2021 L.A. Times Festival of Books Preview
Stuart, finalist for the 2020 Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, appears at the festival April 18 with Andrew O’Hagan, author of “Mayflies,” in conversation with Times writer Anousha Sakoui.
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Growing up in 1980s Glasgow amid a working class beaten down by Thatcherism, Shuggie Bain watches as his family becomes increasingly broke and broken; his mother Agnes’ alcoholism drags her into a pit of despair, no matter how hard poor Shuggie loves her. Oh, and Shuggie is clearly gay — even if he doesn’t understand that at first — and is badly and endlessly bullied for it.
Poverty, abandonment, violence, abuse and self-destruction may sound relentlessly grim, but Douglas Stuart, who built “Shuggie Bain” on the framework of his own life story, sees light breaking through the darkness, resilience and hope in Shuggie’s willingness to try again each day. That’s why he gave voice and stood as witness to the lives of the Bains and their neighbors — but especially Shuggie and Agnes.
Stuart’s true story explains his positive perspective, at least in part: After his mother drank herself to death, Stuart, 44, escaped those dire circumstances, built a successful fashion career and a life with his husband in New York, then carved out small pockets of time over a decade to write this novel. It was rejected by 32 publishers but — here’s where the hope and resilience come in — it eventually found a home, earned the prestigious Booker Prize and became a bestseller.
Is this the saddest book ever?
I don’t think it’s the saddest book ever, but it might be among the saddest. In literature, hope is often telegraphed from a thousand miles away, and in real life hope is just getting up each day and taking another run at it. I think there’s this peculiar resilience of children, where Shuggie accepts what’s in front of him and he keeps coming back and loving his mother and hoping for better, even when it’s clear Agnes is not going to get better.
Shuggie’s older half-brother discourages his unending devotion to Agnes and tells him to save himself. Is he right? Does Shuggie need to break the cycle of codependency?
You can’t save yourself and someone else at the same time. Shuggie is an extreme version of how most of us have to shirk off our parents to become ourselves. There’s a good argument to say they are in a codependent relationship and any time you love an addict you’re helping them, but that’s also a cynical way to look at it, because what else does the kid have to give but love? I think it’s less cruel to keep loving an addict than it is to abandon them.
When I think of the book, I think of Agnes first, Shuggie second. It seems they both prefer it that way.
She’s the center of his universe; she’s the sun at the beginning and then she becomes a black hole. But she suffers most and she’s the one who loses everything. She doesn’t do it to hurt Shuggie. I don’t judge Agnes — anyone who suffers addiction loses themselves first. The book for me is about loss and grief.
You spent two decades working as a fashion designer, writing this on the side. How do you think that shaped the writing?
Fashion is a collaborative industry that is overflowing with feedback, so it’s incredibly noisy. My writing was a sacred space. I was very protective and didn’t want to invite other people in.
I wrote without anybody else’s expectations, like having a circle of literary friends or an MFA class. What was seen as a weakness — it doesn’t follow the trends of literature — was actually a strength. It just sort of falls out of time a little bit. I wasn’t trying to be part of a movement.
You are unflinching in writing about the characters and the city of Glasgow. But your love for both comes through. Did you need time and distance to write so honestly?
Distance brought a huge amount of clarity and longing. It is like a love letter. I took 10 years to write it, partly because I just liked being with these characters. But it was also an exercise in empathy for me.
As a child of trauma, as someone whose parent suffered from addiction and who saw sectarianism, misogyny, homophobia, I knew what all that felt like, but I never took the time to sit and think, “But why was it that way?” So I was putting myself in the mind-set of Agnes Bain and thinking about the violence of men or the lack of hope, and trying to have an empathetic reading. If I’d written it in a year it would have been flatter.
It’s also a love letter of sorts to the working class, though it also paints them as vulnerable to violence, ignorance and provincialism. It’s an expansive view of a small world. Was it tricky to find that tone?
If you’re going to write a working-class story, you want to rely on the tapestry of a chorus, because everyone was going through the same economic moment, and I felt I could go deeper into the political issues and have a richer portrait with less condemnation if I allowed everybody to tell a little bit.
There’s a cliché in the working class about solidarity, but sometimes if you don’t conform, then the solidarity is united against you, and that’s what Shuggie and Agnes go through. People are telling Agnes she doesn’t have self-worth. She’s defiant to the point where it makes the women around her, who know it’s a veneer, want to pull her down to their level. I’m writing about people suffering under the patriarchy. When men struggle, women and children suffer first and worst. But sometimes the people who uphold the patriarchy the most are other women.
The word “Dickensian” has been thrown around in reviews of the book. Is it accurate?
I’ve taken care and time and built worlds around things in quite a classical way. And these are people who don’t find themselves in literature very often. I wanted to elevate their lives and give them a dignity by paying close, detailed attention to it. That’s why it feels sort of Dickensian. I take the reader by the hand and ask them to sit in the room with them.
What I set out to do was tell an industrial narrative from a mother’s point of view and a queer point of view, because these are people who are always left out. The publishers thought it was specifically Glaswegian, but life on the fringe has a universality whether you’re in Glasgow or Detroit or Philly or Delhi.
Did you worry at all about how much the readers could handle of men and boys committing acts of violence and bullying, of women dragging each other down, of Agnes’ downfall?
I wrote the book for the characters and not for the reader — it’s what I was trying to tell them and not to tell people about them. I felt if I started to make choices about what a reader would want — especially a middle-class reader — then I would be denying the characters their dignity. It was definitely my choice to stick to the truth. These characters don’t count a good day because there’s always bad weather on the other side. That slight fear tinges everything, so it should be part of the reader’s experience.
Do you think that way still or can you take good days as they come?
Oh, that’s a good question. I might have to go lay down. That’s very true about me, still. I have a tough time enjoying good days. I try to be better about it.