Sarah Boon | Longreads | January 2019 | 16 minutes (4,272 words)

Tessa Hadley is a late-bloomer in UK fiction, despite having wanted to be a writer since she was a child. “It chose me rather than me choosing it,” she says about writing. Hadley published her first novel at the age of 46. Since then, she’s been an unstoppable force, publishing five additional novels, two short story collections, and contributing regularly to The New Yorker. Her new novel, Late in the Day, delves into the institution of marriage, particularly long marriages. She explores how couples grow around each other, like trees, and how the sudden death of a partner can send life into a tailspin.

Hadley’s writing centers around middle-class families, mainly from the perspective of women. She focuses on the smaller things in life: family, relationships, children, and the internal struggle to become oneself. Her short stories have been compared to those of Alice Munro: author Anne Enright calls them “two writers who would rather be wise than nice.”

Hadley is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and has either won or been shortlisted for many prestigious writing prizes. She won the O. Henry Prize for her short stories “The Card Trick” (2005) and “Valentine” (2014), and she was on the Orange Prize short story longlist twice (2008: “The Master Bedroom,” and 2011: “The London Train”). She also won the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize in 2016 for her novel The Past.

We spoke a week before Christmas, successfully connecting with each other across the eight-hour time difference between her home in London and mine on the Canadian west coast. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Boon: You did your Masters in creative writing (which I’ll call an MFA for our North American audience) when you were 38, you received your PhD in English in your early 40s (1998), and you became a professor at the University of Bath in 1997?

Tessa Hadley: Yes, that’s right.

Would it be correct to say that you’ve always wanted to be a writer?

Yes, it would be really, from when I was quite a little girl. It chose me rather than me choosing it. I can remember being a voracious reader from quite early in my childhood, as soon as I could. And I quite early on thought, “Well, I could do this too, I could write a book that isn’t written yet.” The flavor of that is in my memory. So I did always want to do it.

That sounds remarkably familiar — I was the same way.

I’d say there are lots of us! [laughter]

Yes, and many of us think “oh, we can just do it.”

Why wouldn’t you, if you love the books that you read? It’s sort of a natural extension of that. You think, “I could do this in words, too.” I wonder if it’s more common with writing than it is with painting. I reckon there might be more people who just love painting but don’t think, “I wish I could paint, I must try, I want to be a painter.”

I think painting is a bit more difficult in a way, because you have to get an image out of your head and onto the canvas.

Do you not think that’s true of writing? I would describe that actually as being part of what you have to do: you have to get the shorthand words out of your head and make something that is not obvious and not inevitable as a brush stroke on a canvas.

That makes me wonder why people don’t take up painting, but they take up writing instead.

I suspect it is what you said, that people think: “I can speak, I can read words, I can use words, I’m using them all the time, so why wouldn’t I be able to write?” Then the actual business of making the writing work on the page is as strange in a way as making strokes work on a canvas but, in the first enthusiasm, it doesn’t seem like such a strange or odd or sideways thing to do, it feels more ordinary. But then it turns out not to be ordinary.

It took me so long to do anything that anyone could possibly have wanted to read, because I was doing it all by myself. I did have one or two friends who read what I wrote, but it was too furtive and too secretive. You need an audience.

I’ve just been reading a book by Gary Paulsen about a high school student who discovers meditation and mindfulness. As part of this, he tries his hand at writing and realizes that instead of writing about a person directly, he must write about the shape of that person. The things beyond the person that represent them, not the person themselves.

When I think about how students might write the physicality of somebody, it feels as if you are not doing anything like what a CCTV camera might do. It is a little bit like what you’ve just said: you describe the shape around the person and then somewhere between the words, in the middle of them — if you make the right words and put them in the right place — the person, their physical self and no doubt their personality as well, comes about in that space that you’ve created.

You mentioned in a previous interview that one of your goals in doing an MFA was to join the conversation about writing — both your own writing and others. Do you think it’s essential for people to do an MFA if they want to be a writer?

No. Not at all. Every writer finds their own way through. But I do think most writers, especially fiction writers — no, I think poets easily as much — need a community of writers. It’s a funny old thing to do it all by yourself, which I think is why it took me so long to do anything that anyone could possibly have wanted to read, because I was doing it all by myself. I did have one or two friends who read what I wrote, but it was too furtive and too secretive. You need an audience.

