The High Road
It took writer Douglas Stuart years to come to terms with his difficult early life in Glasgow. With perspective gained by moving to the United States, his youth eventually became the basis for a Booker Prize-winning, best-selling novel.
Douglas Stuart is a celebrated fiction writer whose first novel, Shuggie Bain, won the 2020 Booker Prize for Fiction.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1976, Stuart studied textile design at the Scottish College of Textiles and the Royal College of Art. He moved to New York at age 24 and worked as a fashion designer for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic, and other clothing brands.
Stuart was raised by a single mother who died of alcohol-related health issues when he was 16, an upbringing which inspired Shuggie Bain. Written over a decade while Stuart worked in the fashion industry, the book was rejected by over 30 publishers before its release in 2020. In addition to its Booker Prize, the work was longlisted for the 2021 Carnegie Medal and a finalist for the 2020 Kirkus Prize and National Book Award for Fiction. He has also contributed short fiction and essays to The New Yorker and Literary Hub, and published his second novel, Young Mungo, in 2022.
Douglas Stuart’s early life in Scotland could accurately be described as traumatic. Yet he’s not one to wallow in the melancholy.
Douglas Stuart: I don’t regret anything in my life. And I’m so grateful for everything that’s come through it. Until you can step away from something, you cannot see how unusual it is sometimes. When you’re in it, it’s just what you have. And so what can you do other than accept it, as a kid, and sort of do your very best with it.
Now in his mid-40s, he’s had a hugely successful career in fashion. At its height in New York, he was more than 3000 miles and nearly two decades removed from his troublesome early life.
Stuart: I never had a plan to come to New York or to work in fashion. All I really did was say yes every time someone said “Do you want to?” And just keep going, just take a step and take another step.
These steps took him to Calvin Klein, The GAP and eventually Banana Republic as a senior designer. But after 20 years in fashion, Stuart no longer felt fulfilled. He was homesick. So he began to document the time and place that had formed him: 1980s Glasgow.
Stuart: And I feel like a lot of these families and a lot of these neighborhoods have altered. And so it was, I was keen to be back there. It’s the city of my childhood, really.
But he had created a life in New York. Moving back to Glasgow wasn’t an option. For nearly a decade, between long hours at work, he began to write what he’s called “scraps of memories” of his early life. Eventually they became a collection of stories. Lots and lots of stories.
Stuart: It was an absolute monster and it was housed in two legal binders. I never changed the story at all, but I rewrote every sentence a hundred times.
Yet Stuart’s memories weren’t rose colored. He explored a Glasgow that had been economically devastated. While steel, shipbuilding, and other heavy industries had once defined the character of his working class city, these state-run industries began to be privatized. Thousands of Glaswegians lost work. By 1987, the city’s unemployment rate was over 20%. And for men in Stuart’s housing project in the East End of Glasgow, new jobs were sparse.
Stuart: Up till then there was enough work. You know, we didn’t have much, but we had work. We were getting on and life was okay. And of course when something booms and then it collapses in that way, and 11% comes off of the life expectancy of a man in the East End of Glasgow. I mean, it was really a difficult time. No one was going to come to our rescue.
Thousands of working class people found themselves mired in poverty. Alcoholism became rampant in the city and Douglas’ own home was not spared. For as long as he can remember, his mother had a problem with alcohol. Stuart began taking care of her when he was a little boy and tried everything he could to slow down her drinking.
Stuart: When I was about seven or eight years old, I realized that what my mother wanted was for someone to listen to her stories. You know, as a working class woman growing up in a hyper-masculine place, and also as a single mother and someone suffering with addiction, she was very overlooked. You know, she was excluded from a lot of things. And so I would sit at her feet, seven or eight years old, in a school jotter and I would take what she called her memoirs.
When hard times fell on Glasgow, his mother’s ordinary desires—to be loved by a husband, to have her own home, to provide for her children, to feel beautiful—were suddenly out of reach. In hindsight, Douglas Stuart understands why his mother began to depend on alcohol, but as with many people struggling with addiction, she was powerless.
AJC: Did you ever have conversations with her where you said, “I’m just a little boy, you have to fix this.” Like, was there ever a beseeching with her of just like, “I can’t do this, you’re the adult here.”
Stuart: As a kid, I had so many conversations about, you know, I wish you would stop drinking. If you loved me enough, you would stop this, if, and actually I spent much of my youth trying to alter myself, to try and be the thing I thought my mother needed. Do you need me to be quieter? Do you need me to be less of a burden? Do you need me to be better at school? Any of these things in order to affect her drinking. One of the biggest revelations of my adult life and the thing I had to come to terms with is my mother’s addiction had nothing to do with me. It really had nothing to do with me and how I sort of carried myself in the world, how I was as a kid.
AJC: How old were you when you found that out?
Stuart: Oh, that’s still a work in progress for me. I’m still really, I understand it. Some days I don’t always feel it. And so I’m still processing that myself. I think that’s a trauma I’ll carry with me my whole life.
AJC: But you were a little boy, you know?
