Susie Boyt: Reasons to be cheerful
Susie Boyt's new novel deals with love, death and marriage guidance. She talks to Christie Hickman about stiff upper lips and her psychoanalytic legacy
Friday 09 July 2004
Three years ago, shortly after the publication of Susie Boyt's third novel,
The Last Hope of Girls, she was invited to read with a group of authors at a benefit evening for Amnesty International. The venue was the old Players Theatre beneath the Arches at Charing Cross - a location well known to Boyt, who had been enjoying its pastiche Victorian music hall evenings since childhood and even spent her hen night there. Thrilled to be reading at one of her favourite places, she asked the audience if they'd mind if she sang a song first. Nobody did, and a chorus of Kate Carney's "Are We to Part Like This, Bill?" was greeted with rapturous applause.
Three years ago, shortly after the publication of Susie Boyt's third novel, The Last Hope of Girls, she was invited to read with a group of authors at a benefit evening for Amnesty International. The venue was the old Players Theatre beneath the Arches at Charing Cross - a location well known to Boyt, who had been enjoying its pastiche Victorian music hall evenings since childhood and even spent her hen night there. Thrilled to be reading at one of her favourite places, she asked the audience if they'd mind if she sang a song first. Nobody did, and a chorus of Kate Carney's "Are We to Part Like This, Bill?" was greeted with rapturous applause.
"Did it seem very eccentric?" Boyt asks as we order coffee in a panoramic hotel bar in central London. Wonderfully eccentric, I tell her, which is why everyone loved it, and when I ask her to remind me of the lyrics, she recites them without missing a beat.
This other side of Boyt is not one she usually demonstrates on casual acquaintance, though it is very much a part of her personality. A conversation with Boyt - who is tall, stylish and softly spoken - is like navigating a rather quirky voyage around the same parallel universe that permeates her writing. It is a fresh and wholly idiosyncratic take on life.
Boyt was stagestruck from a very early age, and loved to dance and sing, although she always worked hard at school, and became just as passionate about writing. She wrote a small collection of poems when she was nine and stories inspired by the books of Noel Streatfeild, whom she once phoned impulsively to tell her how much she loved Ballet Shoes. Boyt laughs as she remembers: "She answered the phone and announced herself as: 'Miss Street-field'."
In the light of her literary acclaim, Boyt worries that this other side of her might appear frivolous, but the truth is that it adds an appealing and whimsical dimension to the darker and more painful elements of her books. Her love of music hall first appeared in her debut novel, The Normal Man (1995), a story about food, love and bereavement, but which turns - like all her work - on an unshakeable optimism about life.
Now, almost 10 years later, Boyt - who has since married the film producer Tom Astor, with whom she has a three-year-old daughter - has cast aside the agony and innocence of the young womanhood she explored in her three previous novels to examine the world from a different perspective.
The heroine of her new novel, Only Human (Review, £16.99), is 42-year-old Marjorie Hemming, a marriage-guidance counsellor with a mission to save marriages, no matter how unsuitable the pairing. Marjorie's own husband was killed just a few months after the birth of their daughter, May. Now, 17 years later, her carefully structured life starts to unravel when her adored daughter unexpectedly leaves home.
Again, bereavement features as a cornerstone for heroic motivation. Although Boyt insists that the book's core is the intense relationship between Marjorie and May, bereavement is the catalyst for several complex themes.
Marjorie is the first of Boyt's heroines who has not been a troubled adolescent. Nevertheless, she is a well-meaning, but extremely troubled, adult. Stoicism in the face of adversity is common to all of Boyt's heroines. In fact, "only human" could be a Boytian metaphor for "mustn't grumble". Whereas Marjorie could so easily have slipped into the margins of life, Boyt hauls her back. She feels a moral responsibility to her characters and cites the work of Anne Tyler.
"Most of Anne Tyler's books are about people who fall to bits in order to build themselves up," she says. "I can relate to that in terms of my own writing, and I like the way she makes that almost the only authentic way to live."
There is a lot of moral scrutiny in Boyt's writing but, as she says, "I'm very interested in absolutely everything to do with the way people handle their feelings, and so I suppose that all my books have investigated whether there is some way of doing that that works better than others. I was hypersensitive as a child, and from an early age it seemed to me that if you could learn to handle your feelings, you were laughing."
