Tessa Hadley’s Longing to Put Life Into Words

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Tessa Hadley recently published her thirtieth short story in The New Yorker—the first, “Lost and Found,” came out in 2002—and also, earlier in the summer, put out her twelfth book of fiction in just over two decades, the story collection “After the Funeral.” In a sense, Hadley, who published her first novel at forty-six, seems to be making up for lost time—narratives pouring out of her, albeit in finely crafted sentences and immersive paragraphs. As she once told me, stories, for her, “begin with those two questions, which sound so banal but are, in fact, the richest and most mysterious ones: What happened? And: What happened next?” She’s a writer whose eye for the telling detail and whose understanding of human behavior—what she calls her “empathetic imagination”—give her stories a kind of inherent inevitability, even as they surprise with their twists and turns. Hadley’s characters are driven, if not by social ambition then by the ambition to understand themselves socially, to engage with the world until they can come to terms with their place in it. Often, they search for themselves in others’ perceptions of them, and identity is reflected back and forth in a kind of multifaceted hall of mirrors. Whether Hadley is telling a story from the viewpoint of a fifteen-year-old sight-seeing with her parents, a middle-aged woman who falls for her son’s math tutor, or a housekeeper caring for an old man with a murky political past, she’s both a sociologist and a portraitist—studying the cultural constraints that her characters live with, as well as their unconstrained thoughts and desires.

I recently spoke to her for a segment of The New Yorker Radio Hour. What follows is an edited version of the full transcript of our conversation.

I’d like to talk to you about your new story collection, “After the Funeral,” but, before we launch on that, let’s go back to your first book, “Accidents in the Home,” which was published in 2002. A lot has been made of the fact that you didn’t publish your first book until you were in your mid-forties. So what happened in the years before that?

Lots of writing and failing. Lots of trying to do it and getting it really wrong. It wasn’t like a slow, gradual buildup and then I started writing something that seemed truthful and O.K. It wasn’t like falling off a cliff. It was the opposite. It was like I was under the cliff and just treading water and not getting anywhere. I can remember writing the first short stories, the first ones I ever had published, in tiny Welsh presses, and it’s not that they were great but something in the sentences rang true. So, yes, it was an odd career pattern in some ways. I don’t know quite what happened in my forties that made that connection flow at last from my brain down my arm into the keyboard. (Or I might have even still been at a typewriter at that point.) I don’t know quite what happened to get that right.

In those years when you’re writing and you feel you’re failing, at what point are you assessing something as a failure?

Ah, there’s a lot of self-deception in writing always. So I would be writing a novel that I hoped would work, and I would have a horrible feeling that it was wrong. But then I still have a horrible feeling that it’s wrong quite often when I’m doing it. So I would tell myself, That’s probably just that silly, horrible feeling, and it might be all right, really. And I would get to the end of it, and I would have this sort of hope against hope. I would send it off to a publisher and I expect it went in the slush pile and I would get a, you know, three-line rejection and I just accepted that and thought, Of course they’re right, it’s hopeless. I’m now very relieved that I didn’t, by some freak, get those really-not-alive novels published.

I think I was just a late developer, and I was trying to write other people’s novels for all that time. Getting it right eventually—in as far as one is ever sure of getting it right—felt like wandering around in other people’s wildernesses and then coming home, putting a key in the door, opening the door, walking into my own house, recognizing the rooms of my house, and thinking, This is where I live. This is where my writing lives. That’s what it did feel like. It felt like I wasn’t faking it anymore.

What kept you going through the years when you did feel you were faking it? Why not give up at that point?

It was just the strangest insanity, really. Nothing good. Nothing virtuous like perseverance or strength or will, just the desire to write, which I can’t explain. Where did that come from? I love paintings. I have no desire to paint. I love films. I have no desire to make films. But somewhere, at a very, very early point, I longed to put my life into words. I can sort of remember from childhood having an idea for a novel—it does seem extraordinary now—that would be called something like “A Girl and Her Imagination,” which I have to say is a terrible title for a novel. But that desire—it was so awful that I almost felt I wasn’t properly alive unless I could write, which is absurd, lunatic, but that was what it was. And so each time I failed I’d think, That’s it. Do something else. Be a nurse, you know? Love being a housewife, or whatever. And then I’d think, But what if I wrote that book? That book would be good. Surely that book would work. And I would start again.

