The biographical details of Lynn Freed, who was born in Durban, South Africa but has lived for many years in the United States, permeate her work. It’s particularly visible in last year’s collection of essays, The Romance of Elsewhere. As the title suggests, the volume deals with Freed’s experiences negotiating expat identity. She asks us to think about how we can understand “home” and our relationship to it, despite physical or emotional distance. Her collection encourages us to look closer at the romantic associations of the far away, a pertinent topic in an increasingly globalized world.
Freed has written seven novels, a collection of short fiction, and has published in a wide range of publications—from the New Yorker to Harper’s to Tin House. At present, she works as a professor of English at the University of California Davis.
In this interview, conducted over email, Freed talked about her essays, California rattlesnakes, the importance of a good first sentence, and the risks involved in writing irony.
The Rumpus: I am often curious about writing spaces and routines. Could you share with me where you work? Do you have strict working hours?
Lynn Freed: I have a perfect studio, a little tool shed-sized cottage-ette in the garden, equipped with a charming desk, chair, fainting couch, bookshelves, Turkish carpet, and Spode potty. I can’t see the house from there. It is heated and air-conditioned, surrounded by trees. Other writers go into transports of delight at the sight of it. But I myself can go for months avoiding even the sight of the path that leads to it. My present excuse is rattlesnakes. This is rattlesnake season in California and I have it fixed in my mind that there’s a family of them living underneath the studio, or behind it.
I’m very undisciplined. I can go for months writing only emails. Then another few months thinking, Okay, time to go out there. A deadline helps enormously. Shame doesn’t. But when I do start something, I behave more or less like a normal writer. I go out to the studio in the morning and work until I’m exhausted, or until I’ve reached a sort of natural stopping point. I have nothing but envy for the sort of disciplined writer who goes to her desk before breakfast, stays there for four hours, and then packs it in for the day and goes after her roses or something. This is the professional way to go about it—by far the best way. I’m not sure the product itself is going to be better or worse than that of an undisciplined writer, but there it is. And there’s going to be no product at all unless the writer sits down. As Doris Lessing said, “When inspiration comes, it should find you well placed at your work.”
Rumpus: In the title essay, “The Romance of Elsewhere,” you describe what you call the “romance of distance.” I was wondering how much you were conscious of a kind of nostalgic view as you were writing about your own life?
Freed: Here’s what I wrote: “There has always been romance in distance—a shallow romance, certainly. But it has its corollary in the fact that home is so very unromantic.” I hope it’s clear in context that I was quite conscious of the nostalgia involved—both in leaving and in returning home.
Rumpus: Many of your essays contain what I’d call a wry, satirical tone. How would you categorize your own relationship to humor and satire in your work?
Freed: Oh, it is very much what I love to read, and also what I love to write. The best humor, to my mind, has something very serious at heart. And relies on timing and surprise. It is not something I go in to a piece intending; it has to come out of the piece.
Rumpus: I really like your description of humor containing a seed of seriousness. Who are some writers who achieve the sense of timing you describe?
Freed: Muriel Spark, say, Jane Austen, of course, even Primo Levi, V.S. Naipaul, Edna O’Brien, Flannery O’Connor, Frank O’Connor, George Orwell, Philip Roth, Jean Rhys, Rose Macauley — the list could go on and on. Just consider the opening line of Rose Macaulay’s Towers of Trebizond, a novel I adore: “‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.”
Rumpus: You describe how your first story was published, but upon reading it, you discover that Jesus has been inserted into the end. Later on, you explain how the title of your first novel was changed without permission and given a cover that has nothing much to do with its contents. Did these first experiences make you wary?
Freed: When I sold my first story and my first novel, I felt so lucky that I more or less caved in to all sorts of absurdities—the cover of that novel, and, of course, Jesus, about whom I had no choice anyway. It was as if I felt, certainly with the novel, that, had I objected, they might have refused to publish the book. And, I suppose, they might have. Much further along in my writing career, I had few incidents of outright interference. In one, an essay in a very well known magazine, the editor ruined the piece with her interference, never consulting me. When I saw it in print, I was completely outraged. And, when I confronted her—“Someone put a fat foot in the middle of almost every sentence!”—so was she.
One’s relationship with one’s editors is really a matter of luck, and of the intelligence of one’s agent. There are some editors with whom one simply clicks.
Rumpus: You describe attending a conference because you were “fairly desperate for the acquaintance of other writers.” What does this kind of community mean to you?
Freed: I believe—I know—that writers are solitary creatures. This doesn’t mean one doesn’t have writer friends, lots of them, but that writing itself is done alone. Being part of several loose communities of writers simply comes with the job. There’s a lot of scatter to writing communities—people living all over the country and the world. But you meet them at conferences, as I did initially, or elsewhere, and develop friendships in much the way athletes or dancers or musicians do. It makes sense: you share a vocation, and you rely on such friends as friends—for sympathy, advice, recommendations, gossip. There is a lot of gossip among writers, as, I suppose, there is in most groups.
Rumpus: The first sentence of your story “Gloria Mundi” is a bit of a jolt. You write, “Sometimes, after my daily dose of radiation, I would stop at a small bath store near the hospital to buy a bar of soap, perhaps, or a bottle of bath gel.” The off-handed reveal of your radiation is a big surprise to the reader. I was wondering how you come up with your first lines.
Freed: It can take me weeks or months to land on a beginning with which I feel at home. And, really, beginnings are seldom at the beginning, are they? They are where one begins the tale one is telling. And they are enormously important. Weeks, months, or just a gift: here’s your beginning. And, yes, I do I love a jolt.
