The Servants' Quarters
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Reading, Writing, and Leaving Home:
Life on the Page
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The Curse of the Appropriate Man
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
When award-winning writer Lynn Freed stops talking, does her eyebrow immediately arch in irony? In wry challenge? When sharing a bottle of wine with a worthy conversationalist does she sit back and scrutinize? Her delicious replies to PopMatters 20 Questions may have you wishing, like us, that she could be your dinner guest. The world of possible topics for discussion is her plate of oysters—oysters she will crack open with the proper tool, wrench from their protective covering, and then share with you and savor with laughter.
For those of us who will not have such an opportunity, we’ll have to enjoy Freed’s company in this interview, and from within the pages of her first novel in seven years, The Servants’ Quarters, publishing this month.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Cry? I don’t cry easily, but, come to think of it—and only if the books or movies are so well done that one doesn’t feel manipulated towards tears—there are, in the main, two sorts of situations that may make me cry: someone returning home after a long absence, and, less often, someone triumphing over odds (not to include missing limbs or the facility for speech—The Butterfly and the Diving Bell moved me not one inch, and I detested that Slumdog Millionaire for every sort of reason, including its transparent manipulations).
Back to tears: I can think of no current movie that has entranced me, let alone brought me anywhere near them. But there are any number of old movies I can think of, top of the list being Truffaut’s L’Enfant Sauvage (The Wild Child). I adore everything about this movie, every scene, every character, and, as much as anything, the consideration, within the story, of what it means, what it costs to be civilised. The scenes in which the boy runs out ecstatically into the rain, free again, home again—these are heart-rending.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Ah, the aria of I: iPod, iPhone, and do, please, Mobileme.
If the best writing is a sort of shape-shifting—the writer disappearing into the story—then so, by extension, is the best sort of reading. That, at least, is what I look for in a book—the chance to lose myself. Villains, wimps, heroes, cowards, male and female, old and young—as long as they’re alive and breathing on the page, there I am, with them, or in them. But that’s rare, at least for me.
More common is to have the hand of the writer showing itself everywhere, even in decent writing, showing off, drawing attention to itself. I have a deep aversion to being manipulated, even into applause. So, I shut the book. Or, if it warrants it, hurl it across the room.
3. The greatest album, ever?
Both of Glenn Gould’s recordings of The Goldberg Variations? And also Mitsuko Uchida’s complete Mozart piano sonatas? Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu playing Mozart and Schubert in the “genius” album?
And every record out of Motown. Early Aretha Franklin. James Brown.
Oh, and Stan Getz with Joao Gilberto, a watershed. (I do wish, though, that it hadn’t given rise to such a string of singers taking off on Astrid Gilberto. One of her was a lovely thing—that throaty, untrained, naturally charming voice. But now? Dozens and dozens trying the same throaty thing, and without the innocence of that first “Girl from Ipanema” and “Desafinado”, etc. Charmless, intended, annoying.)
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
I’ve seen neither. I loathe science fiction. In fact, I find the whole idea of all those planets and galaxies out there unendingly depressing.
It’s bad enough to be stuck on this one, in this life, this time, let alone having to look up and realise that half of what you’re seeing no longer exists.
To have seriously to consider those silly, silly actors with their ears pointed up like Doberman Pinschers’—well, no thank you very much. Star Anything—no thank you.
5. Your ideal brain food?
Conversation. Good conversation. High or low conversation. High-flying gossipy conversation. From such conversations, from the stories told, the confessions made, the problems posed, or just the day discussed, comes a sense of being part of a society of one’s choosing. This is happiness.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
I’m immensely proud of myself when I manage to say no to something I don’t really want to do, but that I feel might disappoint others if I decline. This may sound like small potatoes, but, believe me, it isn’t.
For all the fact that I seem to be considered opinionated (I am) and strong-minded (certainly), I suffer greatly from the desire not to displease. And so I find myself agreeing to all sorts of things either because I don’t want to disappoint or because I haven’t consulted myself properly as to whether this is what I really want.