Boyt's own pedigree is impeccably haute bohème. She is the youngest of five children born to the painter Lucian Freud and his prize-winning Slade pupil, Suzy Boyt. They never lived together, and though Freud was a frequent visitor to the house, his relationships with Susie and her siblings only really evolved when he started painting them.
Susie first sat for him when she was 17, and found the experience life-enhancing. "It was quite intense and personal, but businesslike as well. We discovered we had quite a lot in common. We'd talk about things we were interested in, like books and music and music halls, and we sang a bit." It is no coincidence that lost or absent fathers figure rather prominently in her books.
Boyt may have suffered from unwanted media intrusion in the past because of her father, but the Freud legacy is indelibly woven into her psyche. She admits to being rather proud of her great-grandfather, Sigmund. "It does feel a bit like the family business, in a way, and occasionally I do think I'd like to train as a psychoanalyst, if it wasn't for the fact that it takes seven years."
She has always had a talent for sorting out other people's problems. Soon after she married Astor, she was offered the opportunity to train and work as a bereavement counsellor. She accepted, partly because she remembered a brilliant counsellor who helped her over the death of a close friend while she was in her first year at Oxford. The experience proved invaluable for Only Human: "I certainly wouldn't have had the confidence to write about any sort of counselling without it."
After Oxford, Boyt lived alone in London, finishing her first novel and supporting her writing by taking part-time jobs. Following the publication of The Normal Man, she did a masters degree in Anglo-American Literary Relations at UCL, where she spent most of the time working on Henry James and the poet John Berryman. "It just felt like spending time with my favourite people." She also began work on her second novel, The Characters of Love (1996), which explored some of the feelings of alienation she had experienced at Oxford.
Did writing feel like an escape during this period? "No," she replies, "it felt like work and not at all therapeutic. Now, it actually feels quite investigative. Sometimes I think it's a way of working out what would have happened if I'd arranged things differently in my life, and in that way, it's more exploratory... One thing that interests me deeply is the question of how can one be good and live fully in the world without taking on all or any of the taint that the word 'worldly' carries? It's something that all my books have investigated.
"I don't know if it's because when I was younger I kept myself quite aloof," she adds. "I think I felt that if you stepped fully into the world, awful things could happen or you could become someone you didn't want to be, and I think that's something that's stayed with me."
Being the youngest of five wasn't always easy, though she is very close to her mother and siblings, as well as to the extensive Freud clan. "It was a little bit daunting, feeling that there were a lot of strong characters established in the family already, and I didn't want to be a pale imitation. It took me a long time to work out how I could 'count', rather than just be a sort of PS at the end of a long list of names.
"I think I had a slight feeling when I was growing up - which might have come from my mother - that it was a good thing to be entertaining as a way of getting on with people. I decided when I was 10 that I wanted to go to the Italia Conti stage school and had a fight with my mum over it, who very sensibly said that I couldn't. But that didn't stop me walking round Green Park singing, 'Give us the old razzle-dazzle...' hoping that some theatrical entrepreneur would be passing and offer me the lead in Annie."
She is far from a PS now. Although her elder sister, Rose, and half-sister, Esther Freud, are also novelists, Boyt has forged a unique voice in a literary marketplace where "3 for 2" offers and a mention on Richard and Judy have become the sine qua non of an author's career. A fourth novel is in the planning stage. "It's going to be a psychological drama set in a children's nursery school," she says earnestly, before the performer in her pops up again. "I'm saying: " The Nanny Diaries meets The Turn of the Screw."
Biography: SUSIE BOYT
Susie Boyt was born in London in 1969, the youngest daughter of the painter Lucian Freud and Suzy Boyt. She read English at St Catherine's College, Oxford, which she describes as a "mixed experience". After university, she held down several part-time jobs while she completed her first novel, The Normal Man (1995). Her second, The Characters of Love, published a year later, was written while she was studying for an MA in Anglo-American Literary Relations. While researching her third book, The Last Hope of Girls, she trained as a bereavement counsellor. It was published in 2001,and shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys prize. Her new novel, Only Human, is published by Review. She lives in London with her husband, Tom Astor, and their three-year old daughter, Mary.
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