So it wasn’t the sort of classic story that here you were raising children and overwhelmed by that, so you couldn’t turn your brain to writing until later?

To be honest, the way it played out in my life it seemed like an opportunity, because my husband was working and earning our living and I was at home with the kids and, once they went to nursery, there were three hours in every day. And I got really brilliant at getting home to horrible chaos and mess and washing up, and not doing any of it, just sitting down to work. So that particular rather bourgeois arrangement between, you know, a man and a woman in a marriage, in a family, kind of worked for me, except that unfortunately it didn’t because I wasn’t writing anything very good.

Do you think that that process was one of self-teaching, of, you know, learning through trial and error?

There must have been some of that. But, at the same time, I feel as if the getting it right happened quite suddenly, like a big tumble. I did do a creative-writing course, and I went into it incredibly skeptically. When I went on this course, I thought, No writer I admire has ever studied creative writing. How absurd; pathetic. But, on the other hand, I’m sort of going to go mad or I’m going to have a very unhappy life. I’d better test this thing, and, if I find that I just really can’t do it, then I have to make myself stop.

So I did the course, and it just was wonderful, for all kinds of reasons. I mean, partly I do think I’d been a bit secluded. I had a nice life and loved my children and had friends and went to parties and so on. I liked my life, but something was missing at the center of it. I was pushing at the walls a little bit, and so I just loved being out in the world again. And I loved being back in a university: one of the easy-going friendly new universities, Bath Spa, instead of at the top-ranking one where I’d been an uneasy undergraduate. I kind of recovered some intellectual confidence. And I found that, while no one can teach you to write, it’s wonderfully effective to have an audience at hand. Suddenly, instead of trying to write like Tolstoy or Nadine Gordimer or John Berger, I was writing for those seven people I was going to be in a class with on Thursday. And it was competitive, too! I thought, Well, he did that really well last week, if only I can do better than that. And so that lifts your game. For years afterward, I’ve taught that very same creative-writing course, and I’ve seen that the audience, the pressure of an audience, is an enormous part of improving people’s work.

Also, there’s the sort of editorial help that tutors can give you by saying, I like this bit, that bit’s boring—that sort of stuff. Oh, and one more thought: I didn’t publish the novel I wrote on that course, but I did then think, Well, if I’m going to be a miserable, failed writer, I might as well do one thing I know I can do easily and well, which is be a critic. And I did a Ph.D. on Henry James, and I thought long afterward—not at the time—that rehearsing that authority in the sentences of what ended up becoming a published book on Henry James, being ambitious and quite bold in writing that book, may have been very enabling in terms of then putting myself onto the page in my fiction.

And that was when you started writing “Accidents in the Home”?

Yes, there were an amazing three or four years when I actually had a full-time job at that university, was finishing my Henry James Ph.D., which became a book, and was writing “Accidents in the Home.” And I’m actually really quite an indolent person. I cannot now imagine how I did all that. And I had my own three children at home, my youngest still quite small, and one of my stepsons was living with us, too. I’m so impressed with my younger self.

I feel as though there was some period of time when you were somewhat better known here in the U.S. than in Britain, but maybe I’m imagining that. What’s surprising to me—well, it’s not surprising, because you’re a wonderful writer—but, still, it’s impressive that you were able to break through here given just how rooted in the U.K. most of your stories are.

It surprises me, too. I felt they were such British stories, and it is so lovely to me that they somehow resonated with an American audience. I mean, with you, Deborah—we sometimes talk about this or it crops up in our long e-mailing exchanges over editing—I know that you have spent some of your life in the U.K., so you recognize that Englishness, all the detail of that sort of mustiness and fussiness and comedy of life in Britain. But I am always amazed and delighted that this detail can reach people who’ve no reason to know anything about what it’s like here.

