Tessa Hadley is one of those late-to-publishing writers who suddenly pop like a champagne cork, releasing a stream of sparkling fiction. When she won a $165,000 Windham Campbell prize last year, judges wrote that she “illuminates ordinary lives with extraordinary prose that is superbly controlled, psychologically astute, and subtly powerful.”
She’s written six critically acclaimed novels and has just published Bad Dreams and Other Stories, her third collection. She spoke to the Amazon Book Review by phone from London.
Amazon Book Review: I wanted to ask you a little bit about yourself because I know some readers won’t be familiar with your story. You were in your 40s when you published your first book, weren’t you?
Tessa Hadley: I was 46, I think—and not because I hadn’t thought of being a writer or wanted to be a writer before. I had written and written and failed. It’s one of the puzzling mysteries of my life, I mean, it’s not that interesting to anybody else, but very interesting to me. Why did I get it wrong for so long and then something came right? Suddenly what I was putting down on the page, I just knew it, it was really me. First of all, some short stories and I thought ah, that’s the truth, that’s how I want it to sound. Then I managed to sort of turn that into novels, which are harder. Short stories are supposedly hard and I love them and at their best they’re as good as anything, but actually there’s something about the sheer length of a novel which is an extra bit of challenge.
What do you think makes short stories so difficult?
I guess there’s no time to waste. There’s no room. What you do have in a novel is a lovely spaciousness, you’ve got time to digress and go to this, and then take a breath back, and move over here on the right instead, and so on. Whereas in a short story every single piece is sort of adding up and the reader is thinking “OK, OK, got that, I’ve got that, now what’s this for?” And then you come to the end, and the end must give you a feeling. Not that it needs to be tied up in a bow but “Ah ha. OK, I got it, that’s what that was for.”
How did you get recognition as a writer?
Well, I was really nowhere and nothing if you like in writing terms. I sort of was a mom, and that was my pretext of staying at home and trying to write, trying desperately to write, finishing three or four novels that just weren’t good. I did try them on publishers. I knew nothing, nothing about publishing. I didn’t even know you needed an agent or anything so I’d send them out. When they came back [with a note] saying, “It wasn’t for us,” I would never send them again, I just thought, that’s it, they failed.
It was all very stupid but actually I also knew the novels weren’t true, they weren’t right. So actually what I did was an M.A. in creative writing, which is like your M.F.A. It wasn’t because anybody taught me how to write, gave me a bag of tricks and said, “Oh look, if you do A, B, C it comes right.” Of course that isn’t how it is. But I think what it was, was instead of being alone with my thoughts and my books up in my attic, I don’t know what, addressing some vacancy, I was suddenly writing for specific people, actual real living people who would read this on Thursday. As I wrote I could hear it, I could hear “Oh, that’s boring, oh that’s pretentious, oh that’s a nice line, ah, that’s the story and that is the truth.” And I say that to my students now, that one of the invaluable things about learning on a course which is probably just like in the old days reading to your family or reading to a coterie of good literary friends, it just gives you an audience and without audience you actually can’t exist, writing doesn’t exist unless you’ve got an ear out there hearing your jokes, hearing your comedy, hearing your point.
It was that that was my turning point. That was being on that M.A. in the early 1990s, and actually the novel I wrote there never did get published, it was a bit of a mess, but there were things in it that I knew for the first time were real and I wrote some stories at that time that I felt, I got something, I was telling my truth whatever it was worth. And then shortly after that I did get my first book published.
Tessa Hadley (photo credit: Mark Vessey)
You have a wonderful story in this collection, “Her Share of Sorrow,” in which a little girl, Ruby, begins to become a writer after reading potboilers she finds while on vacation in France. It’s kind of a satiric story, you’ve been making fun of her bourgeois, high-expectations family, and then Ruby writes a novel in which they’re all killed, because she’s so annoyed with them for mocking her manuscript. Were you that little girl?
Yes and no. That isn’t my family at all. My family are their own comedy—whose family isn’t?—and me, too, in the middle of it. But they’re not that, they’re not that. I made that family up and I made her up a little bit. But the core of the story, that very young reading of those extraordinary sensation novels from the late 19th century, something about the melodrama just reached me and set me on fire. That’s absolutely real.
I remember one summer I was about eight or nine, and I stayed in a farmhouse that my uncle and aunt had borrowed for the summer, and up in the attic I found Lady Audley’s Secret. I can just remember the heat of that attic. It wasn’t in France, it was in England somewhere, but it was a hot summer, devouring that book with that same obsessiveness that Ruby does in my story.
