The many lives of Esther Freud.
Esther Freud, your last novel “Mr Mac and Me” is not autobiographical, but does it still have to do with your grandfather?
Everything is a little bit autobiographical, that’s always for me what makes it interesting. I know some writers would be more defensive, but what draws me to a subject needs to come from a personal place.
As a writer do you need to find something of yourself in your work?
Sometimes you don’t know what that is, almost until you’ve finished writing. With “Mr Mac and Me” the starting point was this wonderful, magical village, and the house that was the village pub is where my child narrator, Thomas, lives a hundred years ago.
Mac, one of the two protagonists, was a famous architect, like your grandfather Ernst Freud?
That is just a coincidence, if you believe in such things. In “The Sea House” my grandfather was the inspiration for that book, it came from reading my grandfather’s letters to my grandmother.
They were living in the same village?
So could we say that this particular village is your literary place, like Dublin is for Joyce?
It is the place I love most. I have written eight books and two of them are set there. That adds even more to my happiness about it.
Is “Mr Mac and Me” the story of a young boy growing up in this village in Suffolk, infatuated by a visiting artist from Scotland?
I think it’s really the story of a lonely young boy, an outsider, who is looking for a connection. Somebody comes into the village who is also lonely and an outsider, and he shows Thomas a different way of looking at the world. The fact that he is an architect and an artist is not really important to Thomas, it’s just interesting to us as a reader.
What a coincidence, that your grandfather Ernst was an architect, and your father Lucian a painter?
It’s a lucky coincidence. It’s a true story, and somebody in the village told me the story after “The Sea House” was published, and it is a good story but not a very big story. Charles Rennie Mackintosh comes to this village and is reported as being a spy. It took me ten years to find a way to tell it. I only found the way when I created Thomas, and I told the story of the boy’s life interwoven with Charles Rennie Mackintosh, about whom I knew nothing before I wrote this book.
You rebuilt a world, the mother, the father who drinks, the fear of this father, when they go to church, I mean you recreated this family in the times of another type of world. How?
I was very lucky to find a memoir written in 1911 by a visitor to the village who was worried that the village was changing beyond recognition, so wrote about what it was like then; the flowers that were growing in the gardens, the way the houses were changing, people putting in stairs instead of ladders, the church, the shop, what was sold.
How else did you discover the detail about the life of people in that period?
I also read lots of novels set at that time, and I found a small memoir by a man who had grown up in a Suffolk village around 1900, talking about his childhood, the different jobs the children did, the poverty, the friendships, all those things. So rich, it gives you so much richness.
So is your only book that is really autobiographical like a diary “Hideous Kinky”, in which you talk about your mother?
Well, it is and it isn’t. Of course this book is a re-creation of an adventure in my childhood, from 4 ‘til 6. The reality is I remember maybe enough for five or six pages, when I lived in Morocco for eighteen months. Yes, I would never pretend it is not autobiographical, but it is not like a diary. It’s a work of re-creation. There are many things in there that are true, many things not in there that are true, and some made up things to create a story.
You lived in England after you travelled, but you didn’t have a house?
I came back to England when I was aged 6, until 6 we were travelling. Then we lived in the country and we moved many times from one place to the next for about two years. We had no house and my mother had very little money and we moved and moved, I can’t even tell you how many times we moved. Maybe we moved sixteen times in two years when I was between 6 and 8. We would rent a not very nice room in a house from somebody and then move again, or someone said we could stay in their bus on their farm.
Did your father not help your mother financially at this time?
My father wasn’t very rich then and he also was a gambler and had many children, and he didn’t give my mother any money, so I am not sure how she survived. She had two children before she was 20. She was separated from her Catholic family and they disapproved of her choices, so she was very alone. I admired her hugely. She worked in the school when we were there and trained to be a teacher.
Did she influence you a great deal?
Yes. Both my parents were very unusual, very independent and very rebellious. They made me strong.
My father showed me that you could make incredible things through sheer hard work. You could make something beautiful by working very, very hard. As a child I never saw him unless he was painting, he was always working, his clothes covered in paint. My mother showed me you didn’t need money, you didn’t need a home, you could have a good life just with sheer perseverance and courage.
