Douglas Stuart is a master at writing about understated love. The Booker Prize-winning author traces this ability to his childhood in Glasgow’s working-class community, where men worked in shipyards and any sign of vulnerability was repressed.
If I ever said ‘I love you’ to someone as a kid, it would have been like ‘Get off me,'” he says.
He speaks from his Manhattan apartment in New York’s East Village ahead of the release of his new novel. The young mongoose.
His life is now a world away from the run-down housing estates and dank apartment blocks that formed the backdrop to his childhood. His father left him when he was four and his mother died of alcoholism when he was 16. He spent his teenage years getting beat up by thugs for being gay and feminine in a hypermasculine culture.
This experience is repeated in his second novel, a tale of two teenagers who become lovers in a place ravaged by gang violence and homophobia. The impetus to write it came from his own experience of being a victim of violence.
“In many ways, I became my own oppressor because I sided with my bullies. I tried to change everything about myself to fit in,” he says. “It’s been a long road to breaking down the hatred that people told me to feel about myself. There was nothing wrong with me. I was just a little boy, not a bad boy with nowhere to go.”
After being orphaned at 16 and living in a single family home, he worked as a designer for Calvin Klein while pursuing his Masters at the Royal College of Art in London. In a world where adult dysfunction is routinely blamed on childhood trauma, Stuart believes he beat the odds because “there was no safety net.”
“I had no other choice. My mother dies at 16 and I’m on my own and I need to find out right now. So a lot of what seems like “functionality” was that I was too focused on survival. I worried about being homeless at 16, about everything. So I threw myself into my career.”
He was in his thirties and unhappy when he realized he could no longer “plow on” and avoid his past. “I’ve caused damage around me. I wasn’t a great husband, I wasn’t a great boyfriend. And I had to reckon with that. You cannot ignore your trauma.”
This realization led to Shuggie Bain, a love letter to the mother he clothed, fed, and loved through the worst days of her addiction. It was rejected 44 times, then sold 1.5 million copies and won the 2020 Booker Prize. The writing was transformative, but he admits he’s still struggling with feeling like he’s okay.
“It takes so little to set you back. It takes the smallest thing to push you aside.”
His new novel is once again about a love tested when the Catholic Mungo falls in love with the Protestant James in a violent sectarian world. It examines the expectations we place on men and how we “put the lid back on men” when they are vulnerable. “It’s so damaging and enforced by masculinity, but women enforce it too, right? You want a tough man and strong man. But we are all human,” says Stuart.
He points to a scene in the novel where a group of boys fight a local gang. Once the fight is over, “Their breasts are puffed up, but they rush home to their mothers. The first thing they do when they walk through the door is curl up on the couch with her. At the end of the day we are all sons. We all need a little tenderness.”
Maybe that’s why he longs to go home. About the idea of ”escape” from his past, he says: “That’s what journalists often get wrong about me. I didn’t want to leave, I didn’t want to go. I would have loved nothing more than a normal life in Glasgow with an okay family.”
He says he would return the Booker Prize “in a minute” if he could have his mother back.
“I would have given anything to cure my mother of her addiction,” he says. “I think my life would have been so different if my mother hadn’t died of alcoholism. But then again, you never know the life you don’t live.”
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/news/i-would-hand-back-the-booker-prize-in-a-minute-if-i-could-have-my-mother-again-41538405.html “I would return the Booker Prize in a heartbeat if I could have my mother back”