Part of the delight of reading, of course, is not feeling at home, or learning to feel at home in a place that isn’t home. And in the U.K. we love American books. You know how much I love Anne Tyler, for instance, and how much I feel my America through reading her, and other U.S. writers—Updike and Paula Fox and Lucia Berlin and many more.

What strikes me over and over in your writing is that sense of recognition that doesn’t have anything to do with being British or in the U.S. or any physical location but comes from the understanding that you have of your characters’ emotional and psychological lives. I often have that sort of Alexander Pope sense, you know—“What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed”—where I’ve had a feeling, never put it into words, and there it is on your page. So I wonder how you get so deeply inside your characters and are able to both know what feelings they’re having and to express them with such clarity.

I would think it relates a little bit to fantasy and to being very impressionable. Imagination exercises itself in fantasy, in some sense. I can remember, as a very little girl, I had two particular friends. We were slightly geeky, not the popular, pretty girls, and we played out fantasy games every day in the playground and at one another’s houses. It was like acting. We would be, you know, the governess with the naughty children, or kidnapped by pirates. Some of these games were long-running; they were soap operas, rather than short stories. In a favorite one we would be three women who inexplicably, with no men involved, had children—all named, with ages and everything. And we lived on an island, so we had to row to go shopping, and all of us had personalities that were not our actual personalities. So, yes, writing draws on the empathetic, imaginative faculties, which feed into fantasy and, in a more ordered and disciplined way, into fiction and painting and film and so on.

It becomes very apparent to me when we work on a story together and then do a Q. & A. about it afterward—when I read your answers to my questions, it becomes so clear that you know far more about these characters than you necessarily put into the story. That they have a life in your mind that goes beyond the actual events you’ve recounted in the story.

I think I’ve got used to it now, but, when you were first asking those questions, I was almost embarrassed at how ready I was to answer them. A little bit of me thought it would be more austere and more intellectually impressive to refuse—to say, There’s nothing else, the story is the story. And, of course, I do think that, the story must be sufficient in itself. But you are absolutely right that when you ask me those questions, the answers seem to pour out of me, and I do seem to have all sorts of thoughts about my characters and their situation which I haven’t explicitly set out inside the words of the story. It’s an enjoyable game! But on the other hand you shouldn’t need a Q. & A., you should have everything you need to understand the story in the story itself. The answers to the Q. & A. are a kind of surplus.

It’s not a matter of need. It’s a matter of desire. A matter of not wanting to leave these characters behind.

Yes, I suppose when you write a story you’re thinking: there’s this one piece of these characters’ lives that I can seize, and make something out of it. And it might be fifteen years worth of their lives and it might be just a week or a day, but I can seize this. And readers won’t know everything about these characters—who could?—but they will know some essential thing about them from what goes into the short story. But you’re aware as you write that there’s always a surplus: there are always other things you could have said. The story is complete, but it isn’t closed. That’s my excuse. Of course, there’s always more to tell, but if the story’s right then you don’t need any more.

I’m thinking now of a recent story of yours, “Coda,” which explores two characters at a very enclosed period of their lives: a late-middle-aged woman is living, during lockdown, with her ninety-two-year-old mother. You had this setup, and you had a complicated relationship between the mother and daughter. But then you needed another element. Something to throw things off.

Yes. I needed another element. I can’t exactly remember the order of invention, but I’m sure I had a third person in place before I started writing, and I do remember that at some stage before I started I thought maybe this person would turn out to be related to the other two. But then that woman’s physique fell into place. It was based on somebody who has no actual relationship to that character and wasn’t anything like her. It was a woman who used to wait at the school gate years ago, and had kids who played with my kids. I thought of her physique and that was my key. The physique and the woman’s nationality—Maltese—somehow precipitates something in the story between this rather English mother and daughter, the elegant, charming, louche mother and the uptight daughter. I needed something brasher and more forceful to make the triangle flow and break up the stasis between the two who know each other so well.

You needed a stranger.

