New Routes in Fiction: Tessa Hadley with Alec Niedenthal
Tessa Hadley’s stories and novels treat the humdrum drama of British middle-class life with reverence, intelligence and a certain kind of eye I’m having trouble adding an adjective to. I’ve been thinking a lot, since our interview, about Hadley’s authorial eye, which isn’t chilly, no—her books bubble with detail from the head and the sensible world. In her work, psychological and sensuous truths bear the same weight, and, in swells of ecstasy, they blur and show us the sloppy way we sometimes edge on the divine. Maybe “coolness” is the word to describe her eye, but that’s not right either. A cool eye couldn’t get so close or see such a large share of what happens.
In our interview, Hadley talks a bit about the role of old-fashioned, rule-bound fiction might at a time of—pardon the jargon—globalized anxiety, a moment that might make the careful description of a middle-class mother’s mental state seem superfluous. These conventions date from the nineteenth century, when our celebrities were writers, not real-estate magnates, and Syria didn’t exist. Domestic realists write about families, not politics, that serious word we see and feel everywhere, like it’s a highly confused God. What would Chekhov and Eliot have done with our world? How do you make patient portraiture out of insanity?
Hadley’s solution, which she describes below, is ingenious, and it’s the “fresh new thing” I think she’s found. She turns her anxiety about style into the very force moving her fiction along. As she describes it, her characters feel the world press in on their private lives, in the same way that Hadley herself hears our anxious age banging on the old window to the world that is realist fiction.
Tessa Hadley and Rail writer, Alec Niedenthal, spoke over the phone.
Alec Niedenthal (Rail): How does it feel having a new collection out in the world, as opposed to having a novel out in the world?
Tessa Hadley: It feels I suppose always a bit safer, because the stories have all been published before—not all, but most of them. So you feel it’s a much calmer experience than publishing a novel. A novel is wholly new to its readers when it hits the ground. That’s a bit terrifying. This is more relaxing. This is my third collection and it’s a very pleasurable experience. When you edit and prepare them for the collection, you’ve already done lots of work before, so they feel very finished. Whereas with a novel, you’re still fresh—you always have the feeling it could do with one more read-through, one more cleansing of the surplus stuff.
Rail: What is your editing process like now, with the novels?
Hadley: I’m unusual in that I’m not the kind of writer who does a first draft that’s very rough and loose-weave and then goes back into it, turning it into something that’s right, and does that again and again. I have to kid myself each time that this is it, the final version. I write very slowly and densely. But of course that isn’t really final. Then, when it’s done, every tiny read-through you’re cutting, fiddling with sentences. But that detailed work on a paragraph or a page that essentially feels right—the life in it is there—and you’re just weaving it exactly into the right word order or shape: I love that.
Rail: How do you identify the life in a paragraph?
Hadley: If I knew, I would bottle it. Funnily enough I was talking to the writer Sarah Hall about this. She was saying, don’t you think it’s the sound of the words that really does it for you? I said I don’t know, maybe it’s the sight of the words. I need to look at them in a different context, against a dark background, made a bit smaller, so that I can see them freshly. Of course I don’t really mean sight. It wouldn’t be any good if it were in a foreign language. I mean that funny kind of sight where meaning is setting up its electricity on the page. There is a magic rightness. Until the rightness is there, you feel an uneasy restlessness. I guess that’s what taste is. Taste is different when you’re reading a book or looking at a picture, but taste is really in operation when you’re looking at your own work. You think, that’s corny. That’s cheesy. That’s clumsy. It’s obvious. Your taste is at work there. Taste, sight, and sound. Wittgenstein somewhere says you choose the right word by the smell. So we’ve pretty much covered all the senses there.
Rail: I guess touch is the missing sense.
Hadley: But that has to be there too. There is something tactile about getting the words in the right place, feeling something click into place, and then it makes a good shape. A shape that might be jagged, but—do you recognize this? I don’t know whether you write.
Rail: I do. That’s in large part why I do these interviews. I talk to writers I admire and try to get a sense of how the process works for them. I do identify with it a lot. There is that tactile act of pushing the words around and getting them in the right slot and consecution. I do recognize that.
