SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
"Shuggie Bain" is a novel that cracks open the human heart, brings you inside, tears you up and brings you up with its episodes of unvarnished love, loss, survival and sorrow. It's on the short list for the Booker Prize. It's been nominated for the National Book Award and has already been acclaimed a masterpiece by tough-nosed Kirkus Reviews. It's the story of a little boy, Shuggie Bain, growing up in rough circumstances in the Glasgow of the 1980s, rife with families living under the strain of joblessness and depression and sometimes dealing with it in the worst way.
"Shuggie Bain" is a first novel from Douglas Stuart, who joins us from New York, where he lives now. Thank you so much for being with us.
DOUGLAS STUART: Thank you, Scott. It's my pleasure.
SIMON: I'd like to begin to ask you to read a startling section that's going to reveal much about Shuggie, his father, Big Shug, and his mother, Agnes.
STUART: (Reading) Agnes drew a fresh can of lager from a hidden place and gently pulled at the ring top. With a careful finger, she gathered the bubbly drips and dropped them into her mouth. She gave the boy the empty Tennents can. He'd always like the half-naked beauties photographed on the side. Shuggie was intent on this one. He had never seen her before, and he liked the way her name sounded when he spelled it out slowly, just like his grandma Willy (ph) had taught him - SHE-E-NA.
Shuggie would collect the empty cans from around the house and line up the women on the edge of the bath. He would stroke their tinny hair and make them talk to each other and imagine conversations, rambling monologues mostly about ordering new shoes from catalogues and whoring husband's. Big Shug had caught him once. He had watched proudly as Shuggie lined up the women and spelled out each of their names phonetically. He bragged about it later down the rank. Five years old, he would say, what a chip off the old block. Agnes had looked on sadly, knowing what was really going on.
SIMON: What was really going on - so Agnes sees through to her son's true nature and respects it. But she doesn't always see into her own self very well, does she?
STUART: No, she doesn't. Agnes is a woman who has very modest dreams for herself. She grew up a great beauty in Glasgow, and she has married the wrong man, the Protestant taxi driver, Big Shug. But she has very modest dreams. She wants a little bit of glamour. She wants a council house with the front door of its own. And she wants clothes for her children that she doesn't have to pay for on layaway. But these dreams are sort of slipping away from her, and she's going to be unable to realize them. And so as that sort of starts to happen, she begins to descend into addiction and begin to disintegrate.
SIMON: And you make it clear from the first line of the acknowledgments that you didn't have to look very far to find these characters, did you?
STUART: No. It is not a memoir, but it is drawn from very closely from my own life. I grew up a queer son of a single mother. All of my earliest memories have drink involved in them. And when I was in high school, my mother lost her struggle with addiction. But the book very quickly eclipsed my own sort of understanding of the city of the characters because I wanted to really sort of pull out and really show a community in strife and who was really struggling. At the time, Glasgow had about 26% unemployment underneath the Thatcher government. And so there was a lot of people that were sort of brought to their knees by that.
SIMON: How do you take what you know through life and reimagine it for a novel?
STUART: I think one of the greatest things you can do when you've been a child who's suffered trauma and been around addiction where you have absolutely no control over it is actually to turn it into art and really sort of examine it up closely. You know, men from the west coast of Scotland - it's a very masculine society. It's very patriarchal. And we're never really sort of taught to express ourselves or to get in touch with our deeper feelings. And so I've always felt like my life has been two very distinct parts - the man who worked in fashion in New York, but then the boy who grew up in Glasgow. And so a lot of ways - in a lot of ways, writing the book was about sort of bringing those two halves back together.
SIMON: I don't want to - I don't want Agnes to be defined just by her drinking problem because she is glamorous and funny and full of heart, but the drinking makes it hard to see that, doesn't it?
STUART: Yeah, it definitely does. But I do resist people seeing Agnes as the alcoholic mother because she is funny. She is exhausting. She's beautiful, she's proud, she's vain, and she's incredibly generous. And here is a woman who is just limited by the options that were afforded to working-class mothers of the time.
SIMON: As you may know, the experience you write about is in many ways very resonant with me and my family experience, except my father was the drinker. I kept reminding myself of something my mother used to say - you can love a drinker, but it's hard to respect them. And love needs both to go on.
STUART: I think that's a very wise thing to say. I come from a long literary tradition about writing about the struggling soul or the poor, sort of, struggling addict. But when a mother does it and when a woman does it, we really take a lot of scorn in that. And I know that from personal experience. But we don't like to read about, sort of, fallible women. And, of course, what that does is it means it keeps a lot of trauma at home, and it just makes everyone's - the struggle so much harder for anyone who's going through it. So in some small way, I would hope that people would be able to relate to it or anyone who needs it would be able to find a comfort in it in that way.
SIMON: Yeah. This novel has won such acclaim already. I'm sorry. Whether you want to or not, you've got to write another novel.
SIMON: What other stories are stirring inside of you?
STUART: Oh, actually, part of the writing of "Shuggie" is we leave Shuggie, the main character, on the brink of manhood. And so I was left with a real sort of desire to go back and look at what it meant to be 15, 16 and to be queer within a patriarchal society. You know, I'm always really inspired by very tender souls in tough places. I like gentleness in men. I like feeling and empathy. And so I'm working on a book at the moment that hopefully we can talk about soon, which is really about two teenage queer boys who are separated along territorial gang lines across sectarian violence and who fall in love almost like Romeo and Juliet.
SIMON: Douglas Stuart - his novel, "Shuggie Bain" - thank you so much for being with us.
STUART: Thank you so much. It's such an honor for me.
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