Esther Freud: 'I want to live in every house'

Out of the shadow of a famous family, Esther Freud grew into a novelist of rare grace and insight. She tells Christina Patterson about the search for home. Portrait by Daniele Roberts

Esther Freud is obsessed by houses. As a child, she would gaze at the lit-up windows of other people's houses and peer in at the figures behind, wondering what it was like to have a home. Even today, she hasn't been able to stop herself from taking a quick look. "Just now I parked my car down there," she announces with an impish grin, "and thought, 'That would be a good place to live!' I just can't stop looking and thinking, 'I want to live in every house.' "

Her peripatetic past is no secret. She made no attempt to hide the fact that her first novel, Hideous Kinky, about two little girls travelling around Morocco with their beautiful, bohemian mother, was heavily autobiographical. Written from the point of view of the five-year-old younger sister, it is an enchanting portrayal of childhood, made into an equally enchanting film starring Kate Winslet. It is easy to see the gamine Esther - tiny, whippet-thin and with huge, rather mesmerising, green eyes - as a waif and stray. But nowadays she has all the accoutrements of the successful grown-up. She has published four acclaimed novels, lives in Hampstead with the actor David Morrissey, and has two children, an ambition she has held since the age of three.

Today we are sitting in a café in Belsize Park to talk about her new novel, The Sea House (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99). Yes, houses do feature prominently, but so do an awful lot of other things. Like her third novel, Gaglow, it alternates between a contemporary present and a past which draws on her own family's European history.

In Gaglow, the past was that of a prosperous German-Jewish family during the First World War and the present that of a pregnant actress posing for her father's latest painting. It was a conscious attempt to get away from the themes - of bewildered childhood, chronic anxiety, lack of parental direction - that had dominated her first two novels. It does not take a genius, however, to observe the autobiographical parallels.

With The Sea House, says Freud, she had "no conscious thoughts" about trying to do something different. "I had lots of good ideas," she declares, "and I couldn't wait to get them down. I think that's probably why it was so much more pleasurable to write."

"I found Gaglow incredibly difficult to write," she adds. "I didn't know how to do research and I had absolutely no material at my fingertips apart from one document ... Then I finished it and people started to send me memoirs and my father [the painter Lucian Freud] gave me this bag of letters." The letters were from Lucian's own father, the architect Ernst Freud: passionate, romantic, jealous, and at times angry f letters to his wife. The memoirs were by German-Jewish émigrés. One was by Richard Samson, who died in a bedsit in Herne Hill. "He had drawn all these maps of his childhood home," Freud explains, "and he talks about it so lovingly and he describes his mother's linen cupboard with everything tied with blue and pink ribbons ..."

And then, in Walberswick, the village in Suffolk where Freud and her family have a second home, she was shown a scroll, a huge picture incorporating all the houses in the village: "I thought, 'All of these things have to come together,' and I thought the biggest challenge wasn't how to get the information, it was how to use it and how to make it work for me ... Probably the first year's work was deciding who was making the scroll ... When I decided to make him a Jewish émigré then I could see how I could use all the things I was interested in. It was," she declares, with a flash of those green eyes, "very exciting!"

The resulting novel is broader in its scope than its predecessors. Her last novel, The Wild, which told the story of two single-parent families under one roof, is like a perfect miniature. It is, as William Sutcliffe said in the Independent on Sunday, "one of the very few great contemporary novels about childhood". The Sea House not only weaves a broad range of characters from different time-frames, but explores some very big themes. In addition to the safety of the house, its solidity as a bulwark against loss, there's art, architecture, psychoanalysis and the inadequacies of our communication with those we love. There is also, of course, the sea, that vast expanse that can be both soothing and destructive.

Lily arrives at the Suffolk village of Steerborough to do a research project on the architect Klaus Lehmann. Her architect boyfriend, Nick, has rescued her from life as a waitress and persuaded her to become an architect herself. Lily finds, however, that she is more caught up in the drama of Lehmann's relationship with his wife, revealed in letters, than details of his work.

Reading about their passionate, entangled lives, and Lehmann's fierce desire to know his wife's every fleeting thought, she is filled with yearning for something other than the cool, non-committal phone calls she has with Nick. Down the road, 50 years earlier, an amateur artist has arrived in the village to stay with his dead sister's best friend. Deaf, and painfully shy, he spends his time painting that scroll. He falls in love with Lehmann's wife, Elsa, and they spend three days in the Sea House. It turns out, literally, to be the calm before the storm.

It's hard to know how Freud packs so much into a narrative that never loses its taut precision, its subtlety or grace. The juxtaposition of the different threads creates echoes - of loss, exile and the desire for love - that resound throughout the stories. There's the pain of the past, but also the pain of a present where men and women are grappling with the fear of rejection.

Lily is biting back her disappointment at Nick's perceived coldness but, as Freud points out in his defence, it was she who "took herself away to the country, with no mobile phone or e-mail". I have been unable to resist observing that her male characters are cool, arrogant, demanding or simply absent. "I don't set out to write man-bad, woman-good," Freud sighs. "I suppose," she adds, furrowing her brow in a way that's extremely endearing, "growing up with a single mother and seeing her adventures in that department there's no doubt that you start to weave stories and it becomes one of the things that interests you."

The book is dedicated to her father, a major source of inspiration who also, Freud says, "set the precedent" for using his life in art. "I always felt that was an extremely valid way to be creative," she explains. "Each book, I've really said to the people involved, 'I hope you don't mind, I'm really using you in this,' and he's always said, 'How could you think I could mind?' All he minds is that the book is good." Her mother is also supportive, but there have been some "rocky moments". She was "fine" about Hideous Kinky, but when the reviews started saying that " 'no one except a deranged hippie would have dragged her children through Africa', well, she was devastated".

If there was ever any mother-daughter acrimony, it is clearly in the past: "My mother always wanted me to do something creative. She wanted me to go out and join the circus and I disappointed her in that, but at least I'm out there on the literary circuit. But she's really proud and we have such a close relationship and it's made us closer... She really loves this one!" she announces with a flush of pleasure. "Also," Freud adds, not unaware of the causal link, "she's not in it. It is, obviously, a huge pleasure for her to read a book in which she doesn't appear."

Biography

Esther Freud - great-granddaughter of Sigmund, daughter of Lucian and sister of (fashion designer) Bella - was born in London in 1963. She lived in Morocco from age four to six, then moved to Sussex, where she spent 10 years. When she was 16 the family moved to London, where she studied drama. After various writing courses at the City Lit, she "did that thing of sitting down every day" and wrote Hideous Kinky (1992), which was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and made into a film starring Kate Winslet. Peerless Flats appeared in 1993, when she was named one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists. Her other novels are Gaglow (1997), shortlisted for the Jewish Quarterly Prize, and The Wild (2000), which she is currently adapting for film. Her new novel, The Sea House (Hamish Hamilton), is published this week. Esther Freud divides her time between London and Suffolk. She lives with the actor David Morrissey and their two children.

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