Hadley: That’s right. It can sound a bit aesthetic and fancy, but there’s an ethical part of that as well. Because part of what you’re doing when you’re pushing and adjusting is this—I was just recently writing a paragraph about a woman who was a mother of a grown daughter and was trying to paint, and I had to be careful to be a proper feminist but not an unkind mother. As a writer, I mean, I was trying to get that judgment right. I wanted to be right on her behalf. I didn’t want to make her sound as if she was cold to her daughter. But I didn’t want to give up the importance of her work. And funnily enough, that was completely inseparable from putting the words in the right order, getting the music right and the touch right. It’s a kind of moral, political thing that’s at stake in this taste business. When you say something cheesy or corny, what you’re saying simply isn’t truthful. That’s not truthful.
Rail: You’re reducing what can otherwise be a full person. And there was a time before we thought this hard about politics, when we wrote people and tried to be true to them without thinking about being a good feminist or a good anti-racist, etc., when you must’ve thought, “I have to give this person his or her full due.”
Hadley: That can be an interesting conflict, can’t it? You want to be right in a headline kind of way, but that’s making the work less complex and maybe less true. That’s a very good and fruitful conflict. Feel both those pressures: the pressure to believe the principles one has, and then push back against that with the knottiness of the real.
Rail: Because real people aren’t always good, aren’t always good feminists. When a character becomes too loathsome—you want to be honest about a person—but at the same time, you want to… I was reading this John Updike review of Michel Houllebecq, where he says that Houllebecq is great at getting at one type of experience in human life. That there’s one thing, but there’s also the other thing too. One of the hallmarks of your work is that you give equal hearing to tragedy and comedy, to the pain and the lost chances as well as the odd coincidences that make life feel worthwhile. Do you feel a duty as a writer to do that? Have you always been compelled to do that?
Hadley: You have to do that to a certain extent out of who you are. I really recognize that balancing process in myself, between light and dark. You keep correcting as you write. This is too sunny, don’t be sentimental, it’s darker than that. And then you think, but you’ve forgotten joyous. You couldn’t espouse that as a literary principle. You actually have to inhabit it as a way of life. If you manage to write okay, then what you will have done is managed to find a way to express what’s really in you, in your work and in your words. That’s fundamental. When I’m teaching students, I’ve said to one or two of them, you’re not as intelligent in your writing as you are in your talking. What’s happening there? Are you getting yourself on the page?
I wrote four or five failed novels before being published. I knew that I wasn’t being myself. I was faking it. I was trying to write like someone else. I felt guilty. I felt I must aspire to write like Nadine Gordimer or J.M. Coetzee. I wasn’t any good at it. Write what you are, write your temperament—the dark and the light, something comic and ironic and then there’s a check on that, because some things are actually agony, and then there’s a check on that because you don’t want to be pious and that’s not the truth of your daily experience. Back and forth, a balancing act. It’s another element in taste, actually.
Rail: One thing I’ve learned a lot from your work is how to look at your characters without judging them and listening to how they judge themselves, instead.
Hadley: What you said about writing malevolence, it seems like it would be very hard to write a novel with a Donald Trump character in it. Maybe it’d be a good comic caricature, but you do want people to have texture and complexity and maybe actually the very most grotesquely appalling characters are not that interesting. Their effects are interesting. What becomes of other people in their orbit, that’s interesting. Maybe that’s a good subject too—the subject of extreme malevolence. It’s dangerous, hard to write. Nothing I’ve ever done. If anything, I have to be careful not to make my people too sympathetic, I think. I don’t quite know what to do with a bad character. There are many people in life whom one meets and thinks, I really don’t like that person. But actually, I think that’s rather hard to write.
Rail: In your work, the worst characters you get are characters who don’t know that they’re bad. You write really well this well-intentioned, politically radical man who’s really easygoing and shirks responsibility. Not bad people per se, but they end up hurting people.
Hadley: Yeah, sure. That’s more interesting to me—people who are not bad people but they are hurting each other. Everybody does that. That’s the lovely thing. You can stir up four people in a mix, which is what I’ve been doing in my new novel, which I literally just yesterday wrote the last word of. It’s not completely finished because I have some things that need some rewriting. But I’ve just got four people, two couples, and I’m stirring them up together—all four are good people—but it’s amazing how much they can hurt each other. Quite a lot.
Rail: Just by having people together and looking at them very closely, you see the way that they do inadvertently hurt while trying to love and be good. That’s maybe the way to be true to human malevolence as well as human goodness, how our best intentions betray themselves. If I can ask as a ‘fan,’ what’s it about?
