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

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'