TESSA HADLEY HAS LONG BEEN PRAISED for her contemporary settings with rarified suggestions of earlier times, her psychological approach to narrative, and her subtle characterizations. This British resident of Cardiff, Wales, has a new collection, Married Love and Other Stories, which offers, in soul-stirring prose, a resolute look at family relationships. Soaring, singing, and yet unequivocal, Hadley writes with a passion and precision few writers have mastered.
MaryAnne Kolton: What do you think is your best personal quality and how is it reflected in your writing?
Tessa Hadley: I am not sure that any very edifying personal qualities are reflected in my writing. It probably reflects some less good ones: a greedy curiosity, cold penetration sometimes, too much dreaming instead of focus in the moment. Perhaps the best thing writing reflects is that I get excited about things, everything interests me. Well, not everything. Not sport, really. I’ve just realized that I’ve never written a single word about sport. Games with rules just seem to me to short-circuit everything that’s interesting about a story.
MAK: You’ve written about yourself:
I’m sure my daughters-in-law can’t imagine a retreat so complete and dull seeming as those years of shopping and cooking and waiting in the school playground […] Though there is something to be said for all that slow invisible work the mind does when it isn’t buoyed along by anything outside. And there are lessons you learn, too, knowing you’re weak and unimportant and socially invisible — these lessons ought to keep you sane and clean and without illusions.
This is so sad and sounds like the undercurrents of a period of deep depression: weak, invisible, unimportant. Was that the case?
TH: I’ve sometimes said something like that to myself: that in those years I was vaguely — not catastrophically — depressed. But that’s a catch-all word, and I’m not sure it’s quite right anyway. There was real value in that fallow time, too. Something was missing, because I was trying to write and I couldn’t do it, that’s true. But actually I think I was just alive, like most people are alive, most of the time — getting by, making much, imaginatively, out of what I had, going inside my imagination for my food. And absorbed in all the ordinary things that are the supreme mysteries: children and marriage and friends.
It makes me afraid sometimes that now, because writing makes me very happy — and very strong — I will forget how life feels without the richly fertilizing addition of art in it. And if I forget that, then I won’t be able to write truthfully about life any longer. It’s lovely and it’s dangerous, the heady pleasure that begins when people start listening to what you have to say.
MAK: What do you think about the theory that “family of origin” is somehow the jumping off place for most writers?
TH: I suppose that idea derives from Freud, where the family origin is the origin of everything. But if it’s the case, then to some extent, one can’t see it about oneself. My childhood was happy, unremarkable except that everything is remarkable. But I do write about family all the time. A family is like a novel — a group of more or less connected characters, assembled together somewhat arbitrarily in a confined space for a certain length of time. I’m deeply interested in our relations to other people that aren’t necessarily a consequence of choice, or affinity — but there aren’t many novelists who aren’t interested in that. The revolutionary, or mystical, injunction to abandon your family and follow a higher truth chills me.
MAK: The stories in your newest collection Married Love and Other Stories are so gently paced and even in tone. The characters are quite finely drawn, as well, almost to the point that they seem to be known to you as personal friends. It is as if you are sharing them and their lives with us. Will you speak about the process that produces such results?
TH: Of course I don’t quite know what’s happening when I’m writing — it’s something I enter, rather than something I calculate. What am I aware of, as a process? Well, first something that’s like dreaming, daydreaming, or like fantasy. A scene seems as real as life itself in front of my mind’s eye, vivid and interesting. Certain details spring out from it, they stick to my imagination. The details seem very important, in capturing the truth of the scene — you almost have to concentrate on those, rather than on the essence of what’s going on. That’s the dreamy, out-of-control part. Then there’s the rigorous part: putting that scene down in words and testing the words, making sure they don’t betray the original intimation — that the words are sound and not fake, that they do justice to the whole effect of what’s there in my mind.
MAK: Some of the descriptive passages in Married Love and Other Stories positively shimmer.
In the first picture Julie has two children, two boys. In the second picture she also has her new baby, another boy. He’s too tiny to put on the rug, only a few weeks old. She is holding him almost ceremoniously, upright against her chest. Her face is half hidden behind him, glancing away from the camera, as if she’s dipping down to kiss his scented scalp, breathe into that mysterious black baby hair that will fall out after the first few weeks. Already now that her baby is sitting up laughing fatly at his brothers, eating mashed banana, she’s forgetting the secret of his first self: contained and pensive, with eyes as dark as blueberries that seemed to know her.
