Tessa Hadley recently published her thirtieth short story in The New Yorker—the first, “Lost and Found,” came out in 2002—and also, earlier in the summer, put out her twelfth book of fiction in just over two decades, the story collection “After the Funeral.” In a sense, Hadley, who published her first novel at forty-six, seems to be making up for lost time—narratives pouring out of her, albeit in finely crafted sentences and immersive paragraphs. As she once told me, stories, for her, “begin with those two questions, which sound so banal but are, in fact, the richest and most mysterious ones: What happened? And: What happened next?” She’s a writer whose eye for the telling detail and whose understanding of human behavior—what she calls her “empathetic imagination”—give her stories a kind of inherent inevitability, even as they surprise with their twists and turns. Hadley’s characters are driven, if not by social ambition then by the ambition to understand themselves socially, to engage with the world until they can come to terms with their place in it. Often, they search for themselves in others’ perceptions of them, and identity is reflected back and forth in a kind of multifaceted hall of mirrors. Whether Hadley is telling a story from the viewpoint of a fifteen-year-old sight-seeing with her parents, a middle-aged woman who falls for her son’s math tutor, or a housekeeper caring for an old man with a murky political past, she’s both a sociologist and a portraitist—studying the cultural constraints that her characters live with, as well as their unconstrained thoughts and desires.
I recently spoke to her for a segment of The New Yorker Radio Hour. What follows is an edited version of the full transcript of our conversation.
I’d like to talk to you about your new story collection, “After the Funeral,” but, before we launch on that, let’s go back to your first book, “Accidents in the Home,” which was published in 2002. A lot has been made of the fact that you didn’t publish your first book until you were in your mid-forties. So what happened in the years before that?
Lots of writing and failing. Lots of trying to do it and getting it really wrong. It wasn’t like a slow, gradual buildup and then I started writing something that seemed truthful and O.K. It wasn’t like falling off a cliff. It was the opposite. It was like I was under the cliff and just treading water and not getting anywhere. I can remember writing the first short stories, the first ones I ever had published, in tiny Welsh presses, and it’s not that they were great but something in the sentences rang true. So, yes, it was an odd career pattern in some ways. I don’t know quite what happened in my forties that made that connection flow at last from my brain down my arm into the keyboard. (Or I might have even still been at a typewriter at that point.) I don’t know quite what happened to get that right.
In those years when you’re writing and you feel you’re failing, at what point are you assessing something as a failure?
Ah, there’s a lot of self-deception in writing always. So I would be writing a novel that I hoped would work, and I would have a horrible feeling that it was wrong. But then I still have a horrible feeling that it’s wrong quite often when I’m doing it. So I would tell myself, That’s probably just that silly, horrible feeling, and it might be all right, really. And I would get to the end of it, and I would have this sort of hope against hope. I would send it off to a publisher and I expect it went in the slush pile and I would get a, you know, three-line rejection and I just accepted that and thought, Of course they’re right, it’s hopeless. I’m now very relieved that I didn’t, by some freak, get those really-not-alive novels published.
I think I was just a late developer, and I was trying to write other people’s novels for all that time. Getting it right eventually—in as far as one is ever sure of getting it right—felt like wandering around in other people’s wildernesses and then coming home, putting a key in the door, opening the door, walking into my own house, recognizing the rooms of my house, and thinking, This is where I live. This is where my writing lives. That’s what it did feel like. It felt like I wasn’t faking it anymore.
What kept you going through the years when you did feel you were faking it? Why not give up at that point?
It was just the strangest insanity, really. Nothing good. Nothing virtuous like perseverance or strength or will, just the desire to write, which I can’t explain. Where did that come from? I love paintings. I have no desire to paint. I love films. I have no desire to make films. But somewhere, at a very, very early point, I longed to put my life into words. I can sort of remember from childhood having an idea for a novel—it does seem extraordinary now—that would be called something like “A Girl and Her Imagination,” which I have to say is a terrible title for a novel. But that desire—it was so awful that I almost felt I wasn’t properly alive unless I could write, which is absurd, lunatic, but that was what it was. And so each time I failed I’d think, That’s it. Do something else. Be a nurse, you know? Love being a housewife, or whatever. And then I’d think, But what if I wrote that book? That book would be good. Surely that book would work. And I would start again.
So it wasn’t the sort of classic story that here you were raising children and overwhelmed by that, so you couldn’t turn your brain to writing until later?
To be honest, the way it played out in my life it seemed like an opportunity, because my husband was working and earning our living and I was at home with the kids and, once they went to nursery, there were three hours in every day. And I got really brilliant at getting home to horrible chaos and mess and washing up, and not doing any of it, just sitting down to work. So that particular rather bourgeois arrangement between, you know, a man and a woman in a marriage, in a family, kind of worked for me, except that unfortunately it didn’t because I wasn’t writing anything very good.
Do you think that that process was one of self-teaching, of, you know, learning through trial and error?
There must have been some of that. But, at the same time, I feel as if the getting it right happened quite suddenly, like a big tumble. I did do a creative-writing course, and I went into it incredibly skeptically. When I went on this course, I thought, No writer I admire has ever studied creative writing. How absurd; pathetic. But, on the other hand, I’m sort of going to go mad or I’m going to have a very unhappy life. I’d better test this thing, and, if I find that I just really can’t do it, then I have to make myself stop.
So I did the course, and it just was wonderful, for all kinds of reasons. I mean, partly I do think I’d been a bit secluded. I had a nice life and loved my children and had friends and went to parties and so on. I liked my life, but something was missing at the center of it. I was pushing at the walls a little bit, and so I just loved being out in the world again. And I loved being back in a university: one of the easy-going friendly new universities, Bath Spa, instead of at the top-ranking one where I’d been an uneasy undergraduate. I kind of recovered some intellectual confidence. And I found that, while no one can teach you to write, it’s wonderfully effective to have an audience at hand. Suddenly, instead of trying to write like Tolstoy or Nadine Gordimer or John Berger, I was writing for those seven people I was going to be in a class with on Thursday. And it was competitive, too! I thought, Well, he did that really well last week, if only I can do better than that. And so that lifts your game. For years afterward, I’ve taught that very same creative-writing course, and I’ve seen that the audience, the pressure of an audience, is an enormous part of improving people’s work.
Also, there’s the sort of editorial help that tutors can give you by saying, I like this bit, that bit’s boring—that sort of stuff. Oh, and one more thought: I didn’t publish the novel I wrote on that course, but I did then think, Well, if I’m going to be a miserable, failed writer, I might as well do one thing I know I can do easily and well, which is be a critic. And I did a Ph.D. on Henry James, and I thought long afterward—not at the time—that rehearsing that authority in the sentences of what ended up becoming a published book on Henry James, being ambitious and quite bold in writing that book, may have been very enabling in terms of then putting myself onto the page in my fiction.
And that was when you started writing “Accidents in the Home”?
Yes, there were an amazing three or four years when I actually had a full-time job at that university, was finishing my Henry James Ph.D., which became a book, and was writing “Accidents in the Home.” And I’m actually really quite an indolent person. I cannot now imagine how I did all that. And I had my own three children at home, my youngest still quite small, and one of my stepsons was living with us, too. I’m so impressed with my younger self.
I feel as though there was some period of time when you were somewhat better known here in the U.S. than in Britain, but maybe I’m imagining that. What’s surprising to me—well, it’s not surprising, because you’re a wonderful writer—but, still, it’s impressive that you were able to break through here given just how rooted in the U.K. most of your stories are.