Were they friends?
Yes, amazingly. At different times more friendly than others.
And you went to school?
It was a Rudolph Steiner school in the country, not so regular, but it was a school! It was the first Steiner school in England, and I went there from age 6 to 16.
And then after 16, what happened?
I came to London and wanted to be an actress, because I wanted to leave boring school as soon as possible, and I studied to be an actress from 16. I wanted to join the world. When you are at school in the country everything’s happening in London and I wanted to get to London where everything was happening as quick as I could. My father was in London, and my mother moved with me, so I had my parents in London. I stayed with my mother. She was very poor, but she always worked.
How did you become a writer?
I finished my training and started acting aged 20, and I started to write as soon as I was out of education. Just for my own pleasure I started to write. As an actress I was always writing, just my own things. At 26 I made a decision: every day I would get up and write this story of a Moroccan adventure. I didn’t have any ambitions to write a book. I thought people would see that I had a secret. Then, when I went to an audition they would cast me, because I was busy! Other girls were turning jobs down because they had other jobs. I thought, ‘If I have something else they will want me more.’ So I started to write every day, and I became a writer; and when I finished the book I didn’t want to act any more. I realised I had wanted to act because I wanted to tell stories, and I realised that as a writer I could tell stories on my own, without someone telling me you can and without leaving home, which made me so happy.
And did you have success immediately?
Yes, I did. I was lucky.
Did your father approve?
My father came to see me every time I was in a play and read all my books, and he was very supportive and was lovely and he stopped gambling around that time. He started earning so much money that he realised he wouldn’t have time to get rid of it all and still work, so he stopped gambling.
Was your mother still living with you when you became a writer and you started making your own money?
No, I left home when I was about 19. My father paid my rent when I started to act, just managing, waitressing like all actresses.
As a writer is your famous family name heavy?
No, I never think so. I think in Britain I am lucky. No one cares in England. In other countries people really are impressed, but in England no one cares at all and they never mention it, and they don’t know how to pronounce it. I have to say, I don’t use it if I can help it, I just say my first name. I come off Eurostar in Paris and I show my passport and they say, “Aaaah Freud!” But not here, no one has ever done that. It’s very hard to impress British people. If I was a painter, yes, I think it would be heavy, but to be a writer feels quite free. Nobody can write your book, only you. When you’re acting somebody can take your part.
Yet you married an actor?
I have the world, but I would never want to have the difficulty, for me, of doing it. It didn’t suit me.
How is it to be married to an actor?
It’s challenging. The challenging parts are that acting doesn’t really feed your soul. When I am writing a book for a few years it fills me up when it’s going well. Like this morning, I read a play I have written and I am excited. As an actor you give and give and you are not getting so much back, so that’s difficult. But the good side is that as an actor life is always interesting, new people, new jobs, new countries, and that’s fun for the wife, sometimes! I have been married 24 years.
And you have three children?
Yes, writing is a good thing for a mother. It focusses your time and you can do both. If I was an actress I would have to say “Yes” or “No” and maybe go away for three months or not. As a writer I can work every day between 10 and 2. They have no idea how hard I work!
Do you spend your time in London?
I am here because the children go to school here, and then I am in the country every holiday and a few other days, and sometimes if I am lucky I go on my own and spend a few days there.
Do you travel?
A lot, the literary world is all about travel and festivals. I could spend my whole time travelling, but I would never have any time to write so I try not to. There are so many wonderful places you are invited to, it’s nice.
Do you think to be a writer in today’s society has meaning and status? Being a painter and art has become very fashionable, with big money. Writers, unless you are someone like Stephen King, are not making so much money, nor as fashionable. How do you feel about being a writer in today’s society?
I feel very lucky to do something I love, but I am aware that in the last five years it’s harder to make a living. Even as a successful writer, the money that used to be there is not there anymore. My books sell more, but the money is less. People would auction books more easily. This book has sold more than any other book, but I haven’t made more money. The other books had more translations, more options, more journalism offers, more extras. Now everybody is always cutting back and you don’t get the extras. What has happened is that there is a lot of teaching, so I and a lot of my friends teach, and that pays quite well. There is a lot of interest and respect for literature. I just like doing it.