Julie had only meant to step outside for a few minutes, but once she began to walk down the path that led along the fields and through the copse of beech trees, there seemed no reason to turn back … Yellow light slanted low across the path from between the trees; little birds scuffled in the undergrowth or flitted among the leaves like tricks of sight.
A delicious kind of prose that is almost poetry. Are these the result of the “dreamy, out-of-control part?”
TH: They are the result of both parts. First there’s the dreaming. You have to see that scene, feel that intimation: imagine it and let it overwhelm you. Who knows where that comes from? But there’s a huge labor, then, to get the truth of the scene down into words. For that, you must be wide-awake, pushing at the envelope of expression, stretching it and refusing all the versions that come lazily, insisting on the right words, the right word-order, the right cadence, to be true to the intimation. Of course even that description, of a dual process, is too crude. Actually, a great deal of the mysterious reality of the scene comes into being as you find the right words, as the words unspool. So the dreaming and the exacting labor are like the two halves of the same discovery, like two hands working together.
MAK: The New York Times recently noted that:
Writers like Tessa Hadley, unlike their American counterparts, tend to see the stain of class as indelible, as a social tragedy that ironizes any and all choices one might make in life. At the end of the day, class is the Rosetta stone, the key to the mystery of who you really are underneath all your ideas about yourself.
Do you care to comment on that characterization?
TH: When I read that remark in the NYT, I was inclined at first to deny it. It sort of plays into that Downton Abbey idea of Britishness, that we are all snooty or chippy, helplessly defined by our social status and endlessly concerned about it — so far from the muddled, opaque class-reality of Britain today. I think sociologists actually quantify a little more social mobility in the UK in recent decades than in the US. I suspect America is more class-bound than it acknowledges. Class is seen as a “stain,” a fatalism, a “tragedy” as opposed to choice, making up your life for yourself on your own terms, freedom. (I’m certainly fairly skeptical about “choice,” I think there’s less of it — for anyone! — than we like to believe.)
I asked myself: am I really that concerned about tracing class wherever I look? Do I feel that it’s “tragic?” And my first impulse was that I didn’t want to think that my vision of people was choked and constrained in that way. What I prefer to think is that writing seeks out the hidden freedoms individuals find for themselves, inside the constraints.
Then I thought again. Actually, what I want to write is politics — not big politics but small politics, the working out through individual lives of the outer realities of economic and social and cultural differences. Difference interests me hugely — Clifford Geertz said that what anthropology studied was “how much difference makes.” The nuances of difference in daily work, in mind-set, in ideology, in the texture of domestic life, and the consequences of those differences. These are the meat of fiction. Without difference, no story.
So finally, I’m proud to own up to an interest in class, if that’s what is meant. Testing out how different life feels if it’s lived this way or that way; if it starts out from place A or place B; with this set of expectations, or that one. If class means politics, not fatalism, then yes, that’s something I want to write about. I’m not a great believer in “universal” shared experiences, which transcend local conditions. We experience the great existential questions through the filter of the particular here and now, where we’re set down.
MAK: Tell us a bit about Clever Girl, your new novel.
TH: Clever Girl is the story of a woman’s life, full of ordinary heroics — an education derailed by pregnancy, passions, struggles to find autonomy and authority. Stella is born in the same year and in the same city as I was, but she’s nothing like me. There’s much more drama in her life than in mine — violent deaths, two sons by two different fathers, neither of whom are around to see their sons grow up. The story is told in Stella’s own voice, in the first person; it was the only way to register its importance, somehow. I wanted her life in some sense to seem archetypal, a “type” of a woman’s life in my era, in the UK, against a background of extraordinary social change.
MAK: Where did the dispassionate, disarming Stella come from?