You know, Jane Austen wrote for her family and made them laugh. You could feel it in her sentences, she wants to make them laugh because she’s going to be reading it out loud to them. So how will she be most entertaining? You can feel that pressure, in a good sense, on her sentences. Or, you know, 18th century poets writing to entertain their friends in the café where they met. I think of all writers, it’s odd to find the true loner. People whom you might immediately think were candidates for that, like Kafka — no, it turns out he had a circle of friends and he was reading his stuff to them.

In other words, the MFA is just our contemporary form, a little bit more institutionalized, but it’s essentially providing a forum for writers to experiment and lose their nervousness and preciousness about sharing their work.

What made you decide to do a PhD in English after your MFA?

Because before I did my MFA I’d been a mum, and I’d been writing secretly, if you like, and I’d also done a tiny bit of teaching of literature, evening classes and such things. And I just so loved coming into the community inside the university when I did my MFA. By the end of it, I knew that I was writing much better, but I still wasn’t confident that I would get published or even really write anything that was good enough. I thought to myself, “I’m going to have a very miserable life if I just go on doing this and failing. And is there any possible way round that?” And I thought there’s this other thing, and it’s the only other thing I’m good at, and I find it quite easy compared to writing my own fiction, which is being a critic. I’ve always loved that, and it’s always come naturally to me. I was always confident about my judgments and my critical writing, that’s odd, but I always was. Whereas that’s absolutely not true, not true at all, about my own fiction and writing.

You started with writing short stories, from what I understand, and then you published your first novel at 46, which gives me a lot of hope as I’m 41 and working on my first non-fiction book. The book you published in 2002 was written while you were bringing up your family, so this was actually a book that you’d written some years before, then.

Oh no, it wasn’t, it was written in the very late 90s, after my MFA, and accepted in 2000. It wasn’t written before, not at all. It’s a time I now cannot imagine: I had a new job teaching full time at the university, I had my little boy who was six or seven, my two other boys were teenagers. How did I do all that, while I was also finishing writing my PhD? It was one of those moments when the adrenaline shot of a new life was so overpowering that I could do anything. And I couldn’t conceivably do all that now — I’m really by nature very indolent. Not that energetic. [laughter]

It was as if I just saw my way to it, and it suddenly seemed — not ever easy — but I knew how it should sound, what my voice should be, who I was, what my material was, and it felt inevitable and deliciously exciting. I felt in charge and authoritative in some way that I had never felt in all the novels I’d tried to write before, that were all phoney. They were all other people’s books that I was hoping to be able to write on behalf of other authors, and I was always tentative, thinking what should it be, and what should they say, and how would it unfold. And suddenly, however small it was, I thought “But I know about this.” That was a lovely moment. I think I’d already experienced it in a few short stories before I was able to put that into a novel.

And actually, that first novel, Accidents in the Home, is constructed as if it was a succession of short stories. That was another useful key, when I thought, “I don’t know what the engineering of a novel feels like, but I know what a good short story feels like from the inside. What if I just write a succession of short stories that are all about the same people in chronological order, but each one has its own sort of sprung rhythm inside it to hold it taut, rather than being part of a big developing arc?” So that was the way I tricked myself, almost, into writing the first novel.

All the novels I’d tried to write before [Accidents in the Home] were all phoney. They were all other people’s books that I was hoping to be able to write on behalf of other authors.

It’s interesting that you describe how you suddenly saw your way to writing a novel, and it felt “inevitable and deliciously exciting.” It makes me think of Stella in Clever Girl, when she first realizes she’s clever, and she has this feeling that she can solve any physics problem, she can understand anything to do with the environment, she feels this sense of personal empowerment.

I enjoyed that bit of that novel, I’m always pleased that I wrote that. But it’s funny, I haven’t quite connected it to that, but you’re right: that’s the feeling, the feeling of having almost a deluded, intoxicated moment and one does feel almost godlike when you’re first writing and first getting it right.

And 2002 was also the beginning of your relationship with The New Yorker.

Yes, that was just wonderful because, in fact, I’d had a funny moment years before that when I was struggling and not writing very well. I’d seen an agent in London and she’d said, “Come and visit, there’s something interesting in what you’re writing.” She said to get some short stories in somewhere, that that would be a good start. And I said, “Well, where shall I send them? What about The New Yorker?” Because all the writers I loved best had their stories in The New Yorker: Nadine Gordimer, Alice Munro. And I intercepted a look between her [and her colleague] as if, “What does she think she is…Is she mad or something?”