Hadley: It’s set now, in London, mostly, and it’s about two couples. It begins with one of the four dropping dead, tragically, in his fifties. It’s kind of what happens to the remaining three. I do get back into the past. I have them young, and a little bit older, a little bit older than that, and then the death. That’s the story. It’s kind of like a crisscross dance, with different configurations between the four of them.
Rail: Is this admixture between past and present, is it a new way of writing for you? I’ve read Married Love, Clever Girl and the two newest ones. I started reading your work last summer or last fall. I really admire your writing a lot. In the newest two books, there is so much mention of the past and the present in Bad Dreams, and that’s clearly an underlying concern of the novel The Past, the way the past dwells in the present, and also vice versa in a way. Is that something—dialectics between past and present—is that a new concern for you?
Hadley: I’m not sure it’s new. I kind of think that’s very, very me. Since I was young I’ve been strangely haunted, as soon as I knew that there had been other ways of living in our same space, that there have been Victorians who wore long dresses and lived in the houses we now live in.
I was brought up in Bristol, which in the 1960s those Georgian houses were going for a couple hundred pounds—no one wanted to live in them. So I lived in those buildings, inhabited continuously for 250 years or whatever. That’s one of my earliest romances, obsessions; as a child I had a huge yearning for the past, which I mistakenly thought must’ve been better, finer, more amazing than the present, then I corrected that as I learned.
I interrogated my parents about their families. I always loved family trees. People without whose acts you wouldn’t exist, but you haven’t met them, and probably you wouldn’t have anything in common. How strange that is, in a way when I found that, that’s how I found my key to writing. I said, oh, just write the stuff that interests you! The stuff that feels like gossipy family stories—that’s a great subject. Or if it isn’t a great subject, it’s the one that interests me anyway. So that’s what I’m going to do.
So probably I have always been fascinated by that, but I am acquiring stronger ways of working that into a novel form, certainly. And I’m feeling much more confident with the length of the novel form in The Past and in this new one. It feels as if I’ve got form right. I am finding ways of expressing this interest in the past over time. It’s not the same as wanting to write historical novels, which doesn’t interest me very much. A few very good ones have been written. I can love them. But it doesn’t interest me. It has to be where our searchlights can reach. Certainly my grandparents’ generation at the very earliest. But really, it’s my own lifetime that I’m concerned with, that sense of things unfolding over that bit of time, the way they’ve changed. It is fascinating. You live your life by what feel like conditions that just are given, and then you realize: how many years ago were the conditions different? And in forty years’ time they’ll change again. I don’t know why that’s so interesting to me.
Rail: There’s a lot in your work—one of the things that I’ve noticed as a reader that gets your storytelling going is the clash between incompatibles. Whether the past and the present, past manners and present manners, in the novel The Past it’s Kasim and Molly and the older generation, the clash between these. Also the way that this house, this house that stores so much memory, and the landscape, they seem to lord so much over the emotional lives of these people in the present.
Hadley: Houses are really good for that, aren’t they? You don’t have to turn them into metaphors; they just are metaphors. If your grandparents lived in that, all that stuff I just said I was interested in, is in them. It’s literally there in the pieces of furniture, things that your grandmother—for instance, I have my grandmother’s rolling pin. She used it to make pastry, and every time I use it, I think of her. Not as a great sentimental gesture, but a fact, and a house is that kind of fact. But what you said about incompatibility, in a way: without grit, no pearl. Without grit in there to set something off, you can’t have a story or a book. You’ve got to find a story where all the things that interest you are precipitated. And to change metaphors completely, it’s like that chemistry experiment where you have a solution, and then you drop an extra thing into it. That changes everything, the solution crystallizes, it makes crystals, reveals itself in a way.
Rail: The incompatibilities extend to class as well. I’ve been thinking about this. In your work there’s never just a working-class or middle-class person. There’s usually someone of another class to set that person up against. You talked in another interview about your approach to fiction being anthropological, with class tokens and social tokens that people carry around. Distinctions, collisions between those. Have you never been interested in writing about one class, one type of person, or have you always tended to combine different ‘walks of life’?