I am getting better at this, although it’s never easy. But when I do, when I say no without a question mark behind it, I carry around my refusal like a badge of honour.
7. You want to be remembered for…?
Severity. At least in the face of smug, shallow, self-regarding cant. That’s a high hope, of course; I’m not nearly as severe or outspoken as I very often wish I had been – suffering, as I do, from l’esprit d’escalier – but I live in hope.
The assurances of a few generations of politically correct bores can send a mildly irascible person like me off the edge. And it has on several occasions. The occasions on which I have been able to utter or write against such smugness stay with me as points of pride.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Well, the field is so broad that – well, for God’s sake! King James for his Bible? Shakespeare start to finish? George Eliot for Middlemarch in particular? V.S. Naipaul for all his uncomfortable truths? On and on.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
10. Your hidden talents…?
Crocheting scarves. Scarf after scarf, same stitch (anyone want one?) It keeps my hands occupied on planes, in meetings, in front of TV.
I used to be able to put thinking aside in this way by practicing the piano, but I’ve lapsed below the level of ability at which I can bear to listen to myself. So that leaves me with a crochet hook and a ball of wool. It’s sad.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
“Trust movement”: note what people do, not what they say. And then act or hope or judge accordingly. It sounds too obvious to be true, but it’s astonishing how often one has to remind oneself where to put one’s trust.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
I’ve had a lifetime of bests. Aside from clothes and the odd jewel, there’s a little jewel of a house with a view out over vineyards. And an antique Chinese doctor’s doll in ivory that reclines in front of a painting of an odalisque, in exactly the same pose (I met the painter, Franco Mondini Ruiz, in Rome and bought a number of his gems.)
I several times borrowed a wonderful condo in Zihuatanejo that I was loathe to return. I don’t tend to steal.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
The designer whom I adore—whose clothes are classic, gorgeously cut, in gorgeous fabrics (four-ply stretch silk, silk-and-linen blends, wool knits, much more) and sublime colours, is Peter Cohen, a designer out of LA.
His clothes are the ones I never throw out when I’m weeding my closet. They’re expensive, but they’re brilliant and they’re enduring. And they are not designed for anorexic 15-year-olds.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
Well, I wouldn’t choose the Ritz to start off with, although, come to think of it, one can at least hear oneself think there. My number one requirement: no racket. Can anyone explain to me the pleasure in having to screech and bellow across a table in a restaurant in order simply to be heard? Which doesn’t even take into account trying to hear the other person, putting on the silly smile when you can’t bring yourself to ask him to repeat himself one more time.
Well, I suppose Luciano Pavarotti would have been a jolly companion in any restaurant; he could make himself heard in the back row of the gods, and he also loved food, and women. A divine combination.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
The early 20th Century. Probably London (although I am not and never have been in love with London). Upper class (everyone else was more or less in service to its members). Lots of money, lots of new freedom for women, lots of style, lots of romance, lots of good writers, lots of bon mots, and no signs yet, except for the prescient, of war.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
A trip to Mexico. A week on a beach, with the smell and the taste and the sound of the sea. No phone. No email. No children.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
Wine. A glass of wine in the evening to settle the spirit for the day, to shrink into a broader context what might have seemed so urgent until that point.
Wine and conversation. Wine and contemplation. Wine and wonderful music.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Two places: the middle of a city, and, when one needs a rest from the throng, somewhere on the sea, or at least a body of water. Getting from one to the other should not involve more than an hour or so in a car.
Then there’s the wider choice: April to October in the northern hemisphere; November to March in the southern hemisphere. And a ship to sail from one to the other and back again. I adore ships, everything about them, including the humane sense one has of passing through time.
Photo (partial) by Mary Pitts
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Which country? And why, even if one had something to say, would I imagine it would ever be heard?
Anyway, I have no desire either to lead or be led. And I have a detestation of rhetorical tricks, gestures straight out of Gesture School (that irritating and entirely unnatural closing of the hand into a sort of clam shell), not to mention frighteningly whitened teeth and mouths declaiming into microphones.
When the politicians tune up, I press the mute. Who but a fool would believe a politician?
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?