You Don’t See the Whole Young Man until the Very End: An Interview with Douglas Stuart

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I began Douglas Stuart’s first novel, Shuggie Bain, a few days after I broke my spine by jumping into a lake. Admittedly depressed, isolated, and almost entirely bedbound, I entered the language of Stuart’s world and left forever changed—mostly immobile, still, but with a larger heart, well-lubricated tear ducts, and a full glass of hope. I couldn’t have asked for a better recovery companion. The humor and detail and grace exuded in Stuart’s work are exquisite, and they have not gone unrecognized. Since the publication of his first novel less than three years ago, the Scottish-American writer has experienced a whirlwind. He won the 2020 Booker Prize, completed a full online book tour, went on a multi-city multi-country in-person book tour, had tea with the Duchess of Cornwall, and most recently, began penning the Shuggie Bain TV script.

Stuart’s follow-up, Young Mungo, tells the story of a Protestant young man, Mungo, who’s learning his way in the tenements of 1990s Glasgow, Scotland. Mungo, his Catholic neighbor and crush James, his older brother and sister, his mother, and an ever-expanding cast of Glaswegian locals live out stories of love, gang violence, and survival. Young Mungo offers readers hope and shock. Dignity and loss. Attraction, desire, and brutality.

Stuart and I spoke in a secluded part of a vaulted hotel lobby in Portland, Oregon, far from his home in New York City and just a few weeks short of the conclusion of an intimidating book tour schedule. We ate chocolate and drank sparkling water, and when we began to walk toward our separate ways, shortly after I stopped recording our conversation, Stuart noted that I was one of the first interviewers he’d spoken to about Young Mungo who came with questions about the sexual violence that occurs in the center of this novel. Then, he said thank you.

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The Rumpus: Can I ask about the cover images attached to Young Mungo in the US and UK editions, photographs by Kyle Thompson and Wolfgang Tillmans? I’m curious about the selection process and your attachment to these covers.

Douglas Stuart: Those images were important in the creation of Young Mungo. I’m a visual writer and use visuals to unstick myself whenever I get blocked. I was blown away by [publishing imprint] Picador’s response to Wolfgang’s photograph, and by Wolfgang’s response, too; he didn’t need to let me use it. When I was a young man, that photo did everything for me. It’s a simple image—two fully clothed young men that are sweaty, and the way he’s holding him? It’s almost like a Renaissance painting. There’s a little bit of tenderness and care there. Yet it was met with so much hate when it first exhibited. It was torn down. Look it up. Someone went into the gallery and tore it from the wall. And that was only in 2002. So, for me, that image is about love and tenderness and then the homophobia and the violence it faces. I was very aware that cover wouldn’t work in the States. This country is not in a good place. It would’ve alienated a lot of readers and young queer people, and I think they wouldn’t get to read the book because the cover wouldn’t fly. I love the Kyle Thompson image. I love that photo because is he coming down? Is he going up? Is he drowning? Is he submerged? You don’t see the whole story. Young Mungo is about that; you don’t see the whole young man until the very end.

Rumpus: In both of your novels, readers are confronted with conceptions of manhood and how it functions and is reinforced. Can you say more about that?

Stuart: So much of what I’m writing about is a reckoning with masculinity. These men were only allowed to express themselves in very narrow ways. It was a thing that hurt heterosexual men as much as homosexual men, but let’s even forget homosexual men for a minute. The only acceptable emotions or character traits for men were bravery, strength, and maybe anger. You weren’t allowed to show vulnerability. You weren’t allowed to show tenderness. Anything that was deemed weak or feminine was to be held back. At the same time, men were doing jobs that were so incredibly dangerous and underpaid. And then you were discarded by a government because you’re told you’re not the future? Because I sometimes write about hard men or violent men, that can be the lightning pole people go to right away, but it’s about a spectrum. Men are not just one thing. 

The amount of pressure on young men still to get on with it and to bottle it up and to be strong and be certain is overwhelming. And it shows in the UK. The suicide rates for men are so high. It’s a mental health issue. We don’t allow men to express themselves or talk about their vulnerability, and we blame them for a lot; we get to that phrase “toxic masculinity” really quickly. I don’t believe masculinity is always toxic, I just think sometimes it’s very unhealthy and we need to examine it and open it up.

