‘I felt overlooked by queer literature because it’s so middle class’

Douglas Stuart’s lockdown must rank as one of the most surreal; just as the pandemic hit, his first novel, Shuggie Bain, was published and, like every other writer with a new book out then, any plans for launch parties, literary festivals and bookshop events were immediately scotched.

But in that first Covid autumn, he found himself thrust into the limelight, as Shuggie, the story of a young Glaswegian boy and his intense, painful and loving relationship with his alcoholic mother, Agnes, scooped the Booker Prize for fiction. Stuart accepted the award from his Manhattan home in a virtual ceremony, and was thereafter swept into the customary round of interviews.

But it was not until many months later that he could actually go and meet his readers; when the time finally came, one of his first ports of call was Ireland, which saw him travel from Drogheda to Thurles to Ennis, a whistlestop tour held together, he remembers, by cheese toasties in the back of a Nissan Micra.

“I think I did maybe about 16 countries last autumn when it all opened up,” he explains. “And Ireland was the greatest, and this is not an empty piety. Because the truth is, I could talk about my work and I did not have to explain themes. We understand how hard-pressed working-class women are, we understand poverty, we understand sectarianism, we understand what it means to be a young queer man in a religious place, addiction, heavy drinking. And so we could just talk about books. And for me, I found the Irish tour was really freeing. ”

At one event, he met two women who had driven for hours from Donegal – where Stuart’s mother’s family are from, though he has yet to visit himself – and they ended up going for drinks together.

Now he is getting ready to go on the road again with his second novel, Young Mungo – a book that he started in 2016 and had finished even before he’d won the Booker. It shares common ground with Shuggie Bain, focusing again on issues of addiction and filial love, but there are also significant differences, perhaps chiefly that Mungo is approaching adulthood and, between navigating the frequent absences of his mother, Mo-Maw, and pressure from his brother Hamish, a local Protestant gang leader keen for Mungo to join him in the turf wars with rival Catholic gangs, he begins a relationship with another teenage boy, James.

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