To have my first story in The New Yorker was a kind of blissful turnaround. It was lovely. The first thing I submitted was actually a version of the first chapter of Accidents in the Home which, as I say, was written rather like a series of short stories. I used that first chapter as a freestanding story, just changed it slightly to make it even more so. My publisher showed it to Debra Treisman at The New Yorker, and she accepted it, and that was blissful. You know, even though I knew my favourite writers had been published in The New Yorker, I didn’t even know what it looked like. I didn’t even know what format it was, or what else was in there. Of course, I immediately began to subscribe and have been a subscriber ever since, and I love it for all the other things it does.

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I find that you have a way of encapsulating a complex idea or even a glimpse of an idea into a perfect gem of a sentence that illuminates exactly what the reader wants to know. For example, Sophy says in The Past: “Part of the oddity of marriage…was in how unwise it was to attend too intently to the other person…To the unmarried, it seemed that a couple must be intimately, perpetually exposed to each other — but actually that wasn’t bearable. In order for love to survive, you had to close yourself off to a certain extent.” Sentences like that not only explain a concept, but they also explain the character’s personal situation. I’m wondering, do you set out to do this intentionally, do you have to work at this, or is this your personal writing style?

It’s just the way I think. I’m always thinking about those things. And some of those thoughts are mine, but I’m not a very decisive thinker. When I have a thought like that one, I’m not really thinking it’s true for all time, for all people. I’m thinking it might be true sometimes, and there might be other truths. I think that indecisiveness is part of why it took me so long, actually, to get writing, because I was quite tentative about what I knew. And then there’s a way of turning that tentativeness into fiction, in fact, because in fiction it’s wonderful. That is Sophy’s thought, it’s not mine, and yet it is something I’ve thought. I couldn’t just have made up an alien thought, but I think I can have multiple thoughts.

It’s like what Keats says about negative capability [“when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”]. This is one of the great things about poetry or novels, is that you can hold contradictory things in your mind at the same time and they can both be true and you don’t have to decide between them. I think actually that was one of my breakthroughs, when all the stuff that I was always thinking about life, and love, and parenting, and marriage, all that ordinary, domestic, familial stuff, of course my characters would be thinking that stuff and living out that stuff and living out that version of life. That’s part of the mystery of how we make our lives, partly out of our ideas about our lives.

I appreciate that your characters develop in large part through their connections with other people — they don’t achieve their full selves in a vacuum. They are affected not just by the actions of others, but by the proximity and ideas of other as well. Why did you choose to develop your characters that way?

Again, I don’t really think it’s a choice. I do think it’s just what I feel. I mean, consider Alice Munro, think of how she makes you feel, how her girls grow in relation to their friends and their family impacting on them, and whether they react by being like them and growing towards what their family want them to be, or quite the opposite. It’s just how I see things.

Maybe it is a little bit of what I said before about how I think I’m quite an impressionable person, not a decisive person who goes out stamping myself on the world, forcefully. I’m all too receptive — when I was young I was in love with one person after another just because they seemed to me gloriously certain about who they were. And I’m applying that to friendships as well as actual romantic dreams or romantic relationships. That’s very much how I see the world: that we are impressionable and no doubt we are of course impacting on other people, but they are impacting on us.

In fact, I think there was an image, I can’t even remember whether it’s still in Late in the Day — it may have been cut. But at some point, I tried to describe Christine’s marriage with Alex as what happens in a marriage, which is that you grow around each other, you form each other, like when you see trees that do that. And they are actually separate trees, but this one’s grown slightly to the left there because the other one was sticking up to the right. That seems to me very true about people’s formation.

It occasionally worries me about women, the pressure upon women to be nice, and their own twisted ways of being nice.

You’ve been compared with two Canadian authors which, as a Canadian, is really interesting to me: Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro. And you’ve noted that “Discovering Alice Munro’s stories — Open Secrets was the first collection I read — unlocked so many insights, helped me to begin.” Anne Enright has called both you and Alice Munro “two writers who would rather be wise than nice.” What do you feel it is about Alice Munro’s stories that galvanized you, and do you think Anne’s statement about you and Alice is correct?

Oh, it’s such a lovely thing to say. It’s a terrible thing to say, too, one ought to be thinking, “Oh no, I want to be nice.” But of course, no, writers don’t want to be nice, one doesn’t want to be thought of as nice. I just hope it’s true, and it’s incredible to be in the same sentence as Alice Munro, so wonderful.

