Minna Lacey interviews Tessa Hadley about her new novel Late In The Day. Feature photo by Mark Vessey
There’s a moment in Tessa Hadley’s novel Late in the Day, during a phone call between friends, Christine and Lydia, when the story takes an unexpected turn and one character’s world turns upside down. Hadley then freezes the action to step back in time, leaving the reader clinging to the edge of the cliff. The delay is skilful, successfully intensifying the vitality and excitement of the writing. Although it leaves you aching to know what happens next, it gives you a chance to take a breath and digest the news. The flashback also creates a shift in tempo that mirrors the turbulence in the minds of the characters, cleverly echoing the way an emotional shock can trigger a flood of memories, buried secrets or epiphanies about the past. As Hadley explains “It’s a classic device, I suppose: hold the reader’s interest in what’s happened, pin their attention to the story, spin out the expectation. But perhaps there’s another deeper dynamic too: you want that moment of recognition and change not to feel rushed, inside your narration. It’s so significant that it needs room to breathe, for the novel to rearrange itself around this significant news.”
Late in the Day, Hadley’s seventh novel interweaves moments of psychological insight with unsettling character reversals, flashes of untrammelled desire with troughs of despair, descriptions you want to savour. Set in North London, the book centres on the lives of four characters in their fifties who wear fitbits, make frittatas, write poetry and chat about art and books, hovering between locations in Kensal Rise, King’s Cross, Clerkenwell and Gospel Oak. However this is not an exploration of middle-class couples running low on conjugal bliss, it’s more about the upheaval that occurs when a group of friends are plunged into crisis after a sudden death among them. The central themes of ageing, desire, betrayal and loss are vividly evoked, while Hadley also touches upon issues of identity and belonging with Alex, born in Czechoslovakia, who feels a sense of restlessness in London but is equally disconnected when he returns with his mother to his childhood home in Bratislava.
“For a few uncanny minutes, it was as if two epochs of their lives were superimposed and coexistent, the present transparent and the past showing through behind it. The superior solidity of the here and now was bound to prevail over fragile memory; a different generation of children, born into a different politics, came pouring out through the school gate, jostling and calling.”
But it’s the clarity of Hadley’s style and her universalising observations about the minutiae of contemporary life that really draws the reader in. At the heart of her writing is the rich detail, her brilliant observations that brighten descriptions of place and deepen our understanding of the emotional lives of her characters. In one particularly poignant moment, Christine forces herself to leave her flat after a difficult parting. Hadley’s description begins with a quote from Christina Rossetti – the subject of Christine’s unfinished PhD.
“Lie still, lie still, my breaking heart, my silent heart, lie still and break. But she knew better than to give way to this. Instead, willing her dead limbs to work, she found her bag and her coat and keys and went out. Even the first gasp of polluted city wind, snatching at her when she opened the front door, blowing her along with scraps of greasy litter, restored her sanity like a slap in the face.”
Hadley’s prickly monosyllabic language bristles with pain and anger, the harsh, blustery weather and dirty surroundings reflecting Christine’s troubled feelings.
Hadley’s own writing success came late in the day. After studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Bath College of Higher Education, now Bath Spa University, in her late thirties, she published her first book, Accidents in the Home, in 2002 at the age of 46. The novel brought her instant acclaim and was long-listed for the Guardian First Book Award. Since then, Hadley has contributed short stories to The New Yorker with unusual regularity and has won numerous prizes, including the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize for Clever Girl and The Past in 2016, and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize for Bad Dreams in 2018.
Having come to Hadley’s writing first through her mesmerising short stories, so precise and exquisitely plotted, I’m intrigued to discover how she tackles the extended challenge of a novel. Soon after Late in the Day is published I ask Hadley a number of questions about her writing and her new book.
Do you prefer the novel or the short story? And can you explain the difference between writing a short story and a novel in terms of the process?
