January 15, 2019

Tessa Hadley

On writing the right books: “It felt like coming home with the right key and letting myself into my own house.”

Author Tessa Hadley explores some of our deepest feelings—lust, jealousy, despair—with visceral perception and emotional resonance.

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Alexandr and Christine, Zachary and Lydia have been friends since they first met after college. Thirty years later, Alexandr and Christine are spending a quiet night at home when they receive a life-changing call from Lydia. She is at the hospital, and Zachary is dead. Over the next year, the loss destroys the friends’ easy camaraderie, exposing old wounds and exacerbating grievances. With Late in the Day, our Top Pick in Fiction for January 2019, author Tessa Hadley explores some of our deepest feelings—lust, jealousy, despair—with visceral perception and emotional resonance.

Your novels and stories have been published in the United States, but I think our readers may not know much about you. What can you tell us about yourself?
I was born in 1956 in Bristol, England. My father was a schoolteacher and then much later had a shop, selling first jazz and pop records, then ironmongery. (I’m not sure what you call that in the U.S.—paraffin and nails and brushes and kettles and a thousand more things you didn’t know you needed until you saw them.) He also played jazz trumpet. My mother was a dressmaker and a housewife, elegant and arty, went to art school and drew and worked in pastels. I have one brother. I was painfully shy, very bookish, but happy as a child—at least until I was 11 and went to a rather bleakly academic school, which intruded too far into my private thoughts. I studied literature at university, but I’ve never completely fitted inside formal education, though I enjoyed it more later, when I came back to it in my 40s. I’ve been married for nearly 40 years and have three sons and three stepsons, all grown men now—and an accompanying crop of daughters-in-law and grandchildren. Big family, sociable, close, maddening, essential.

You didn’t start to publish until your mid-40s. Was there something that stopped you from sharing your work, and if so, how did you overcome that obstacle?
It wasn’t the sharing that was the problem, it was the work. I was always writing. I’ve never been able to do anything much else. But I was writing the wrong books. I think I was always an impressionable person, molding myself to be like other people I admired. In the long run, this is a form of imagination, and perhaps it stands a writer in good stead eventually. But in the beginning it means you don’t write out of your own perceptions with sufficient force. So I was a pale imitation of the writers I adored. I can’t explain why it got better eventually. Middle age? Working through all those imitations? Taking a writing course, getting competitive? At any rate, when it happened, it felt like coming home with the right key and letting myself into my own house. What joy.

Did you write as a child?
Yes, always. I can remember the physical delight of learning to make a letter “a.” And I remember my uncle, who was only 10 years older than I was, telling me that it was not a good idea to begin every sentence with “and.” My first lesson in style. For some reason, as soon as I read books, I got the idea that I could also make books of my own, to my own desires. Then I learned that between the wish and the execution there are oceans of difficulty. Still, it was always a joy—each fresh new vision, which then got bogged down after a while in lifelessness. There seemed to be a connection between the stories I wrote and the imaginary games we played as children—actually, these games seemed richer, more freely inventive, wholly satisfying. Whereas I knew that the books I wrote weren’t quite the real thing.

Late in the Day is about two marriages, two couples who are intimately connected and what happens when one of the partners dies. What lead you to that subject?
First of all, I wanted to write about long marriages. Marriages last longer than they’ve ever done in history, because we live so long. It’s extraordinary to hang on to the same individual through youth, middle age, beyond. My parents have been married over 60 years. There’s such a lot of story in that idea. So my first idea was to follow my two couples chronologically through time and see them change, watch them getting together, swapping partners, having children and so on. There an element of comic accident in how our lives end up, with whom we spend them. Of course there’s choice, but there’s also change, and unintended consequence, and error. I’m not romantic, I think. I believe in love, but not true love, not the one and only one. I think the comedy of accidents, the friendliness of adjusting to circumstances, is more interesting in the long run than single-minded adoration and fixation. But still I weep over Jane Eyre when I read it.

The novel moves back and forth in time, from the moment of Zachary’s death to decades before when the couples were still young and just beginning to connect. What lead you to choose that over a more straightforward chronology?
I thought at first that Zachary’s death would come fairly late on in the story. But then as soon as I knew he was going to die, his death swamped everything else. I didn’t even know whether I could make it work, structurally, if I suddenly sprang this death on readers after they’d got very used to his being alive. The finality of his death, if it was a sheer surprise, might have torn fatally through the fabric of the book, changed its tone too entirely. So I realized I needed to begin from that—everything begins from his death, and is seen in the light of the knowledge that it’s going to happen.

