Book club webchat with Esther Freud
Esther Freud joined our bookclub discussion in March 2012 to discuss her novel Lucky Break. She also answered questions on her autobiographical and literary influences, drama school, and her own acting experiences.
Lucky Break spans more than 14 years and centres on the lives of three ambitious drama students who dream of stage success. Drawing on experiences from her years as an aspiring actress, Esther's novel takes the reader on a humorous journey through a strange world of pretence, disappointment and (occasionally) staggering success.
HandMadeTail: How autobiographical are your novels, and how much are the characters inspired by real-life people?
Esther: All my novels have autobiographical elements. My first, Hideous Kinky, was inspired by the adventure that my mother took me and my sister on to Morocco in the late '60s. I was only five at the time so I didn't remember enough to write a book about it, but I wove together anecdotes, memories, other peoples stories, and my own imagination.
With my third book, Summer at Gaglow, I decided to try something historical, but I used a few snippets of information my father had given me about his German-Jewish family in Berlin at the time of the First World War. I had so little to go on, but it was a starting point and from there I did my research. I need to feel that I can own the story in some way, rather than just writing a random story. It needs to feel personal to me.
Lucky Break has many autobiographical elements because from the age of 14 (when I decided I wanted to become an actress) to now, that world has been part of my life. I could have escaped it when I wrote my first novel and stopped acting, age 27, but that's when I met my husband who is an actor.
AbigailAdams: Was the Drama Arts Academy based on anywhere in particular? Also, was Nell your favourite character? She seems the most developed?
Esther: I went somewhere called Drama Centre - and it was pretty ruthless. I'd heard you could write your own character's scenes, so maybe I was already thinking of jumping ship and becoming a writer. But I did learn a lot there, too.
The thing is, Nell, Charlie and Dan are all teenagers in the first section, and they'd be a lot less interesting to write about once they became wise and settled. That's one of the reasons I love writing about young people. If they're like me anyway, they make so many mistakes. I do like Nell, but I feel loyal to them all.
ProfCoxWouldGetIt: It sounds like a truly bizarre drama academy - was any of that based on real life?
Esther: The drama school I went to was quite bizarre. Looking back quite unbelievably cruel, too. I don't think it would be allowed today, I hope not, but students were under constant threat of being thrown out and this made for a very tense atmosphere. I was in a year of 30, of which only 10 were kept for the third year. I wasn't one of them. It was devastating, and I found writing about Nell's anguish very therapeutic. For months afterwards I used to have a recurring dream that they'd made a mistake and actually meant to say that I could stay. But what I realised after six months or so, was that I was better off out of there, in fact life out of education, aged 20, was great fun. By the end of the year, when my other friends were still doing method exercises, I was playing an alien in Dr Who.
southlondonlady: At the end of the book it says that you interviewed lots of actors while you were writing it. Is everything in the book based on a real person or situation?
Esther: There were so many things I already knew without having to research, stories I'd collected up over the years and funny things I'd heard. But I did need advice on what Nell would wear to a premiere, for example, and how Charlie learnt how to do Reiki. And yes, everything in this book is based on something that really happened. Sadly, even the nasty encounter with the big director who assaults Nell.
Teaddict: Did you go to drama school and study method acting? How can you take it seriously?
Esther: I did go to drama school, and at the time I loved method acting. I laugh to think about it now, but I was incredibly serious - I really did believe I might turn into someone else, and see a make-believe 'Fourth Wall' as they call it when I looked out at the audience. A lot of actors get very carried away; I heard of one recently who'd made himself throw up just before he went on stage every night, because his character had to enter in a terrible state.
typicalvirgo: Do you think becoming a successful actor is down to innate ability, or can you learn the required skills at drama school? Is there an element of luck, ie being at the right place at the right time?
Esther: I think becoming a successful actor is really about so many things. Luck, hard work, professionalism, castability and talent. Not necessarily in that order.
AlmaMartyr: Do you think big name actors are always the talented ones, or just the ones that get the lucky break? Is there any point going to a prestigious drama school? Or would they be better off saving their money and jumping straight in?
Esther: I think Nell's success is a bit of a fairy tale - although the amazing thing is anything can happen. When I was writing it, I thought of how Kate Winslet was teased at school for being fat, and how she became such a star. You do need talent, and luck too, but luck will only take you so far. Talent is a mysterious ingredient and there's nothing you can do if you don't have it as an actor. It's an odd watchable quality.
But other things can influence the success of your career and they're often to do with looks. I had a friend who was sacked from a mini-series after an outbreak of acne and told she'd never work again. She did. But it dented her confidence hugely.
As for going to drama school, it's a great opportunity to explore a range of parts, and there are lots of schools that are supportive and encouraging. My husband went to RADA and had a very good time.
bigbadbarry: Are you Jemma? Acting school, then married an actor, children, writing... Also, how long do you spend gestating books and characters before you start to write? Are you somebody who is constantly making notes or does it spring fully formed to your mind all ready to go?
Esther: There is a lot of me in Jemma, but in all the characters, too. It was great fun writing about what it's like to be married to an actor. In our newborn baby photos it looks like I have three different husbands, one with blonde hair, one red with a moustache, and another with a perm - and I didn't even manage to get that into the book.
I am thinking of a sequel, but I don't think I'll give Jemma any more children. Someone else on here suggested she deserves an award-winning screenplay. So maybe I'll reward her with that.
