Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in The Irish Examiner. 19th July 2008.
Writers are often urged to write about what they know. For some, that can be constrictive. But not for Esther Freud.
Granddaughter to Sigmund Freud and daughter to the artist Lucien, Esther’s childhood defied convention. And her first novel, featuring a hippy mother who drags her small daughters around Morocco was largely autobiographical.
Esther had her fifth and sixth birthdays in Morocco, and she agrees that she can’t have remembered everything that she wrote about.
“It isn’t that the rest didn’t happen, but I didn’t remember the incidents absolutely, or I twisted things around,” she says, as we talk in the empty dining room in the Morrison Hotel; battling to concentrate against the intrusive background music.
Success has followed Esther in her writing career. She is happily married to an actor, and has three children. Yet her writing, and her conversation betray signs that she has not, entirely managed to banish her early feelings of insecurity.
Hideous Kinky was an absorbing, if whacky story, but it can’t, surely, have been too edifying for Esther’s mother to see herself portrayed as a sometimes, irresponsible mother.
“She was amazing about it, but it must have been hard for her,” says Esther, who has flown in from London to give a talk on her latest novel at the Dublin Writer’s Festival.
“Now that I have children of my own I realise it is not what any mother longs for; to have their children remembering those incidents you would hope they might forget. But I don’t think I would have been able to write anything else without clearing the space in my head that that first book took up.”
Esther has one full sister, and a lot of half brothers and sisters. She won’t tell me how many, because, she says, nobody knows the number for sure.
“My fourth novel, The Wild, was based on the step family we lived in,” she says. “And I did manipulate certain areas and created more goodies and baddies than, maybe, there were.
“And one of my stepsisters said, ‘in your writing you can do anything,’ and she didn’t say it a nice way.” Esther laughs. “We are still good friends. I am very impressed with her for that, and I do know what she meant.
“I am lucky in my family. They are almost all creative people who know what it takes to make something. They actually seem fascinated to see how I reinvent and portray certain aspects of my history.
“I often start with something quite autobiographical, but then I hit something and have to do research. I have a kernel of something that speaks to me that I almost want to unravel.”
With Love Falls that kernel is her relationship with Lucien.
“I started with the absent father and his daughter having breakfast together. That is familiar to me. Then I put them on the train to go to Italy and the story went on from there.
Set in summer 1981 Love Falls depicts the era of Charles and Diana’s wedding wonderfully. Lara is 17. Her normally absent father takes her to Italy to stay with an old friend, Caroline, who isn’t well. They link up with the complex extended family who live nearby. And old secrets start to emerge.
“I wanted to write about a daughter suddenly feeling responsible for her father, because he is out of his own security system. I gave Lambert the same kind of grandeur and respect that my father has, and when he is taken out into the harsh environment, where people are judged on how good they look in a bikini rather than how clever they are, they flounder. I have always felt protective of my father in those moments.”
The novels sees Lambert realising that Lara is no longer a child; hence the holiday.
“I remember, at about 16, turning up at my father’s flat in a dress I had borrowed from a friend. He looked at me and said, ‘oh, do you want to go to dinner to some wonderful place.” Suddenly he saw that I could ‘join in.’ I wanted to capture that moment.”
Lara is still not sure of her rights in the world. She is not sure how to stand up for herself or how to behave, and this makes it hard for her to enjoy herself. The adults treat her as something of a plaything. There is a terrifying scene where the young married Roland ends up forcing Lara to have sex.
“I didn’t want to do that to Lara,” says Esther. “I rewrote and rewrote that scene, thinking that she would not end up getting raped. It could have stayed a rather aggressive game.
“It’s something that, I think, happens to young girls. You don’t know how to say no and the situation can tip. Lara fears that maybe she is not being open minded. There was a fear, growing up back then of being considered frigid. And that was the worst thing you could possibly be. Therefore it was confusing.”
Esther has carved a niche for herself writing of eccentric people of privilege. She does so with seeming effortlessness. But for a long time it didn’t occur to her that she could possibly write. She didn’t even learn to read until she was ten.
“I left school at 16 to do drama,” she says. “I wanted to be an actress. I made the decision early on to do something. Even at eight I needed a plan. I was scared of being adrift.
“I didn’t want to stay at school and I certainly didn’t want to go to university. It didn’t occur to me that I could be a writer without that. I’d thought writing had to be like Anna Karenina; huge and full of continents and wars.”
Then she read two books that changed her mind. One, by Lisa St Aubin de Terán, was a coming of age story of eccentrics; the other by Jean Rhys showed a story told through emotions.
“I thought, ‘that is the way I could tell a story, and I have stories like that to tell.’ Those books really made me want to write, and think that I could do it.”
Writing was and remains a sheer joy. But since the children were born, time is precious.
“I think of writing as an exquisite treat. I am always trying to get a bit of it and I never have time. I’m always thinking, ‘if I could just get to my desk and just get three hours with no interruptions.’ It is rather wonderful to be always longing and never having enough time.”
At 13, 10 and 4, Albie, Anna and Gene are too young, as yet, to read their mother’s novels. But they recently watched the 1998 movie of Hideous Kinky- starring Kate Winslet.
“We watched it because we were all going to Morocco,” says Esther, “and it was so emotional. I was weeping nearly the whole way through. It is, actually, a gentle novel, but all the dramatic bits are squashed into an hour and a half. The children turned to me with startled eyes saying, ‘did that really happen?’ I’d say, ‘hush, it’s all right.’ I was completely shattered by the end of the screening.”
Love Falls by Esther Freud is published by Bloomsbury at 10.79.
©Sue Leonard. 2008.