x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Esther Freud: how I went from the stage to the page

The author Esther Freud talks about her new novel, Lucky Break.

Esther Freud remembers the day on which she was asked to leave drama school: she is still bothered that she did not protest. Still a teenager at the time, she was one of 20 in a class of 30 told they did not have the necessary talent.

"Now I'm older and wiser, I wonder if it wasn't a bit of a scam," says Freud. "But what is painful to look back on is that none of us dared to say, 'Hold on, we've paid for this course and we're not getting our money's worth.' And I've realised that it's because when you're a young actress, in your bones there's always this feeling that perhaps you really aren't any good, and that's why you're being treated this way. It means you are intensely vulnerable.

"So instead, we just faded away. It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. I left, got my Equity [union] card, and found that the world of acting was nothing like they'd told me at the school. But of course, it's still hard: all that waiting for the phone to ring."

Freud was an actress for the next six years before she sat down to write an early draft of the novel that would be her 1991 debut, Hideous Kinky. She drew on that previous career for her seventh novel, Lucky Break, released in paperback earlier this year, which follows a cast of aspiring young actors from drama school in the early 1990s and across the decade that follows: one full of ambition, disappointment, love, heartbreak, failure and, occasionally, unimagined success. Plenty, then, around which to weave a compelling plot; but Lucky Break is also full of a gentle empathy for its young protagonists, and full, too, of affection for a world to which Freud is still connected: her husband is the British actor David Morrissey and they have three children.

No wonder Freud says she wanted to move beyond the easy ridicule that is characteristic of most fiction about actors. When it comes to her characters - the insecure, overweight Nell, glamorous Charlie, thrusting Dan and headstrong Jemma - Freud wanted something more.

"Most novelists use actors just as a bit-part, for some humour: so the actor is vain, selfish, self-obsessed. That can work, but I wanted to show that there are all kinds of actors. And that acting is a really tough life choice.

"It becomes such a fine balance, because I know so much about that world and how ludicrous it can be, and how funny. But I wanted to show that from the inside, so that we're not simply laughing at these people. Really, it's a novel about a group of people finding out who they are and what they want to be as they grow up."

It was after drama school that Freud began to experiment with fiction, and during a period of unemployment - "after a particularly gruesome production" - that she began to write her first novel. Freud, great-granddaughter of Sigmund, is one of more than a dozen children fathered by the late British painter Lucian Freud, who died this summer at 88. She grew to know her father in her teenage years, when she was his subject.

"I sat for him for the first time when I was 16," Freud told The Times in 2004. "That's how I got to know him. We'd never lived in the same city before."

Freud drew on her peripatetic, bohemian childhood for Hideous Kinky, which presented a young mother's quest for spiritual fulfilment in Morocco as seen through the eyes of her daughter.

Hideous Kinky brought her to greater public attention in 1998 when it was made into a film starring Kate Winslet. Subsequent fiction, including 2007's Love Falls, has also orbited around childhood and adolescence, making Freud something of a literary specialist.

"I find myself drawn to writing about young people," she says. "I don't know why, but I just feel that I automatically understand how it is to be under 25. I find it much harder to write about adults, with their knowledge and disappointment."

Lucky Break pays such close, honest attention to its characters that London's young, struggling actors will surely recognise something of themselves in its pages. They might catch a glimpse of their future, too.

"Being young is hard: you are always wondering, 'Is my life going to come to anything?' A year goes by, and you think, 'Why haven't I done this yet, why haven't I done that?' But perhaps if I hadn't had those thoughts, my life really wouldn't have come to anything. I certainly had a determination to find something that made me happy. I was the opposite of resigned, if you know what I mean."