I spend a lot of time thinking about a book before I write it. Sometimes I don't know I'm doing that, but I had the idea for a book set at a drama school years ago, and I told a friend who I was there with who said, 'please don't, it'll be too depressing'.
But then I started writing short stories based in the world of acting, and once I formed it into a novel I realised I could write a section at the drama school and it would work as part of the book.
areyoutheregoditsmemargaret: Has it been a deliberate choice to make each of your books quite different, or do you simply go where your imagination takes you? Also, do you think your publishers would prefer a more predictable output?
Esther: I like to think that my books are different, although I know I'm drawn to similar themes, family relationships, homes, etc. Although I think Lucky Break is very different in style. I've never felt any pressure from my publishers to write any particular kind of book, but I do often discuss my ideas with my editor.
HandMadeTail: Do your characters seem to live on after the novel ends?
Esther: My characters are real to me. I'm with them for a few years sometimes. It's worrying when they're more real to me than my own friends. People ask me sometimes if I get lonely writing, but I never do. It's so absorbing writing books. I do feel sorry for the first person I see at the school gates though. Sometimes I can't stop talking.
Fifide: I couldn't help wondering about Charlie's family (the glimpses were intriguing), and what would happen to her as her career seemed to fade a little. Once you have finished writing about a particular character such as Charlie, do you still think about them and imagine how their life carried on without you?
Esther: Usually I don't think so much about the life after book of my characters, but as soon as I started doing readings from this book everyone wanted to know what would happen to them next so I started thinking about a sequel. I might try it if I ever finish the book I'm writing now. It would be wonderful not to have to create the characters but just deal with the plot.
Often the biggest part of making a book work is finding out who my characters are. Charlie took a lot of work. It was important to me that I knew everything about her mixed race background, even if I didn't put it all in the book. It was important to Nell's character that she was estranged from her father, etc. The paperback is just coming out now so I'm thinking about them all again, while trying to stay in contact with the new people I'm working on.
calypso: You often write about youth. Do you find youth more interesting or fun to write about? Does it become more difficult to encapsulate youth as you get older?
Esther: I still find writing about young people easier, even now. I find it much more of a challenge to write about anyone over 30, not sure why. Children are my favourite. In my current book I have a woman, about 35, and as a reward a boy of 11.
Ohdearwhatnow: Why did you decide to leave Dan's story on a cliffhanger while finishing Nell's story on a high? The 'pram in the hall' analogy seems to apply as far as Dan is concerned as his career seems to suffer as a result of all his children. Does this reflect your own experience of trying to work in a creative industry while looking after three children?
Esther: I didn't want to round the book up too perfectly. The thing about these characters, and their careers, is there is no end, and actors never really know when they've 'made it'. We can all think of so many actors who were doing brilliantly a few years ago and now we never hear of them. So Dan isn't sure what will happen next, and Nell seems assured of success, but it's not necessarily the case.
I'm not sure if Dan's career suffers as a result of so many children. He's pretty determined for that not to get in his way. And anyone's life is turned upside down after twins, or so I'm told. In some ways, Dan's stable relationship with Jemma gives him confidence when he needs it. So few actors have stable relationships when they're young. Too much choice!
MayCanary: Is Charlie's transformation supposed to be taken at face value? It seemed a bit unlikely and out of character to me.
Esther: I do think people change. Charlie's brush with failure is a real wake-up call to her, and I think when she stops thinking so much about herself she becomes a lot happier and nicer.
calypso: Has there been any talk about a film yet? What did you think of the Hideous Kinky adaptation?
Esther: There has been talk about a television series, but I'm not sure if that is going to happen. Quite a few of my books have been optioned for television or film, but they haven't been made. I feel so lucky that Kate Winslet happened to have read Hideous Kinky and loved it and wanted to play the mother.
yUMMYmUMMYb: I had really clear pictures in my mind of each character. Who would you cast in a film to play them, especially Nell and Dan?
Esther: I had images of the characters in my head but not really of actors who would play them. Dan, physically, was based on someone I was at drama school with, and Nell was a mixture of people, although I feel I'd know her if I saw her in the street. I don't like to describe my characters in too much physical detail, as that always irritates me as a reader. It's nice to imagine them for myself.
valiumpoptarts: A quick check on Wikipedia tells me you have three children. How do you manage to get your writing done? I have one son and most days I am pleased if I manage just to get something written on Twitter.
Esther: Firstly, I don't do Twitter. No time. Before I had kids I wrote in the mornings for three hours, so when I had my first one, I got some help and carried on. I was knackered, but it was what I really wanted to do. Now I have three, even though the first two are older, there feels even less time to write, so my books take longer. But I still stick to those three hours, and try and enjoy the holidays too.
Katn: Have you been to the Lucien Freud exhibition yet, and what did you make of it? What's it like seeing your dad's work exhibited? Do you have a favourite painting?
Esther: It was very emotional going to the exhibition. I particularly love the painting of my sister and me lying on a sofa. We had such fun, the three of us, while he was painting that.
TillyBookClub: Esther, thank you so much for coming on tonight. You have given such detailed, personal and thoughtful answers. Please do write that sequel... and then come back to talk about it with us. And meanwhile, we'll be keeping our eyes peeled for the television/film version.