Rumpus: References to books litter your essays. I thought it was interesting how your prose has this almost conversational tone at times, where you shuttle back and forth between literary anecdote and self-reflection. Do you think this way naturally, with examples from books popping up in your head?
Freed: Oh yes, I do think that way. I suppose it has its own discipline, but, if it does, I haven’t found out what it is. It’s a sort of dance, one thing to another. And I adore bringing in things I’ve read, things that resonate for me. I usually keep them within reach. And much is committed to memory.
Rumpus: Are there books you turn to when you are stuck while writing?
Freed: I like to read about the difficulties other writers have had. Often they’re dead writers, from an era in which candor was more common. We’re now living with a plague of how-to manuals. The early Paris Review interviews with writers are terrific.
Rumpus: Can you tell me a little bit about your essay “Doing No Harm: Some Thoughts on Reading and Writing in the Age of Umbrage”? It felt particularly resonant today, since it relates to ongoing debates on trigger warnings in scholarship and at universities. You describe a situation between two students, where one, Alice, is offended by the story of another. You mention your own strong feelings about “the stranglehold of political correctness in a creative writing class” and that it had no place there, and “the corruption of the imagination by the constraints of right-mindedness.”
Freed: I am driven almost to madness by the tyranny of grievance, of specialness—of every sort of self-styled right-mindedness—even over language itself. And, oh, how I rejoiced recently when I read how Professor Paul Griffiths of Duke University took a stand against the sort of “re-education” to which his faculty—and, in fact, faculty everywhere, even at writing conferences—are now being subjected. What he says, I say, but not nearly as well.
Rumpus: You cite Doris Lessing’s understanding of political correctness as “the need to control literature by an ideology,” and you make connections between this stance of political correctness and a narrative of victimhood, citing a “culture of grievance.” Without knowing your politics, I was wondering if you felt differently at all about this essay, given the recent election, just because it feels like political correctness has no real national strength right now.
Freed: My politics are not really categorizable. To my mind, the ravings of the populist right are well matched in demagoguery and decibel level by those of the outraged left. I’d hate to be ruled by either.
Rumpus: In “Locked In,” you describe moving from San Francisco into the country. The essay seems at first to be a meditation on the transition from a city to a more rural, sleepy town, but then turns to discuss the news of a sexual rape in the rural town. Can you talk a little bit about why you wrote this story? The stories ends with the sentence “That women were safe nowhere…”
Freed: I wrote this for the Hers column of the New York Times. It seemed to me then, as it seems now, to carry that truth as you quote it: women are safe nowhere. Safer, maybe, but not safe. Particularly young or youngish women. In view of what we’ve been talking about—the tyranny of right-mindedness—it makes absolutely no sense to me for women to ignore the dangers to which they have always been heir. This rapist happened to be a serial rapist. But girls and women cannot simply assume that because it shouldn’t be so, it will not be.
Rumpus: Are you conscious when you are writing about South Africa that it’s geared for an audience that may not be aware of South African culture? And do you have an awareness of how your work arrives in South Africa?
Freed: I found early on that, as long as I felt I had to explain South Africa for a foreign audience, I couldn’t get at the truth of what I was writing about. So, after any number of false attempts, I just plunged in and wrote to what I’d have to call an ideal audience: a reader who would trust the authenticity of the story whether or not its context was unfamiliar.
Rumpus: After reading “A Stranger in My House,” I was wondering if you feel like class figures in any specific way into your essays?
Freed: I was asked to write a piece on servants for the Hers column of the New York Times. I doubt it would have occurred to me to do so otherwise, not because I’d have felt constrained, but because, in both my fiction and nonfiction about South Africa, servants are simply part of life. Were and are, whether they are called servants or domestic workers. Class and race are both involved. Same thing all over South America. Same thing all over the Middle East. And Europe. Everywhere. Where you have richer and poorer, the richer will hire the poorer. The best way I found to take on the subject was as a personal essay, which is what I did.
Rumpus: Your title story, “The Romance of Elsewhere,” also shares some writing advice you were once given: “If you want to know what to write, ask yourself what obsesses you.” Can you describe a little bit how you locate your obsessions?
Freed: It’s hard to know in advance. Somehow, like now, with the books coming out, I’m again in the what’s-obsessing-me? mode. A few things interest me, but I’m hard put to know which obsess me. The cult of the self? The self-promotion, selfies, self-this, self-that to which we’re all subjected? It’s repulsive, but not obsessively so. Old age? That’s what my novel [The Last Laugh] is about. Grown children? Ditto. Something will come up, or nothing. If nothing, I’ll try not to force something onto the page. The world will not be the poorer for it.
Rumpus: I wanted to focus on your essay collection in this conversation, but since you’ve mentioned your novel… How does it feel to come out with two books in such close proximity? You’ve had much experience writing fiction and nonfiction. Can you describe your approaches to fiction versus nonfiction? Do you feel they both require similar kinds of energy?
Freed: Both require just the same energy, and bring with them the same exhaustion, elation, despair. It’s really hard to know. Somehow, I feel freer in fiction. In nonfiction, there’s just as much working for the right voice, just as much cutting and pasting as in non-fiction—transitions, transitions, transitions. But, with nonfiction, one is constrained by fact. And fact, whatever anyone says, is not nothing. It features in one’s contract with the reader, so to speak. Both forms rest on what I can only think of as authenticity. One sort or another.
As to having two books come out, well, it feels too marvelous for words. I’m a slow writer, long gaps between books. So, this feels like a sort of celebration.
Author photograph © Mary S. Pitts.