“I love the fact that we all try and replicate our parents and rebel against them at the same time.” Novelist Esther Freud joins Zibby to talk about her latest book, I Couldn’t Love You More, and how her fascinating family history inspired its intergenerational story. The two discuss why Esther sought to work on a lighter project than her last, as well as which writing techniques Esther employed as she braided three storylines together.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Esther. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss I Couldn’t Love You More.

Esther Freud: It’s lovely to meet you in this strange virtual world. I was just saying how much I was admiring your beautiful, color-coded bookshelves behind you.

Zibby: Thank you very much. It’s very comforting to be surrounded by books. There’s something deeply calming about it for me, probably for most people. What a beautiful novel, very thought-provoking, all these different relationships that you have interweaving everything. Tell listeners what this book is about, please.

Esther: The book, it started with the idea of writing about love. I was writing a play. It was set in a men’s prison. It was all about a woman who decided that what she really wanted to do was to go into men’s prisons and teach them how to do high-end embroidery. I spent a year or two immersed in these lives. I thought, my next project, I want to write about love. I chose three generations of women based very loosely on my own generation, my mother, and my grandmother. The book is really about the ways that love grows between the generations, the way that love is created and influenced by the kind of love that you have already received. We hear from all three women. At the heart of the story is a big lie, a silence, and evasion. That really came about — that was never the plan initially. I didn’t really start with a plot. I just started more with a theme and with these three characters. I started to think about the love life of my grandmother, my own love life, and my mother in the middle.

My mother — I’d always known this, but I have to say I’d never given it so much thought. My mother met my father when she was a teenager. She had me and my older sister by the time she was twenty. She kept us secret from her parents because she was living an unmarried, bohemian life in sixties Soho in London. Her parents came from Catholic families. They were living in Ireland. They would have disapproved. I took that and started to really investigate what it would’ve been like for her if they had have known that she was pregnant. I did a lot of research about what happened to young Catholic, especially Irish women, in the sixties. I have to say, the seventies and the eighties and obviously many years before, often, they ended up in mother and baby homes. Their babies were taken from them. The children never knew their mothers or how to find them because it was made very, very difficult to ever trace your mother. Sorry, this is an extremely long —

Zibby: — I love it. No, keep going. Keep going. I love the backstory. Yes, keep going.

Esther: I found myself kind of having thought, ah, a lighter project after my prison work. Writing about love, I found myself embroiled in something crueler, colder, and more brutal than any prison I visited.

Zibby: Wow. Wait, that’s crazy about your mom hiding you and your sister. What happened when you were revealed? What happened then?

Esther: I think that I was about two or three and my sister was about five when a relative saw her waiting at a bus stop and wrote to her parents and said, “Oh, we didn’t know your daughter was married.” Of course, she wasn’t married. I don’t actually remember meeting them, if I did, until — we went off on a big trip when I was four to Morocco, which is the basis for my first novel, Hideous Kinky. We went to Marrakesh in a van with some hippy friends of my mother’s. Maybe it was to get away from the pressured, judgmental world of Britain at that time. My mother was a very unusual and intrepid woman, as you’re probably gathering. We spent nearly two years living in Morocco traveling and having huge, extraordinary adventures. When we came back, I remember meeting my grandparents. I think the saddest thing about these stories that I uncovered in my research is that the parents lost their children; the grandparents lost their grandchildren. Of course, whatever my grandparents felt about the idea of their daughter being an unmarried mother having illegitimate, unbaptized children, of course when they met their two little granddaughters, they took us into their hearts. They were wonderful. We spent a lot of our childhood staying with them in Ireland where they ran a farm. It ended well, but there was some difficult, lonely, and unsupported years in the meantime in which my mother struck out on a very independent life.

Zibby: Wow. Have you thought about writing it as a memoir?

Esther: I haven’t because I’m just drawn to fiction. I know you’re a writer. What happens is, you have an idea, and it comes to you in a form. Hideous Kinky came to me in the form of writing a story. Also, I didn’t remember enough to write a memoir. I was six by the time we returned to England. I remembered little moments and anecdotes. I kind of created the atmosphere and rolled along with the story. They made it into a film. Kate Winslet played my mom.