Christine is a successful contemporary artist. Do you have a sense of what her work looks like? Did you have to research the London art world at all?
I thought I would have to research it. But I always want to write first, research afterwards. Guess first, correct afterwards: It’s more likely to feel alive. And then while I was writing, I soaked up without thinking everything I read or came across to do with the visual arts. I do love paintings, and I used bits of detail from here and there about careers and prizes and attitudes, and actually when I’d finished I thought I’d done my research without noticing it. I had to dream what it would feel like, to need to express yourself in images instead of words. I’m not sure you could research that—you have to imagine it. I think I know what Christine’s work looks like, but in a groping kind of way that it would take an actual artist to fulfill and embody in visual art form.

Place is such a vital part of your fiction. Your last novel, The Past, was set in the country; Late in the Day takes place mostly in London and Venice. How does landscape shape and alter your storytelling?
I think we are porous animals, intensely responsive to our surroundings, taking our cue from them in terms of mood, action, imagination. We don’t stop at the edge of our skin: Our sensibility encompasses sky, surround-sound, cultural suggestion, built environment, music. So if I take my contemporary middle-class English arty types and put them down in Venice, something happens to them. They soften and blur around the edges in response to some dream of the place they’re in. The beauty of the streets and buildings, the warm sun and light on the water—this makes them dreamy, too. And they’re sophisticated and aware of the whole history of tourism and Venice and art, and some of the awfulness of it, and all this complex positioning stretches them and strains at their ordinary selves, makes rash things possible, makes it possible for them to act themselves differently, at least for an hour or an afternoon, or a week. Everyone who knows about Venice or London or New York or the Sahara desert, and feels it, has a little bit of its sensibility inside them—even if they never go there. Imagination is a rich map of possibilities, light and dark. It’s a terrain, an inner landscape, whether we visit in actuality or not. Sometimes I think we ought not.

Your novels bubble over with details of relationships, of intimacies, thoughts, places, the natural and the sensual world. How do you keep the plot moving forward?
Writing a novel, you have to be aware of two very different drives working at the same time. At one level, sentence by sentence, you are following every unexpected development and suggestiveness, very few of which you will have imagined in advance. You know approximately what Lydia is like, but you don’t know what she’ll do—you don’t know the sequence of her thoughts and gestures, you don’t know her embodiment, her movements and appearance—in a given scene, until you’re writing it. That’s the joy and freshness of the daily writing. But behind this energy of the “present” of the novel, with all its cornucopia of possibility, the writer feels the deep hum of the engine down below: The story inches its way forward; certain inevitable developments are preparing themselves. (I’m making it almost sound like Thomas Hardy’s Titanic and the iceberg here.) The writer is probably more aware of the story driving forward below the surface than the reader is, if everything’s working well. Then it’s a nice surprise for the reader, when something unexpected happens, takes everything to a new place.

You look at your characters without judgment, even when they act in petty ways or commit acts of selfishness or unkindness. The four people in Late in the Day hurt each other in terrible ways, and yet, they aren’t bad people, are they?
I’m so glad you say that. That’s what I feel, though I know already from some early readers that they are angry with Alex. I keep on writing this kind of man: clever and attractive and rather arrogant, very free, very separate from conventional forms and roles. Often right, but not always, and not invariably kind. I have a feeling this kind of man cast spells over my generation, young in the ’70s—and that this is no longer the case, men aren’t made like that any more. Probably a good thing. Whenever you find yourself writing the sentences that close down on judgment of your characters, those sentences read less well, they’re less interesting stylistically—which is a really difficult conundrum. Because it can’t mean that novels don’t judge what’s right and wrong, can it? They begin at least from a premise that right and wrong are real; all the novels I’ve ever cared for begin from that. But they begin from it and work from there. They watch the unfolding of right and wrong, which is often opaque, though not always. They describe its coming about, they don’t arbitrate or preach. It’s not the Day of Judgement, it’s the Garden of Earthly Delights, with all the devils in it.

Without giving anything away, I felt that Late in the Day was really about a middle-aged woman committing to her identity as an artist. Would you agree?
Yes, that’s what I think. My heart was in that last chapter, those last pages.

You write from the point of view of so many characters and so many generations in this and in earlier novels like The Past and Clever Girl. Is there any age that you aren’t comfortable inhabiting?
I can’t remember ever writing from the point of view of someone in their 70s or 80s. It’s a time of life particularly bedeviled, in representation, with stereotypes and clichés. Takes a strong push to write past them, I suspect. I feel rather ashamed, now I come to think of it, that I haven’t tried. My own parents are in their late 80s now. I’m learning a lot about it.

What books are on your bedside table?
A biography of Clement Attlee, the Labour Prime Minister who oversaw the extraordinary transformation of Britain into a welfare state after the Second World War. It’s good time to be remembering him and that inspired undertaking. Four sublime novellas by Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg: Valentino, Sagittarius, Family and Borghesi. One of the books about physics I perennially buy and fail to finish. But I dip into the universe from time to time, uncomprehending.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a review of Late in the Day.

Author photo by Mark Vessey

Get the Book

Late in the Day

Late in the Day

By Tessa Hadley
Harper
ISBN 9780062476692

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