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30 July 2020

Tessa Hadley: ‘There’s nothing unpolitical about intimate stories of family life’

Tessa Hadley, Author
by Katie Smart Author Interviews, Writing Tips

Tessa Hadley is the author of seven highly acclaimed novels and three short story collections. In 2016 she was awarded the Windham Campbell Prize and the Hawthornden Prize, and she won the Edge Hill Short Story Prize for her collection Bad Dreams in 2018. Her stories appear regularly in The New YorkerGranta and other magazines.

We’re thrilled that Tessa will be a guest speaker on our Six-Month Online Novel-Writing course (applications still open until Sun 2 August).

We caught up with Tessa to find out more about writing intimate stories, her favourite writers and her early morning writing routine...

Your latest novel Late in the Day starts in a brilliantly subversive way – with the death of one of the major characters. What inspired you to start at the end?

I always want to structure my novels in the most straightforward way possible: begin at the beginning and follow the story through chronologically until the end. But it rarely works out like that. When I was blocking out Late in the Day in my mind’s eye, before I began writing, I knew I needed a strong crisis somewhere, to concentrate my story of two couples in long marriages, and wring out from their four lives the richest possible experience. One of the four of them had to die, I decided, in order for us to see them all with clarity; his death strikes a kind of light by which the three of them left alive can see themselves. And as soon as I was sure that Zachary had to die, I knew I had to start with his death, that it must set the tone for the whole book: even though that entailed quite a complicated structure, jumping back and forward between present and past. If I’d waited for him to die two-thirds of the way through, his death would have seemed like a mean-spirited trick, unsettling and even melodramatic. No, I needed every single thing inside the book to be understood in the light of what happened to Zachary – even everything that happened in flashback, in the past when he was still alive.   

As well as being the author of seven highly acclaimed novels you’ve also written three short-story collections with your stories regularly appearing in The New Yorker. Is there one form that you prefer over the other?

No, I love both forms. Short stories were my first love just because I think I could do something with them, before I could actually manage the long arc of a novel. My first novels in truth have an episodic structure which is a bit like a succession of short stories strung together; but now at long last I feel I have that long form inside my imagination. It’s wonderful inside a novel to be able to follow through. Whatever you set running in your novel, you can pick it up again later. Whatever question you ask, you can answer it over and over, contradict yourself, experiment with it in different ways. By the time you’re three-quarters of the way through writing it, the world of your novel has a whole reality of its own, so richly sustaining – if it’s alive in the first place, that is. Whereas in a short story you can be deliciously careless, you can throw out ideas irresponsibly, without needing to ever see them through. There’s something so improvised and free in bringing together the elements in a short story. In a novel of course you’re improvising too, and feeling free, it’s not a closed system. But there’s so much more spade work in fitting it all together, making the parts add up to the whole. When I’m in the middle of writing a novel it’s a wonderful release to take time out, and play with a short story for a while.  

Your novels and stories explore what it means to be part of a family and your characters often have complex relationships as siblings, parents, grandparents, and friends. What is it that draws you to write about these all too human relationships?

The novel form became inevitable in the eighteenth century, as life in western Europe moved indoors, and the family – the bourgeois family – became the centre of life and the subject of art. Stories became less public, more private, more psychological and inward, wrapped around nuances of daily life, rather than around world-scale historical events. The novel shape – or shapelessness – perfectly fits around the shape, or shapelessness, of families: disparate individuals drawn together over time inside a house, or inside a family tree, or inside the frame of a novel, sharing their lives, pulling tenderly close together, or pulling fiercely against one another. Novels that aren’t about families are surely the exception: even the crew on Conrad’s ships, say, form surely a provisional type of family, for as long as a voyage lasts. Looking at the contrasts and conflicts inside families – between generations, between men and women, between parents and children, between innocents and those with worldly experience – the possibilities for stories seem to go on forever. I can’t imagine ever exhausting this rich vein of interest and meaning. And what goes on inside the microcosm of the family reveals so much, too, of the wider culture that contains it. There’s nothing unpolitical about intimate stories of family life.

Who are some of the authors you admire?

Where to begin? A few enduring favourites: Alice Munro, Elizabeth Bowen, Natalia Ginzberg, Lucia Berlin, Colm Toibin, John McGahern. And recently I’ve loved discovering Annie Ernaux’s A Woman’s Story. And rereading Amitav Ghosh’s superb The Glass Palace. And uncanny Nabokov, and austere Hisham Matar. (All of these writing about family.)

You have taught creative writing at Bath Spa University and you’ll be coming in to speak to our novel-writing students (virtually) this winter. What do you enjoy most about teaching?

Writing is solitary – so part of the pleasure of teaching is its sociability, sharing a passion for writing with students who turn out, if you’re lucky, to actually care as much as you do about the intricacies of point-of-view, or the difficulties of managing flashbacks. And it’s most pleasurable of all to read the very best literature with creative writing students, so that you can exclaim together about how something brilliant is done, or why it’s done, or puzzle in minute detail over what a writer means by using exactly those words, in that order, in that sentence – and how it works, or why it doesn’t.

What does a typical day of writing look like for you? Do you have any rituals?

I write first, if I can, before anything else: before emails, before reading the news. I can write for about four hours, before I get too stupid – but that probably doesn’t add up to very many words, maybe 400 or 500. There’s a moment when you have to cross the threshold between daily life and the world of your novel or story. I find if I read something it can carry me across into my own work – not just any old thing, but a few sentences from one of my talismanic books, my guides – Bowen, or Munro, say. Not to get lost in it, but to enter the sphere of its power, the power of its precision and vivid particularity. Often that works the magic that enables me to begin.

Finally, what advice would you like to share with aspiring authors?

Read, read, read. Don’t be afraid of copying the work you most admire. Sometimes a bold imitation is immensely liberating – through it you can find your way to your own words. Don’t shy away from what you’re afraid or ashamed to write. It’s often where you’re most uncomfortable that you’ll actually write best, with most accuracy and originality.


Tessa Hadley will be a guest speaker on our Six-Month Online Novel-Writing course. Applications for this course close Sun 2 August:

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