Are you part of the literary world?
There are a lot of writers in London, every single week there are one or two book launches to attend, if I feel in the mood, a party for someone whose book is published that day between 6.30 and 8.30pm, a glass of champagne, everyone chatting, raising a toast to the author. It’s a nice chance to see people when you are alone all day and writing.
Do you think English literature is very alive today?
It feels it to me, it does feel alive, maybe because I am well connected. I have written eight books, and I have reached a nice position as a writer. The first one became a film.
But you don’t write in the newspapers or take positions?
I teach. Faber Books have a creative writing course called the Faber Academy and every so often for six months I teach creative writing, how to write a novel, it’s a course that is all broken up into sections.
Do you think one can learn to be a writer?
No, I don’t take any advice that I give, ever! But I would like to. It seems like very good advice, I just can’t do it. What they get is discipline, structure and support. I did a similar thing, when I wrote my first book I went to a creative writing course and enjoyed reading my work aloud.
How have you learned to write very simply, with short sentences and clear English?
These two books “Mr Mac and Me” and “Hideous Kinky” are a little bit different from my other books, and both have something in common, they are both told in the first person. None of my other books are. And they are both told from a child’s point of view, and so they have a very particular style and rhythm. My first and last books both have short sentences and short chapters, because I am looking for the rhythm of a child’s voice, not what they say. We have to believe what a country boy of 13 says. He’s not educated, and that’s about the rhythm.
Is the language you use very important?
Language is everything when you are writing, it’s the key. It’s the language, it’s the rhythm. I read it aloud to myself so I can believe it. I cut it to make it clean, to have energy. That’s what I try and teach my students, to read it to see what you don’t need, and cut it to bring the sentence alive. I like to make every sentence alive.
Did you ever have particular writers as mentors, or did you read a book and decide, ‘OK, I want to be a writer’?
Yes, I did have one book. It’s a wonderful novel by Jean Rhys and it’s called “Voyage in the Dark”. When I read this book I was 23. I thought, maybe I can write a book. It really affected me because the style was so simple, so expressive and it was a very emotional story. It wasn’t a big plot, it wasn’t a thriller, the sentences were so clean, so funny and moving. I read that book and when I wrote I held that idea of her style in my head, and I became what I wanted to be.
I have written a play for the first time. I have wanted to do this for a long time. I decided I would write a play when I finished “Mr Mac and Me” so for the last year I have been writing a play. I don’t think there is anything autobiographical in this play, but who knows. Set in a prison, it is about five men who, with the help of a volunteer, learn embroidery; and it changes their lives. On Tuesday I spent the whole day in Wandsworth prison watching people sewing. Every day they are in its 6 foot by 8 foot cells, and they can’t go out. It breaks my heart.
Was it hard for you to write a play?
With a play it is so hard to make something out of nothing.
Will it be produced?
I really hope so. I need to do one more draft. For the first time I have just read the whole thing, from start to finish. Now I know what I need to do, so I’ll start working, cutting, adding. It’s going to be a lot of work, maybe I will get some actors together and we will have a reading. A book can be a little bit boring at times, but a play has to be good all the time, from start to finish. I don’t want my play to be people just standing around speaking.
Did you prefer writing a play to a novel?
It’s freer, so different. It felt faster, it didn’t feel like I was stuck on one page for days like in a book. If I was stuck I just moved on, with a book I could never do that. In a book each page must be perfect before I move on, and I don’t know the plot. With a play I knew what I was writing about. You have to have a good story and know the plot.
Do you love the theatre?
I go to the theatre a lot, theatre and books are my passion. I like art, but it doesn’t feed me like books, I don’t rush to a gallery. I would die if someone said I could never read another book, but I would survive if they said I could never go to an art gallery.
Did your father teach you something?
