Hadley: writing, reading and flirting

Teaching Literature and Creative Writing at Bath Spa University while regularly writing for the London

Review of Books, as well as pursuing a career in writing herself, makes Tessa Hadley a very busy as

well as successful woman. With stories published in The New Yorker and Granata as well as four

novels currently in print, Tessa Hadley seems to be a force to be reckoned with on the scene of

English Literature.


This multitude of talents and activities might seem daunting, but at the end of

the day, Tessa sees herself first and foremost as a writer. “A writer who doesn’t think that comes

first isn’t really one” she argues with determination, but this doesn’t mean that she doesn’t enjoy

teaching which she considers to be “a delight of a quite different order” as it is “much more sociable,

more solid, less strange” as well as affording the friendship of colleagues as well as students. But

did she always want to be a writer? To her credit, she answers this obligatory and somewhat

cliché question with both sincerity and interest. “Well, yes” she answers, and admits that in spite

of having “flirted” with other options while growing up, writing is what she always really wanted

to do from the age when she realised her love for novels. Eventually, she came to realise that the

occupations she had been considering rather were “characters I wanted to explore in writing”. The

real problem was to gain the confidence that what she wanted to write was what people would

enjoy reading.


Having done her PhD on Henry James she admits a love for the author which can be traced back even

before she fully understood his writing. “I love the rich texture of his language” she professes, and

finds it a reassuring reminder “that life really is as complex as the best sentences”. “He’s a writer

who loves life”, she exclaims, and who “is drawn to people who aren’t bookish at all but commit

themselves (dangerously) to the great world of fashion and passion”. In spite of not being a realist

prosaically, “the mysterious fabric of his books is woven out of the real qualities of the world outside

of books, its solidities.”


Turning to, at least superficially, more digestible material the discussion turns to another interest and

area of expertise of Tessa’s; namely Jane Austen. Considering the immense general interest in her

work today, and the countless film and TV productions she must have done something right. What is

it that makes her stories so appealing and timeless? Tessa explains that “She pushes the novel form

in English to a new psychological and social subtlety, making her very sentences imitate the flow of

intuitions and impressions in consciousness. Through this newly nuanced form, we make full contact

with her lovely mind, its wit and exact observation and empathy and sensual responsiveness. Other

people have lovely minds, but few have the art to give these full expression in writing”. She finds it

impossible to choose between Austen’s heroines and insists that we have need them all, “Elizabeth

Bennett because she’s spirited and strong, Fanny Price because the spirited strong ones can’t

have it all their way, Emma Woodhouse because truth becomes mixed with stupid blind spots and

vanity. Anne Elliot because intelligence can be squeezed into tight corners, blotted out by accident,



Moving on to Tessa’s own work I personally, having read ‘The London Train’ and ‘Everything Will

Be All Rights’ and loved them, was eager to ask her about her take on human interaction and life.

Does she create characters who, although desperate to break free of the conventions and rules

perceived among their relations, are destined to end up living the life they’ve been trying so hard

to avoid meaning that we are doomed to repeat certain patterns? In life according to Tessa, there is

a “perennial tension between change and continuity”. “I suspect”, she continues, that “it’s deep in

the pattern of the human life cycle. Without change, no freedom; and yet, underpinning change, the

patterns of repetition, the biological continuities of birth, copulation, death”. If people are ‘trapped’

in their patterns “That implies a free world without patterns, elsewhere. Of course people can be

trapped by poverty or oppression”. “Mostly”, she adds, “I’m interested in how people live into the

patterns of their lives, partly borrowed from tradition. I don’t think my books protest against the

patterns, rather observe them”. Drawing on the down to earth and everyday nature of the stories

it seemed like a natural question to ask if she finds it useful to refer back to ‘real life’ experiences in

her writing. The answer is decisive; “Well, if not real life then what would one be writing about and

how would readers recognise it?”. She admits that “fragments of autobiography mingle with stories

told by others, moments observed or just guessed at, dreams”, but “There’s no telling where one’s

own story ends and the others start”. The family-centricity of her stories she attributes to familiarity.

She is writing about what she knows best and writing novels about politics or war wouldn’t be an

option. In fact, she continues, “the novel form seems to have grown entangled organically with the

development and history of the bourgeois family. A set of people squashed together into a small

space, in a complex set of interrelationships… the connection between the family and the form are

intrinsic, aren’t they?”


But how does she manage to achieve that perfection of language? We have all tried it and, I take

the liberty to assume, often failed in attempting to blend the simple with the vivid and acute. How

does she prefer to write and edit her texts? “Writing is ‘editing’, in some sense” she considers. “Each

sentence as it comes is worked and reworked in the very process of getting it down on the page, till

it’s the right sentence. And lots are put down and then cut out. You write and then look, write and

look. Anything that strikes a false note or jars has to be cut, to leave the true thing standing cleanly”.

Receiving nothing but praise from critics, and creating succinct, perceptive accounts of our complex

relationship in the modern society and family, Tessa Hadley is definitely an author to watch out for.

She’s here to stay. On an end note, and as a kind answer to my last question, Tessa urges the aspiring

writer to “persevere”. In the end, what you need is to “Want to do it more than anything. Be unable

to stop when you wish you could stop. Read.”