Hadley: I haven’t been. Sometimes, reviews can sound as if I do write about the middle class only. Middle-class is this funny, baggy thing. Now in Britain, it means something very different than it used to. But it’s what I know best. And because of how modern life is now, it’s such a ragged business, class and background, add in ethnicity and cultural history. And living in a city like London, how marvelous. It’s like putting lots of different ingredients, and when you stir them up together they don’t become homogeneous, because everyone is carrying a different story. A different framework. And that sounds like a recipe for an infinite number of stories or novel, doesn’t it?
It would be awful to write novels now that had hermetically sealed stories of middle-class people or privileged upper-middle-class people. Not that I know much about that. The problem is all the other way. Why go on writing in this very fine tradition of psychological realism about subtle complicated people who read books, like paintings, fall in love, when there are wars out there, and modernity is hurtling along in a new way—is it no old-fashioned? I’m haunted by the sense of writing something old fashioned. I suppose I hope on a good day, what one does is you write in an old-fashioned tradition, to a certain extent, and you try not to smell of the old, you don’t want to be pressured in any way. But nonetheless, you recognize that you’re writing in this grand realist tradition but you’re going to make that modern otherness—Internet, the global, the pressure of the way we know each other globally now, and the way that every house has television in it now, bringing news from Syria, news from the Mediterranean, news from Texas. This has to be imprinted on the consciousness in the stories, or the consciousness that tells the stories. Somewhere, I have this idea that you’re taking a quite old-fashioned form and holding it out in a very strong wind, a very strong new wind, and seeing what survives of it all. Whether it can stand up to that. You don’t want to have a refugee in all your stories, for instance; I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t, I don’t know how to do it; I would be lying. You don’t want tokenism. You want to actually have for instance your characters should feel that pressure, that anxiety about their own consciousness. Am I making sense?
Rail: The pressure your characters should feel is the very pressure you’re talking about feeling yourself as a writer.
Hadley: That’s right. For a long time I didn’t know how to express that pressure in the writing. I would try to write novels that were sort of political in an embarrassing way. I would love to write a novel like Coetzee, but I haven’t got it in me. I would be a fraud. So, write what it’s like feeling that. That suddenly seemed obvious to me. The pressure of what it’s like feeling that anxiety and that guilt and, in the end, on the other hand, you have to get on with it. There is still joy, and things are still funny. And here goes the middle class, doing what it’s always done, stumbling along, going to the theater and falling in love—look, just say how that is. And feel the wind come hurtling around it. I’m not sure I achieved that last bit. It’s quite interesting to talk about it.
Rail: I also would like to know, you said that you labored on a number of novels—you were in an MA program? A creative writing program?
Hadley: I was in my mid-to-late thirties. I had been writing and failing. And I was very skeptical about whether I was old-fashioned, I knew nothing about publishing at all. I thought you had to do it by yourself, and write in your attic. I had brought up my kids and would write while they were at school. I thought, why don’t I go and join a program, and I should stop if I can’t do it. But it didn’t stop me. On the contrary—and it wasn’t because anyone taught me how to write. No one can do that for anyone else. But suddenly I was in a world where the business was to write. Every time I put pen to paper, finger to keyboard—typewriter in those days—every time I did that, I thought, those people will be reading it on Thursday. Suddenly I wasn’t writing screeds for myself, which were boring, but I would think, oh that’s too boring, that’s too rhetorical, or, oh they’ll like that! I think of all the benefits of an MA program, the banal thing of having an audience and an editor, or editors, the other students and the teacher: that’s what does it. It brings everything on that could’ve taken twenty more years. I don’t know whether I could’ve given up; I’m not good at anything else, so it had to be this, but I’m so lucky that in the end I got better at it. I teach there, by the way, in that same MA program.
Rail: And you like teaching?
Hadley: I really like it.
Rail: It’s a lot of fun. You learn a lot.
Hadley: We also do quite a lot of reading for writing. Studying Joyce and Mansfield and Bowen and Munro and whatever. Working on that with the students, it’s so much better than English Literature. It’s everyone saying: why did he do that?
Rail: How, when you finally wrote a novel that worked, how did you know? How do you know that?
