Judy Garland got me through bad times

Novelist Susie Boyt has been obsessed with Judy Garland since she was a little girl. Heading for Suffolk to explain why, she grants Steven Russell an advance audience - and explains how she got that scar on her ankle

Steven Russell

Novelist Susie Boyt has been obsessed with Judy Garland since she was a little girl. Heading for Suffolk to explain why, she grants Steven Russell an advance audience - and explains how she got that scar on her ankle

IT'S a manic morning, as it often is when you're due to move house, only for unexpected annoyances to keep pushing back the day when the dream becomes concrete. The uncertainty's enough to give anyone the wobbles, but for author Susie Boyt you do fret somewhat. “It's hardly drastic,” she says, stoically, of the delay. “There are worse problems to have.” Thing is, this is the born worrier who as a child thought dark thoughts and took refuge in structure and order - she liked to arrange ornaments symmetrically, for instance. She might be planning to move just a mile or so across London, but this isn't just any old building: she got married from this house and, in later years, twice introduced it to newborn daughters. It's got history - the kind that snares a hypersensitive soul, as Susie certainly was and still is, to a lesser extent. In childhood, she wrote, “My heart went out to everything; food uneaten on a plate, even lone ants.” So . . . how easy is it going to be to say goodbye? “Yes, it is quite a big deal, but I keep having to think it's all good. I don't like change, generally. But it'll be fine. You just have to keep your head screwed on the right way.”

Very Judy Garland, in fact: recognise your emotions, acknowledge their value, and march on bravely, whistling a happy tune.

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Susie, whose father is the artist Lucian Freud, was enraptured by Garland at the age of four. When her mother took her to see The Wizard of Oz at a West End cinema, hearing Over the Rainbow established an instant connection. Here was someone else with strong feelings; but instead of sweeping them under the carpet, Judy/Dorothy viewed them as a positive.

This, for a highly-sensitive girl, was a revelation. The world had been telling her she must grow a thicker skin. Here, in Judy, was a blueprint for dealing with one's feelings while being as cheerful as one could in the circumstances.

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The more Susie saw of her heroine's work, the more vibrant and hopeful her own existence appeared.

Skip forward three decades or so and, now an established author, Susie's book My Judy Garland Life is published - a year ago in hardback and now in a softer cover. Her first attempt at non-fiction involved an idea she'd been dreaming about for at least a quarter of a century: “one part memoir, two parts hero-worship and three parts biography with a dash of sequin-studded self-help thrown in”.

Today, she explains: “People who've read the book carefully can see that although Judy Garland is utterly central, she's not the most important thing: it's a book about what kind of things do we use to make our losses bearable.

“I can't remember who said the consolations of the imagination aren't imaginary consolations. I feel that really, really strongly - in that nearly everyone, at some point in their life, turns to something outside themselves, that may hardly even exist, to sort of get them through.”

Susie's had her own losses and frustrations. Her parents split up before she was born. Although her father visited regularly, it wasn't frequent, and as a young girl she admits missing him so much that she couldn't bear even to hear his name. (Happily, she got to know him well in her late teenage years when she started sitting for him - he painted several portraits - and they found they had much in common.) At the end of her first year at Oxford, her boyfriend died in a climbing accident. She was in shock for a long time, took a year off, and wrote later that “everything in my world felt broken and ruined”.

Her stories strive to explain the human condition. They feature characters going through crises and she's fascinated by the myriad ways family life can go wrong, and how it can get back on track.

The main character in debut novel The Normal Man dreams of domestic contentment and her father, dead for a decade; in Only Human, a marriage guidance counsellor has family troubles of her own.

It would be too easy to think Susie Boyt's tales are perfect mirror-images of her own life - especially as she's the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud, generally regarded as the father of psychoanalysis. While there are some parallels, she hasn't reproduced her life and simply changed a few names here and there - though some commentators like to believe she has.

She and film-producer husband Tom Astor - they met at her sister Rose's wedding - have two daughters. Mary was born about this time of year in 2000, and Cecilia arrived in 2006. Have her experiences shaped her as a mother?

