by Evelyn Somers
Evelyn Somers: There’s a school of thought about writing which says that a writer shouldn’t study literature too much, or the critical vocabulary and mindset might taint one’s own work. But you hold a doctorate and did a thesis on Henry James. How do you feel about that suspicion of literary criticism?
Tessa Hadley: I’m certainly suspicious of some kinds of literary criticism, when they seem so oblivious of the reader’s experience of a book, or the writer’s experience in writing it. But on the other hand I’ve always loved reading about books as well as reading them, and when I’ve read something I like—or dislike—I want to go on thinking about it when I’ve finished, and to explain it to myself. I really relish the best kinds of criticism, and also live critical discussion of books (which is why I enjoy teaching), and I think it’s all so important, as part of sustaining a literate culture. There is an absolute gulf between the practice of criticism and writing itself, they are absolutely different kinds of creativity—even opposite ones. They come from a different place in the self. But that needn’t be a problem; the two kinds of work can exist very happily alongside each other in one mind. Some writers don’t ever want that language of criticism inside their head at all, fearing it will invade the sources of their imagination and spoil things by making their intuitions too self-conscious—and that’s fine. Other writers enjoy criticism as a natural extension of all the thinking about writing that they do. There have always been both kinds of writers, I think.
ES: How has Henry James’s work influenced yours, if at all?
TH: You have to be very wary of the influence of a writer whose voice is as powerful as James’s. In some ways, the more you enjoy him, the more your effort has to be not to sound anything like him, or you’ll just sound awful. His voice is so idiosyncratic, with all the high manner it took him a lifetime to evolve—it could be so fake to sound in the least like him now. A century has passed since he was writing, and the world has changed out of recognition; the style he evolved through so much brilliant effort was exquisitely attuned to some complex truth about his own time—which then becomes our truth too, to take away from him. Each generation has to evolve in turn its own language and style to tell the truth about a new world. Having said that, of course James’s achievements are an inspiration, at a deeper level than imitation. One of the things I take from him is his promise that there is so much to tell, so much to find, even in the smallest transactions between human beings. Even the tortuous love affairs of a tiny set of privileged people, say, in The Golden Bowl, can be made to resonate as if they’re as large as the whole world. James helps one resist the pressure, which is always there, to write about “relevant” things, to address oneself to the global issues. Sometimes you feel ashamed, writing about anything smaller—even if you know you couldn’t write about the global issues well. He insists there are world-sized things to find in the known and the everyday. If only you’re a good enough writer to find them. Which is the hard bit.
ES: You were “late” to publish a first novel, at 46, and it was an immediate success, critically praised and excerpted in The New Yorker. There were other novels in a drawer or someplace, written earlier, that were never published. Do you ever revisit those first unpublished novels? What do you remember about them and about your writing process as a young novelist?
TH: Those unpublished novels have gone back to the earth where they belong—they’ve been recycled. I threw them away when we moved house a few years ago. They were deeply unsettling to look at, so I never did. Looking at bad writing on the whole, whether it’s your own or other people’s—but especially your own—doesn’t make you feel cheerfully that you’re better than this now. It seems to contaminate the whole enterprise. You lose faith, and for a moment you stop believing that anything can really come to life in words, ever. What I remember about all those years of writing and failing is the pain of it—worse, because it’s not something you can ask any sympathy for. It’s your business, if you can’t write. You might as well stop, but you can’t. I think I was always writing from an abject position—trying to write someone else’s book, some other writer’s book—and of course therefore failing. It was a very radical lack of confidence, not only about the writing, which could be a charming modesty, but in the writing, which is just ugly. When I finally began to write about what I knew (it’s obvious— but it’s not obvious until you know what it is you know!) it felt like opening a door and coming home. This wasn’t really a matter of the subjects—people, relationships, families: I’d tried all that before. It was a matter of the voice; it was that I discovered what I sounded like, what I needed to sound like, to tell my truth about what I saw. The complication is that I didn’t know what I saw until I knew how to write about it.
ES: Accidents in the Home, your debut novel, brought you immediate critical praise. The Guardian, for instance, not only praised it glowingly but suggested that if you’d been an American man, and the book were “twice as heavy,” you would have had “the whole of the chattering classes falling at [your] feet.” So two questions here: 1) how did that kind of unreserved acclaim affect you as an emerging novelist; and 2) do you agree that there’s a critical tendency to bow down before the man (more likely American) who writes a big, fat novel?
TH: Golly— it really didn’t feel like unreserved acclaim. I was perfectly, extremely, blissfully, happy with my nice reviews and so on, but I didn’t feel lionised or anything (perhaps only men can be ‘lionised’—would we have to be ‘lionessed’?). My sales were modest. No doubt if it had been a best-seller it would have gone to my head and I’d have become a horrible show-off, so that was lucky. About the male-female writer thing, I don’t know. I do suspect that when women write realist novels about love affairs and families they’re said to be writing (yawn) “domestic” fiction. When men do it they’re ground-breaking and courageous. I think there’s a readiness to read male writers for the intellectual challenge, to read women writers for their heart. Which can be disappointing occasionally (though there’s nothing wrong with hearts). Critics square up competitively to the thought in men’s novels; they’re moved by women’s novels, finding them sympathetic. Is that true? No, perhaps it’s not fair to the best critics.