Stuart: I know. No one can save the addict but the addict themself, and how far do you go to save the person you love the most before you have to step away and really save yourself? But it doesn’t stop us from feeling guilty if that moment never comes, and I think I carry that guilt inside me. I would’ve loved the chance to have tried. And I never got that because my mother died when I was 16. I went to school one morning, and when I came home, she wasn’t, she was no longer with us.
But Stuart never resented his mother. Even today, he still describes her as the love of his life.
Stuart: She hurt an awful lot of people, but I never came away, I never came into my adulthood feeling like that. I just felt, oh my God, what a loss, what a waste, what hurt this person was in.
During those tough times, Douglas told himself stories, inventing vast worlds as an escape from the angst of his real life. His teachers noticed this creativity and did what they could to expand his horizons.
Stuart: I think they saw that I was someone who had an imagination and a curiosity. And so they start to feed me books. They give me Thomas Hardy and Daphne du Maurier, you know, Tennessee Williams, they turn me onto playwrights. And that’s a really, it’s just an enormously, it’s just a pivotal time in my life. But I also come from a neighborhood where all the men around me were doing really practical jobs. They were working with their hands. They were going outside in all kinds of weather. And so the idea that I would be able to build a career around books and reading and go to college for that was just not something anybody could see for me. And so instead what happens is actually I’m turned towards textiles. Textiles is an incredibly proud manufacturing, you know,
AJC: Tradition, right.
Stuart: Tradition. In Scotland, we make such broad varied cloth. If you think about woven tartan, you think about knitwear, waterproof cotton. We make all these different types of cloth. And so it was a good place for an artistic kid to go.
And so right out of high school, he headed for the Scottish College of Textiles, then onto the Royal College of Art in London, where he was recruited by Calvin Klein and brought to work in New York. Living in the United States introduced Stuart to possibilities that seemed unlikely in Glasgow, including the ability to finally admit that he had been dealt a difficult hand.
Stuart: Scottish people are working class people, are never meant to think any time they’re hard done to that it’s especially exceptional in a way. And so you’re meant to carry your pain and your hurt and just bear it and continue on, and actually not talk about it, you know? There’s a lot of silence for working class men. Whereas Americans are very in touch with their feelings, you know, they really will express if they feel like they’ve suffered an injustice in life. And so that was a big contrast to how I grew up. We were meant to just take whatever happened and then just keep quiet about it. And sometimes within working class communities, especially from the west coast of Scotland, ambition can be seen as a little bit of you being a traitor, of you wanting to get away from the people who raised you and who love you and who care for you, and of course, it’s never that. It’s just you want to do the best thing that you can do in life, you want to achieve your dreams. And so America really unlocked those ideals for me, allowed me to use my talent and to build me, myself into something and also to feel okay about it.
So in 2018, he finally organized those two legal binders of stories into a novel. Shuggie Bain won Stuart the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2020 and became a best-seller. Writing the book helped him to understand his mother’s struggles, but over time, it also became a way for him to understand his own. And by creating a work of fiction rather than a memoir, Stuart was able to see his mother again through Agnes, the fictional mother he created and the loving gaze of her young son Shuggie.
(Excerpt from Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain)
She had loved to show off her smile back then. She got her teeth from her daddy’s side and the Campbell teeth had always been weak. They were a reason for humility in an otherwise handsome face. Her own adult teeth had come in small and crooked. And even when they were new, they’d never been white because of the smoking and her mammie’s strong tea. At 15, she had begged Lizzy to let her have them all taken out. The discomfort of the false teeth was nothing when compared to the movie star smile she thought they must give her. Each new tooth was broad and even and as straight as Elizabeth Taylor’s. Agnes sucked at her porcelain. Now here they were, every Friday night, these same women playing cards in her mammie’s front room. There was not a single drop of makeup between them and nobody had much of a heart to sing anymore.
Stuart considered Shuggie Bain to be a love letter to his mother and to Glasgow, but it isn’t always a flattering one. In his stories, he depicts love, humor, and generosity alongside homophobia, sectarian violence, and domestic abuse. And he’s not planning to look away from it anytime soon. His second novel, Young Mungo, tells the story of two Glaswegian boys in rival gangs. In his writing and in his life, empathizing with people who are difficult to love has helped Douglas Stewart to resist feelings of resentment.
Stuart: I think there was so much waste in my early life. I saw so many good people just lose their opportunities and there’s so much loss there. I didn’t want to be angry as an adult. I’d already lost so much as a kid that as an adult I had to find a way to come to terms with it. I just didn’t wanna lose more of my life to anger.
And in place of anger, Stuart has cultivated peace, the better to tell great stories of his native home.
Stuart: For me, I’m trying to just create the most incredible tapestry I can of the working class people of Glasgow. And so I think I’ll always be revisiting it.
Douglas Stuart is still thousands of miles away from home, yet despite the distance, compassion connects him like a thread to Glasgow, and over the years, he’s used it to create a life his mother would’ve been proud of, one where he has learned about forgiveness, about love.