I needed a stranger, and the stranger had to be, you know, a certain stranger, and you sometimes have to just wait until you get the right stranger to put into your story, to break everything open.

And it becomes a very odd sort of love triangle in the end.

It does, yes. Diane, the “I” of the story, starts to obsess about this woman—with no plan, no intention of anything happening. She just wants a love object who is outside her mother’s sphere. It doesn’t have to do with hatred of her mother, Margot. It’s a fraught but tender relationship between mother and daughter. But Diane is hungry for something to offset that.

I’m wondering if this is always your way into a story—that you have a situation and then you want it to move somewhere—or do you start with a person, or a physique of a woman you used to know, and build a story from there? What is it that interests you enough to say, I’m going to try this?

It’s usually a bit of a story, a setup or a premise. And the story seems inseparable, as I imagine it, from the person it’s going to happen to. In this particular case, perhaps the premise was lockdown. I thought at the time, Writing this feels like writing inside a cupboard. I felt the tightness and closedness of our lives at that point. I do have a ninety-one-year-old mother, although she’s not very much like Margot. Only a little bit. I also have an eighty-nine-year-old aunt, and we were sort of locked down with those two old ladies—we weren’t in the same house, but we were seeing them every few days, and there was something in that situation that I wanted to put onto paper. But usually I have more of a story than that. For instance, with the most recent story, “The Maths Tutor,” I thought, What would happen if a woman were humiliated by really letting herself fall in love—opening herself, making herself available, as it were, and being turned down? What could happen then? Quite often, I’ll have a few of these premises scribbled in my notebook, but I’m waiting for the other thing—the stranger, the what happened next—before I can begin to do something with them. I think my stories are quite old-fashioned in that sense—in that they tend to move somewhere. Not a huge movement. But I think most readers want a surprise, a development, want something to happen. You know, that is what we are interested in as human beings—in each other and in gossip. What happened? What happened next? What happened next when he turned her down? Or, What was it like when that long-divorced couple bumped into each other accidentally? . . . and so on. Those sorts of moments—when the stasis and the carefully held pattern come under new pressure—are what interest us and reveal something in life, and therefore, very naturally, that’s where short fictions converge. Novels, too, grow up around the same kind of radical shakeup—whether on a domestic scale or a world scale.

A lot of your fiction, like “Coda” and “The Maths Tutor,” involves families, relationships, marriages, and I’ve seen it described in various places as “domestic fiction.” I personally take some exception to that term because it feels to me somewhat dismissive—a kind of sexist microaggression, because it’s really aimed almost always at female writers. Very rarely at men who also write about marriage and families.

Exactly. I’ve never heard Knausgaard called “domestic fiction.” But, you know, he writes all about that stuff.

I mean, ultimately, Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” is domestic fiction, if you want to see it that way. William Trevor, John Updike, so many writers. So I’m wondering how you feel about being classified in that way.

A bit resigned because, yes, it’s familiar and, as you’ve just said, it tends to have a little bit of condescension in it. But so much of fiction is “domestic”—domus—the house. Going back to Greek tragedy, Aeschylus, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra—it all happens in the house. Odysseus coming back to find his wife still weaving and the suitors all there. That’s domestic, the home, the hearth. Of course there are the “Robinson Crusoe”s and the adventure stories and they’re important, too, but most stories are based around those fundamental human configurations, at home. That doesn’t seem to me a limiting thing.