Zibby: Yes, yes.

Esther: It’s a beautiful film. I have to say, they got the spirit of my story, the adventurous freedom of that time.

Zibby: I have to say, I have to go back and now watch this film. I, of course, knew about it. I feel like I have not seen it, unless I don’t remember, which is totally possible. Anyway, of course, I’ve heard of it, so I’m excited to go back, especially now that I’ve met you and knowing this story. That’s crazy, oh, my gosh. Did your grandparents have a similar relationship to — how do you pronounce Aoife?

Esther: E-fa.

Zibby: Aoife.

Esther: Aoife, yeah. I have to say, I don’t really know for sure what their relationship was. It’s interesting how relationships between men and women have changed over the generations. I would say they had a totally dedicated relationship. In the course of writing this book, I thought a lot about the different relationships of the different generations, certainly in my lifetime, and how women of my grandmother’s generation, they married in their forties or maybe late thirties. Pretty much, the trajectory of this novel, I’ve used the dates just as the war was beginning, the second world war. They married for life. I think what my grandmother felt was, my husband is for life. My children will grow up and move away. I think what my generation felt, certainly most of my friends, is, your children are for life. Who knows whether the man will come and go? It’s changed so much. The dedication and loyalty in my own generation and the ones around me, even younger friends, is very much a dedication to children and a great desire for children and an incredible connection and love with children and maybe a little less confidence in the male-female relationship. I did look at my grandparents’ relationship when I was writing this book and see a real beauty in it, actually, but I think that, in some ways, the children lose out. It’s hard to get it all. It’s hard to have enough for the man and the children or the woman and the children or whoever your partner may happen to be.

Zibby: It’s true. Let alone work and everything else in life. Lots of competing demands. In the book when Rosaleen escapes from the convent and ends up at home twice, which was crazy, the second time she went back, when she stayed, and then came home the next summer and was a changed, quiet, docile version of herself, there was nothing mentioned of what happened in the convent other than the nun had said, “I’m going to take care of this. This is never happening again.” My mind went to, what kind of abuse was happening there? What was happening in those months? I was wondering if, in your research, you uncovered things that were happening to the women there or if I misread that or what.

Esther: I feel that you’re referring to when she’s a child and she’s in the boarding school convent.

Zibby: Sorry, yes.

Esther: My mother, like Rosaleen, went off to a boarding school convent when she was seven. Her sisters were sent when they were four. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to imagine how strangely lonely it would be to be brought up like that. I interviewed my mother’s cousin who was at the convent with her. My mother, sadly, is no longer with us. She died too young.

Zibby: I’m sorry.

Esther: Her cousin was at school with her. Her cousin remembered her incredibly vividly, had so much to say about her. My mother, and this is very typical and telling, literally had never mentioned this cousin and never really talked about the past. I didn’t this say to the cousin. It was a big part of her life, her relationship with my mother as a child. She told me some pretty harrowing stories about being beaten with a slipper and made to be on silent retreats for days on end they’d hate. I would say, nothing that wouldn’t seem too terrible, in some ways, for that time. Britain has a terrible reputation for boarding school brutality. So many, particularly boys actually, were treated so appallingly over the years. The younger they were, the more brutal the treatment often was because there was no one to tell and no recourse. I didn’t actually hear so much from my mother about it. All I knew was that she was unhappy and desperate and did run away often and was always sent back.

Zibby: That’s really heartbreaking.

Esther: It is heartbreaking. I think that’s very much the feeling. If you send your child to boarding school, you’ve got to stick with it until they stop complaining. Obviously, we all stop complaining after a bit.

Zibby: My son is at boarding school. From what I hear, it’s not anything like that. I hope, oh, my gosh.

Esther: I think it’s very different now, really. I’m sure he’s not four years old.

Zibby: No, he’s fourteen.

Esther: He’s probably in absolute heaven.