He taught me by his example, he never tried to teach anything. He taught me discipline and he taught me patience, to be patient if you want to make something. I used to sit a lot for him. When he was painting he never said, “Aagh, I have been doing this for five hours and it’s not going well,” he just kept on, and on, and on. When I am writing and it’s going badly I don’t stop, and I learnt this from him. For a creative person discipline is so important. He would have a painting and he would just keep working on it for a year, if it took a year, every day he would just keep going. That’s a useful lesson for a young creative person because of course what you really want is to do everything fast.
So you write slowly?
It just is slow. This first book took a year when I was 26, that’s about five years. Now I am 52 and three years is like one year. I write slowly, a book takes me three years. Now my life is so busy, I have a million things to do with children, marriage, life, admin, and my career. Being busy is useful because it forces you to be very focussed, to work hard in the hours you have free. Too much time is difficult. I never make a plan between 10 and 2, these are my sacred hours, just writing.
Do you write every day?
Can you write a play on your computer?
Do you never write in longhand?
I do sometimes. I take notes and write lots of things on printouts and make notes in notebooks.
When is a book finished?
It’s never finished! When you can’t stand to look at it one more time and you feel one more look at that book is like too many pieces of cake, one more look and you will be sick. Then you know.
Are you pleased when it is finished?
It’s always hard to know the moment of finishing. Then the agent has notes, then you rewrite, then the editor has notes. The first time I finish, like today when I got to the end of a draft, feels like a time to celebrate. It is hard to know exactly when to celebrate, it is almost never done.
Are you writing a new novel?
I will start a novel in September, I can’t start now I will work on the play through the Summer. September is a good month for working and I will begin the novel then, I hope. That’s my plan.
Are you well settled in London, or are you going to live in America?
Everything is possible, but next year my daughter has exams so I am not going to move to America next year! My husband is often working in America, and we visit him. He was just in LA for four months doing TV.
Is this difficult for you, having a husband in America?
I am used to it. I like being on my own.
What did you learn when you were very poor, was it a formative or a terrible experience?
I had lots of experiences, some of it was driving in my father’s Rolls Royce, some of it begging in the streets in Marrakesh. I lived many lives.
Do you blame your parents for anything?
Some people are bored by their parents. I love my parents, they are amazing people. I was so lucky. My family have all come through a lot of things, but we get on very well, everyone in my family’s quite settled. I have about seven, mostly sisters, who I am close to, around my age. Our children are all friends, and there are other brothers and sisters on the outskirts, much older, that I don’t have any connection with. The ones my age, we are close, it’s very nice. It was the mothers. My mother stayed friendly with my father, he always cared for us and they stayed close so we were pulled in.
And what did you learn from your mother, who died four years ago?
My mother was very resourceful. She didn’t care about things to do with possessions and money, she wasn’t interested in that kind of life. She had a beautiful garden, she grew her own vegetables, she cared about things that I care about, she cared about nature, about beauty, about communication. She had good values. I got on naturally very well with her, we liked the same things.
And your sister?
My sister I am also very close to, but she is very different. I am the one who watches and is friends with everybody. My father, my mother, my sister are much more themselves, and I was the one who was like a liquid who could go between everybody. I love my family, it is so interesting. Both my parents wanted nothing to do with their families. I want everything to do with my family. I rebelled!
And your very famous great-grandfather, one of the people who changed the world, Sigmund Freud?
He was never mentioned. Very little.
Why not? Were you not curious about him?
Yes, quite curious, but my father was very aware of making his own success and not trading on the reputation of somebody else. He showed us that was important, and I would say nobody in our family ever uses that as a way to get somewhere. You would never find me introducing the subject. We were taught, “Make something of your own, don’t trade on someone else’s successes.”
And was your father’s language German?
Until 10 he spoke no English, until he came to England aged 10. Father spoke with a German accent all his life, but he never spoke German, and he refused to speak it. I went on a trip with him once and on a train by the border to Italy some German guards got on and spoke it; and he refused to speak.
And what about Judaism, do you feel Jewish?
I feel a little bit connected, but my father was an individual who was free. He was not a German, he didn’t mention being a Jew, he was not anything but himself. My mother was Irish Catholic who also rebelled against that.
Do you have no need for religion?
