Can you tell us a little bit about your new book? What is it about? What inspired you?
DS: Young Mungo for me is a love story. It’s about two young men who are coming of age in 1990s Glasgow. Mungo Hamilton is the 15 year old protagonist, he has been pulled into gang violence and is suffering from the low expectations of the community around him. The housing estate he lives on is known for sectarian divides and he has fallen in love with another boy, who is Catholic. Across this Protestant/Catholic divide they are trying to find a place where they belong and where they are safe. Mungo is sent to the north of Scotland to make a man out of him, to take part in hunting, fishing and camping. It’s a trip that has disastrous consequences for everyone in the book.
The book is really about toxic masculinity and violence, about a sense of belonging, about how we victimise young working class men. It’s about love and first love. So much of our queer canon is written from a middle-class point of view, but I want to think about it from a working class perspective because it means something very different to come of age in a place that you can’t escape from. It’s about standing and facing the community that you’re in.
A character in the book says to Mungo and his sister “If anybody should understand making excuses for the person they love, then it’s you two.” Can we talk about forgiving people and forgiving the people you love?
DS: Everything for me is about how things sit in relation to one another. So when I write about love, I write about lightness, but it’s really about how its caught in the midst of darkness. With violence in my novels often comes great tenderness, but also vice versa. Part of that is a reflection of how life is. When you’re living on the edges you have to take life as it comes to you, you might not be expecting violence, but it visits you. So much of what I try to write about is how we care for one another, how we make these small gestures and actions of looking after the people we love the most.
Young Mungo isn’t a sequel to Shuggie Bain but in a way it’s part of a cycle, a diptych. I am still wrestling with that question of where do you belong when your family is disintegrating. A lot of what I write is about families coming apart, which is something I experienced in my own life, and it’s something that the young men in my novels keep going through.
You’ve just mentioned your own life and there are autobiographical notes to your work. In writing your novels, are there things you’ve discovered about yourself or your history?
DS: So much of my writing comes from a very personal place. I was involved with gang violence as a teen, I was forever sent away on trips, so I write about that isolation, confusion and loneliness from a personal place. There was addiction in my family and addiction is a central theme of this book.
People often ask if writing is cathartic for me as it’s forced me to face personal trauma. It is cathartic, but the real transformative power for me was empathy. When you write fiction from a place of personal experience, you have to treat all the other characters as though they are fictional, so you have to understand their wants, motivations and pain. That was the real healing point for me - to go back and not centre myself in the narrative. It’s getting to understand fictional characters that got me to a point of empathy.
Douglas Stuart – photo by Martyn Pickersgill
What was the writing process for Young Mungo?
DS: I began Young Mungo in 2016. Shuggie Bain had been finished for many years. I wanted to write something that was incredibly propulsive. Shuggie had asked me a question that I couldn’t answer - why we thought the safest place for boys was with men we didn’t know? It’s a mistake we’ve made throughout history, we do it with the church, the scouts, and football coaches. So Mungo came to me as a much more propulsive plot. I saw it as two interwoven timelines that twist around each other. I knew I wanted to build the stakes and the tension in that way, so I wrote the timelines individually and then twisted them together.
I finished writing in 2020 and went into edits in 2021. I’m incredibly grateful I’d already started my second novel because there is so much pressure after winning the Booker. It’s written from an incredibly personal space again, with nobody watching and no expectations.
What led you to choose the name Mungo?
DS: When I think of Glasgow, I think of St Mungo, a saint that founded the city with four quite childlike and innocent miracles. St Mungo is synonymous with the city and that innocence and childlikeness is something that Mungo has. He’s a very sweet, tender young man, he’s quite innocent, and his faith is tested again and again.
This isn’t a sequel, but does Mungo pick up where Shuggie left off?
DS: I’m exploring the cycles of a young, queer working class man. This is about first sexual awakenings and desire. Shuggie Bain was a love story too, but I didn’t want him to have any sexual desire or romance because his big love was his mother. I really wanted to focus on that for my second novel – where do you find people who are like you when all you know are the streets that you grew up on.
Do you think your books are always going to be set in Scotland?
DS: I know for a fact they won’t. I don’t necessarily sit down and think what I’m going to write, the writing tells me what I’m going to write and it comes from a place of compulsion, a huge desire to unknot something that’s inside myself. But I am looking to begin writing about New York and other places.
What can we expect from you next?
DS: I’m working on my third novel and I’m working on television scripts for Shuggie Bain so I’m currently hard at work learning how to write screenplays! It’s been fascinating because writing a screenplay you tell the story in a totally different way. I didn’t want to just translate the book directly to the screen, so it allows me to show different facets of the story and reimagine it for readers. It also allows me to spend more time with the characters I love the most, people like Lizzy, Agnes’ mother, and Leek, so we’re going to spend much more time with them.
Are you currently reading anything you’d recommend?
DS: I really loved To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara. I think her fans are going to adore the book, it's big, it’s gorgeous, it’s ambitious, it’s heart-breaking. It’s a book that’s going to stay with me a long time as I don’t think I cracked the code so I’ll be thinking about it for a while and it will reveal itself to me in phases.
Young Mungo is available in store and online now.
Interview originally published in Van Ditmar's Ready to Read magazine (trade publication), distributed January 2022.