Zibby: He is. He doesn’t even want to come home. It’s great. I’m thrilled. I know through the book, we got to watch what happens with Rosaleen as she gets older. What was the impact of that on your mother? I can totally switch gears if this is too invasive or whatever, but I’m so fascinated by your history. She goes to the convent. Then she becomes this bohemian and has children very young, and off to Morocco. By the time she’s twenty-seven, she’s back in London having lived this whole life. What happened then? How did it affect how she raised you from that point on?

Esther: Obviously, the book diverges, just for people who — I get confused myself because I use, often, the nob of something that’s autobiographical in my work. Then I kind of riff on it. I love the story to feel as if it is my story. If I was just telling and writing a story about women who went through the trauma of mother and baby homes without finding a way to link it to myself, I would find that hard. On the hard days, I think I would lose faith. My own mother, once we were back in England, we actually had a rather quiet — well, quiet compared to the rest, I suppose. We went to live in the country. We went to a Steiner school. You have Waldorf.

Zibby: Like Montessori, sort of?

Esther: It’s not Montessori, but it’s a kind of alternative education. What really was important to my mother was it had no religious bias so no one was telling you the sins that you may have committed almost as you were born. That was important to her. It was a creative school. We lived there for ten years in the country. Various adventures continued to go on, as you can imagine, but we had a calmer time.

Zibby: Then how did that affect how you brought up your kids?

Esther: I love the fact that we all try and replicate our parents, the way they brought us up, and rebel against it all at the same time. It’s hard work. I had a great desire for stability because even though we lived in the country in the south of England, in Sussex, for ten years, we didn’t initially have anywhere to live, so we moved and moved and moved. I think we moved sixteen times in . Then we settled down for a bit. Then we moved again. I was very keen on a house, big, solid place to live, but also quite restless. It was a bit confusing for my children. They’re like, “Mom, stop looking at that house. We’re in a house. We just moved.” I want a really beautiful house, but I’m always going — we have a house where I am right now in the country, but we did used to live in the house next door. They couldn’t believe that I forced them to move to the house next door when it came up for sale. Then I saw another house. They were like, “Mom, stop it.” I have a mixture. My kids have had a very stable life compared to mine. My mother had a very exciting and rebellious time compared to her upbringing. Who knows ?

Zibby: It’s funny you say that about your kids because just this morning, my daughter — I love to go to open houses and look at houses. It’s one of my favorite things to do. Literally, out of nowhere this morning, my daughter said to me, “Could you promise me that we’re not going to move houses? Can you just promise?” I was like, “Well, I’m not going to promise, but it’s always fun to look.” She’s like, “No, it’s our home.” Not here in the city, but out of the city. That need for stability and home is very deep.

Esther: Yeah, it is. I like the moment when I’m between, when I’m just about to go somewhere else. That really makes me very happy. I like the little journey between two different places, but knowing where I’m going.

Zibby: Also, the promise of a new start when you get to literally redo it. You can be like, this is how I’m going to live now. Very exciting. I’m not making any promises there, but who knows? In terms of writing, when you were considering all the different characters and the stories and interweaving, did you write it all as it is now, or did you write one character’s narrative? Did you write about Kate? How did you do it?

Esther: How did I structure it?

Zibby: How did you structure it in the writing process?

Esther: I started very freely. I know the chapters are all still quite short, but I wrote even shorter chapters just jumping about all over the place, whatever I wanted to do. I started with one character. A few pages later, I suddenly put the other. I didn’t even write their stories chronologically. I thought that I would be able to maybe get away with it and have an incredible tapestry patchwork of three women’s lives reflecting and dancing off each other. I went on like this for about five hundred pages. I handed it to my editor. I felt for her. Her eyes were wide and blinking and said, “Okay, well, how about writing each person’s story separately one at a time?” I was like, “Hmm, okay.” I decided that there was something in the middle. I didn’t really want to do that because I wanted for my reader to read one person’s story knowing all sorts of things about them from having just read a little chapter of someone else’s point of view. I wanted it to overlap and interweave and to echo each other, all the stories. I calmed down with my desire to be very, very . I wanted to write something in a slightly different, freer style than I ever had. I wanted to really play with narrative. I use lots of different ways of — one is in the first person and the present tense. One is kind of a retelling backwards through life. I was having so much fun. I calmed down. I took each story, and I put it into its own document. I put it chronologically. I cut out about a hundred pages that was set in the seventies of Rosaleen’s life, so we never meet her again until the very end, which I was sad about. I’m hoping I can use that hundred pages. We all tell ourselves it wasn’t wasted, but sadly, it’s very rare you can use those things again.