“I suppose it's probably made me a little bit more like my mother, in a way; it's made me appreciate the lovely way she had of doing everything - 'going insane' on pancake day and going crazy at Hallowe'en, and Christmas being such a spectacle. Her festive nature, I think that's come through for me more, and I see the sense of going to town in a mildly hysterical way at the drop of a hat.”

And that brings us nicely to one of the key messages of the Judy Garland book: that it's OK - healthy and essential, even - to have strong feelings and to display them without shame. And to mark the good things about life, rather than just the bad.

“I hate the idea that every experience has to be diluted and flattened and toned down. I think maybe it's all right to experience things at their full pitch, sometimes. That's a theme in the book. There's definitely thought to be something dangerous about strong feelings, and something embarrassing, because they make us seem vulnerable in a way that discomforts us.”

Her next novel - a work in progress that (and Susie reckons she can be precise about such things) is seven weeks away from being finished, given a fair wind - will be In the Nursery. It's a psychological comedy-drama set in a kindergarten. She describes it as a cross between The Nanny Diaries (a modern novel satirising upper-class society) and The Turn of the Screw (a ghostly tale by Henry James). The title, she explains, is also a phrase used by psychologists about behaviour linked to sibling rivalry and difficult aspects of childhood.

“It's highly murky! Really, really, really murky.”

Right . . . The author's younger daughter has recently started at nursery, and mum has been going in to help smooth the transition. As a mother, isn't writing a psychological drama going to make her, Susie, a tad anxious?

“I suppose I began this book a long, long time ago. I've always liked things set in schools, like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I wanted to create something with an atmosphere of sustained ambiguity all the way through, in the way The Turn of the Screw does. But I still cling on to my basic feeling that I can't bear anything terrible to happen to anyone in my books. I feel you can't create characters and put them through hell. It seems a bit cheap, somehow.”

Schools, she explains, “are a repository for people's hopes and fears, and are often blamed for things they can't possibly be responsible for”. Many people look to schools for ideas about raising children, too - to the extent that lots of schools now run courses on parenting.

“I'm not saying it's necessarily wrong, but it's just that it never used to be like that. We used to go off to school and our parents probably didn't really know what was going on, and it was all fine. Now the level of interaction is so much higher. You get 10 communications from school every week by email. It feels everything has become so sort of fraught and complicated. So that seemed a good arena to examine.”

SUSIE Boyd is coming to Suffolk for the Ways with Words literary festival at Southwold. It marks a return to an area she visited as a teenager - particularly “a little modest cottage” off The Green at Walberswick.

“When I was much younger I used to stay with my (half) sister Esther and we used to go to a place called The Hidden Hut. It was rented off someone for �12 for the weekend, or something.

“We used to stay up late chatting, and have cocoa with whisky in it, and have a sense of being on a secret spree - I think because of it being called The Hidden Hut. You felt rather mysterious being there.

“I haven't been there “(Walberswick) for 10 or 12 years. I'm looking forward to coming to Southwold and going to Squiers (tearooms and confectioners) and all those places I know so well.”

Each time she came to Walberswick, Susie would visit the neighbouring town - usually cutting across the marshes. “I've still got a scar on my ankle from falling off my bike on the path between Walberswick and Southwold!”

Susie Boyt appears at St Edmund's Hall, Southwold, on the afternoon of Friday, November 13. Details 01803 86 73 73 and www.wayswithwords.co.uk

Organisers have a two-tickets-for-the-price-of-one offer for the talk - subject to availability. Ring the box office on 01803 867373 and quote “East Anglian Daily Times Reader Offer”.

Boyt basics

Born: north London, 1969

Parents: Suzy Boyt and Lucian Freud

Father is acclaimed portrait painter

Mother was his student at Slade Art School, and later partner for many years

Mother sold old-fashioned clothes in a shop and at an antiques market

Susie went to St Catherine's College, Oxford, to read English

Debut novel The Normal Man published in 1995

Sister Rose and half-sister Esther Freud are fellow novelists

1996: Met husband-to-be Tom Astor

2000: Daughter Mary born

2006: Cecilia born

Web link: www.susieboyt.com

My Judy Garland Life is published by Virago, at �8.99

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