Rumpus: You mentioned suicide. The concept of connectedness kept coming to mind while reading Mungo. If you look at suicide prevention research, the concept of connectedness—to people or between people or in community—if those connections are fostered, those rates go down. But what happens when we create an identity where connectedness is the opposite of what’s required of your identity? Their identities, largely forced upon them by the surrounding culture, discourage connectedness in any capacity.

Stuart: Even with themselves.

Rumpus: Exactly. The women of this story can say the truth and the men are lost.

Stuart: Yeah, the women can see it and the men are stuck in the system. So many of my characters are divided selves, even the women. They have their posture and their reality. And masculinity can be a lot about that. I think we’re always performing something out on the street, and certainly, that’s what a lot of gang violence is about. It’s not really propelled by hatred. Hamish, Mungo’s older brother, says it well when he says it’s about reputation, respect, and recreation. It’s fucking fun, right? That was true for me as a kid and as a young man. We didn’t have a swimming pool or libraries or a community center. We had to make fun. And when we get gangs of young men together, sometimes fighting is fun. It just is. It can give you a thrill and a buzz and make you feel vital and make you feel like a man.

Rumpus: I hear you, and that’s part of what I think is interesting about this book. There are all kinds of regional specificities that make Mungo’s story unique, yet I grew up in the American Midwest, and I saw this too. Change the names, the scenery, the country, change some of the circumstances, yet that culture of violence and the corresponding attitudes exist in plenitude. And it’s revealed in your books, particularly when I look at the global reaction to your work.

Stuart: Yeah, and I think publishers didn’t give me credit for that in the beginning. That was part of the rejection path that Shuggie Bain went on. Editors loved that book; they just couldn’t figure out how to connect it with readers. I got rejection letters that said, “This will win the Booker, I just don’t know how to publish it.” And these were American editors. I mean, imagine that—they didn’t know how to say this was a universal thing. They thought that people would read it and think it’s about this family in Scotland. But it’s families in Pittsburgh. In Albany. In California. There’s a human condition at the heart of all of this. Our history is more similar than it’s dissimilar. And that masculine thing we’ve all lived under? It’s looked different over time, but that industrial patriarchy that’s just now coming apart? It’s left a lot of men harmed.

Rumpus: You had a wonderful review in The Face. I’m curious about this statement: “If Shuggie Bain was an excavation of Stuart’s childhood, Young Mungo is what he calls ​‘wish fulfilment.’” So much coverage surrounding your first book focused on questions of the autobiographical nature of the fiction, and with Mungo, I’ve noticed that assertion’s been majorly toned down, yet the amount of violence in this book, the amount of raw carnage—

Stuart: I like that. Carnage.

Rumpus: It feels more present. Or visceral.

Stuart: Yeah.

Rumpus: And I wonder if folks are afraid to bring those questions of autobiographical fiction to Mungo for that reason.

Stuart: Well, I think they would be asking me directly if I’ve been a victim of sexual abuse, and so, people are at least sensitive enough not to do that.

Rumpus: Yes. And I’m curious how you receive that, or if you have thoughts about how Shuggie was framed and how Mungo has avoided that framing, and what the implications of that might be.

Stuart: I grew up in the same place as Mungo. I went through a lot of similar things in terms of a coming to age, and I wrote the book as a desire to have a love story that I never had myself. But there was violence. I never went into the countryside with two men, but I was a young man who grew up in a very gendered world where it was always believed that the best place for me, as a son of a single mother, was around any man—any man—so I often found myself in situations where I was with men I didn’t know. That all worked out for me, but it doesn’t always work out. We grew up in a naïve world, where we were looking at so many kids and we were calling them monsters, which we still do today. Think about Florida. And yet monsters were rife among us, and they were not young queer kids. Ever. They were in the church. They were in sports. They were radio DJs, if you know the Jimmy Savile story in the UK. They were in all sorts of levels of control throughout the government. They were never the young kids we vilified. 

