We spoke to the winner of the Booker Prize 2020 about writing his debut novel, setting a book on the front lines of Glasgow and how James Kelman changed his life
This interview was conducted after Shuggie Bain was longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020.
How does it feel to have your debut novel longlisted for The Booker Prize?
It feels unreal. I was a working-class kid who had a different career and came to writing late. This validation of the work is life-changing. I hope it inspires others with working-class stories.
Shuggie Bain takes place in 1980s Glasgow. How did it feel writing about your hometown from such a distance, spatially and temporally?
The characters in Shuggie Bain couldn’t exist anywhere else; Glasgow is as much in their blood as it is in mine. Childhood in Glasgow was tough, and distance certainly helped me to distill the story out of my experiences of the city. That distance brought clarity but it also allowed me to fall in love with the city again.
The characters in Shuggie Bain couldn’t exist anywhere else; Glasgow is as much in their blood as it is in mine.
Shuggie Bain navigates difficult subjects like poverty, alcoholism and neglect with immense love and compassion. Would you say optimism is important to you, and if so, why?
It’s very Scottish to face difficult things frankly. The hardest-done-to Glaswegians are the most compassionate and giving people I have ever met. They also have so much humility that they have an aversion to anyone thinking they have it especially bad, because so many people suffered through a difficult time under Thatcher in the 1980s, and we were certainly all in it together. Mammies and Grannies will not put up with your complaining because if you think you have it bad…oh! When you don’t have the comfort of money, then you are forced to deal with life on the front lines, and sometimes love, humour, optimism is all you can bring to a bad situation. I think Glasgow is a city of reluctant optimists by default. How would we have survived otherwise?
What is your favourite Booker Prize-winning novel?
How late It Was, How Late by James Kelman changed my life. It is such a bold book, the prose and stream of consciousness is really inventive. But it is also one of the first times I saw my people, my dialect, on the page.
What can we expect from you next?
I am currently putting the finishing touches on my next novel, Loch Awe. It is set in 1990s Glasgow, and is the tale of two teenage boys, who fall in love despite being divided along territorial, sectarian lines. It takes a look at toxic masculinity and the pressure we place on working-class boys to ‘man up’. I wanted to show how young men growing up in extreme poverty can be some of the most victimised and overlooked people in British society. I am always looking for tenderness in the hardest places.