No, I have a spiritual connection. I meditate, I think it’s wonderful. That’s something people have to find for themselves though. My Irish grandmother, my mother’s mother, took me to Mass, she was a traditional conventional person, concerned with what people thought. I never met my father’s German parents, my father was not interested in bringing his parents and children together. My grandfather died when I was 7, my grandma lived to her nineties but lost her mind after he died. I was curious, but I was told she was not what she was.
Was your father a loner?
When emigres or refugees come to a country they stick together and create a little group. My father did not want to be part of a group of victims, he wanted to be a wonderful, free person.
And what about your uncle, Clement Freud, who was a politician?
He was also a rebellious person, but not so much as my father. I did meet him, not because of my father, but because by chance I met his children and they introduced me to him.
Because you are liquid?
Yes. I like to meet people and am always curious.
Is there a climate of rivalry in the family about your father?
No. Maybe in someone’s head, but not in mine. I took what I was given, which was a lot.
Are you the favourite, the darling, the chouchou?
Maybe. I hope so. My father had charisma, he had the ability to make whoever he was with feel very special. With each person he was with he focussed so much that they felt glowing. I was glowing. I felt I was important to him. Also, when I moved to London, I started sitting for him. As he painted his family and his friends and the people in his life he also painted me, and in those hours and hours I had so much of his attention. He would paint, tell me stories, sing me songs, give me food and take me for dinner. He makes you feel wonderful. I did feel very close to him, but so do lots of his children.
Does appearing in his pictures in a museum somewhere bother you?
My father said that once they were sold the pictures are gone, and he never thought of it and I never think of it either. I have lots of beautiful drawings and I am very happy for that.
What about writing a book about your father and grandfather?
For sure not! I have nothing to say that hasn’t been said. I don’t know, maybe, who knows, I might just have an idea to start a book. I want to try and tell the love stories of three generations of women and the different ways their love has been affected by their environment. That’s my idea. Me, my mother and my Irish grandmother, about who I know not very much so I will have to do some research. My mother did not have big loves, her love life was complicated. It will be a mixture of inspiration and fiction. I have had a few ideas, so who knows what will happen, it may not work out. I will create three fictional characters, using the basis of the lives of the women, and see what happens. I have a list of names growing, but not the right ones yet. It takes a long time to get the right names.
Is one of your books your favourite or are you always improving as a writer?
It’s not really like that. For me each book is special in its own way, like your children. I have abandoned three books, I didn’t publish the ones I didn’t like. I always live in hope that one day I might read them and say, “It’s fine actually,” but no. I am proud of the others, they tell the story I wanted to tell. I would happily rewrite them all if I could get my hands on them.
If someone asks you which one of your books should I read?
It would depend on who they are, who asks me, rather than the book. I think you would like “The Sea House”, it is probably a more sophisticated and intellectual book than “Hideous Kinky” and “Mr Mac and Me”.
Aharon Appelfeld has this nostalgia for the Carpathian mountains, even if he has lived in Jerusalem for 60 years, and he describes this world of misplaced people he calls the people of the beach. Is “The Sea House” very much about longing and yearning?
To have a village means home. It means to belong somewhere. It’s my village. People sometimes write to me, “Esther Freud, the name of the village”, and it comes to my house. It feels very precious.
How did you know it was your home?
I just felt at home the first time I went there. I thought, ‘This is it, this is where I like to be.’ I always have that, every time I go. It’s a very special feeling. For the last sixteen years of her life my mother lived about 30 minutes away in another village, which was great, it meant I could always see her there. I took my father once and he said, “Oh, it’s not as horrible as I remember,” which made me laugh.
Did your father’s sudden wealth change your life?
What really changed my life was that he bought me my own flat, and that’s when I wrote my first book, so I had security and somewhere to live. That changed my life. I could choose a flat wherever I wanted and I chose to be in Ladbroke Grove, near Portobello Road.
And now this house in North London, are you very attached to it?
I love this house. I have moved a few times. In Ladbroke Grove there weren’t enough trees or parks. The estate agents sent me a picture of this house and I saw it and moved here with my husband.
What kind of a person are you?
What would you say?
I would say, “You are very nice.”
London, 18th June 2015