When Shuggie first published in the US, the very first question a journalist asked me—a very nice journalist—it was so personal that I actually got a fright. They went straight to autobiography. I was terrified. And I lied. I said, “No, no, you know, it’s this, and I’m an American writer, and I do this, and I live in New York, and I wanted to write this story.” I lied for months. It was exhausting. It was exhausting because I couldn’t keep straight what I was not telling people and what I was. It was like a visitation of the shame I felt about poverty, about addiction, about queerness when I was a kid, and I’m too old for that. It was only when the book started to publish in the UK that I confessed. I told the story about my mother. I told the story about bullying. And that’s when the autobiographical thing really attached quite hard. It’s a complicated thing, but Mungo’s entirely a work of fiction other than the milieu is my milieu, that’s the center of me. It’s the very center of me. It’s not other to me.

Rumpus: And what’s striking to me is the fact that it became such a big part of the dialogue for Shuggie and not as much for Mungo, where sexual violence between men happens. I think that is a topic that many people don’t want to engage with.

Stuart: I think that’s right.

Rumpus: And, yes, of course, we must respect an author’s private life, but the fact that folks were willing to just poke and prod at your personal life when it was Shuggie, the story of a young queer boy with a mother who was experiencing addiction, versus the story of a young queer man who experiences sexual violence; I found those public narratives fascinating and I wonder how you’ve thought about that or engaged with the complications that may introduce.

Stuart: I wanted to write about it because it’s complicated and absolutely a stigma and taboo. I began Mungo in 2016, when we were really answering the call of the #MeToo movement, and we were thinking about all the sexual violence that women have gone through, all the things that have happened to them, how they kept quiet and had to suffer all of the horrors, and I was thinking, “We don’t talk enough about that for young men.” Many young men—many young queer men, especially—have experienced some horror; I can’t say all of them, I haven’t done a survey, but we don’t talk enough about the sexual violence that happens to young men. Or aggressions. Or imbalances of power. It’s part of the suicide question, right? Men carry this trauma in absolute silence. It’s why Mungo and Hamish and all the other men are carrying anxiety ticks. No one ever asks them about their mental health or how they are coping.

Rumpus: And I’ve tried to follow what people are saying about this novel, and it feels like the sexual violence that occurs is the thing off in the corner, like let’s focus on the town, let’s focus on the beautiful dialect, which are worthy areas of focus, truly, yet there’s this element that exists in spaces of men that is so…

Stuart: Horrific.

Rumpus: Horrific. And quiet and hidden and put away. And if we can’t open up a dialogue about it, the opportunities for these men to even recognize themselves becomes greatly diminished. We’ve seen how important and impactful that’s been through the #MeToo movement, but there’s an element of men’s voices that have not been brought into the fold.

Stuart: This is what Mungo has started to reflect back at me. Shuggie uncovered to me so many readers who lived with addiction at home, or loss, or these things that we hold really private. What Mungo is reflecting back to me is how many people have gone through something like what Mungo goes through. Perhaps not the same, but similar. But don’t you think we’re about to enter the dawn of men’s silence around everything? It’s not just sexual. I think it’s everything. And that’s why it fascinates me to write about it and for the characters to go through it, because it’s always met with silence. Right? Certainly that’s the case in working-class communities—there’s really no access to mental healthcare, you can’t be seen to be a victim of anything that emasculates you, and so everything becomes silent. And of course, then it has ramifications. It comes out in violence or addiction or other things. The badness continues. That’s why I write stories like this. I’ve had too much silence in my life. In fact, becoming a New Yorker has helped me with that because I think, maybe, if I was still living in the community where I grew up, I’d still be quiet.

When I began writing Shuggie, one of the reasons it took ten years [is that] I first wrote it from the point of view of an eight-year-old boy, but that was a very narrow way to look at the situation because then everybody’s hurting an eight-year-old, and an eight-year-old’s being hurt. I let a chorus in. I wanted all these other people to tell the story, to look at homophobia, addiction, and all the things that were in the book. But as a human being, as a writer, Shuggie became my vehicle to understand where the hurt began because I couldn’t find it. The more I zoomed out, it was the condition and the context of the government. It was the lack of hope. It was how marriage was traditional. It was how men weren’t allowed to say, “I love poetry.” Or, “I love The Smiths.” Or, “Wouldn’t it be great to go see a ballet?” And when I started to do that, I started to have a sadness and understanding for everyone.