ES: Your most recent novel, Clever Girl tells the story of a Bristol girl, Stella, from early childhood to her 50s, in episodic chapters. The hook is not an event, but Stella’s knife-sharp perspective. Did you set out with this novel to write a life? Or a character?
TH: It’s the only novel I’ve written in the first person, which is a very particular kind of challenge—it’s a very limiting narrative positioning, if you’re not careful. You’ve got to be absolutely sure that the character who’s going to sustain your whole narrative has it in her to go on being interesting for that long, through all those discoveries. So the answer to your question is that I had to begin with my confidence in Stella, before I knew what I was going to do with her. Actually, I wrote the first chapter as a short story, about her first brush with death as a little girl: though I had an intimation at the back of my mind that there was more to say. Then the outlines of what would happen to her next sort of loomed through the mist and seemed as solid as life—the love affairs, and the babies, and the disasters, and her own sharp intelligence, keeping going, making a heroic narrative out of all her domestic struggles just as if she was a woman-warrior. Of course you can’t really separate character and life, or fate. Stella’s character is her fate, and her fate is her character.
ES: The loose structure of Clever Girl applies to most of your other novels, too. What gives you the boldness to leap over years and leave out the “in between” that holds a story together? Is this structure at all related to your self-assessment that, as you’ve said, plot is not your forte?
TH: My new novel, The Past, to be published in the U.S. early in 2016, is more plotty, I think. That is, it has a stronger narrative curve, which drives us from the first pages to the last—and perhaps that is a new discovery, working with the strong drive at that length. Actually there was plenty of plot in Clever Girl and my other books, if plots mean murders, love affairs, discoveries, abandonments, disgraces. I think what I haven’t done is have that hook of story become the principle of construction of the novel, the whole thread on which the separate beads are strung. So this question of plot you raise is a matter of drive and forward movement, rather than of “what happens.” Of course there’s an element of “truth to reality” in an episodic narrative—life is more like that. Things in life don’t on the whole add up, or get resolved, in that deliciously satisfactory, finalizing, way which novels are so good at. Nineteenth-century novelists resolved their plotty novels so magnificently because they shared convictions about meaning and fulfillment which we surely mislaid somewhere in the twentieth century. But I do believe that “leaping over the gaps” doesn’t mean you can’t hold a story together. Rather, we’ve grown suspicious of stories that resolve too satisfactorily. The danger is that if you fill in all the gaps you lose the essence of the story, you write something stodgy and merely consecutive, instead of keeping your hand on the live wire of the life, which jumps from place to place. As an apprentice writer you quickly learn that you must only write the interesting bits. If it seems boring to you to write—how boring will it be to read?
ES: How important do you think it is for a fiction writer to learn to plot—or, really, to overcome or sidestep any other self-identified weakness—at some point? What do you think of Raymond Carver’s idea that in the end style is simply an evasion of writerly weaknesses?
TH: We all know now what a complex issue style was for Carver, fought out in his relationship with his editor at The New Yorker. No, I absolutely don’t agree that style is an evasion of weaknesses—what could that mean? That the really good writer is without style? But writing has a “style” as a face has “looks.” There simply is no neutral. I think what he is really getting at here is “manner,” which can sometimes be an attempt to substitute a lot of showy “doing” for real content—that is, for a genuine encounter with the real. The trouble with plots in novels, the resolving kinds of plots, is that they can move in such a dreary groove. One sees the same old thing coming a mile off—after a strong beginning, the novelist allows the plot to write the rest, letting the old, lazy hook (what will happen? who will get the girl? who killed the girl? what did happen that past summer after all?) do all the work, instead of sustaining the fresh vision of the beginning.
ES: You made the decision in your 20s to stay home and raise children (3, and 3 stepsons). You said in an interview with The Independent that the experience of pregnancy and childrearing is “deepening.” I take that to mean personally enriching. Was it deepening for your writing as well?
TH: It wasn’t so much a decision as a series of accidents. (An illustration, perhaps, of what I’m trying to say about plotting, and forward drive!) I’d made a mess of school teaching, which put me off going out to work—I thought it was all as difficult as school teaching was. Of course motherhood has been deepening for my writing, in the sense that it’s part of what I bring when I sit down to the words, but another childless writer would bring something else. As James said, the writer is the one on whom nothing is wasted.
ES: The Millions does an annual comparison of U.S. and UK book covers. Readers seem to find this fascinating in terms of what it reveals about the different literary cultures. What do you see as the differences and/or similarities?
TH: That’s interesting—it’s difficult for the two cultures to read each other visually, I think. We’re more at home with each other’s words than with our pictures. I’ve been lucky with my book covers in both countries. It is interesting that I had chosen a delicious drawing of a stubborn, surly girl by 1930s Aberdeen artist James Cowie for the front of Clever Girl in the UK, and the U.S. publishers thought it was too ugly. But looking at these pairings of yours, I’m not sure that I’d have guessed which one was which. I can’t find any principle to distinguish them.
Click here to read Evelyn Somers’ feature piece on Tessa Hadley.
Feature photo credit: Malcolm Hadley.