Lynn Freed Interviewed by Thomas Cooney, Mary Magazine

Thomas Cooney: How is the tennis game?

Lynn Freed: Appalling, partly, I think, because I don’t care who wins. Same goes for Scrabble, Monopoly, spectator sports of any kind, and much else.

TC: The Mirror was the first book of yours I read. As others had, I too succumbed to the narrative voice that was so strong, so determined, that it wasn’t until halfway through the novel that I realized that the author was really writing herself into new territory. By which I mean, here is a female character, making her way in the world circa 1920, still a teenager, and the author is not going to get in her way by reducing her to just a victim or making society force her to pay for her drive. It must have been liberating to create a character with such abandon.

LF: Liberating for me? If so, from what? The presumption of Literature as Personal Therapy is unworthy. Also, might I add, “teenagers” then were not teenagers now. At seventeen, a woman was a woman.

TC: Did you ever imagine that The Mirror would take off the way that it did? By “take off” I mean to say that, for many, The Mirror is the book one hands to a student when asked, “What do you mean by voice?”

LF: Take off? Really? Well, I suppose, looking back on it, it took off, but in the manner of a 1950’s prop plane—a long, long run along the ground before becoming airborne, and then not exactly to 35,000’. I never imagine any book I’m writing will reach print, let alone “take off.” I seem to suffer the opposite of what most writers are lucky enough to enjoy: hope. I have no hope except in tiny bursts, soon dissipated. Mostly I’m in despair. So no, I had no idea that that book would “take off.” I was immensely surprised and gratified when it delighted the editor to whom it was submitted. And I’m still delighted to have it in print. When I reread it, which I rarely do, I can’t remember writing it at all.

TC: Towards the end of the novel Agnes says: “We were born into a vale of tears and we would go out old and sick and naked if we were lucky. And meantime, there was happiness to be had only in moments, and those came not by wishing and thinking, but by knowing them when you found them.” You are such a quotable writer. But what is rare for me as a reader is to find an author whose voice is always her own, but is also loaned out to the character of the story. When you are deeply entrenched in the throes of writing, do you find that your characters move in with you? Are they there to share your exasperation in line at the post office, the bank, on hold with the cell phone provider? And does this make you grow fonder of them? Or do you just turn them off at the end of a writing session the way one would a light?

LF: In the best of all possible fictional worlds, I move in with the characters, I inhabit them; in the worst, I’m staring in through the window, hoping for something to happen. Somewhere in the middle most fiction lingers, at least in the writing. With The Mirror, the voice of the narrator—the character of the narrator if you will—pulled me through the story. When I shut down for the day, I put her to sleep; when I switched on the next, there she was again. Agnes, c’est moi.

TC: Your novel House of Women was released in early 2002, in the shadows of 9/11, and despite some glowing reviews, it suffered from the times. Americans were looking for sentimentality and comfort, and House of Women is not the book for that. However, I just reread it and was really astounded by how searing it is. I can think of few books—Graham Greene’s The Quiet American is one—that in so few pages asks so much of the reader. There are no easy answers to all the questions it poses regarding ownership, cruelty, sexuality, and death. There is even a fantastic monkey. And then between each line is this gorgeous sense of love between women that has been almost a hallmark of yours since Home Ground. And to top if all off, there is a sense of the narrative taking place in a time of no era, even if one could do the math and place the book in the late 60s or the 70s. Can you go back to the writing of this and talk about where this darkness came from?

LF: This is a good question, but very hard to answer. In fact, it’s not something I’ve ever thought about until now. And it’s hard to answer without seeming to inflate one’s importance as a writer. So saying, I think that, when things are going well, I descend rather naturally to the dark anaerobic heart of things. When I’m not writing properly I’m stuck on the surface, as if I’m wearing water wings. It’s awful. There are metaphors I could invoke, but they mightn’t be appropriate. That novel came out of my long fascination with the Demeter and Persephone myth. It took me a while to find out how to make it work for me in fiction.

TC: You have often commented that your novel Home Ground is where you found your narrative voice. By that, do you mean you found the vessel through which Lynn Freed can share her sense of, for lack of a better word, “morality?” I ask this because, here in the States in the late 1980s early 1990s academia seemed to only want polemics in fiction. Greene and Hemingway were démodé; politics in fiction had to be transparent and easy.

LF: To my amazement, there was not one critic unsophisticated enough to object on this score. And so if it discomfits those wanting a message from fiction to know that most South Africans, even so-called liberals, didn’t (and don’t) give much thought to politics beyond the effect it is likely to have on their daily lives and futures, so be it. As to morality in fiction, what are you thinking? Or are you not thinking? All art is amoral. I refuse to answer stupid questions. (Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

TC: Don’t make me challenge you to a tennis duel.

