Q&A with Frieda Hughes

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David Burges

Author Frieda Hughes.

If the world of poetry were a monarchy, Frieda Hughes would certainly be a princess. A poet, children's book author and artist in her own right, Hughes, 46, is the daughter of poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Her parents' tumultuous marriage, her father's infidelity, her mother's suicide when Frieda Hughes was three, and her parents' larger-than-life work (including her mother's semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar) have been the subject of dozens of books and movies. Now Hughes has broken her near silence about her own life and family drama, in her moving new book of poetry, 45, a must-read for any Plath devotee. The collection of poems (one for each year of her life) is an act of creative courage, as Hughes goes back through her painful past to delve into the family history. (In the Third Year entry, Hughes writes, "My mother, head in oven, died/ And me, already dead inside/ I was an empty tin/ Where nothing rattled in.") In addition, Hughes spent five years painting an abstract landscape of her life, 4 ft. high and 225 ft. long in 45 panels, which complements the poetry. TIME's Andrea Sachs spoke with Hughes in an exclusive American interview from Hughes' home in Wales, where she lives with her husband, Hungarian-born painter Laszlo Lukacs.

TIME: You were 14 before you learned the truth about your mother's death. How did you find out?

Hughes: I was in a literary course, a little weekend course or something, and the girl in the room I was sharing was reading The Bell Jar. Normally when people would say, "are you related to Sylvia Plath Hughes?" I'd go, "well, I can't imagine why you'd think that," and pass it off. I was very shy about it. But on this occasion, I couldn't help myself. I said, "oh, that's my mother." And she looked out of the window and she said, "but it can't be. Sylvia Plath committed suicide and your mother is walking across the forecourt with your father." [My father and stepmother] had just dropped me off. And I remember sitting on the bed, so shocked. I didn't really believe her.

That was the first you knew of it.

Yes. Because my father hadn't told me. The girl put the book down on the bed and walked out. I pick up the book and I see, yes, sure enough, there's Sylvia Plath, absolutely. I can't remember if suicide or not was written on the book, but I knew she had been telling the truth. Then an article was published. My father actually took me and my brother out of school so that he could tell us the truth before we read it in the papers that our mother had committed suicide. Because up until then, he had always told us she died of pneumonia. I asked him once, "Why did you do that?" He said, "What do you tell a three-year-old who doesn't understand?" And he said, "Once having told a three-year-old something that they could cope with at the time, how do you determine the age at which you tell them the truth? Every year would go by and I'd say, could I tell them now? It was because of the pain that I put it off and put it off." It's so hard, he said. This time we were taken out of school and so we came home. We talked about it.

In your poetry you write openly about the need for a mother.

Which is very, very strong. I'm a little ashamed of it, too, because it does open a weakness, but I've met a lot of people and I have friends who, if they've lost their father or lost their mother, they also have a need for that parent. There is always a susceptibility for somebody who steps into that place.

You look like your mother, don't you think?

Some people who knew her said, "God, you look like your mother." And some people who knew her said, "no, you don't." It's very hard. My brother thinks I do. There is one photograph in particular where she is looking straight at the camera and she's got shoulder-length hair and a fringe. She's looking very earnest. I dye my hair blonde and I always tie it back, and I'm older also. I'm 16 years older than she was when she died. I think I'm beginning to resemble my American grandmother, her mother.

Your family has been analyzed and re-analyzed by the outside world. What has that been like for you?

It has a life of its own and it's happening on some other planet. I mean, really, that's what it feels like. It feels oddly unrelated; it's like the Sylvia film. You can analyze [my parents] as much as you like, but if you weren't actually the people themselves . . . It's interesting to me that people have been so interested in them. I think one of the reasons out of many of the reasons, apart from the fact they did write some super poetry, and their lives were sadly tragic, I think part of it is that people in a way almost analyze themselves through their subject. This is just my guess.

Your mother's gravestone in England was damaged by people who wanted to take the "Hughes" name off of it.

They did. I haven't seen it for a while, so I don't know what the situation is at the moment. I did go up a couple of times before we moved [to Wales] and planted and gardened it. I turned her grave into a sort of flower bed. I went up there and it was hard to find it. A stranger looked at me and said, "oh, if you're looking for the Plath grave, it's over there." I hadn't said anything. I realize that it's a tourist attraction. I really find that very, very difficult. It impersonalizes it for me.

Has your father, who became poet laureate of England before he died in 1998, been treated unfairly by the public?

Oh, I think that would have to be a resounding yes. People can disapprove of a man for having an affair, people can disapprove of a woman having an affair, but when it ultimately comes down to it, a lot of people do it. What they do with their own reactions to their partner's infidelities is up to them. I don't think outsiders have a right, as much as we all judge — human beings are by nature judgmental — I don't think people have a right to judge and, if they do have their opinions, to actually use another human being for the duration of the remaining part of their life as a whipping post for what they think should have happened is a cruelty that really has no excuse. If I look at a review that's less in favor of something, it's funny — a good review goes over the head, and a bad review goes through my heart. And I look at what my father coped with on a much, much more personal basis. I don't know how he did it. It took a sort of stoicism and a kind of stamina. But he did do the best he could with what he had at hand during the rest of his life.

If all of this had happened to your mom now, what people know now, do you think it would have resulted in her death? With modern pharmacology, could somebody have helped her?

I think there's no doubt about that. The advancements in the past 30- or 40-odd years, are huge. I don't believe there's any way that that situation would have arisen now. She'd still be here.