Douglas Stuart wins Booker Prize for ‘Shuggie Bain’
30-plus editors rejected story of tough childhood
Stuart wasn’t sure when he started on the book that it would ever be published, and indeed initial responses from publishers were discouraging: more than 30 editors rejected the book, a fictional account of his childhood, growing up in Glasgow with an alcoholic mother.
“I wouldn’t allow myself to believe I was writing a book, because it was too intimidating,” Stuart said. He finally sold it to Grove Atlantic and it came out earlier this year, earning rapturous reviews.
The Booker Prize, which was announced on Thursday will likely attract a large new audience to “Shuggie Bain” and further cement Stuart’s reputation as a blazing new literary talent.
Margaret Busby, this year’s chair of judges, said the vote was unanimous and quick, and she believes the book is destined to become a classic.
For Stuart, writing it gave him a way to process the trauma of his childhood and to pay tribute to his mother, who died when he was 16.
“Shuggie Bain” unfolds in 1980s Glasgow and centres on a boy nicknamed Shuggie, who is struggling with being gay and his mother’s addiction. Shuggie is precocious and sensitive, making him a target for school bullies. He devotes himself to caring for his mother Agnes, sometimes skipping school to make sure she doesn’t harm herself and checking on her when she passes out drunk.
The novel has drawn comparisons to D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce and Frank McCourt- It has been a favourite contender for this year’s top literary prizes , being also a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and the National Book Award for fiction, which on Wednesday went to Charles Yu for “Interior Chinatown”.
Stuart, 44, has dual Scottish and American citizenship. He was born and raised in Glasgow, then after graduating from the Royal College of Art in London he moved to New York City, where he began a career in fashion design. He lives in the East Village of New York with his husband, Michael Cary, a curator at Gagosian gallery in the city who specialises in Picasso.
Stuart worked in the fashion industry for nearly 20 years, as a designer for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic and Jack Spade. He came to writing somewhat late in life, beginning “Shuggie Bain” more than a decade ago when he was working 12-hour days as a senior director of design at Banana Republic.
He wins £50,000 with the prize. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker and Literary Hub.
Stuart was one of four debut novelists on this year’s Booker shortlist. The others were Brandon Taylor for “Real Life”, which follows a black gay graduate student navigating white campus culture; Diane Cook for her dystopian novel “The New Wilderness”, about a mother and daughter who left a polluted city for the last swath of wilderness; and Avni Doshi for “Burnt Sugar”, about an artist in Pune, India, whose mother abandoned her to join an ashram.
The two established authors on the shortlist were Maaza Mengiste, for her novel “The Shadow King”, set during Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s, and Tsitsi Dangarembga for “This Mournable Body”, which centres on a middle-aged woman struggling with life in Harare, Zimbabwe.
Last year, the Booker Prize judges made the surprising decision to flout their own rules and award the prize jointly to Margaret Atwood, for “The Testaments”, a sequel to her 1985 dystopian classic “The Handmaid’s Tale”, and Bernardine Evaristo for her novel “Girl, Woman, Other”. She became the first black woman to win the Booker.
This year the judges were able to come to a unanimous consensus. They included the thriller writer Lee Child, the poet Lemn Sissay, the classicist and translator Emily Wilson, and the British author and critic Sameer Rahim.
This year’s ceremony included a star-studded lineup of guest speakers at the ceremony, which was live streamed on the BBC. Former United States President Barack Obama — whose memoir “A Promised Land” came out this week, prompting the Booker to reschedule its ceremony — spoke about some of his favourite Booker-winning novels, and the solace he takes in reading fiction. The Duchess of Cornwall described how people can forge a sense of connection by reading during the pandemic. Previous winners, including Kazuo Ishiguro, Atwood and Evaristo, also spoke.