Alice was so liberating, she was the first person whose books l loved that somehow opened a door for me to limp into writing after her, if you know what I mean. Whereas the other people, as I said earlier, I tried to write feeble imitations of their books, which were dead and fake. It’s a funny thing. You have these families of writers you love: there’s the wide family of the people who are passionately important to you, but most of them don’t help you to write — and that doesn’t matter, that’s fine, you love them as a reader, they’re more important in your life. But then there’s this little intimate circle of the people who are actually gateways for you as a writer. Somehow, something about Munro’s sentences, which were so plain and yet opened up intricacies of relationship and imagining and desiring, was so exciting. It made it possible for me to open things up in myself. So she was huge for me, when I discovered her, so exciting. I didn’t know that straight away, I just thought she was huge because I loved to read her. And it was only afterwards that I realized that she also was so enabling for writing.

She’s kind of an inspiration in a way.

Yes. And Mavis Gallant is another. A very, very different writer from Munro. And I came to her quite late after discovering Munro, and I just love her as much. She’s more scary, she’s such a good writer about politics and history and money and economics and war, and she does it so shrewdly and so effortlessly, it seems. She’s brilliant at keeping me up to the mark. I sometimes have her books — as I do with Munro as well — open beside me as I’m writing, just to try and make me be that dry and that big in a small place. She writes little stories about little people which somehow become about the whole of the postwar era, and yet she does it by choosing four details, so everyday, and yet they’re not. Marvelous, she’s a marvel, too.

I find it really interesting how much children appear in your writing — and not just as an aside. You give them complete roles and develop their characters. You’re quite good at capturing them at a young age, when they have those strange rituals. For example, Madeleine and Stella in Clever Girl rubbing tree resin on their faces, Ivy and Arthur making offerings to the porn magazines in The Past, or the story An Abduction, in which Frances and her friends play with rabbit turds in a tea set.

[laughter] I particularly enjoyed writing that one!

I can imagine, especially the voices that they made about “taking your medicine.”

You also capture the cusp of adolescence. That’s often represented by girls who are somewhat malleable and unformed, almost empty vessels who have no sense of themselves in the world and are waiting to be filled. For example, Molly in The Past, or Jane in the story An Abduction. Why do you include so much detail and character development about children, and how do you write them so well?

I don’t think it’s hard to write children, actually, because I think everyone’s been one. For me it was a very vivid time — I kind of liked my childhood, especially up to the age of 11. I went to a rather grim school after that and so I write about that school really meanly, actually — it crops up in lots of my books and I take my revenge on it. It was very sort of strict about homework and things. But before that — and afterwards as well — I had a lot of fun. I was a shy little girl, but I had some close friends and we played such imaginative games and had such fantasy lives, that it feels very close to me somehow. I can remember it easily, with great relish for what fun it is to write.

On the whole, you have to push adults a bit harder to get to their crazy sides. (Not really, I’m not sure I really mean that.) But with children it’s all there — they sort of mainline life, don’t they? They cut through the stuff that makes grown-up life slightly duller. So I love writing them. In my absolutely new book that I’m just starting, I’ve got a little boy, and I’m really enjoying writing him. He’s not going to be a really huge character, but he’s going to have some very fixed ideas and be quite puritanical, as children can. So that’s a slightly new thing for me to do and I’m interested in it.

Though children populate your books, ultimately your books are about women. There is the domesticity, the endless details of family life: looking after the kids, doing the shopping, cleaning house, sharing parenting, etc. All of this is experienced through the eyes of female characters, and it often seems as though the male characters are incidental to the main story. They still affect a woman’s character, because of what we talked about earlier that characters don’t develop in a vacuum, but in a way, it’s as though the men are somewhat set apart. Do you consciously structure your books this way?

It’s a complicated story, but I very much know that I’m writing with women at the center, maybe that is inevitable. But men have written so brilliantly for so long making women the center of their books, haven’t they? DH Lawrence, Henry James, and others created those marvelous female characters who became the vessels of all of their subtlest thought and experience. So it seems a shame, and I want to do boys and men, I want that.

I was really hoping that, in Late in the Day, Alex and Zachary would feel more central. I tried to really make them not just products of the women’s lives or aspects of the women’s lives, but men doing their own thing, going after their own thing. And I’m actually much more sympathetic to Alex than I think a few early readers, who really are quite cross with him, though a couple of them were sympathetic. I’m sympathetic to him. I quite like those rather dangerous men who just won’t conform and won’t quite buckle down to being nice. It occasionally worries me about women, the pressure upon women to be nice, and their own twisted ways of being nice, so there’s something I quite like about men refusing to do that.

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Sarah Boon a former environmental science professor who studied water, wildfire, and climate change. Her articles about the environment, science, women in science, and literature have appeared or are forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review of BooksHakai MagazineTerrain.orgScienceNature, and other outlets. 

Editor: Dana Snitzky