LF: Now, don’t sulk. And don’t think you’re going to get around it by slamming balls over the net. Back to the subject: the so-called morality of fiction—a subject in which, by the way, I have little interest—has nothing at all to do with finding or not finding one’s voice. (And please note: I do not use the term “narrative voice,” which is idiotic. As opposed to what?) Questions of race and class are, in fact, central to Home Ground, although it is decidedly not a political novel. I detest political or “protest” novels. Apart from everything else, including the fact that trying to teach or persuade the reader is a crime, they tend to have the opposite of the intended effect.

TC: You received a lot of attention and flack for your book of essays, Reading, Writing, and Leaving Home, and perhaps mostly for your essay on the enterprise of the Creative Writing degree programs, “Doing Time.” I was struck by how many in the academic and publishing field claimed that Freed was biting the hand that feeds her. Does it surprise you how many people misread that essay if they feel that is the summation? Or are we an industry full of fakes? (There is a book out there now wherein a French philosopher guides us on how to not read books but get away with it as if we had.) In another essay in the collection, you yourself write: “The page will reveal the fake even when the writer is moving herself to tears.”

LF: I wasn’t the least surprised by the reaction to that essay; I predicted it. I told the editor who asked me to write it, “You’re asking me to put a rope around my neck.” Still, if I’m going to write a thing, I’m going to try to tell the truth, at least as I know it. I did, by the way, receive far more praise than blame for that essay, dozens of letters and emails from writers and teachers, and a surprising number from students, my own and others’. This I considered quite brave. As to the book itself, it is in use as a text in any number of universities—not only in their writing programs, but also in acting departments. And friends’ mothers like it, which I always take as the highest praise. The book friends’ mothers like best is The Mirror, a novel about a fierce mother. So there.

TC: Your first published novel was called Heart Change and then re-titled Friends of the Family. This brings up the question about titles. I confess to never really cottoning to your titles, with the exception of The Curse of the Appropriate Man. Can you run us through your books and tell us which were titled by you and which were not?

LF: My title for Heart Change was Second Opinion, which New American Library thought sounded like a medical text. After much binding in the marsh, I was driven to the wall and I agreed to Heart Change which, in my accent, somehow sounds like Hard Change to Americans, and which (the title) I detested from the start. When it came to be republished I came up with Friends of the Family, which is about as innocuous a title as one can think of. I’m useless on titles.The history of the title for The Bungalow is detailed in one of my essays, “False Starts.” Home Ground, which I love, was there before I began writing: although there are what seem like dozens of Home Grounds out there (titles are not subject to copyright). Home Ground, the metaphor, is at the heart of the book. The Mirror was first a short story by that title, apt I thought. And House of Women I can’t remember coming up with. Reading, Writing and Leaving Home was mine, adored by the editor, who added the subtitle. But, in general, I’d be a failure on Madison Avenue, or whatever is the contemporary equivalent as a locus for the advertising industry; I can’t think up titles and don’t tend to buy books by them, or by their covers. In this I am, I know, in the minority. The only book I ever remember buying because of its title was Fear of Flying, which I thought was about just that, even though I don’t fear flying myself. I was entirely delighted with what I found. But that was the 70s.

TC: I understand you are just putting the finishing touches on a new novel, your first in seven years. Can you talk a bit about this novel along the lines of its essence? Does it have a working title(s)?

LF: Finishing touches? Agh, agh, I only wish. The fact is that writing is more like composing (music) than it is like painting. And so what I’m doing is more like having to change the key, or the pitch of one’s voice here or there, and then having to alter everything theretofore and thereafter in accordance with that. Frankly, I don’t know what I’m doing. (Mind you, I’ve never known what I’m doing; so all this palavering is worth the air it’s breathed into. Or the ether, as the case may be.) As to “essence,” I have no idea what that is in a literary sense. The novel is called The Servants’ Quarters and concerns the relationship between a young Jewish girl and a burned, disfigured RAF pilot. It takes place in South Africa.

TC: What do you want most from travel?

LF: Romance.

TC: What do you want most from a book?

LF: Same.

TC: Lynn Freed’s top three cities are?

LF: Karachi. Johannesburg. Gaza City.

TC: You have never been one to “hold back,” and so false modesty will not be permitted in answering this last question. I said earlier that you are an endlessly quotable writer. I am a reader who loves great lines. In your story collection, The Curse of the Appropriate Man, you write: “There is love and there is desire, I thought, and for all the world they look the same until the desire is spent.” Did you know (as a writer sometimes does) how fantastic that sentence was when it was written? And if not, can you share one of your favorite sentences?

LF: I must admit that I never seem to know it’s a good line until it’s written. And, when it is, I’m glad. But then in come the doubts. Really, I’m delighted to be considered quotable, but, whenever I receive a compliment like yours, I begin to feel the fraud, e.g., was that a fluke? Will I ever be able to do it again? Is everything I’m writing now just rubbish? And the answers are probably yes, no, yes.