Playing with Time: A Conversation with Tessa Hadley

By Jane GaydukFebruary 6, 2016

Playing with Time: A Conversation with Tessa Hadley
TO SAY TESSA HADLEY is good with words is beyond an understatement, for her vivid imagery explodes somewhere in its travels from the page to the brain. With sublime prose, Hadley does justice to the beauty of the English countryside, the all-important setting of her latest novel, The Past, in which four grown siblings get together for a vacation in their grandparents’ West Somerset cottage, to decide whether they should sell a house laden with family history, or hold on to it for generations to come.

The story of three sisters, one with two young children, the others childless, a brother, his Argentinian third wife and teenage daughter, and a teenage boy-interloper of no familial relation, jammed together for three sticky summer weeks to reflect on their lives and navigate their relationships sounds difficult to sustain for more than 300 pages. Yet Hadley makes it work — with each chapter adding a new layer of forward momentum, this novel marks a more fluid narrative than her often episodic structure.

Despite the London-based author’s obvious literary prowess, having penned six triumphant novels and two short story collections in the last 13 years, Hadley’s talent wasn’t always obvious to the writer herself. Her path to success was plagued with self-doubt — she published her first novel at the age of 46, not for lack of trying — but she’s content to hold on to those decades of struggle, and to remember them through her writing. They brought her here, to her lilting prose, to her status as a New Yorker darling, and to a place of real confidence. It seemed only right that in talking about The Past, we talked about her past, too.


JANE GAYDUK: What was the most challenging part of writing The Past?

TESSA HADLEY: Probably making such a small space of time, the three weeks of the summer holiday, last so long. That sounds silly but it’s quite a challenge to write, actually. It’s easier to move fast and move on to the next thing and get a change of scene — those inject the natural forward momentum into a narrative. And yet, what one rather wants is to dwell. You think, actually I want to give this room to breathe and I want to give this conversation room to really draw out, not just be a few snappy samplings, but really let [the characters] talk. But it’s harder. Slow is harder. Of course one of the ways I manage to make my three weeks sustain its tension across the novel was my decision, which happened late on while I was writing, to drop back 35 years in that middle section. That was like putting in a tent peg to hold the whole thing up. It was a huge help.

Since the central conflicts in this novel are inside the characters themselves, what techniques do you use to keep the plot moving?

I like finding the tensions inside people instead of exerting that tension by using a lever from outside. I’m just that kind of writer, I tend not to have a huge machinery outside the characters which presses on them and produces action and consequences; it’s just instinctively the way I’ve always wanted to write. You look inside people and what you see is not coherence but fracture and ambiguity and ambivalence and you press on that. For instance, Harriet, who seems extraordinarily self-controlled, perhaps you might even say repressed, has something missing. There’s something omitted from her life, so obviously it cries out for a painful, devastating eruption of all the things that she’s keeping out of the frame. That’s the dynamic that generates change and discovery, which is what I think interests most novelists of the kind of novel I’m aspiring to write.

What kind of novels are you aspiring to write?

One of the things I feel passionately about is the urgency of writing novels about our contemporary moment in the West. And perhaps, if you like, in bourgeois culture, middle class, relatively comfortable culture. And the more our awareness is globalized and the more we see that our own experience is only a tiny fragment of the world, instead of wanting to abandon that little island of experience, it sort of makes me cling to it with all the more passion. Because it’s everything I know, and it’s everything I’ve read, and everything I’ve been brought up in. It’s very far from a perfect way of life or sensibility, but it’s the only one I can be an expert in. And so in the new light of the global awareness that we have now, it’s very interesting to look back at ourselves; that new light is quite lurid, it makes us feel differently. And so I want to write contemporary novels, not historical novels — though occasionally I flirt with that idea — and I want them to be about quite ordinary middle-class people who aren’t undergoing huge, life-changing adventures, even though I know the world is full of huge, life-changing adventures. But you have to write about what you know in some sense.

You shift the point of view to so many different characters of different ages and generations. Which age group is the most difficult to narrate from? Which is the easiest?

I think maybe the teenagers [Kasim and Molly], although I thoroughly enjoyed narrating Kasim. I didn’t really narrate Molly — she’s one of my “mutes” if you know what I mean. She’s one of the characters that we do only see from the outside, which is a whole different, interesting question. But I think there is a technical difficulty in writing teenagers.

I think there’s something wonderfully eternal about kids. Despite the changes that come with people sitting in front of computers instead of playing on the street, it’s amazing how transferable a child’s sensibility is from one generation to another. And then, I suppose I’m at home with middle-aged characters in my book because that’s sort of where I am.

