The conversation takes place in a garden on the Bowery in Manhattan. The first thing Douglas Stuart (Glasgow, 45 years old) says is that that day marks the 21st anniversary of his arrival in New York: “It is the toughest city in the world. My first years here were the hardest of my entire life ”. A statement that is striking if contrasted with the description of his hometown in his first novel, Shuggie Bath, a surprising debut feature that, skipping all sorts of protocols, made its way without advertising or commercial support, due to the inner strength of the world portrayed in it, managing to win an award as prestigious as the Booker.
High-level fashion designer, he says that one day, more than a decade ago, he was seized by the need to recover his childhood by writing a book that allowed him to pay off a debt to himself and to his mother. Shuggie Bath, that just published in Spanish (Sexto Piso), it is a deeply moving novel that has a wild and spontaneous force that is only possible if you are away from all pre-established forms of writing, from creative writing programs, from the insidiousness of the publishing world. and literary circles circumscribed to cognoscenti. In a universe where quality novels are labeled “literary,” Stuart has written something that has nothing to do with artificial distinctions of any kind.
Question. You grew up in a slum in Glasgow. How were your childhood and your education?
Answer. I grew up in a very poor neighborhood. My family was working class, and I lived closely with my mother’s alcoholism. I discovered that my sexuality was different at a very young age. All of that is in Shuggie Bain, but the novel is not about me. There are a lot of guys like Shuggie Bain. As for my education, it was a disaster until I was 16 years old. I was afraid of leaving my mother alone at home, so I missed class a lot, and when I went I was a victim of bullying. At 16, everything changed.
R. My mother passed away and I stopped bearing the burden of caring for her. At that age, most kids stop studying to go to work, but I kept going. I was a sponge eager to learn, even though I was late. My training was lacking to seriously study things like science or literature. But I was very creative and I found a way out in the textile industry, which is very important in Scotland. I was interested in art, but I wanted it to have a practical application. I couldn’t afford to be a painter or sculptor because I had to make a living. I entered a vocational school. When I finished, the Scottish Government gave me a scholarship and I was able to study design and fashion at the Royal College of Art in London.
P. How did it end up in New York?
R. A top Calvin Klein executive went to the Royal College to see the work of graduating students. There were 36 of us, and when he finished watching what we were doing, he approached me and hired me.
P. Are you still working as a designer?
R. Now I dedicate all my time to writing. Fashion is no longer a professional activity to be just a passion.
P. How was the gestation process of the novel?
R. When I started the book I was at the peak of my professional career, but I did not feel fulfilled. I sat down to write in 2008. I had no plans. I wanted to write a book, that was all. He wrote without any discipline, learning the trade as he went. After 10 years I had a monstrosity of 900 pages to a single space that I started to edit.
P. The compassion he feels for his characters is moving.
R. One of the reasons it took me so long to write the novel is that I didn’t know how to delve into the traumas of the characters, of Shuggie, of the women, of the men. They were all victims in one way or another. Men, for example, had very difficult lives, dangerous and poorly paid jobs, but no one asked them about their fears, their dreams, their feelings. They faced everything in silence. I had to wait to mature to delve into all that.
P. Would you say that your book is a tribute to women?
R. That was my intention. In communities like the one I describe, the real protagonists are women. Everything is sustained thanks to them. My personal experience always revolved around my mother, I was nothing more than a satellite. And the same is true of men. They revolved around the women, the strength was in them.
P. How was your relationship with your mother?
R. As a child I was always where I was not supposed to be. I witnessed scenes that I should not have seen. My mother told me very intimate things as if I were not her son, as if I were not a child. He told me about his deepest love and sexual experiences. She showed me her inner world in a way that no mother exposes to her children. As a writer, I am aware of having known a world to which no one has access, a world dominated by a very deep silence that I was given to penetrate.
P. How did you approach the discovery of the protagonist’s sexuality?
R. I wanted to tell the love story that a son and his mother live. Shuggie’s great love is his mother. On the other hand, at the time of the novel there was no acceptable language to describe homosexuality. Agnes understands and accepts her son, but does not have a language to describe what is happening to him. Yet he tries to help him however he can, teaching him in a very subtle way to be proud. I am sympathetic to the homophobia of certain characters because it is an insidious process of which they are not aware. The tragedy is that there is no way out of the trauma they suffer. When Shuggie and his mother are teased and assaulted they are silent, but there is a lot of strength in that silence.
P. Some writers give priority to the construction of the characters, others to the structure, others to the language, what do you give it to?
R. To the heart. What matters most are feelings.