I never imagined I’d write another book after Hideous Kinky says novelist Esther Freud

Esther Freud, who's giving Ink Festival audiences a glimpse at her debut play Stitchers. Photo: Sara

Esther Freud, who's giving Ink Festival audiences a glimpse at her debut play Stitchers. Photo: Sarah Lucy Brown - Credit: Archant

Esther Freud never set out to be an author, she just loves telling stories. She talks about her path to success, dealing with pressure and offers advice to aspiring writers.

Kate Winslet in the film adaptation of Esther's first novel Hideous Kinky. Photo: Contributed

Kate Winslet in the film adaptation of Esther's first novel Hideous Kinky. Photo: Contributed - Credit: Archant

Esther didn’t really want to be a writer. When she started, chronicling her childhood travels across Morocco with her mother and sister Bella, she couldn’t stop.

“I like telling stories, making things out of other things. I wasn’t really trying to be a writer. I never imagined I would write another book but once I got to the end I had an idea for something else and it’s very addictive, writing.”

That first book, Hideous Kinky, was a massive success and later became a movie starring Kate Winslet.

“Me and my sister visited the set. It was completely surreal, that this was the life we lived. We’re staying in a hotel, where before we’d stayed in a tiny room in a hostel, and there were people making my imagination into something real. It was an extraordinary experience.”


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Watching that time in her life and her book condensed into an hour-and-a-half was like being on a rollercoaster, still reeling long after you’ve got off the ride.

“I was terrified it was going to be a terrible film and it was lovely. It really had the spirit of the book and lovely performances so I felt very grateful it hadn’t been turned into something I despise.”

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Hideous Kinky’s success boosted her confidence and desire to keep writing. Handling that newfound success was quite stressful.

“I’m so grateful for it. I’d been an actor before and I hadn’t experienced that kind of success at all, everything had been quite a struggle. I don’t know what I was thinking being an actress to be honest. I like making things out of other things and it just seemed like a fun way to do it,” laughs Esther, who had bit parts in The Bill and Doctor Who.

Esther's last novel, Mr Mac and Me, was set in Walberswick on the Suffolk coast. Photo: Contributed

Esther's last novel, Mr Mac and Me, was set in Walberswick on the Suffolk coast. Photo: Contributed - Credit: Archant

“When I was in control of my own creativity I couldn’t believe how much happier I was. I hadn’t realised how I was dealing with rejection, I didn’t acknowledge it because it was probably too unbearable but I suddenly realised acting didn’t really suit me.

“It’s quite different having things go well, you’re not that prepared for that. That first book put me on the map as a writer and meant that people were waiting for my next. I felt really lucky.”

Her next novel, Peerless Flats fared even better; seeing her named one of the best young novelists under 40.

“I was really lucky I didn’t have that second novel issue because I wrote it in the year between Hideous Kinky being accepted and it coming out. I was so excited to have someone say yes and didn’t really have much going on in my life so I wrote that book very quickly.”

Third novel Gaglow didn’t come so easy. Challenging herself with a much more historical narrative and different time zones, Esther also had a baby, a different life by then. She also felt the weight of expectation.

“I can’t believe I ever managed to do it, it took about four years. I did feel quite pressurised because so many things were going on in my life. Once that came out I thought ‘okay, I can do what I want now’ and I haven’t felt that pressure since.”

That doesn’t mean writing gets any easier. Even now she doesn’t really know until about two thirds in if, after sometimes years of work, she’ll be able to make the book work.

“Some people have a book they hate, like a regretted boyfriend; and you can see them shiver when it’s mentioned. I think those books are in a drawer somewhere in my study. I didn’t publish those ones. I’m glad for that.

Patience, determination, honesty and a good ear; key ingredients if you want to write says Esther. P

Patience, determination, honesty and a good ear; key ingredients if you want to write says Esther. Photo: Contributed - Credit: Archant

“Once it’s done you just have to try to let go and hope you don’t get asked to read it again because of course you see something you think you could do better now - never write the same book a different year,” says Esther, who’s affectionate towards all her novels; particularly The Wild which perhaps isn’t as read as much as others.

This year sees her fulfil an ambition to stage her first play. Stitchers charts the origins of the charity Fine Cell Work which trains prisoners in paid, skilled, creative needlework to foster hope, discipline and self esteem. The idea is to help them connect with society and leave prison with the confidence and financial means to stop offending. The first 30 minutes will be the subject of a rehearsed reading at this year’s Ink Festival, in Halesworth, on Sunday.

There is a new book on the horizon too.

“I’ve been writing while waiting to get feedback (on the play) from people hoping this will go into production. I’ve had some time. I’m quite into it but it’s hard; every so often I have to stop the book and do another draft of the play. I get very involved with one thing and I’m not great at working on two things at the same time,” Esther laughs.

“I’ve got a nice start but I don’t really know enough about it to say (any more). It just won’t be done for a while that’s all I know.”

Patience, determination, honesty and a good ear; key ingredients if you want to write she says.

“Give yourself permission to really do it. Make time for it in your life, even if it’s just an hour a day. And do what you actually want to do with your book, don’t do it for publication.

“No one knows what they’re waiting for. No one knew they were waiting for Harry Potter, no one knew they were waiting for The Girl on the Train, people just get surprised by something.”

She admits writing comes quite easily for her. The really hard graft comes during the editing process.

“I’m not a writer who works out what they need - who are these people, what do they want, what’s stopping them. I just start writing, listen to them talk, find out who they are. I can’t work out the plot because I don’t know who they are at first. It feels like a slow process. I have to re-write a lot and I just accept it takes time.”

You have to start living your life slightly differently when you’re a writer.

“All sorts of things become possibilities for stories when you’re in that zone. I feel very lucky, I’ve had a very varied life and I can draw on elements of that for ideas of books but I’m always listening out for ideas.”

Hideous Kinky was semi-autobiographical. While there are no rules about how much of yourself you give to your work, if your book calls for you to be courageous with yourself then you’ve got to do it.

“You can always disguise things, make things out of things; but I think if you’re hiding the chances are the book will be missing something. You don’t have to spill your blood and guts but if you’re frightened of being discovered... I don’t know, usually readers can pick up on that and it doesn’t have the same punch.”

Her final piece of advice? Worry about the publication side of things later.

“Don’t try to send it out to people before it’s as good as it can possibly be. They won’t read it twice.”

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