But the teenagers are so subject to rapid cultural change — the slang they use — that’s always scary, are you going to get that wrong? Are you going to get something that was fashionable five years ago and no teenager would be caught dead saying now? So I listen carefully. Luckily I’ve got rather a big family, I’ve got an endless supply of young people and I try and catch what they’re saying. And sometimes I test things out on them: I say, “Would you say that? Would you use that word?” I think they’re the hardest, but if you’re writing something and you’re in somebody’s point of view and it feels really hard, I think the answer is you have to stop.

That happens to me sometimes, there’s just a resistant character and I can’t do them from the inside and the answer probably is — it’s not because that character is dead, it’s because I know them from the outside. I watch them but I don’t know what’s going on in their narrative. Sometimes you just have those characters in the book where you mustn’t go inside. I couldn’t have done Pilar, the Argentinian wife; the whole way she works in the book is that she is mysterious. The power she exerts on that family is that she’s inaccessible to their way of imagining and thinking. She’s closed to them, and that’s how she’s powerful. So I wouldn’t have dreamt of doing anything from her point of view.

And you also chose not to narrate from Molly’s point of view, the teenage daughter.

It’s funny, because I don’t know how one would find the words for Molly. In some way — and the middle-aged women complain about this a bit — she doesn’t seem to know very much or be interested in very much, and yet she’s intensely alive. She’s alive in her body in a way, whatever all that mysterious “getting ready” is that she’s always doing. But she is [getting ready], she’s getting ready to be a woman, of course. And yes, she has all kinds of mysteries in her that we can’t fathom. To put her into an internal narrative, her voice would be weak in relation to the power she actually has as a person.

The Somerset setting plays such a vital role in the story. Do you have any personal connection to the British countryside?

Yes, I do. We live in London, though we’ve only lived in London for four years; before that we were in Cardiff, Wales. But very fortunately we have a cottage we have shared with the rest of my family since the 1980s, since my children were very small. It’s in west Somerset, which is exactly the area I’ve written about. It’s written with great love and intimate knowledge — I’ve just come back from three weeks there. It sort of belonged to my parents, and now they live nearby. Now it sort of belongs to me, and my brother shares it a bit, and the family all uses it.

Do you have a favorite character in this novel?

I think I’m divided between Alice and Harriet, since I can feel bits of myself in both of them, though neither of them are in fact like me. I identify with little, anxious bits of Harriet and I identify with some of Alice. And I am the little girl as well.

I don’t know that I do have a favorite character. I like Jill; well, I don’t like Jill, but I feel that Jill is the most powerful person in the book, and that her absence in a way brews over everything. She is a force. There’s something kind of certain about her, that none of her children quite have, that her mother doesn’t quite have either. She’s pretty amazing; I enjoyed creating her, a force in the world.

What are your favorite characters in other novels, not necessarily your novels?

One has two different kinds of love for characters in novels. One type of strong feeling one has is for the characters you can identify with — the complicated, reflective, thinking characters in any given book, who are the sensibility of the reader and writer, to some extent, who are watching the world and worrying about it and taking it in. And then there are the mysterious, lovable people, the dangerous, powerful attractive people, who maybe don’t have that same complex perfection and don’t have the subtlety, but they have life. I think one’s interest in books is divided between those two kinds. I think about a novel by Henry James called The Awkward Age where there’s a lovely teenage girl who is so intelligent and sensitive and sympathetic, and her life is in a mess, through no fault of her own, just through feeling too much, through seeing too much.

And then there’s a man, the man she’s dreadfully in love with and he doesn’t return her love, who is just a force. He’s dangerous and he’s handsome and wherever he goes he leaves a wake of attraction and interest behind him. And maybe there are — this is a grotesque simplification — two kinds of people: the watchers and the responders, they’re the ones I identify with. And then there are the forces: the people that force.

I suppose a huge influence in my youth was Ursula Brangwen from The Rainbow and Women in Love, by D.H. Lawrence. She’s a wonderful example of those complex, subtle, changing, powerful, intelligent women who have carried the novel form in English, hugely so.

You said in a recent New York Times interview that "superficial social relations can’t hope to match the intimacy you have with an author in their words on the page." Do you think that there’s something to be learned from authors you admire? Have you ever learned something from meeting a writer you admired?

