What Passes for Normal Life

Lynn Freed and Ann Patty

In Conversation

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Lynn Freed’s The Last Laugh follows three self-proclaimed “old bags” who run away to a Greek island for a year to get away from children, grandchildren, and other entanglements. What they encounter is nothing like the long serene days on the Mediterranean they had envisioned. Ann Patty, author of Living with a Dead Language, calls The Last Laugh “the most brilliant cliché-busting riff ever written.” Here, Patty and Freed discuss competition, friendship, and getting revenge on pesky editors. 

Ann Patty: Many women have a fantasy about sharing a house with a group of women friends when family life is behind them. This is precisely what happens in your new novel, The Last Laugh. Is this something you dreamed of for yourself?

Lynn Freed: Well, no, certainly not sharing a house. But discussions of this sort have been going on among my women friends for decades, and certainly I’ve taken part in them. In fact, having discrete living quarters within reach of one’s friends is a terrific idea. Instead, we’re scattered all over the map.

But, like all utopian fantasies, this one—women friends living together—ignores some of the obvious pitfalls. Disparity of means, for one: what one friend could afford, another couldn’t think of. Then there’s the problem of place. Some want to live in a city, others in the country; some are for year-round warm weather, others for seasons. For my part, I’d like to avoid winter altogether. But others seem to find it charming—all that snow.

And, wherever one goes, children are never far behind, as the women in this story find out.  They also find out that quite soon they’ll be getting on each other’s nerves. I had enormous fun with this, which is by no means the rule for writing novels—or writing anything—at least, not for me.

I had enormous fun with this, which is by no means the rule for writing novels—or writing anything—at least, not for me.

AP: This is the funniest book you have written; it feels as if you may have been laughing a lot while you were writing it. 

LF: I was laughing. And also, of course, grumbling and moaning, not to mention despairing. I had the same experience in the writing of Home Ground, my second novel. Writing funny scenes that could have been right out of my childhood, I laughed like mad. But that novel is also dark—both books have their dark sides. You can’t have funny without dark.

AP: The columns your character Ruth writes are particularly amusing. Were you taking revenge on editors who’d given you stupid assignments in the past?

LF: I worked for about ten years as a freelance writer and, yes, some editorial directives—or, more likely, correctives—could be maddening. Still, I was lucky: most of the editors I worked with were intelligent and gave me my head. Trouble came more from the sort of subeditors wanting to make their mark. They were the ones, I found, most likely to drive me mad. Still, if I thought they were going to ruin a piece, I’d just dig in my heels. It was an exhausting life—deadline upon deadline. I have nothing but admiration for writers who produce week after week.

So, yes, there was some glee in having the narrator write those columns, subtly and not so subtly undercutting editorial directives.  

AP: Do you think it’s easier to live with women or men? Why?

LF: Neither. Living alone is still my ideal, with a man—my man—living next door, messing up his own place. His own TV, his own remote, his own fridge and stove, his own everything. And, of course, having my friends close by. Life without men would be rather bleak, at least for me. They can be a grand nuisance, but, somehow, they spice things up.

Living alone is still my ideal, with a man—my man—living next door, messing up his own place.

AP: Which brings me to the subject of women competing for male attention. You have some extraordinary competition going on in this novel among these women. And then there’s the revenge exacted in the columns. What drew you to writing about this sort of rivalry?

LF: Well, there’s little more painful in what passes for normal life than having one’s man snatched by a friend, even if one doesn’t want him any more—hasn’t wanted him for ages. It’s odd, but there it is. Both snatcher and snatchee will evermore be wary of each other. This has not been my experience, but certainly it could have been. What interests me is the women—the magic than can occur when, for instance, the bond between them is strong enough to endure such treachery.

This, with ex post facto wisdom, is what I think I was doing here—ex post facto because I never go into a book or a scene or anything knowing how it will come out. The biggest surprise to me has been the response of women to the men in this book. They all love the plump, over-cologned Greek poet/taxi driver with whom the character Bess takes up. Probably because he’s helpful without being in the least demanding—one of those leave-it-to-me wonders. Who also happens, conveniently, to have a gorgon of a wife.

AP: So, what’s next for you?

LF: I’m writing an essay entitled “Toilets, Virginity and a Good Bottle of Wine”. The title is the best thing about it so far.

Lynn Freed is the author of seven novels, a collection of short stories, and two collections of essays. Her honors include the inaugural Katherine Anne Porter Award for fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, two PEN/O. Henry awards, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. Born in South Africa, she now lives in Northern California.

Ann Patty is the author of Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin, which is available in paperback from Viking/Penguin.

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