But, of course, sometimes, you know, if you’ve read the newspaper that morning and you are aware of some of the extremities happening in the world—you are aware of the smallness of the scale you’re working at. Why are you here writing about, you know, a woman looking after her elderly mother in a relatively privileged situation where they have plenty to eat and nobody’s trying to kick them out of their home and so on? I think you should feel perpetually slightly on edge as to whether your subject matter justifies the art. But, in the end, there we are. You don’t get a choice about what you write—as we were saying in the beginning, it’s about finding your own home in writing. You don’t get to say, Which house shall I live in? Shall I write a post-colonial novel? In fact, I think that was what I was trying to do in those years of failing. I was reading Gordimer and Coetzee and, of course, thinking they were stunning and wanting to write books like that. But it wasn’t what I knew about, so I couldn’t. You don’t get a choice as to what you write, and if you have to write you’ll just do it, and then you’ll have to wait and see what it’s worth and how long anyone will be interested in it—but you can’t write with those questions in mind. In other people’s work, the holding of the tiny and the parochial—I don’t have doubts about that value. But I think you should have doubts about the value of what you’re doing yourself. It keeps you on edge and stops you being complacent. But when I look at a Chardin painting of a woman drinking a cup of tea or a dismal but wonderful Walter Sickert grim interior, with a jaded couple quarrelling, I don’t for one moment feel those artists were wasting their time recording those tiny things. My own taste in art, novels, and short stories, is probably for tiny things. And occasionally not—occasionally you read a miraculous Brecht story that is about the whole of social injustice and you think, Well, we needed that.

We probably need all of it.

We need all of it. That’s it. We need all of it.

I think most of your work does, in a sense, take place against a larger backdrop. I mean, especially when you’re writing about the sixties or the seventies—there’s always the cultural, political context. It’s unavoidable because it is part of daily life.

Well, I love you saying that, and that’s what I try to do. I think, at least in the U.K., I get described as writing about bourgeois life, as much as about domestic life. That’s probably a slightly more stinging critique and of course I’m aware of it, and sometimes, when I feel I can, I push my terrain out a little bit, but, in the end, I write about what I know.

There is a great tradition, especially a twentieth-century tradition, of British writing about bourgeois domesticity, and for most of its duration it was quite politically élitist and privileged. The writers I love best of all, like Elizabeth Bowen—you really don’t want to know what she thought about grammar schools, let alone about comprehensive education. Her politics were definitely pretty right-ish. But, in my lifetime, that same bourgeoisie—or, at least, the one I know—its majority is conscientious, anguished, definitely to the left. I’m not talking about the virtue of that, I’m just thinking about it as a great subject: the people with the political posters on their walls. And the characters in my new story, “The Maths Tutor”—the rather well-off husband and his ghastly mother who think that they love the working classes but just don’t love his wife’s dad, a right-wing old military man who’s definitely working class. So those sorts of ironies and jokes, about class politics as it is now, interest me.

And, of course, class is a huge element in a lot of your stories. It comes up again and again, and it’s the social context in which the narratives take place. I also think it’s something that you enjoy exploring.

Yes, I do. I mean, those little twists and turns—the lefty people who actually don’t really get on very well with the working-class people, the militant Communist youth in the nineteen-sixties going out distributing leaflets to the dock workers, who were busy marching to get rid of the West Indian laborers. Do you know what I mean? Those complexities and those layers and those ironies.

And just the unease of the best people in the bourgeoisie. You can’t unpick who you are, but I’m moved by the way these people sort of attend to themselves, conscientiously and uneasily—I find that quite touching and interesting. I always think writing is close to anthropology. I love reading anthropology: its in-depth study of the way everything relates to everything else. There’s a wonderful saying—the anthropologist Clifford Geertz says he’s amazed by how much difference difference makes, and I love that. Exactly the little parochial nuances that you observe—maybe the way a house is configured or the food people eat, or the style of living, or the belief system—they make all the difference. I’m very much not a universalist. I don’t feel that you can strip away the extras and there’s a sort of universal same experience that everybody goes through wherever they grow up. I kind of think emotion and feeling and imagination and relationships are inflected by furnishings and house and environment and city and country—these aren’t just outward things. The textures and the smells and the tastes outside us actually change our inward sensations and our inner lives.

Absolutely. And the interesting thing about class in Britain is that it’s not a matter of choosing one neighborhood you’re going to write about and then everyone there is the same. Everyone’s on top of everyone else.

Yeah, that’s right. And especially in London.

There’s no separation. And of course “Coda,” the story we were talking about, wouldn’t have been the same story if this mysterious carer next door were of the same class as the mother and daughter.