Not in meeting them socially and saying hello and chatting. That can be extremely nice, like meeting anybody, but writers on a whole when they get together don’t sit down and say, “How do you manage that thing you do?” But you might get that from listening to a writer talk in a more public, formal way; that certainly could happen and that has happened. I’ve been to hear certain writers — Nadine Gordimer, Anita Desai, these masters and great writers — and some things they said about writing have stuck with me. Things that Alice Munro has said in interviews live with me. And Colm Toibin, he is brilliant about the process of writing; he’s said things, which I think I’ve heard on the radio, about the musicality of form. People tend to discuss the structure of a novel or a story in terms of its content, its story, its narrative, and he said: it’s got so much more to do with the music. That was brilliant, and I knew it, but he put it in a way that brought it to the forefront of my consciousness.

Now, that I wouldn’t have gotten from just reading his book, because he didn’t make it explicit there. Certainly I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Colm and we don’t sit around talking about those things. But listening to him talking about writing, I’ve learned a lot. So that’s a middle place: you’re not reading their fiction, but they’re reflecting about the process of writing in a slightly formal way, either in a review or an essay or in a talk. Sociability is a funny thing, isn’t it? You learn stuff about people, but not like that. It’s not a very good forum. When I was young I used to imagine that somewhere there was a dinner party of people sitting down, discussing narrative technique; maybe there is, and one wouldn’t even want to be there. There’s something about social context that dictates a very different kind of interaction that’s all intuitive and personal, rather than extended reflection.

You didn’t publish your first novel until you were 46, and since then you’ve been on a steady roll. What were some of the obstacles that kept your talent hidden from the world? Or was this a personal choice?

I was trying. I wrote about three or four novels in my twenties and thirties that were no good. I did try them very vaguely on publishers, like I would send them once to somebody. I knew nothing about that world; I didn’t know how to do it. But anyway, the crucial thing was they weren’t very good and I knew it: I had a horrible, uneasy feeling inside that they weren’t working.

So what were the obstacles? It’s a great mystery to me and it’s something I’ve obviously thought about a lot. What did it mean that for so long, although it was what I wanted to do and what I was trying to do, and it was desperately important and I was made quite unhappy by my failure, I couldn’t find the way I needed to write? And it’s not like I found it, and now I think all is perfect. But I know now that I’m doing all I can do.

That’s fine, and that’s all I can ever know, but why couldn’t I [before]? Why was I writing falsely? It’s mysterious to me. I think I was a slow developer and I think I was very impressionable so I didn’t have a strong, forceful sense of who I was and what my authority was and what I had to say. That took a long time to grow, and I came into it late, and now I don’t regret that. I’m almost glad that I had that 20 years of trying and failing, and it’s not really good for you at the time, but it might be good for you in the long run because you remember it. You remember being nobody.

I had a lovely family and many friends and much fun, but there was a sense of being invisible and failing and it’s a good perspective to keep. I think it has something to do with waiting and not being sure who I was or what I thought. I was awfully late, at 46. I’m lucky it's the 21st century and we’re not all dying young of tuberculosis is all I can say. I’m lucky, that I had all that time to get there.

A lot of the most successful writers right now didn’t make it till later in life. J.K. Rowling, for instance.

I think she was younger than me, but yes, you’re absolutely right. And then the wonderful Penelope Fitzgerald, of whom I’m a huge admirer. I mean, she was in her sixties. I think women hold back and feel a lot of self-doubt, which is not just, “Oh I’ve written something brilliant but I’m shy about whether it’s any good or not,” but I think it’s actually there in the writing. The doubt is undermining the work and making it no good until later, perhaps, [when] a woman thinks: I do know, actually, what I have to say. It’s only this small thing, but it’s something you’ve got to get to and it sounds like the easiest thing in the world! Once you’re there, you think it’s obvious: of course this is me, of course that’s the story I have to tell, of course that’s the material I’ll use. Before that, it was so elusive.

Any life, if written right, if you can find the words to express it, however utterly familiar it seems to you, can be made strange and fascinating in a story. It’s that discovery: that the very place you’re standing in is the place you have to write.

Do you find it natural to move between short stories and novels?

I do. I was writing short stories that worked before I could write a novel that worked. So I wrote a few short stories that I felt were alive, when I was still struggling with novels that were failing. And then maybe my first few novels were put together like a series of short stories; except they were all about the same people and they happened to be in chronological order. But I structured them inside my own mind so that each chapter had its own beginning, middle, and end, and had the tension of the short story, and that was immensely helpful. And it’s only in maybe this book, The Past, that I felt I could hold the whole novel idea, I could feel it in my bones now, instead of intellectually, how a novel length feels.


Jane Gayduk is a Brooklyn-based journalist and photographer.

LARB Contributor

Jane Gayduk is a writer based in New York City.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!