Esther Freud: "The whole of my adult life I've either been an actress or lived with an actor"

Esther Freud: "The whole of my adult life I've either been an actress or lived with an actor"

Esther Freud's seventh novel Lucky Break (Bloomsbury, April) is set in the world of acting and follows a group of aspiring actors at drama school and then out into the real world. It's a world Freud knows intimately, she trained and worked as an actress before becoming a novelist.

Lucky Break opens in 1992 on the first day at Drama Arts for a gaggle of students, among them plump, insecure Nell, glamorous, confident Charlie and quietly ambitious Dan.

When we meet at her publisher's offices Freud, petite with elfin features and huge green eyes, explains Lucky Break evolved very differently from her earlier novels, beginning as a couple of short stories with a number of characters— indeed at one point she wondered if the book might be a book of short stories rather than a novel— before she decided to focus on the lives of its three main characters.

When Nell, Charlie and Dan leave Drama Arts— Freud says she could have set the whole novel in the drama school, so rich was her material, but she "didn't want to be in the head of an 18-year-old for the whole book" — the struggle to find acting work, and that elusive "lucky break", is more challenging than they ever expected. Freud says: "The whole of my adult life I've either been an actress or lived with an actor [she is married to David Morrissey] so I think I always thought that there would be a point where 'this is it' but now I realise that will never happen. [There] will never be 'it' because fortunes can change from day to day."

It's a lesson her characters discover for themselves, sometimes painfully, over the course of the novel.

Lucky Break draws on Freud's own experiences, and all her novels have been autobiographical to some extent. She explains: "I'm working from things that interest me and they're usually things that somehow connect with my life, things that have happened to me... I think probably a lot of writers are like that but I feel that it's slightly unfashionable to admit it— as if you're meant to say 'I have this huge imagination, please admire me for it'. I think you have to have just as much of an imagination to turn things that happened into stories because obviously they aren't a perfect story, ever."

I am intrigued by Freud's change of career— on the surface it seems that acting in front of an audience and the solitary experience of writing novels are polar opposites, but Freud demurs. "What I really like to do is tell stories, and they [writing and acting] are both just different ways of doing that. When I thought about acting I never thought about telling jokes, doing accents, dancing on the table: I thought about telling stories."

Long-held ambition

Freud remembers wanting to be an actress from the age of 12 when she saw a production of 'The Playboy of the Western World' — "I thought, yes, I want to be on that stage with those people... I decided from that exact moment that's what I was going to do." Keen to avoid university "going on writing essays which seemed like the most boring thing in the world" — she studied at the Drama Centre in London.

It was here that she had her first taste of "truly creative writing". In preparation for playing Kath in "Entertaining Mr Sloane" she wrote her character's back story and says "I felt probably more satisfied with what I'd written than with the performance I gave. It didn't at the time ever occur to me that I was on the wrong track."

After graduating she took creative writing classes at London's City Lit under the tutelage of Michele Roberts. "When I started writing I did it entirely with an objective to make myself look like I didn't care so much about acting, that I would have this lovely inner tranquillity because I was involved with something else. I wasn't doing it because I wanted, or ever imagined that I could, write a book." Aged 26, having worked successfully as an actress mainly on the stage, she made the "life-changing decision" to write for three hours a day, a discipline that resulted in her acclaimed debut Hideous Kinky.

Tellingly, she was offered an acting job halfway through writing the book and realised she didn't want to take it. It's fair to say she's never looked back, the year after Hideous Kinky was published Freud was named as one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists in 1993.

On the experience of writing about acting she says: "I veered on any given day between these two feelings: that it was this incredible privilege to have a job that is your passion, it's completely creative, you meet different people, you travel the world, or to be literally hanging in pain every single day that someone's judging you and that you're never really going to fulfil your potential... I was really torn and the book swayed between being really dark and being rather joyful and back again and finding the balance I would say was the hardest thing."