No. That’s part of why she’s chosen by Diane as a disrupter, because there’s something brave and audacious and bold and careless about her. She doesn’t live like Diane lives, and class is a part of that. She’s a paid carer. But it isn’t money, is it? It’s possible that carer has as much money as Diane has. In fact, we’ve heard that Diane’s in desperate straits financially. She’s made a mess of her life and so on. So it isn’t necessarily money. It so often isn’t money. It’s other things. Although money is fascinating to write about as well. It’s not quite as naked these days as it was in Jane Austen—she always gives you the economic underpinnings of each relationship and each encounter and each expectation. It was more brutally stratified then, and now class in Britain is more mixed up, more complicated. Try disentangling it, you know? But class, and money, remain deeply fascinating and part of identity, though I’m glad to say that the intersection of these things is more messy and indefinite than it used to be.

And there’s movement. There can be movement within a lifetime.

And it’s sort of not very cool to be really upper class anymore. Nobody’s really envying, Lord So-and-So or Lady So-and-So. It doesn’t sound like much fun.

Still mooning over the monarchy though!

Well, some people are mooning over it, you’re right. But, we’ve had enough of Meghan and Harry—you can have them. I think you may have had enough of them, too, very soon.

Reviews of your writing often compare you to Alice Munro, and I’m wondering if you feel an affinity with her work.

Well, I just, you know, I worship her. I love her stories. I think they opened something for me. It was that sense that you could make these huge stories out of, you know, the domestic again. She has her one great theme, though, which I can’t write about—which is the country people of Canada, and then, in the next generation, those who escape out of small-town life into the free and anonymous city. She’s so brilliant about that transition. I’m honored to be ever put in the same sentence as her. I also have a wicked theory that if you, as a writer, go around talking enough about all the writers you love, eventually someone compares you to them. So I’ve been sprinkling Alice Munro’s name in my conversations. I don’t think my prose is very like hers. I love the open weave of hers. It’s very loose, and that’s perfect. I think I’m tighter. And that’s just a matter of character. I’m very inflected by Elizabeth Bowen. I’m not comparing myself to Bowen either—her sentences are more modernist, more strange than mine.

Having edited you and Alice, I agree that your sentences aren’t similar, but I think some of the concerns you have overlap. And you have a similar way of jumping through time.

Well, I’m afraid then I just have to confess, don’t I? That, of course, I do that because she made it possible. She’s the queen of that jumping through time. She invented it. She made that possible for me and other people: we all follow. We learned that you can do that with a short story from her. It’s her genius.

Do you think you learned from Henry James?

I think there’s a strange time cutoff in terms of direct influence, and he’s too long ago. So that in the actual have-it-open-while-you’re-working sense of influence that I can have with Alice Munro, with Bowen, with Anita Brookner, with Colm Tóibín—I couldn’t do that with James. It would come out sounding so wrong, archaic. But I love Henry James, and I would say that, of course, all the great past writers go down into the mulch of yourself and your words and your thought and your imagination. So of course he’s there. And then I would say, too, that James gives the most wonderful permission to writers. If you think of “The Golden Bowl,” that great massive masterpiece novel, it’s actually about four people having tangled love affairs with one another. That’s all. But James says that thing we were talking about earlier—he says, you know, the tiny is huge. Just look at this tiny tangle in the right way and it becomes magnificent. So he gives a marvellous permission that has to do with taking the minute and the excessively privileged and the impossibly dreamed-up. That’s one of the things I love about him. I’m not sure that people have ever talked like characters in Henry James. In fact, I’m sort of sure they haven’t. Certainly the upper classes—obviously, it’s my day for being rude about them—mostly it definitely wasn’t like that at their country-house parties: it was sort of crass and awful. But he dreams this dream of the upper classes, and he puts it in a book and it becomes magnificently beautiful and then it exists in some place in one’s dreams and imagination. And somehow that then feeds back into real life and is an important part of how we imagine our lives, although it isn’t strictly realistic. So that was a long answer to your question, Deborah.

Thank you so much, Tessa.

Lovely to talk to you, Deborah. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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