Hadley: Of course I didn’t in the sense that I had some trepidation and doubt. I still do. Though there is something lovely about how as one publishes, and people like the books, it does relieve one of a certain awesome level of doubt. But I did know, really. I didn’t know whether anyone else would like it, but I knew it was real. I just got it. If only I could put that into words. It was that thing of thinking, who am I? What have I got to say? Well, I know these things: and they were the very things I’d overlooked and disregarded. And that I’d thought were not worth writing about.
Of course I’d read lots of domestic novels, it wasn’t like I was only interested in highly political grand fictions. But there is something where you aim over the top of what you need to write for a while. You have an idea and then it betrays you. Instead, the thing you’ll be at home with is just at your feet. It’s where you belong.
Another thing, maybe, that was helpful, that I found out for myself: I used to write into the dark. I used to say, well, here’s a story. Let’s start it here I suppose. Now let’s see what happens. Then I’d write a couple pages and I’d carry it along but it felt as if I were reading someone else’s book, just waiting to see what happens. And then suddenly I felt: that’s not the way to do it. It’s too terrifying. You get stuck. Make a plan. Not a dull plan, one that ties you down. But have a dream. Dream it forward. Where’s it going? Where’s it going now? What could happen? That was a good question, I remember. Dream things. Someone could drop dead. She could get pregnant. She could be cutting herself. I could use that from that bit of story, from someone I really know. Ah, he could have left her, and guess what he gave her for Christmas?
I had rich, ripe material that was full of meat, that I hadn’t noticed I had. Before that I felt that the matter was so thin and I was stretching it out. Suddenly I’ve got an enormous amount of things to say about all these things: what it’d be like growing up in a stepfamily, what it’d be like if your dad was like that, he’s an important man and then he grows older and sort of takes second place—I can do all that! It was this sense of: think forward, and then write into the situation. So I know what’s going to happen now. She’s going to do this. Right, I know where I’m going. That was important. Not just writing into the dark, and not having a plan in the dull sense, but something luring me forward.
Rail: A direction.
Hadley: I was talking with the lovely short story writer Rick Bass and he was saying he doesn’t know where the story is going. It takes him in twenty directions, they’re all wrong, and eventually—he hated the idea of knowing where a story was going. We were talking about stories, but it applies to novels just as much. It seems very stale to someone who works like him. But I said, it isn’t that I know what it’s going to be like when I get there. There’s all of that to find out. He’s going to leave her, but I don’t know what it’s going to feel like in the moment he tells her. Or when she finds out X or Y. I would never write one of those scenes before I got there. That would be like killing something dead. But to feel: I wonder what it’ll be like when he really comes round late at night and knocks on the door and she lets him in. That’s something I look forward to writing.
Rail: That sense of anticipation that must create a sense of narrative propulsion for the reader. One thing I admire about the perspective you set up is that you have a close third-person that gets very close to these people psychologically and sensorily. But you also have a narrator who talks about them, who gossips about them.
Hadley: If you can make it work for you, I find that the most fascinating position. You just get everything, really. You could be inside their heads. You could do free-indirect style where you’re virtually narrating on their behalf, and then you pull out and you can see them. You can see what they’re like in that moment, which they don’t know about themselves. It’s just the best. And I feel as if our default position tends to be a close-third person that doesn’t step outside. And if you start your novel like that, you can’t change it. You have to remind yourself to use that leverage, because it just gives you more riches. More lures to write with. It’s more enticing. You get more excited about your character if you’re not stuck inside their head, actually. You see their effect as a person, their totality, which they can’t know about themselves. Because they don’t know what they’re like in a room, what they’re like physically. You will double and triple the power of that character by being able to see them from outside and from inside. No other medium can do it. Film, painting, marvelous as they are, and theater—only the novel can do both.
Rail: Not only to look but to look at them looking.
Hadley: To be inside and outside is great.
TESSA HADLEY is the author of five highly praised novels: Accidents in the Home, which was long listed for The Guardian First Book Award; Everything Will Be All Right; The Master Bedroom; The London Train, which was a New York Times Notable Book; and Clever Girl. She is also the author of two short story collections, Sunstroke and Married Love, which were New York Times Notable Books as well. Her stories appear regularly in The New Yorker. She lives in London.Alec Niedenthal
ALEC NIEDENTHAL is a recent graduate of Brown University's MFA program in Literary Arts. He has published fiction in the Brooklyn Rail, The Toast, Agriculture Reader, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and other venues. He is currently working on a novel about anti-Semitism and sex.