There are wonderful stories in publishing, but the story of Douglas Stuart is pure magic. And with Young Mungo (Grove, Apr. 2022), the follow-up to his 2020 Booker Prize–winning debut novel, Shuggie Bain, more magic is all but guaranteed.
Young Mungo tells the tale of a gentle boy with, Stuart writes, a sweetness that “unsettled other boys.” Mungo is struggling to survive in working-class Glasgow. But he finds James, and the boys become friends and lovers while they navigate the sectarian tension of religion (Mungo is protestant, James is Catholic) and the hypermasculine environment of the economically depressed city. Mungo’s brother Hamish is a gang leader, and his mother, Mo-Maw, disappears on drunken benders and sends him off with two brutal local men on a fishing trip “all for his own good,” when all he wants is to find a place where he and James can be together.
The book is a literary wonder and a suspenseful page-turner. Stuart’s language and observations are precise and visual. Describing one of the men taking Mungo out of the city, Stuart writes: “He wore indigo denims and his belt was laced under the logo so as not to obscure the proud Armani badge. He was handsome—or he must have been close to it once—but there was something already spoiled about him, like good butcher’s meat that had been left out.”
And Stuart’s powerful vernacular puts the reader inside the scene: “You’re a nervous wee fella, int ye? Don’t worry. If he gies us any lip, ah’ll fuckin stab him.”
The thing about this second novel, Stuart tells me, is that he started writing it in 2016—four years before Shuggie was published. “I’d been writing a long time,” he says. “In between drafts [Shuggie had 14], the manuscript goes into the corner of my desk and I let it sit. During one of these respites, I started Mungo.”
Stuart grew up in Glasgow, poor, and, he says, “queer and lonely,” with an addicted mother who died when he was 16 years old. “She was wonderful, vibrant, beautiful—but she was trapped, trying to get by as a single mother.” And his whole life, he says, “I was addressing the question of what it means to be masculine in order to survive. I wanted to write about men. Can a man be tender?”
Stuart was fascinated by the question, always thinking about it. “Masculinity asks us to perform it, to do things to be one of the guys,” he explains. “What about the boys who can’t do it? If there’s a gang dispute and you’re gentle, to not participate is a kind of bravery. I wanted to write into that.”
The first in his family to graduate high school, Stuart says he was able to be educated because he’s “the son of a socialist country” and “there was a lot of support”—though he still had student debt and worked four nights a week and weekends. He wanted to study English but teachers steered him toward a profession, so he studied textiles. “There wasn’t enough peace or time in my environment to read,” he recalls. “I read my first book when I was 17.”
After graduating from the Royal College of Art in London, Stuart was offered a job in New York City. He came to the U.S. in 2000 and didn’t think he would stay, but he fell in love with an American. They married four years ago, but the relationship goes back 20.
“I was always writing,” Stuart says, “but in 2008 I was in a fever. I was senior director of design at Banana Republic, but I was unfulfilled. I started Shuggie and wrote in pieces. I didn’t want to admit I was writing a book.”
When he finished, he had 1,800 pages. “I worked on it for 10 years without telling anyone,” he says. “In fashion you deal with people every day; everyone has an opinion. This was my private space.”
Stuart got the manuscript down to 450 pages and started querying agents. The agent he wanted was Anna Stein at ICM Partners. She represented two of his favorite writers—Hanya Yanagihara and Garth Greenwell—and while he started getting offers from other agents, he wisely (courageously?) held out.
Stein, meanwhile, heard about Stuart from Tina Pohlman, who’d met him at a holiday party and agreed to read his work. “Tina Pohlman told me I was the right agent for him, but I nearly messed it up,” she says. She agreed to read the manuscript but said it would take her a few months. Then, she recalls, Pohlman got in touch to say, awkwardly, that she was becoming an agent and if Stein was passing on Stuart, she was interested in representing him. Stein read the Shuggie manuscript and “became obsessed—it took over my life.”
May 31, 2018. Stuart was in Lisbon for his birthday. He went into the church of Sao Vincente and lit a candle. “I always light a candle for the people who have died,” he says. “I asked them, ‘What do I do?’ ”
Outside the church, 20 minutes later, Stein called and asked to represent him. “I was so delighted,” he says. “And I knew at that moment that I would stop working in fashion. I wanted to be present for the book.”
Stein and Stuart worked together for about three months, and then she sent the manuscript out widely. “I expected it would be a rocky road,” Stuart says. “I naively said yes when Anna asked me if I wanted to see the rejection letters. Well, Shuggie was soundly and quickly rejected. I saw 20 rejection letters, but when we did get the deal, Anna told me Shuggie was rejected 44 times on both sides of the Atlantic!”
Stein says she was never daunted. “My career is all about books no one wants to publish. If I fall in love with a book, I never worry about sending it out.”
Grove deputy publisher Peter Blackstock also fell in love with Shuggie. “You can reject all my edits and I will still want to publish it,” he told Stuart, who answered that he would think about it. Stuart laughs about this now. “Anna said to me, ‘What are you going to think about?’ ”
Blackstock says, “Grove’s specialty is publishing things others can’t see. Shuggie is the rare combo of an award-worthy book that is captivating and moving as well. Douglas has done it again with Young Mungo. This is an even stronger book.” Blackstock considers it a version of Romeo and Juliet, an improbable love story with consequences if it’s found out. “Mungo is a queerer book,” he says, “that explores this love story. It’s so true to life.”
Stein calls Young Mungo heartbreaking—a thriller wrapped in a first love story, a tragedy with comic moments. “I feel like Mungo is my own child,” she says. Grove had the option for Young Mungo and finalized the deal for North American rights in January 2021. The book will publish with Picador in the U.K. in April 2022 and to date has been sold in 12 other territories.
Stuart mentions the pressure of success. “My solution is to keep writing—to keep my head down and keep cracking,” he says.
I don’t think he has to worry. Blackstock says he’s optimistic about a future for Mungo and James. I’d add Douglas Stuart into that mix.
This story has been updated for clarity.