Actually, there’s another story in the collection—the title story to Bad Dreams—that really is me as a little girl. That’s my flat. I don’t usually write so autobiographically, but if you remember she gets out of bed and she walks around the flat and she has one of those moments when she eerily feels, “One day this will be gone, it won’t be the present anymore.” As I wrote that that was my memory of my eight-year-old flat or seven-year-old flat and it wasn’t the present anymore, it had vanished into oblivion forever and ever and I was remembering the bits of furniture in the room. That’s a very close story actually, and I really did once throw the furniture around, weirdly, when my mom and dad had a dinner party. They were in the kitchen puttering and laughing and joking and I went into the sitting room and for no reason I can explain turned the furniture quietly over so it looked like a hurricane had hit. When my mum came out and found it she thought one of their guests, for years she thought one of the guests had been drunk, and weirdly done it.
Another thing that’s very striking in that story is the bad dream itself. The girl dreams that her favorite book, the classic Swallows and Amazons, has been transformed so that the adult future of the characters is revealed, the sad future.
That is absolutely from life. I had that dream. I even worried that it was such an old thing that I wouldn’t be able to explain it properly in a story, but I managed to get it in there. I had that dream, age about seven, something like that. Most of it I had to make up because I couldn’t remember the real words of the dream, of course, but I could remember “Susan lived to a ripe old age.” I remember that from my childhood. Amazing, isn’t it? Dreams are often very boring when you tell them to other people, but nonetheless they do address us in the darkest places.
It’s a very playful gesture on your part as a writer, to imagine how another story might begin if the boundaries of another story were taken away.
I think actually what was very important to me in finding my way into really writing was owning up on the page to the power of books in my life. I don’t mean just because I used lots and lots of autobiographical bits because I haven’t, but putting books into books. While I was holding back on that, and trying to not write about a bookish life, something wasn’t quite true. It’s a joy being able to put reading on the page. In my second novel: I remember writing about one of my heroines, sort of curled up in a chair so excited by what she’s reading, which isn’t fiction actually, that she sort of physically moving around in the chair. I love describing that because people do.
Your characters are mostly white, British and middle class. Is it difficult to lay claim to that milieu at this time in our literary evolution?
It is, and if you don’t first of all feel, “How dare I? What claim has this little tiny enclave upon our attention when there is this and that, and that huge thing, that horror, that unfairness, whatever,” then you probably don’t deserve to write anything, because you have to feel the alternate claims. Maybe that crushes one to begin with, and then in the end, I mean, I’m afraid I do think for me, you dare only put into words the thing you can be an authority on. I couldn’t write a woman’s life in Nigeria or a refugee’s life in Eritrea. What would I know? I would only have a set of stock images to draw on, whereas the whole pretext of putting down something that’s true on paper feels like resisting the stock image. It’s like pushing away the cliché and the shorthand and finding your way through, like putting your finger into the current of the reality. You can’t do that for what you don’t know.
First of all, there’s nothing else I can write. But secondly, I think certainly the English middleclass, it has been written about, they’ve been written about enormously, and for a long time as if they were still stuck in the 1950s: a bit snobby and a bit kind of right-wing. Whereas the middleclass I’ve grown up in and known, my ancestry is very ordinary and working class petit bourgeois, I guess it’s been quite lefty and passionate about all sorts of things. I’m not saying this as righteousness, I’m just saying it’s a new story to tell. It’s a funny new story to tell, there’s lots of rich comedy to do with being on marches and demonstrations and being feminist but still doing interior decorating, and there’s a new story to tell about our intelligentsia here perhaps, which doesn’t always get told. Some of the old clichés still hold as if everybody is really popping champagne corks and going yachting or something which is not a world I know anything about. I’ve drunk champagne but I’ve never been on a yacht. It’s a good new story to tell I think. There’s lots of comedy in there and lots of decency.
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Your story “Flight” is a good example of your more nuanced depiction of class affiliations. In it, a successful businesswoman who’s moved from the U.K. to the States goes home to visit her sister’s family in the North of England. The sister is a social worker, she’s put family first, and is not materially rich. Though the sisters appear totally different, you suggest that they could have switched places at some earlier point, made opposite choices. It might have been the other way around for them. Is there something about fiction that lets you get at that sense of fungible identity?
Yeah. It’s a layered thing isn’t it, that there you are making up the artifice of a story and inventing people, and in order to put a character on the page you are crisping and tightening. In a way, people in real life are so messy, they’re so unreadable, in a sense. So what’s one doing? One’s kind of doing something in fiction to a character that is like what we do to ourselves when we perform as ourselves. I do think there’s a deep analogy between making up people in fiction and performing ourselves in life, which is part of what makes fiction so resonant and makes it move us, at its best, so much.
