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27 April 2022

Douglas Stuart Q&A: “I would gladly take off all my clothes for Jenny Saville”

The Booker Prize-winning author on Derry Girls, finding joy in a new city and the power of art to change lives.

By New Statesman

Douglas Stuart was born in Glasgow in 1976. Aged 24 he moved to New York City to begin a career as a fashion designer. His debut novel Shuggie Bain, which took him ten years to write, won the 2020 Booker Prize.

What’s your earliest memory?

I remember stringing a length of my granny’s knitting yarn between the window and the china cabinet and spending the afternoon trying to roll my toy cars down it. I wanted them to travel across the room and of course it was impossible: they fell off. But that hopeful sense of “this time it’ll work” has really stuck with me.

Who are your heroes?

As a kid, I was obsessed with Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman and I spun myself sick trying to be like her. As an adult, I have great admiration for single parents.

What book last changed your thinking?

The Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch helped me make sense of my confused, religiously divided upbringing.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Quentin Crisp. I admire the courage it took to be so unapologetically himself in a sexually repressed postwar Britain.

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

When I was 23 I spent three months living in New England, researching the Shakers. Their religion, which was based on sexual equality, was so fascinating to me. By 1999 their vow of celibacy meant there were only seven believers left in the whole world. If my subject was not the Shakers, then perhaps it could be the hits of Kylie Minogue. That’s my other religion.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

We still have too much progress to make; to long for any historical period would be weird to me. I want the Star Trek future I was promised as a boy. I want to live in the year 3000. But don’t say it will take until 3000 to heal the things that divide us.

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What TV show could you not live without?

Derry Girls never fails to lift my mood.

Who would paint your portrait?

I would gladly take off all my clothes for Jenny Saville. I had the fortune of seeing her degree show at the Glasgow School of Art. I was only 15 and I knew nothing about painting, but the sheer vigour of her work blew me away. Saville made me want to go to art school. Her work changed the course of my entire life.

What’s your theme tune?

I have a real soft spot for “Chirpy Chirpy, Cheep Cheep” by Middle of the Road. It has an upbeat tune, but if you listen to the lyrics it’s about a missing mother.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Have patience, do what you can and trust in the work. Yes, I live by it.

What’s currently bugging you?

The heartbreakingly high number of children living in poverty.

What single thing would make your life better?

Not caring what other people thought.

When were you happiest?

Winning the Booker was pretty great. But in truth, any time I have a day to myself and I can wander around a new city with my husband. I hate the beach, but give me Mexico City or Naples and I’m in heaven.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I was a fashion designer for over 20 years. In a way, writing full-time is my other life.

Are we all doomed?

No. I expect the billionaires will be all right.

“Young Mungo” by Douglas Stuart is published by Picador

[See also: “Scottish writers are superior by far”: James Kelman on the Booker, class and literary elitism]

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This article appears in the 27 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sturgeon's Nuclear Dilemma