Discussion on Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
This book was meant for me to read. In summer 2021 I won a copy of this book from Helene (@helenecats) in a contest on Instagram. She and I decided to read it together as a ‘buddy read’ in October. We invited a few other friends to join us and we became a group of 5 people in 3 countries to read it together.
The following week my book club selected this book to read for our October choice. I suspect the voting was strategic as Douglas Stuart was going to be interviewed at The Crossing Border Festival here in The Hague and we all managed to secure tickets (front row seats!). It was unanimous that this was one of favourite author talks to date. Stuart was calm, collected, and spoke with a beautiful Scottish accent. When he did his reading from the book it was so passionate and with expression; a voice you could listen to for hours.
Our book club with Douglas Stuart and a screenshot from a buddy read with @helenecats, @cindywindy_blogs, @joanie.reads.to.52, @lunabellecreative
Finishing high school was not common in the Glasgow that Stuart grew up in. He became the first person in his family to graduate from high school. At the suggestion of a teacher, who understood the importance of a trade to a Glaswegian male and recognized Stuart’s creativity, he studied to become a knitter.
Having moved to New York for work in the fashion industry and having fallen in love with his eventual husband, Stuart began working for some of the biggest names in the luxury fashion industry. It was ironic as Stuart said clothing was one of the things that had put his mother in debt, and here he was working in an industry that tried to ensure each piece of clothing brought in as much money as possible. He had found himself in a privileged world and most of the people he interacted with thought he came from the same sort of background as them. He said it was a lonely time for him and he didn’t enjoy this oxymoron of his situation so he left and went on to work for The Gap.
Stuart claims that Shuggie Bain is not his autobiography, but many of the topics that were brought up about his personal life did very much seem to align with Shuggie and Agnes’ story. Though he said to the interviewer once ‘you are mixing up the story and my life,’ it is hard for me, after reading the book and listening to Stuart’s story, to understand where the line between fiction and reality really is, or if there is a line.
Shuggie Bain takes place in Glasgow in the early 1980s when Margaret Thatcher was attempting to reduce the power of the unions (@lunabellecreative). Unemployment was very high in Glasgow. There were a lot of working-class men out of work and they had turned to alcohol and drugs. Stuart stated ‘it was an emasculating time for men in Glasgow and it was made worse by the fact that it was a female Prime Minister.’ Stuart talked about ‘The Glasgow Effect,’ a term that refers to the shorter life expectancy of men in Glasgow versus the rest of the UK. According to Wikipedia 1 in 4 men die in Glasgow before reaching the age of 65!
The story follows a boy, Shuggie Bain, and his mother, Agnes, through his life from a young age until he was 16 when his mother dies from her addiction. Shuggie was at times his mother’s confidant, her lady’s maid, and he had a quest to try to understand and help his mother. These words are almost exactly as Stuart said them, but yet in my mind, I am not certain if he was talking about Shuggie or about himself. Stuart beautifully described the novel as a love story between mother and son and from that perspective, the North American cover reflects that.
Considering how well-written the book was, it was a surprise for me to learn that Stuart himself did not read a book until he was 17. Books were not available and it was not a way that those in his working-class circle spent time. As well, during the years he spent writing the book he didn’t talk about his writing with his fashion friends. When he finally did mention it, they didn’t ask what it was about, only if he was going to be able to design the cover. Even his husband of 25 years felt he didn’t really understand Stuart until he read the book.
As for designing the cover. Stuart did find the picture on the front of the UK edition of the book. It was taken in Glasgow during the 1990s. The boy is on a washing pole and behind him is the Easterhouse suburb that is known for its gangs and drug problems.
On writing the book, Stuart said it came to him in images and he would write from the image. While writing the book Stuart said it became a way for him to deal with the trauma of his life. He also had to understand the characters, even the ones that were mean to Shuggie. It took him time to realize people wanted Shuggie to change because they couldn’t understand how Shuggie fit into the life they knew. The book took him 10 years to write, and though he claims he was busy, he also stated that he wasn’t ready to let the characters go. Listening to Stuart talk it is clear the book was an emotional journey for him, a novel of love and, as he called it, a Love Letter to Glasgow.
Stuart's note in my book, notice the love he has for Agnes and Shuggie.
Stuart’s next book Young Mungo will be released in April 2022. The link is to the write-up on the novel. I for one can’t wait to read it.
Stuart's new book and an expression Stuart used in the discussion.