Esther Freud / I realised the book I'd been writing for 18 months was awful
Esther Freud: 'I realised the book I'd been writing for 18 months was awful'
The author of Hideous Kinky on her childhood memories of watching her father, Lucian Freud, paint, and how abandoning one novel led to another, about the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Interview by Alice O'Keeffe
The Observer, Sunday 31 August 2014
Esther Freud at Edinburgh's international book festival earlier this month Photograph: Murdo Macleod
Esther Freud was born in London in 1963. Her first novel, Hideous Kinky (1992), was made into a film starring Kate Winslet. After publishing her second, Peerless Flats (1993), she was named one of Granta's best young British novelists. She has since written six novels, including Love Falls and Lucky Break, and teaches creative writing at the Faber Academy.
Your new novel, Mr Mac and Me, is about Charles Rennie Mackintosh's stay in Walberswick, Suffolk, during the great war, which ended in disaster when locals mistook him for a spy. What drew you to this material?
Someone told me about Mackintosh in Suffolk about 10 years ago, saying it was a good story. I thought it was a good story, but that it wasn't my story. In the end, I slowly found my way into it in the process of writing another book. There came a moment – one of life's worst, and best, moments – when I realised that everything I had been working on for the last year and a half was awful. It was a horrible realisation at the time, but it ended up leading me to this book.
What was the book you abandoned?
It was a ghost story, set in the present day, in which the ghost very occasionally chirped up with flashbacks from the past. Mackintosh was mentioned a couple of times but he was a very minor character.
Sitting down at your desk every day is an appointment with doubt; that is the nature of writing. But eventually I just had to admit that it wasn't working; there just wasn't enough happening to keep me interested. The flashbacks were sharper and more mysterious than the present day.
So I started researching the Mackintosh story and realised in the process that the present-day part had been a safety net of things I know. Once I took that away, the book began to come alive.
Was rewriting a decision you reached yourself or did you give the draft to somebody else to read?
I don't show much of my work in progress to others. I know whether it's working or not; somebody else's opinion is not going to change that.
Your earlier books clearly drew on autobiographical material. Have you consciously moved away from that?
Not consciously, no. Even with the earlier books I have always used material that was not autobiographical – there were elements of real life that I just didn't know how to make into a novel, and other elements that I invented. The key is to use just enough of what you do know alongside a little bit of what you don't.
I wondered whether Mackintosh's quasi-paternal relationship with your young narrator, Thomas Maggs, drew on your relationship with your father [the painter Lucian Freud].
It's funny, I didn't even think about that until my publisher pointed out that the book describes how an artist works through the eyes of a child. And that was exactly my experience with my father; I slowly came to understand the artistic process through watching him paint. I'd have these little realisations like: oh, it's going to take years! Or, as it says about Mackintosh in the book, that he was showing the insides of something – he hadn't just abandoned it halfway through. I enjoyed trying to follow his thought process.
Did you find the process of researching the book inspiring?
I always think that I hate research, but I did enjoy this one. As well as going to Glasgow, I read memoirs of Suffolk around the start of the 20th century, including one called Can Your Mother Skin a Rabbit?: apparently, if she couldn't, you'd probably go hungry.
Suffolk was very poor. People worked the land and the sea, making salt and sails and rope. They were fully engaged with the business of life. Life was tough, and we shouldn't be too nostalgic, but it was rewarding in the pride people took in their way of life.
At what point in the process were you when fire ripped through Mackintosh's masterwork , the Glasgow School of Art, in May?
I heard the news on the last day of checking the proofs. The timing did feel extraordinary. I felt so connected to him and so aware that he had had enough bad luck already. On the other hand, I'm hugely grateful that I got to see it so many times over the last year, and also that so much of the structure was saved by the amazing fire service.