TH: Perhaps she’s a sort of imaginary twin — braver, more audacious, getting into life deeper. Is she dispassionate? I suppose there’s a sort of coolness in her attachment to things — apart from her children — yet she’s fierce too. In her fight with Mac, in her struggle to survive, and in her politics, however opaque these are. She’s not actively political, and yet her experience is informed all the time with a kind of implicit protest at the way things are. She doesn’t feel sorry for herself but [does become] indignant sometimes. I admire this indignation in her; it reminds me of someone I know, a close friend. If she was been too ironic, too equivocal, then she’d have been more like me, and she couldn’t have told her story with the same conviction, the same forward drive — like a heroine with a sword, “disarming” indeed, defeating demons.
MAK: In a review of one of your earlier novels it is said, “a fleeting paragraph, dropped in to advance the plot, could easily have been transformed into one of her stately, enveloping short stories.” In Clever Girl this again seems true:
I didn’t even really understand the words I was reading, I couldn’t have explained them to anyone: “lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west.” It wasn’t their meaning that affected me, it was the words themselves — the solidity of them, their being assembled together in their particular order and rhythm — which stopped my breath. They seemed a signal from another, bigger life than the one I was in, as if a smothering blanket had been torn through. I shut the book quickly and sat back on my heels, wiping my face sticky with sweat and dust, and thought that if I had to spend another winter with the Tappers, I would die.
Didn’t Clever Girl begin as a serious of short stories?
TH: I wrote it deliberately in that episodic way. It’s a good way to tell a life I think: one phase of a person’s life, seeming so completely its own world, so permanent and real, is succeeded by another, where everything is altered and the previous phase forgotten. For example, Stella lives in a different building in each chapter in the book apart from the first. A too-fluent novel structure can give a life a spuriously smooth continuity, which isn’t altogether true to experience.
When I wrote the first chapter I didn’t know whether it would work as the beginning of a novel — I thought I’d test it as a story and see. That was mostly a question of whether I could live inside Stella’s voice or not — and whether a reader could. When that chapter was accepted for The New Yorker, I felt more confident that it could work for a sympathetic reader. But even before I was sure I would go on, I already had some idea of some of the rest of Stella’s life. I knew about her hopeless love for Valentine, and her first baby, and her working as some sort of servant or cleaner, and the commune, and the killing. I knew that took me about halfway through: it was a little scary that I didn’t have any idea what would happen to her after that. I’m quite a controlling writer, and I usually have at least some misty sense of where a book is heading. I had to trust myself to Stella. I trusted that she wouldn’t stop being interesting — and she didn’t.
MAK: Do you find it more challenging to write in the first person?
TH: In a way, it’s seductively easier. The first person voice is waiting there for you, with its particular coloration and tone, every time you pick up your writing. It leads you forward, sentence to sentence; it’s more audible, as you write, than the third person. As long as you find the right first person, that is, with enough room inside their thoughts and their words and their ironies, so that you won’t feel too trapped inside one voice for the length of a whole book. I was a little afraid, choosing the first person, that I’d cut myself off from a lot of the narrative possibilities that give a story its sophistication and complexity — multiple viewpoints, a narrator’s ironies — just a change of tone and spirit sometimes. Perhaps, though, each novel has its own tone and spirit anyway, whether or not it’s written in the first or third person: a sort of dominant aesthetic, which controls what language and tones the writer can deploy.
I thought that only Stella could tell her own story as if it were important enough. She has such conviction of the momentousness of everything that happens to her — a novelist perhaps can’t afford to be so much in earnest.
I hope that the reader intuits, behind Stella’s own strong voice telling her story, another perspective. Not critical but encompassing, enjoying but standing slightly back from how directly and straightforwardly she tells it — her presentation as an “exemplar”, almost, of one kind of woman’s life in our time.
MAK: Do you have a favorite time and place to work? Are you very disciplined about writing or the kind of person who jots ideas on a paper napkin to use later?
TH: I always work at a desk in my bedroom — an old Pembroke table from my childhood. I have a fear that if I had a beautiful purpose-made study I’d stop believing in myself, and the stories would stop coming. I try to work first thing, on any day set aside for writing. First thing isn’t early, but it ought to be before anything else gets in the way. I read in bed over my breakfast. Then get dressed and begin. Ideally.
MaryAnne Kolton’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous literary publications including the Lost Children Charity Anthology, Thrice Fiction, Lost In Thought Literary Magazine, and Connotation Press.