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An actor before she took to writing, Esther Freud’s next project is a play. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
An actor before she took to writing, Esther Freud’s next project is a play. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Esther Freud: It’s always personal

Esther Freud on how she let out the writer in her, her inspirations, and writing for the stage

Inspiration may come to a writer from all sorts of material and immaterial sources, and sometimes, it may also come from a post-material source. That is how it was for Esther Freud, whose most recent novel, Mr Mac And Me, was inspired partly by a ghostly sighting in a Suffolk, UK, house that the writer owned and which used to be a pub about a century ago.

That encounter set her on the path of a story for which she first chose a woman narrator who encounters a boy-ghost in a house she moves into. She had written half a novel before she accepted that it wasn’t coming alive. Then she decided to make the boy-ghost into a real boy, and to let him tell the story. “It came alive immediately," says Freud, half-laughing as she recalls how she could keep only seven of the 150 pages she had already written.

And it wasn’t the first time this had happened to her. “It feels quite painful to stop, but you only stop because you think of something better. It’s like jumping from a bad relationship into a good one. You’re sad, and then you go, ‘Oh, thank God!’ It’s a bit like that."

Mr Mac And Me, set in 1914, neatly blends fiction with history as it tells the story of a young boy with a twisted foot and a talent for drawing, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Scottish artist and architect who did actually live in a seaside village during World War I. In fact, he stayed and drank at the pub that later became a house where Freud lived. It was this small fact that got her interested in his story, she says. “Someone told me many years ago, did you know Mackintosh came to this village a hundred years ago, and people were suspicious and they thought maybe he was a German spy? And I thought, wow, amazing story! But it had nothing to do with me. But when I discovered that he had stayed in the house I lived in, then I thought, hmm, maybe there is something in it for me."

Freud believes that most writers need an “in" into a story; for her, it is a personal connection with her material. “It doesn’t have to be autobiographical. But something that’s enough to make it feel like it’s my story. I didn’t feel like I could just go to Glasgow and start researching Mackintosh. I mean, why me? But when I think that the man who lived in my house designed the Glasgow School of Art, then I want to go and look at everything he did." Eventually, she was so fascinated with the man and his work that she looked for a way to insert a mini biography of Mackintosh into the novel even though the story spans just about a year.

If her own house was the personal connect she found for Mr Mac And Me, for Summer At Gaglow (1999) it was her family history. As the daughter of the artist Lucian Freud and the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud, she has roots in Germany, and both world wars had affected members of her family. The novel references a house that belonged to her father’s maternal family, which had an interesting history of its own during the Nazi era. And it was with this, her third novel, that she says she truly became a writer.

Summer At Gaglow required extensive travel and research, which was not easy in the pre-Google era. “I was going to little libraries and finding German manuscripts. I was writing to institutes in Germany to ask if there were any memoirs written during the First World War. People were sending me manuscripts, un-translated, in Gothic script," she says. “It was a nightmare. It was painful but it had to happen. Nothing shifted me forward like that book."

Her first two novels—Hideous Kinky (1992) and Peerless Flats (1993)—had been part-autobiographical, based on her own childhood and teenage years in Morocco and London, respectively. Interestingly, her last novel, Lucky Break (2011), was once again rooted in her personal experience. It spans 12 years in the lives of three actors who wait on tables while they struggle. When she was in her early 20s, struggling to become an actor, Freud too had worked as a waitress—she also worked as a court clerk, and made hats that she sold at a market stall. But all the time that she was working towards an acting career, she was also scribbling: “little thoughts, sketches, songs, poems". Soon she was attending a creative writing class, and then, setting up a company with another actor. They called themselves the Norfolk Broads and wrote their own material. “Not really plays. They were more like cabaret style. But they usually had a theme, like a romance or some kind of story. And I really enjoyed doing it."

It wasn’t until the other actor went off to do a major role that Freud turned to fiction. “I realized, actually what I missed most was writing with her. For a couple of years, I was kind of lovesick. ‘Oh, I lost my writing partner; I don’t know what to do,’" she laughs. “But one day, I sat down and I made a decision. Every single day, I would write for 3 hours. First thing in the morning." She did just that, and it led to Hideous Kinky. It was, as Freud puts it, the beginning of the rest of her life, for she had already discovered that writing gave her the confidence and happiness that acting had not.

“I was enjoying it (acting) hugely when I did it," she says. “But more and more, I was aware that it didn’t suit me when I wasn’t doing it. And when I wasn’t doing it, I felt like a victim. I felt powerless, because it was up to someone else to say when you can work. I was a creative person who was not able to do any creating."

A similar frustration has kept her from writing screenplays, although she did write a few, including the film adaptation of Hideous Kinky. She says she doesn’t mind the writing process, but decided to stop when the last project, for which she did 12 drafts, couldn’t be made into a film. “I find it too frustrating. I have such a busy life; also, being a mother, I couldn’t bear the waste of all my time and energy. It might be the best screenplay in the world but if you don’t have the money to make it…," she trails off.

Her next project is a script for a play. Despite her stage background, she had not written one, and was also a little apprehensive. She has had an idea for one for a while now and finally started work on it about a month back. In the meantime, she says, she’s letting ideas for novels drift in and out.

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