Rumpus: You’re preaching my language. Your work also beautifully introduces the innocence that can be a budding sexuality, and how it can be the opposite of the dominant story that overrides so much of what sex can be and is culturally, right? It’s become a mechanism of violence.

Stuart: Yep.

Rumpus: I’m curious what you think about asking a reader to acknowledge an innocence of sexuality and allowing that space to be open and curious and not at all deviant.

Stuart: That’s one reason I wrapped the timelines around each other—I wanted to show in stark relief what violence and rape and aggression and horror looks like against this very pure, very beautiful thing. Those young men in this tenement flat on the top floor on that blue carpet experience something beautiful and pure and they fumble their way towards it. But even their tenderness can’t start without a bit of roughhousing and insulting and farting. The sex is beautiful, but it’s also real. It’s not perfect. It’s about discovering all of ourselves, I guess. But I’m still angry about that monsters thing, Adam. I’m so angry about it. I’m so angry that as a young seven-, eight-, or nine-year-old boy, I heard, “You don’t wanna grow up to be a pervert. Stop being like that. You wanna be a monster? You wanna be a monster?” Yet the monsters were fucking wild in the world. The church I was a part of? Monsters.

Rumpus: And what that story offers some men—Mungo’s experiences, in all facets—that’s their life. And to see that same man who’s experienced all this violence get to have the most innocent, physical experience with James, a person that he’s attracted to and enjoys being with, it’s rare and hard to come by in literature in the way that you present it.

Stuart: It’s also one of the reasons why I set things pre-Internet. I think Mungo would feel isolated today, but he’d be able to soothe that isolation. He’d be able to see makeup tutorials from Venezuela and Lady Gaga videos and all the things that young queer boys can access now even though he might physically be alone. In the 1990s, he would’ve been mentally alone. He couldn’t see it. It’s still three or four years before the first pride march comes to Edinburgh, which, even then, was terrifying for people that took part in the first one, as it is when pride comes to any place or country.

Rumpus: And that scene of them in the bathtub?

Stuart: The sausage rolls? What a terrible thing to eat in a bathtub! I was like, what is the worst thing you wouldn’t want to get wet? What wouldn’t you want to flake into the tub?

Rumpus: Oh, well, when James eats the wet flakes? I had to draw the line there.

Stuart: I was trying to make everyone go, Ooh! 

Rumpus: It was a very young boy thing to do.

Stuart: Yes, we’re gross! We love weird smells and weird things and bodily functions. Exactly. It’s all a wonderland.

Rumpus: And that’s the innocence I’m talking about—it was allowed to fully exist in that space for those two boys in those moments. And it felt so powerful and wonderful and beautiful.

Stuart: Thank you. And they’ll have more, I think. I’m optimistic about the redemption of their love, and about how it’ll save them both, the salvation of it, and that they’ll have more of it. But right now, they’ve got three days of it, and that’s what they’ve got.

 

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Author photo: Sarah Blesener


Adam Swanson’s writing has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, Washington Post, Khôra, Lambda Literary Review, and elsewhere. He’s received fellowships from Writing by Writers, Lambda Literary, and the Creative Writing Program at Emerson College. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee and won Writing by Writers' 2022 San Juan Residency. Adam is the Senior State Partnerships Manager with the Suicide Prevention Resource Center at EDC. He previously worked at the National Council for Mental Wellness, Mental Health America, and in the United States Senate for Al Franken. Swanson earned a master’s degree in public policy from George Mason University, and in 2018, he completed The George Washington University’s LGBT Health Policy & Practice Graduate Certificate Program after receiving the AIDS Healthcare Foundation scholarship. He is currently a Master of Fine Arts candidate at Emerson College. More from this author →