Closing Speaker: Douglas Stuart

To bring our 2022 conference ‘Foreword Thinking: Publishing for the Future’ to a close our SYP Scotland co-chair Sonali Misra interviewed none other than Douglas Stuart, Booker-Prize winning author of Shuggie Bain. Born and raised in Glasgow and now living in New York after a career in fashion design, Stuart’s debut novel also won ‘Debut of the Year’ and ‘Book of the Year’ at the British Book Awards, among many other accolades. His next novel, Young Mungo, is to be published this month.

Just over a year since winning the Booker, Sonali asked Douglas Stuart how his life had changed. He spoke of the experience of writing Shuggie Bain over many years, in isolation from the publishing industry, and how a prize like the Booker was unfathomable at the time of writing. But winning catapulted him from the outside of the industry to the inside at record speed, despite much of his publicity engagements being performed remotely due to Covid-19. He also highlighted the power of prizes to “amplify” a story and connect readers with a book, which he thinks is the most exciting. The win has changed his life entirely and allowed him to focus on writing full time.

When asked about his roots in and connections to Scotland, Stuart mentions his upbringing across many housing schemes in Glasgow and speaks fondly of his ‘heart’ in Glasgow, and his home in Scotland. New York is a transient place, he says, “if you left, no one would really mourn you” which makes it hard to feel like home. Growing up in a working-class family that was badly affected by the industrial upheaval of the 1980s, Stuart talks about the formative experience of growing up in abject poverty, the solidarity and resilience among the community but also the difficulty. This remains an inspiration to him, and his approach to writing is always through a Scottish and Glaswegian eye. How does he feel about representing Scottish voices on a global scale? Stuart stresses the importance to him of writing the characters and hearing their voices in their own tongue. He feels there is a poetry to the way Glaswegians express themselves. It’s been one of his greatest joys to have people understand and fall into the rhythm of the book’s voices.

What can be done to amplify Scottish literature and publishing on the worldwide stage? Writers must consider the global audience, but publishers must also understand that not all Scottish authors write about a specifically Scottish experience, but one that resonates widely. Stuart hopes to one day see the same elevation of Scottish writing that he sees of Irish writing in bookstores outside of Scotland. The diversity of Scottish voices has increased also, and Stuart is excited about how this will make the conversation richer.

Forming a relationship with his readers was a challenge with his debut novel. Stuart talks about his unusual publishing journey, which was drastically transformed by Covid-19 which made it sadly impossible to launch Shuggie Bain in Glasgow. The human connection was sorely missed when promoting virtually, which is something he’s looking forward to when it comes to his next novel Young Mungo. He is excited to get to know people at all levels of publishing in person, but also acknowledges a tone shift in his writing between Shuggie Bain and Young Mungo, brought on by the urgency of global events of the past few years.

Looking to the future of publishing, Stuart is excited to see more Scottish voices out in the world and thinks Shuggie Bain could start a resurgence of this. Shuggie Bain was rejected 44 times by publishers in both the UK and the US, and Stuart says this was partly due to a lack of an existing title to compare it to within the zeitgeist. He’s proud for Shuggie Bain to act as this for upcoming titles.

Stuart also shared some of his upcoming projects, including a third novel in the works and an adaptation of Shuggie Bain for the screen as a television series, the process of which has been fascinating. He’s aware that there are many for whom Shuggie and Agnes’ story will resonate, who might not turn to literature, and he is keen to deliver this story to them as well. Writing for the screen is new for him, but we’re sure he will take to it as well as he has with both his short stories and his prize-winning novels.

We would like to thank Douglas Stuart again for taking the time to chat with Sonali, and for closing our 2022 conference so wonderfully.

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