I could write short stories that worked before I could write a successful novel: that’s why my first novel, Accidents in the Home, is structured very much like a succession of short stories. It took me a long time to master that long arc of narrative necessary for a true novel. Now I can feel that long arc inside me, which makes me able to imagine the novels more organically, as whole things before I even begin. That only came with experience.
Do you have a clear plan of plot and structure before you begin writing, or does it evolve as you write?
Both. I have a reasonably clear outline before I begin, or at least I can see the story in my mind’s eye, a succession of scenes, certain cruxes, certain strong happenings I long to write (but must wait, until I arrive at them – I never write the book out of its final order). And then of course as the story unfolds on the computer screen new things arrive, everything swerves in a different direction. There’s some sweet spot always between control and freedom. You don’t want too much of either.
The four main protagonists in Late in the Day are painted so vividly; where do you get the inspiration for your characters? And how do you manage to sustain your characters throughout the story?
I need to get quite a strong sense of my character before I begin to really write the book. So I’ll have a notebook to jot down details, but really the primary work is a kind of daydreaming. The individuals in my books and stories are composed out of a mixture of people I’ve known, people from books and films, people I’ve just imagined. We’re trained psychologically to interpret character from our earliest childhood, aren’t we? I think we have a huge store of possibilities and types in imagination, ready to compose living and breathing individuals in our dreams if we can only trigger them. The trigger may be a name, or a fragment of a story, or a gesture or an act. From there, using our learned wisdom, it’s almost as if we can extrapolate the rest, just as if they were real and we encountered them. Except that actually, we’re inventing it all.
You write a lot about the trials and tribulations of adolescence; what drew you to write about older, more middle-aged characters in this story?
Children and adolescents are exciting to write about because they see with such clear eyes, they’re not bound in yet to the rules of the game, they can think and do anything. Actually, I’m not sure that I do write more about them than about middle-aged people. Middle-age is so interesting too: just because everything can seem settled, and then some shift or accident tears through the fabric.
There’s a strong sense of place in the book, what is it about London that lends itself so effectively to the literary novel?
I think it’s cities, rather than London in particular. Before I lived in London, I wrote about Bristol and Cardiff and felt the poetry of those places. And then my last novel The Past is set in the country – at least, it’s city people spending time in the country. A good novel can be set anywhere. But why are cities so appealing to write about? I suppose because they’re a bit like novels extended in physical space, with private rooms and public arenas, places for assembly and work and wider social relations, places for introspection and self. The built environment is always a wonderful metaphor.
The novel has a third person narrator and is written in the past tense, with several shifts further back in time; can you explain your motive for this point of view and tense, and is this your favoured way of telling a story?
The past tense always seems easiest to me, default position, though some writers do wonderfully with the present tense, its immediacy. The third person omniscient narrator I use in Late in the Day and elsewhere, able to dive inside different characters in turn and read their thoughts, and also to see them from outside and comment on them too – that’s a bit more unusual, or perhaps old-fashioned. But it seems to me such an opportunity, to get onto the page everything you can see that’s in the scene, all the truths about it at once, some of them conflicting.
Your prose is clear and direct, yet peppered with extraordinary details that convey so much about the characters’ inner worlds; how has your writing style developed over the years?
I’m probably not able to describe that myself: it would take a more detached observer. What I felt I learned, when I first began to write anything worth reading (after many false starts) was that simplicity and clarity were always best and that it didn’t matter how small your story was, as long as you told it truthfully and plainly. Also that a good telling detail, something tangible which showed the point exactly, was worth the weight of a thousand generalisations. I’m a bit of a materialist in writing. Stuff, rather than ideas. And then ideas too, because they’re an element in the stuff our lives are filled with. Ideas not as drivers for the story or explications of it, but as additional telling details, alongside the concrete things.
Finding a distinctive author’s voice is often the hardest skill to develop as a novice writer, how did you find your own voice and what tips do you have for new writers?
