'Young Mungo' tells the love story of 2 boys — one Protestant, the other Catholic
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Douglas Stuart entered the literary world with a bang. His first novel, "Shuggie Bain," won a pile of major awards, including the Booker Prize, in 2020. It told the story of an alcoholic single mother and her children living in a Sighthill tenement in Glasgow in the 1990s. Douglas Stuart's new novel, "Young Mungo," takes place nearby with similar characters. But this book centers on a romance between two teenage boys - one Protestant, one Catholic.
DOUGLAS STUART: And I think when you're talking about queerness at that time and you're also intersecting it with class or with poverty or social mobility, then the stakes are very different for the characters. You know, they can't just up and leave and go find a different place where they belong in the world. They really have to face the world outside their door because that's the only world they know.
SHAPIRO: That world has a very specific way of speaking, so I asked Douglas Stuart to read a paragraph where Mungo reluctantly joins a gang of Protestant teenagers going to fight a rival group of Catholic boys.
STUART: (Reading) Mungo came out of the close and joined the pack of Proddy boys heading to the waste ground. He fell into formation amongst the baby-faced warriors. He swung his meatless legs in imitation of their guileless way of walking, his shoulders about his ears and a silver scowl on his face. This swagger was a uniform as ubiquitous as any football top. It had a gangly forward motion, like a big, bald, bandy-legged weasel, head swung low, eyes always fixed on the prey ahead, ready to lunge with either a fist or a silver blade. Mungo tried his best to wear the uniform, but he felt like an imposter. It was a poor imitation.
SHAPIRO: Why is it important to you to write in such a specifically Scottish Glaswegian way, even if that means, you know, including slang that might be new to readers outside of Scotland?
STUART: Yeah. Well, I think readers are always curious, and so the ability to discover new words or new ways of framing dialogue is a joy for me, first as a reader. But as a writer. I had to decide how I was going to approach my characters because they don't often find themselves in literature, and they don't turn to literature. And so if I had not written the books in their natural tongue and how they see the world, then I would almost be standing in opposition to them or on the outside saying, hey; look at this. And I always want to be standing shoulder to shoulder with my characters. And I want them, first of all, to be able, if they could, if they were real people, to be able to pick up the book and really see the world as they know it represented with the language they would use.
SHAPIRO: There are also so many just wonderful words that I feel like people should know, like smir for, like, fine, foggy, just the side of rain, almost, like dreich to describe weather. There's so many good words.
STUART: Yeah, they're so fun, and I find myself just thinking about them all day long. My favorite is gallus, which is when someone is very bold or very confident or very self-assured. And that was always a big compliment when you were younger.
SHAPIRO: Your title character is named after the patron saint of Glasgow, Saint Mungo. Why did you give him that name?
STUART: Well, there is back story to the reason why his parents named him that, and - because I think they were hoping after lots of division that he would bring some kind of peace to the city. They live in quite a divided neighborhood in the east end of the city. But for me, Saint Mungo was a really big influence on me growing up because he's a - he was an amazing saint. He had these very generous, almost childlike miracles. He brought a bird back to life. You know, he made a bell ring that didn't have a clapper. He did all of these things, and we learned them as kids. And my character was as tender and as sweet as Saint Mungo. And he's quite a saintly boy. He can bear a lot. He can put up with an awful lot. And I just thought, what else could he be called? Because it's such a celebration of Glasgow.
SHAPIRO: Every saint suffers, and your Mungo endures many forms of pain. There were times I had to put the book down because it was such an intense reading experience. And as the author, the creator of this character, how did you decide how far to go? I mean, how did you choose what to put this young man through, what to put readers through?
STUART: That's a good question. I think, first of all, I try to write in a very honest way. And I try to, you know, sometimes characters - or oftentimes my characters are going through more than one trial in their life. So that's certainly true of Agnes and Shuggie in "Shuggie Bain." And, you know, I think people can be fighting battles on many fronts. And Mungo is going through a question about masculinity. How is he going to become a man? He is trying to find his mother, who has disappeared from the family. She keeps just vanishing. She's quite a tragic comic character. And also, he's coming to terms with his sexuality.
And, as readers will discover, he's gone on this camping trip to the north of Scotland, which is really to show him some masculine pursuits and to get him out of the city, which is suffocating him for a little while. But he's also got to survive that in a way. And so I just thought about all the burdens on this saintly young boy. And will he rise? And will he be able to survive it? And for me, you know, if ever I write about violence or I write about heartbreak or sadness, I'm really only doing that to make the tenderness and the love shine more because I think I'm always writing a love story in some way. But some characters have to endure a lot in order to meet that with resilience and with hope.
SHAPIRO: Writing is your second career. You spent decades as a senior fashion designer for major companies. Are there things that you learned from your career in fashion that you apply to your work now as a novelist?
STUART: Yeah. In many ways, it was the only training I had for whatever I was going to do in life. But I was known mostly in my fashion career as a textile designer. And so as a writer, I'm fascinated by the senses and by the sensory. I think about touch a lot. And that really sort of - you see it in my work because I write a lot about care and how we care for one another, and also how we're often abandoned by those who should be caring for us. But my characters spend a lot of time in just looking after one another's bodies, you know, whether that's a caress or a hug or just being near one another, because I think that's the most sincere form of love. And in a way, that touch has always fascinated me. And it starts really with textiles. But textiles taught me to play very close attention and to have patience. And I think those are important things for any writer. You know, I really believe in, if you focus on the stitch or the work going onto the weft, if you keep really applying yourself to that, eventually everything ladders up to a tapestry.
SHAPIRO: Do you think about what your life would have been like if you had started writing at the beginning of your career instead of the midpoint?
STUART: Yeah, I sometimes do. And I don't think I have any regrets because I was grateful to have so many chapters in my life and to experience so many different things. And in fact, it was fashion and textiles that brought me to New York. And so perhaps I wouldn't have come here and become an American citizen. I don't know. And so you can't regret. I think about it often, but I don't have any regrets.
SHAPIRO: You wrote your first novel, "Shuggie Bain," over about 10 years in secret. And now this book, "Young Mungo," comes out with award-winning novelist attached to your name. Does that carry the weight of expectations?
STUART: Yeah, I think it's a different game. And I think there is definitely a pressure there. But the pressure I try to focus on is just ensuring that my readers have characters that feel very real to them and that they can can feel bereft for when they close the last page of the book. I write to connect with people. I write to really move people. And that's my motivation. So I try to ignore the rest of it. But, you know, this is a book I actually began in 2016, which was two years before "Shuggie Bain" even had a publishing deal, and it was four years before it was published. And so in many ways, it comes from that very personal, intimate space that "Shuggie" came from.
STUART: Douglas Stuart, thank you so much for talking with us about your new novel, "Young Mungo."
SHAPIRO: Thank you so much, Ari. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.