Jaipur Literature Festival 2021: Douglas Stuart on how he shaped the world of his Booker-winning novel Shuggie Bain
Booker Prize winner Douglas Stuart's conversation with writer Paul McVeigh on Day 3 of the Jaipur Literature Festival, encapsulated what this virtual edition gets right.
Writing about Mehr Farooqui's book launch (for the biography Ghalib: A Wilderness at my Doorstep) on Day 3 of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2021, my colleague, a JLF veteran, mentioned how there are a few sessions every year that “encapsulate the general soundness of [that] particular edition”. He counted the Farooqui event as an early contender in this category, from this 14th edition of the JLF. Later that evening, as Booker Prize winner Douglas Stuart engaged in a conversation with writer Paul McVeigh, I had a chance to witness some of that soundness firsthand.
Over three days of this first-ever virtual edition of the JLF, I’ve become increasingly nostalgic for real world literature festivals. There’s something about a celebration of books and writers as celebrities that speaks to my fantasies. Watching this stream of video-conferenced sessions, with the predictable visuals (two or three heads; each contained in a rectangular box; with some carefully chosen aspect of the speakers’ decor in evidence — white bookshelves seem especially popular), I have yearned for the real as opposed to the virtual. For something more organic and serendipitous than this cookie cutter template.
What can a virtual literature festival make possible that an offline one cannot? It seemed to me that JLF’s organisers hadn’t given as much thought to that as they had to their simulated version of the Diggi Palace, where helpful arrows led you to the two “virtual stages” (the Durbar Hall and Front Lawn). The Douglas Stuart session on Sunday evening, however, was in some ways only possible in this digital edition.
The setting was much the same — Stuart (in front of a white bookcase), McVeigh (flanked by some tasteful artwork) on screen. But even with JLF’s penchant for pulling in literary heavyweights, Stuart’s participation may or may not have been a given in a non-virtual scenario. And more importantly, perhaps the intimate nature of the conversation between him and McVeigh would have been diluted in some measure by it taking place before a crowd of hundreds of audience members.
Because this was an intimate conversation: Stuart and McVeigh were discussing “the many layers of” Shuggie Bain (Stuart’s Booker-winning debut), as part of which they also spoke of what it meant to grow up working class, with parents who were addicts, coming to terms with one’s sexuality, and publishing their novels at a (relatively) late stage in their lives. Imagine all of this rendered in their distinctive Scottish and Irish brogues, respectively, and you have a sense of the deeply engaging 45 minutes that ensued.
At the centre of the conversation were the two protagonists of Shuggie Bain — Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, and his mother Agnes. The book is set in working class Glasgow of the ‘80s, a place of widespread unemployment, of disillusionment and disenchantment, and an entrenched patriarchy. Since the time of its Booker win last year, it has been fairly well known that while Shuggie Bain is a work of fiction, it also draws quite heavily from its author’s life, including his relationship with his mother, an alcoholic who succumbed to her addiction when Stuart was 16.
“She was a working class woman in Glasgow, who felt very insignificant in her life. But she was not insignificant to me,” Stuart told McVeigh of this relationship, and how it influenced his depiction of Shuggie and Agnes’ in the book.
McVeigh, who grew up with an alcoholic father (and a mother who was “addicted to her husband”), described the particular sort of watchfulness that children of addicts develop. Of discerning from the most everyday details — the turn of a key in the lock, a parent’s step on the stairs — how much danger they’re in. Stuart in his turn articulated it as “always watching the room”, trying to read the weather. “As a child, you think it [the addict’s behaviour] is rooted in you,” he noted. If only you were brighter or smarter or more fun, or enough, then the person wouldn’t have to — for instance — drink. “So you’re always watching the person to see what they need so you can be it,” Stuart concluded.
He told McVeigh that he didn’t read any books growing up: “We didn’t have books at home. It didn’t make us less empathetic or less creative; we just didn’t know that Literature was a thing.” Additionally, life at home (with his mother’s alcoholism) and school (where he was bullied) were so fraught that Stuart said he never found the peace of mind necessary for reading, until he turned 18.
His perceived inadequacies weighed heavily when he started writing what ultimately became Shuggie Bain in 2008. His career in textile and fashion design had allowed him to express himself creatively, as a storyteller, but writing was a different matter. He wrote in scraps — “scenes and chapters as they came to me, I wouldn’t allow myself to believe I was writing a book” — building a world over a decade, until he had a first draft that ran to 1,600 pages (“or over 900, with single line spacing”). His husband was the only person Stuart showed his writing to, but once the manuscript was ready, he decided to send it out into the world.
A major theme of the conversation was being or growing up “different” — another thing Stuart has in common with his literary creations. Shuggie never has the ease of other children. Stuart referred to his own experiences with this unease: “There was never a room I stepped into that I didn’t feel bad about being queer, being poor, not being smart enough, not being born into [the right] circles.”
Stuart’s writing comes from a place of deeply felt empathy for Agnes and Shuggie, and is illuminating given the context. Stuart told McVeigh (a Belfast native) that the Glasgow of his novel and of his early years was “a narrow time and a narrow place” where being outside of the norm was very risky. As individuals, Stuart’s protagonists are deeply isolated, because each is a misfit in their environment — Shuggie with his inability to access a rigidly prescribed and performed masculinity, and Agnes with her desperate desire for a better life than her social “station” allows.
This empathy also shapes Stuart’s depiction of the poverty that surrounds his characters. “When you think about poverty, you always think of it as grimy. But the poorer we were, the more our mother ensured we were well put-together. Sometimes, we’d be so very hungry, but by God we’d look good stepping out the door. It was the only control this woman had on her world,” Stuart recounted.
The world of Shuggie Bain is a brutal one, but it is also one filled with love; a love that serves, McVeigh observed, “almost as a protective cloak”. Stuart agreed with this assessment. “The love was the backbone [of the story],” he said. “I knew that I wanted to write about the unquestioning, tenacious love that children have for flawed parents. Love was the reason I wrote the book… It’s about two souls clinging together.” There’s also an explanation for why so much of Shuggie Bain is about Agnes: “It’s about the end of Agnes, and the beginning of Shuggie. It’s about the effects of intergenerational poverty...even when parents can’t always transcend their problems, they hope for better for their children. I wanted to bring out [that hope] rather than Agnes’ tragedy,” Stuart said.
Stuart’s own story speaks to that transcendence, and hope. His manuscript was rejected 44 times, until Grove Atlantic decided to publish Shuggie Bain. From there to the Booker, literary fame, and this conversation at the JLF — that’s a trajectory straight out of a writer’s fantasy.
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