Douglas Stuart on the Strangeness of Sharing Your Own Grief and Loss in Fiction
In Conversation with Mitchell Kaplan on The Literary Life Podcast
On today’s episode of The Literary Life, at a live event at Books & Books, Connie Ogle interviews Douglas Stuart to discuss his new novel, Young Mungo, out now from Grove Atlantic.
From the episode:
Douglas Stuart: When I first published Shuggie Bain in the United States, right before the pandemic, the very first question that a journalist asked me, because I write a lot about… there was a very harmful tradition for lower-income communities in Scotland where dentists and doctors didn’t think we could take care of ourselves and so they often took out all of our teeth when we were young. Sometimes it was a wedding gift for women. Sometimes it was just because we weren’t treated the same way that middle-class people would be. I do not have false teeth, but I write a lot about characters with false teeth. And the very first thing a journalist asks me is, So do you have false teeth? And it did a really strange thing to me as a writer because I thought, Oh, I don’t want to share anything personal with the world, because I felt quite invaded by the question. The journalist was really harmless. But I spent the first five months of the book tour just saying, No, I’m only a writer, and I’m writing about the other. I’m writing about this family, this character, this life that I know nothing about.
But if any of you have something in your life that you’ve kept concealed for a long time, or if you’ve been dealing with queerness or you’ve been dealing with anything and you’ve never been able to live your entire truth or just be honest with the world, you’ll know how exhausting it is. And I got to a point about five months in where I didn’t know what I’d said to people and what I hadn’t. But the truth is is I did draw on a lot of my own personal life for Shuggie Bain and for Young Mungo. Young Mungo goes further into the realm of fiction. But I am not Shuggie, and my mother isn’t Agnes. These are really characters of fiction. But I grew up as poor as Shuggie. I grew up in a city and my community was decimated under Thatcherism. I was queer and I was bullied for that, since I was really small. And then I’m the son of a beautiful single mother. But my mother suffered with addiction from my earliest memories until she died of it, one day when I was sixteen. And it’s that grief and loss that’s at the heart of my writing. And so I had to share that. And the strange thing is, as soon as you share it, it deepens your myth and it becomes something that you can’t quite control, right? And you can’t ever say it to a reader. Although I had lived a very similar life to Shuggie, you know, this scene that happens to Shuggie is not my life and I find it really hard to put things back in the box after it came out.
But for the most part it’s been really rewarding because part of the reason why I wanted to write was I felt like men especially have a lot of silence around trauma, especially west of Scotland. Men or men from a working class background were always taught never to share. You know, just conceal your emotions and conceal your p. And I found it in many ways to be really liberating to write the book. And I found it brought a lot of people into my life that had also gone through similar things, and that connection was quite lovely.
Douglas Stuart is a Scottish-American author. His New York Times-bestselling debut novel Shuggie Bain won the 2020 Booker Prize and the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. It was the winner of two British Book Awards, including Book of the Year, and was a finalist for the National Book Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize, Kirkus Prize, as well as several other literary awards. Stuart’s writing has appeared in the New Yorker and Literary Hub.