and queer. This intersection poses a lot of questions for Stuart. Queerness in literature is often animated by a sense of mobility — leaving the small hometown, going to the big city, to boarding school, to the capital. But what happens when you can’t leave? What if the place you are stuck in is the place you don’t belong? The choices people make as they navigate questions of belonging and ostracism are a source of great interest for Stuart. “I am fascinated by really tender souls in tough places,” he says. “I'm fascinated by gentleness, especially gentleness in a world of very hard masculinity. Because I think sometimes when young men have to be kind and gentle and tender, it can be quite a radical act of bravery if they're in a place where that is quite hard.”
The thing that unites textiles and literature is patience.
We dig deeper into the ways “Shuggie Bain” drew from the experiences of Stuart’s own life and the power of writing as catharsis. Authorship, he explains, can return control to the writer, especially in working through past trauma or childhood experiences where there was a loss of agency. When translating real-life events into fiction, the writer has the power to decide how things will go. But it isn’t always easy. Stuart reports having to step away from the page for days or even weeks to get some emotional distance while working through particularly harrowing scenes. Alongside an unflinching portrait of addiction, the book deals with abuse in its many forms, abandonment, and death.
One scene that particularly impacted me is when Agnes, Shuggie’s mother, finally meets Eugene, a man who treats her well. She’s been sober for over a year, and her sons have just thrown her a one-year sober party, a rare moment of celebration. Eugene takes her on a date to a fancy restaurant and encourages her to taste a single glass of wine, “Because it’s what normal people do.” As she reluctantly takes a sip, he rejoices: “Do you see? You haven’t burst into flames … Cheers! Ah’m that proud of ye.” But we already know how it will go. One drink turns to another, and another, and another. When they return home to Shuggie and his brother, “All she remembered was that another bedroom door opened, and there in the doorway was the little boy with the worried face of his own granny. His face was wet with disappointment. The front of his pyjamas was dark through with piss.” The familiar cycle of hope and despair is all the more gut-wrenching when rendered through a child’s eyes.
But there is humor in the book too, and the story often brought Stuart joy. In fact, the act of writing helped him heal in many ways by allowing him to develop empathy for the characters, even when what they were doing was harmful. “To decenter yourself in a narrative,” Stuart shares, “is a really healing place to be because it forces you as a writer to ask questions of society, of yourself, of people's motivations. And that I think brings an awful lot of healing when you’re writing from a place of trauma.”
Much of Stuart’s writing is set against the backdrop of his native country. In “Shuggie Bain,” Glasgow is as much a character as the people who live there. But Stuart has spent much of his adult life living and working in New York. When I ask whether he identifies as a Scottish writer, he describes his identity as perpetually hyphenated. There’s a vagueness he’s had to grow comfortable with. “I think part of that comes from being queer, but in a hypermasculine, industrial place. Part of that comes from being Scottish and being an American immigrant. I define myself very proudly as a Scotsman, but I have an immigrant’s perspective and am a very proud American immigrant, having lived here for 21 years.” He’s accepted, as he puts it, the inability to get one’s arms around it all.
The next step for “Shuggie Bain”? The screen. Plans have been released to adapt the novel for television in a limited eight-episode series, and Stuart has signed on to write the scripts. Immersing himself in the screenplay medium, he’s found his characters saying new things to him. Thinking first and foremost in pictures and images, the process of screenwriting felt natural. “Shuggie” was always a bunch of images, which he then turned into words. So in a way, writing for TV has been a return to the visual arts — a return to the cinematic vignettes that first appeared in the author’s mind.
Stuart’s second novel is set to be released in April 2022 — it’s a book he actually began while in the process of writing “Shuggie Bain.” On draft 14, he put “Shuggie” aside to begin “Young Mungo” in 2016. While also coming from a personal place, and a place of isolation, “Young Mungo” is a more confident book, Stuart says, with “a more propulsive dramatic thrust.” While “Shuggie” is a finely drawn portrait, “Young Mungo” is a story of two young men caught up in gang warfare, who fall in love across a sectarian divide.
When young men have to be kind and gentle and tender, it can be quite a radical act of bravery.
This second novel came about as Stuart was confronted with questions that arose writing his first, questions he struggled to answer himself, like, “Why did we used to believe that it was safe for young boys to be in the company of men, no matter who those men were? Why did we believe in the church? Why did we believe in Scouts? Why were there generations where people thought boarding school was an okay thing, that young boys were always safe around men?” “Young Mungo” tackles the topics his first book couldn’t, due to the core narrative he wished to keep central: a love story between a son and his mother, a woman falling into addiction.
He is now working on his third book, an attempt to answer questions that arose while writing “Young Mungo.” Stuart’s work always begins with personal curiosities and the desire to find answers for himself before his readers. Masculinity is the constant through line. Specifically, why so much of society’s energy is spent teaching boys how to be men according to the narrowest definition — teaching them to be “strong, brave, tough, sexualized with women, to hit first, before anyone hits you.” All of Stuart’s work seeks to get at the heart of what it’s like when you can’t do that, when you don’t want to.
It’s no wonder so much of Stuart’s life serves as material for his work. His is a rare and epic tale. But for all his success, Stuart stays focused on the journey, not the outcome. “For ‘Shuggie Bain,’ I focused on writing a sentence that I loved and then a paragraph that I loved and then a page that I loved. I didn't think about writing a 500-page book.” He critiques the current culture of immediate gratification — of instant transformations and quick cuts to a final, glossy product. It facilitates unrealistic expectations. “Anybody who's really, truly achieved something in life has failed a lot and has spent a lot of sleepless nights worrying and a lot of hours that no one would ever see. And yet all we ever tend to see is the person and then the success.”
Trusting the process for Stuart also means acknowledging the different ways crafts can inform each other. Sometimes his best work in one medium comes from doing the other. “When I’m sitting and sketching, I’m always thinking about sentences and characters,” he says. “Sometimes doing a very physical thing, where I make something with my hands, like sewing or knitting or putting together a pattern, really helps me with my writing because it allows my subconscious to go to work. Similarly, sometimes when I'm writing, my most beautiful visual ideas come to me for design.”
When asked if he’d ever return in a more formalized capacity to his first act — fashion — he says that while something smaller on the side might appeal to him, the greater joy would simply be to have the choice. “In life, to be able to do the thing you want to do, that for me is luxury. That’s the ultimate definition of freedom.”
Sophie Mancini is a New York based writer. Under the New York Times’ creative agency, she helped lead the relaunch of Departures Magazine, where she then went on to become the food editor. Her background spans editorial, brand, and books.
Daniel Dorsa is a Brooklyn-based photographer. Though born in the Northeast, he was raised in South Florida. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Monocle, Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, and more.
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