Zibby: You should do an audio original with just that.

Esther: Oh, just that bit. I’m writing short stories at the moment. I have managed to take one section and put it into a story. I’m still not sure if it really fits in there. I’m trying to shoehorn it in somewhere. There’s one bit I was really sad to lose, but the book was so much better for it. People who weren’t me couldn’t follow what was going on. That, obviously, in the end, is the only important thing. I handed it back. My editor looked incredibly relieved.

Zibby: Wow, amazing. Are you working on anything new now?

Esther: Yeah. I wrote a short story not long after finishing this book, I guess a year or so ago. It was actually inspired by the book. Sometimes you have even more to say than will fit into this long book. I had so much to say. I teach creative writing sometimes. I was teaching a course. I asked everyone to write a story. I said, “The story should have the theme of a journey.” I suddenly remembered that when I was about fourteen and my sister was sixteen, we went to Ireland to visit my grandparents who’d just retired. We started traveling around the country, partly because it was hard to be in a little retirement bungalow with them. We went around the country. There was one thing that caught my imagination when I was thinking about my journey story. In the west of Ireland in the middle of nowhere, we bumped into a monk who asked us if we’d heard of The Beatles. We were so appalled and affronted to think that we, who considered ourselves rather cool, had never heard of The Beatles. That became part of a story. It was actually just a few weeks ago, published by The New Yorker, which was a dream I hadn’t even had. Since then, I just decided to keep writing short stories all from the point of view of the same narrator based, in some ways, in my life. I’m just now in what I always think of as the murky middle. I’ve got some really great stories at the beginning. I’ve got a great one for the end. Oh, god, I’ve just got to find those middle ones to make the thing pull together. Every book has a bit that’s hard work. For me, it’s almost always the two thirds of the way in, I find hard. That’s where I am.

Zibby: That sounds wonderful too. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Esther: The only advice that I have that I think’s actually really helpful is to try and create some momentum in your work. Just set yourself a few hours if that’s all you can find, and ideally around the same time every day, and to actually sit down and write, and not lots and lots of research and not lots of thinking and not lots of talking, just to write. Even if most of what you write isn’t to your pleasing, there might be one beautiful, clear, clean line that makes you sing. That’s all you need. It doesn’t matter how many words you write. You can actually cut words. I call it paying attention to your story. If you do that, if you did that every day for a year, you would have something. That is what I would say. If you really do want to make something, think of it less as writing, but more as making. You’re just compiling. I often think of, instead of writing more, making it longer. I think of fattening it, widening it. I rewrite a lot at the beginning to fatten and widen. Suddenly, oh, I know what I want to write. I like that. I was just doing that this morning on these murky-middle stories. I suddenly felt myself surprised at where I was going and a lot happier than when I was worrying about it and not writing yesterday.

Zibby: Yes, the worry can take over pretty much everything.

Esther: Less thinking, more writing, is what I tell myself.

Zibby: That’s good words to live by. Excellent. Thank you so much, Esther. This has been so interesting. Just sitting here listening to you talk, your voice is so melodic, and the accent and your thoughts. The way you speak is so beautiful. I feel like I’ve just gone to the theater or something. I feel refreshed and had an injection of creativity or something. Thank you.

Esther: Thank you. That’s lovely.

Zibby: Have a great day. It was lovely to meet you.

Esther: Great to meet you. Good luck with all your various ventures.

Zibby: Thank you very much. Good luck with the murky middle.

Esther: Thank you.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Esther: Buh-bye.



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