Just write and write. At first, you probably won’t be writing in your own voice (a very few writers perhaps are born speaking like themselves). You’ll be imitating the writers you admire, and that’s just fine, but it won’t feel quite true, it will feel like putting a voice on, faking it, traipsing around showing off in your mother’s high heels. Then after a while, correcting that fakery, trying again and again, you’ll begin to come up with something different. Now it feels as if you’re cutting straight into the life of things, its plain truth as you know it, and only you. You should feel uneasy as you write, almost as if you’re telling things that are too obvious – and slightly shaming too, exposing.
American authors like Hemingway or Carver with a minimalist, stripped-back style seem to have had a huge influence on short story writing; do you think this still prevails?
Yes, in that it would be difficult to write in the style of high modernism now – to write like wonderful Eudora Welty, say. Something in our era requires us to flatten those literary effects, ambitions – some sociological shift in our culture, something to do with the breaking up of the old sophisticated elites? I don’t really put this down to Hemingway and Carver, I think they were the symptoms rather than the cause. The change didn’t come about through writers: rather, the good writers knew how to ride the sociological change, they interpreted it and found new plain ways, appropriate to now, for describing how life is. I love Colm Toibin’s plenty style (better than I love Hemingway’s or Carver’s actually – their plainness I think of as showy, too much in love with its own austerity).
Do you see any differences between male and female writing?
Oh goodness. That’s the most difficult question of all. I used to give students a particularly romantic bit of Kundera, and then a bit from Nadine Gordimer about trade unions. Predictably they thought the romance must be by a women, the politics by a man. However, for as long as the formation of women and men culturally is so different – and oh, the forms and habits of that formation are imprinted deep, deep, in imagination, and can’t be undone lightly, at a stroke, in a generation! – then yes, the kinds of knowing women and men have will be different, and the stories they tell will be inflected differently, and their style and aesthetic will flow from that. And those old evolving cultural forms of maleness and femaleness: they’re sometimes dreadful and constraining, and they’re also interesting, they’re what we’re made of! To put it another way, they’re what we have to write about.
What do you think makes for good dialogue?
No one in dialogue in a fiction should say exactly what they mean, or what they feel. Or maybe once or twice, in extremis, and stutteringly, incompletely. That’s how it is in life. They shouldn’t explicate their situation, or say where they’re going. Also, we should try to catch people talking about other things than themselves and the plot of the novel they’re in.
What were your formative experiences of writing as a child, at home or school? How did you become a writer?
In Junior School we had to write ten sentences with speech marks at the beginning of a sentence, ten with speech marks at the end, and so on. I loved these. I was reading Victorian sensation novels at the time. I used to write things like this: “Can you truly ever love me,” she sighed mournfully, leaning her fair head on his strong shoulder. It all began there, the intoxication.
Can you describe a typical writing day?
I think it’s impossible to write well for more than about four hours. You should do it first thing too, when you’re fresh from your dreams before you open letters or look at emails or the news. Of course, I only achieve that once in a blue moon. Even on a blue moon day, it takes an hour or so to get going, to re-enter inside the spell of the book. I read sentences from certain authors who are my guides, to help me across that threshold into writing. At a certain point, a cup of coffee with biscuits materialises on my desk.
Which writers have influenced you the most? Which authors do you enjoy at present?
Alice Munro, Elizabeth Bowen, Mavis Gallant. Coetzee, Gordimer, Updike, Eudora Welty, Lucia Berlin, Colm Toibin. I re-read more than I read new books. The great classic novels still read to me as if they were contemporary. They’ve formed our contemporary sensibility. Mine, anyway.
Can you say anything about the next project(s) you are working on?
My next novel will be set, I think, if it works out, wholly in the 1960s. A historical novel, almost! Except that I was alive then, so it’s somehow not history.
Late In The Day by Tessa Hadley is published by Jonathan Cape and was released earlier this year.