As a writer, you get to be in on your characters’ secrets. For example, in your story “The Abduction” no one but your protagonist remembers an event that has shaped the rest of her life. You as a novelist, or maybe possibly her therapist, whom the protagonist consults at the end of that story, are the only ones with that view.
Yeah. And her therapist isn’t up to it, quite, is she? In my last novel, The Past, actually there is a secret in it which nobody in the novel knows or can possibly ever know that we know, the reader knows and the writer knows. There’s a lovely bit of Hannah Arendt somewhere where she says it’s fact that the vulnerable…you know if Einstein hadn’t come up with the theory of relativity well someone else would have done it later. If Plato hadn’t had that idea someone else would have had it but a fact like, do you know that he slept with her or do you know that she had the baby before she was married and gave it away? When the right people die, it’s gone.
The likelihood of anybody ever finding a fact, that really moves me, and somehow seems in an indirect way to be part of what’s precious about fiction. We forget a thousand things every day, don’t we? I forget 4,000 things every day. I love the sense of putting things on the page where they can’t melt away.
You really are the mistress of the subtle ending. When I was reading “Bad Dreams,” I had to put down the book quite regularly after each story and just kind of think and let it all tie up in my mind. Is that something that you work intentionally on? Are there models for that for you?
I think there are models. I mean, exactly what you just said about having to put down the book at the end of a short story is something that Mavis Gallant, a wonderful Canadian short story writer who is one of my complete obsessions, said. She said that somewhere: you can’t read a book of short stories right through, you have to stop and let each one kind of work. So I do have models. Alice Munro’s endings don’t make you think, “Oh yes, oh I get it, the butler did it or oh, they got married,” or whatever.
You have this tiny short space of a short story. Even if it’s quite a long one, it’s still tight compared to a novel, and you’ve got to get to a place where you suddenly rethink the beginning, but you can still remember because you only read it this morning or yesterday night or you think, “What was that middle bit for?” So the ending, it should absolutely take you back inside the story. My dad, however, I have to say, reads them and says, “Tess, I like your stories, but I wish you would tell me what happened at the end, they don’t seem to finish properly.” So I’m always aware that there is different tradition which delivers, sometimes brilliantly, a lovely kind of rabbit out of a hat in the last paragraph and you kind of know what you’ve got.
You mentioned Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant; anybody else any farther back? Is Chekov an inspiration to you?
He invents that short story in a way, the one which isn’t tight and neat and delightful. The lovely model of the tight kind of short story is Kipling I think. It’s unfashionable because of his politics, but maybe that’s long ago now, we can just put that aside. He’s a master of the brilliant bravura ending but then Chekov comes along and even though it’s 120 years ago, or whatever, he just does that modern thing of striking an off-note, going to somewhere that isn’t a tonic chord to wind things up. Chekov’s superb.
I love Elizabeth Bowen. She’s an Anglo-Irish writer of the mid-20th century and she’s, along with Gallant and Alice Monroe, they’re probably my. … Can you have more than one polestar? You can’t really… but they are, they’re my constellation of polestars to steer by.
Alice Munro has said that writing short stories is great for women with small children because they require increments of time that are easier to find. Was that how you came to write short stories? Was it something about the situation of being a woman or a mother? How does that differ from how you write novels?
I don’t think that was quite the reason because actually once your kids go to school, if you aren’t going out to work, which does now seem very strange, you have quite long days. I did a little bit of teaching, I did a little bit of evening classes but I had long days, so time itself [wasn’t the problem]. I just couldn’t get it right. I spent so many years on those failed dead novels which are now rotting in landfills somewhere, I’m glad to say.
I got short stories. I got the feel and the tension of the form and I got it to be an expression of my temperament and my reality before I could do that with the novel and actually my first novel Accidents in the Home is really achieved by pushing lots of short stories end-to-end in the short stories. They’re about the same people and they happen in chronological order and—it is a real novel in a way, but structurally I did a chapter at a time, because I got that.
A novel is—I’ve said this before and I’m getting a bit tired of it—but it is like a bridge, except that you set out from one side really not knowing how you’re going to bring it down at the other side, and there’s two years of work in between. Eventually you do have a sense of that form and the structure that will stop it growing flat and dull in the middle. Not everybody is like this. Some people I know don’t know how to do a short story and then just know, they just have an instinct for novel shape. But it was the other way around with me. My sense of novel structure grew out of being able to master a short story first.
Thank you so much, Tessa. I loved Bad Dreams, and it’s been a privilege to talk to you.
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