Rose Boyt Writes About Everything You Might Want to Know About Sex but Would Have to Be a Freud to Ask
Sitting in her bright, book-lined flat in the Bloomsbury section of London, Boyt, 31, is sipping mint tea and talking about her book, which will be published in the U.S. next month. Replete with intricate descriptions of various bodily functions, the British edition, which came out last year, was hailed by the Irish Independent as "the best depiction of domestic horror since Blue Velvet." Yes, Boyt admits, sex is a "very important" element of the story. "But it's not the actual bit of nooky I find so devastatingly fascinating. It's the dynamics of human relationships, and sex is a part of that. Tell me one novel that isn't about sex."
A big-boned woman in a Victorian-style dress that looks like a flea-market find, she sits atop mounds of dusty quilts that have been thrown across an old sofa. Records litter the floor. In the kitchen hangs an etching done by her father, artist Lucian Freud, of her friend Angus Cook sprawled nude on a sofa. Lucian painted Rose in a similar pose when she was 19. Hers was not a conventional upbringing.
Her mother, Suzy Boyt, now 51, whose father was a career military man and whose mother was an heiress, was a student at London's Slade School of Fine Art when she met the soon-to-be-divorced Lucian, who was teaching painting. The two promptly fell in love, and their first child, Alexander, was born in 1957. Although Freud and Boyt apparently never moved in together, they did continue to have children; by 1968, there were five little Boyts to raise, and Suzy had temporarily abandoned her painting career for motherhood. While others may have found her parents' relationship a bit curious, Rose never even bothered to ask about it. "Both of my parents had very traditional families," she says, "and maybe they wanted to be free of those kinds of constraints."
Rules, it seems, were anathema to the Boyt family, where free-spirit pursuits like sailing, riding and hiking were given as much emphasis as schoolwork. When Rose was 7, Suzy packed up the brood and took them traveling for 18 months on cargo ships serving European ports; later, they spent five months wandering about Trinidad and the West Indies. A daily diary substituted for lessons during their travels, and Rose's was filled with, among other things, "fantasies about lizards and snakes."
Lucian never joined these overseas excursions, but Boyt and her siblings saw him often when they were growing up. "He was painting most of the time, obviously, but he used to come around to see us as a family and take us out to supper," she says. When she left home at 15 ("just for the hell of it") she moved to a fiat near her father's West London home. "He'd come round, and I'd make him a fried egg on toast and a cup of tea, and we used to just talk; I suppose that's when I started to know him as more of an adult," she says. As for posing nude for Lucian's painting Rose, she says, "I think I look pretty damn sexy."
The young Rose had always written poetry and stories and read voraciously. ("Saul Bellow is probably my favorite novelist of all time," she says. "I hope he's reading this.") But her decision to launch her career as a novelist began only when she was about to graduate from University College, London, and her tutor suggested that she turn her hand to fiction. "It hadn't occurred to me that I could actually do the thing I wanted to do," she says. "I thought I would earn a living by journalism first."
Instead, in 1982 Boyt started a novel about "adolescent pain—the usual crap" and supported herself by working in nightclubs, either at the door or in the record booth. At one point, she and yet-to-be-discovered singer Neneh Cherry were a deejay team. Having been the high-profile door tender at such hot spots as the Café de Paris, Boyt admits that she is still a member of "this kind of club mafia." But by the spring of last year, with her book selling well in Britain, she announced she had done "her last club gig ever." Still, she says she feels "very privileged compared to most people—in that I found a way of making a living that didn't take up very much time."
Writing nearly every day, Boyt finished her first novelistic effort, but it was rejected by publishers. She set it aside and began Sexual Intercourse, which she eventually showed to novelist Francis Wyndham, whom she had met at a party. He recommended it to his publisher, Jonathan Cape, as both "funny and disturbing." Says Wyndham: "I think she's very talented and an extremely serious writer. She works very hard. I'm sure she would have gotten published anyway."
Boyt has just finished her second novel, which will be published in England in the spring. The new novel, Rose, "is the story of a girl and an adventure in her life similar to those ridiculous road books—Jack Kerouac," she says. "But it's a journey that I hope has a lot of truth in it. And it's about sexuality again, as usual—my favorite subject."
As for what great-grandfather Sigmund might make of her literary obsession, she claims to have "absolutely no idea." So far Boyt has skipped psychoanalysis and never has made a serious study of the great man's work. ("He's not the family Bible by any means," she says.) Her informed suspicion, however, is that he would not be shocked by the bizarre goings-on in Sexual Intercourse. "I think he had an element of prudishness about him." she allows, "but I don't suppose he'd be turning in his grave, no."
Michelle Green, Laura Sanderson Healy in London