Tessa Hadley | 'The domestic parochial is what novels do best'

Tessa Hadley | 'The domestic parochial is what novels do best'

For a writer near universally admired by her peers, among them Zadie Smith, Hilary Mantel and Anne Enright, it is a mystery why Tessa Hadley’s novels have so far eluded the big literary prize shortlists in this country. The judges who awarded her the US-based Windham-Campbell Prize in 2016 noted how she "brilliantly illuminates ordinary lives with extraordinary prose that is superbly controlled, psychologically acute and subtly powerful". She is a writer in fierce pursuit of the truth about ordinary lives; the way women and men think and feel and relate to one another.

Late in the Day is Hadley’s seventh novel and it explores the close relationships between two long-married couples, now in late middle-age: Christine and Alexandr, and Lydia and Zachary. Christine has known Lydia ever since they first met as girls at grammar school, and so it is Christine who Lydia phones from the hospital with the shocking news that Zach is dead.

The loss will reshape their lives in unexpected ways, at first drawing them closer—in the immediate aftermath, Lydia moves in with Christine and Alex, unable to bear being alone—but gradually the fault lines that run beneath their long-term relationships are exposed. The novel unfolds in the present day, but dips into the past, including the mid-1980s, when Christine and Lydia meet Alex, who teaches them French at university. Glamorous by virtue of being foreign, slightly older than them and already married with a child, Alex entrances Lydia, who pursues him. As we see the characters through the years, Hadley, with extraordinary skill, shows the relationships between the four tangling and disentangling. As always, her writing is nuanced, precise and completely engrossing.

I must have written four awful, dead novels before I wrote anything that was any good and I began to be able to write like myself. Before that, I was failing

When we sit down in the front room of her light-filled flat in north London, Tessa Hadley describes Late in the Day as "a pair of love stories twisted together, slightly perversely in places". She explains that she began the novel with "the sense of two couples weaving around in different configurations. I remember making a note in my notebook; A+B, C+D. Oh, and then C+A."

Hadley knew that she wanted to explore what happens to people in long relationships: "Marriages now are longer than they ever have been in history. Of course, we have divorce and separation, but people just used to die—it was so exceptional to be married for 30 or 40 years. So these long relationships are a new thing." In the novel, which is dedicated to her parents who have been married for 63 years, she likens staying in a marriage to the image from a folktale, where someone wishing to catch their lover must hold on to him or her as the person goes through metamorphosis after metamorphosis, shape-shifting from a dragon to a lion to a mouse, "and you just have to hang to them. Or not".

Late in the Day also examines Christine’s struggle to balance her creative "interior" life as a solitary artist with her "real" life out in the world, as Hadley says, "lubricating those friendships and that marriage and motherhood" with the sense "of being wrenched sometimes out of one self and into another self."

As ever, Hadley’s psychological insight is remarkable and I’m curious as to how she manages to get the truth of things down on the page. "I’m slow and cumulative and I never move on until I think I’ve got it right," she says. "I have to feel, ‘That’s it!’, then I do the next bit." It is hard work, what Hadley describes as the "effort of writing" where, she says, "you are reaching, not for things inside yourself, but for, ‘What would that person do? Come on, you know him, the man you’ve made, what would he do?’

"When I’m searching for the right way to tell the truth about a bit of Christine’s life, I’m searching among the detail of what I know," she says. "Whereas if I were to write, say, about the situation in Nicaragua, I would reach for clichés and I wouldn’t correct the clichés because I wouldn’t have any lived life. But here, if I reach for a cliché about what life is like for a woman in London now, I’ll think no, it’s not like that. Get it right."

Domestic affairs

Her novels focus on the lives of middle-class English people, particularly women, and are set over the second half of the 20th century, up to the present day. Some critics have been disparaging about so-called "domestic novels" concerned with family life, particularly when set against "big" novels with grand themes. Hadley says "one hopes, by doing your tiny bit, that if you do it honestly you’ll do the best you can in relation to the rest of the world. And that’s all you can do." In her opinion "the domestic parochial is what novels do best, not big politics but, on the whole, minutiae, the flow of daily life." She writes at a small desk in her bedroom—which she generously shows me—rather than in a study. She works on a laptop but with a notebook open on one side, which enables her to "play with words, before I put them on the screen, to try and catch something".

Her style is deceptively plain and simple, but every word, every sentence, works so hard. There is no padding, no show-off flourishes. "I hate curliness in writing, ornamentation without need," she says. By her own admission, Hadley took years to find her own style: "I must have written four awful, dead novels before I wrote anything that was any good and I began to be able to write like myself. Before that, I was failing. Every time I finished one I would send it off—and I didn’t know anything about publishing, so I would send it to one publisher instead of an agent, then they would send it back with a rejection slip and I would think, ‘Right, that’s it! This is mad, I’m never going to do it again.’" She scolds an imaginary self: "‘Just enjoy reading!’ But I couldn’t."

The creative process

She eventually did an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University—where she is now Professor of Creative Writing—in 1994. Despite being very doubtful about studying creative writing ("none of the writers I admired had ever been on a creative writing course"), she looks back on the experience now as a watershed. "Nobody can teach anybody else to write, of course, but what a course can do is provide a literary coterie, like the Bloomsbury Group." Having an attentive audience of peers for her writing for the first time, and wanting to please them, paid off. Her début novel Accidents in the Home (2002) was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.

An excerpt appeared in the New Yorker and the prestigious magazine still regularly publishes her short stories. Another five novels and three short-story collections followed and, in the words of Hilary Mantel, "[Hadley] recruits admirers with each book. She writes with authority and with delicacy: she explores nuance but speaks plainly; she is one of those writers a reader trusts".

Of her work, Hadley says: "I wanted to catch this particular piece of the world, this tiny piece that is mine, and put it down [on the page] because when it goes, it’s gone. This is not a plan for posterity, by the way, but what I love in other artists. It’s astonishing how I can open a novel, set in 1970s Italy say, and there it is laid out for me. Once it was all around the writer; now it’s gone, like water draining away. But the book is left behind, holding the shape."