In Esther Freud’s eighth novel, Mr. Mac and Me, the acclaimed British writer imagines an unlikely friendship between renowned Scottish artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh (a.k.a Mac) and Thomas Maggs, a fictional young local of Walberswick, a small fishing village on the eastern coast of Britain where Mackintosh and his wife took up residence in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I.
The author, who is the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud and daughter of Lucian Freud, writes Walberswick well because she knows it well. Freud’s grandparents owned a vacation house in the secluded village 120 miles northeast of London; it has served as a retreat for the Freud family for four generations. “I have a deep love for this place,” Freud says. “It feels like the place I feel most like myself.”
Freud, who was named in 1993 as one of Granta’s 20 “Best of Young British Novelists” and whose debut novel Hideous Kinky was made into a feature film starring Kate Winslet, so loved the village that she long dreamed of owning her own home there. In 2000, she and husband actor David Morrissey realized that dream when they purchased an old Walberswick house which had once been the village inn. It was in the old house where the idea for Mr. Mac and Me was born.
One day, while sorting through items left in the house by previous owners, Freud discovered that Mackintosh, the famed architect of the Glasgow School of Art, stayed in the inn in 1914, the same year he was briefly arrested and detained on suspicion of being a German spy. As World War I intensified and fear of espionage reached a fever pitch, the Walberswick locals became wary of the quirky Scottish painter, mistaking his nighttime walks on the beach as efforts to signal enemy boats.
“When I first heard the story that Charles Rennie Mackintosh came to this small town and that he came to be the subject of suspicion and was reported to the authorities, I thought, ‘That is a good story,’ ” Freud recalls.
So she set out to tell it, starting a novel about Mackintosh’s time in Walberswick told from the perspective of a present-day Walberswick woman.
The book's early pages failed to excite Freud the way she had hoped. “It wasn’t really setting me on fire,” Freud says. “I remember thinking that if I could somehow tell Mackintosh’s story through this house, it became more appealing.”
Inspiration struck thanks to yet another discovery inside her holiday home: the ghost of a young boy, whose presence she had long sensed. “It was a very slight presence,” Freud explains. “The house is very old. The fact that there was this presence in one area of the house, I accepted it totally. It was a small price to pay. I never spoke about it. I used to acknowledge him when I passed by, especially late at night. It wasn’t particularly scary.”
Freud tinkered with the idea of telling Mackintosh’s story from his perspective. She tested the idea, giving the ghost the voice of a 12-year-old boy who lived at the inn in 1914 when Mackintosh arrived in town. “Once he started to speak,” Freud says, “I became excited. I thought, ‘He has energy and precision.’ ”
Thus, the character of Thomas Maggs, the only surviving son of the inn’s owners, was born. In Mr. Mac and Me, Thomas is a budding artist himself and his curiosity about the peculiar Scottish visitor results in an unlikely friendship. By imagining Thomas’ friendship with Mac, Freud was able to tell the story of the oft-misunderstood Mackintosh and his time in Walberswick that she had long wanted to tell. “It was the perfect example of real life giving rise to fiction,” Freud says.
Freud admits that she knew very little about Mackintosh’s life, the effects of World War I on Walberswick, or what life might have been like for young Thomas Maggs. She conducted significant research, studying everything from accounts of family life in the early 20th century, to biographies of Mackintosh, to his art and personal correspondence, to war memoirs and photographs of Word War I sailors. Freud’s house in Walberswick also proved helpful in her research as she mined its contents for clues as to what life would have been like for her characters.
In the 18 months she researched and wrote Mr. Mac and Me, Freud divided her time between Atlanta, London, and Walberswick. It was in those final months she spent in Walberswick when the writing picked up steam. The atmospheric village served as her muse. On the occasions she found her writing stalled, she took her characters for a walk and had them look at the sea or up at the night sky, all of which, she says, gave her visceral pleasure.
“There is a beauty of the place and an intensity to it,” Freud says. “It casts a sort of spell, and the people who live there are all under it.”
Lauren Lavelle is a writer based in New York City.