Tessa Hadley’s life as a published writer came relatively late, as she was in her mid forties by the time, in 2002, that she published her first novel.
She has since released three short story collections and five more novels, not counting her 2019 work of fiction, Late in the Day, which follows, over several decades, the lives of two married couples who know each other well.
“I knew I wanted two marriages – two long marriages. Two is so much more interesting to write about; there are so many permutations,” the 63-year-old told Dr Philip Langeskov during a UEA Literary Festival appearance.
The new book begins with a death and then goes back in time to earlier events in the lives of the four protagonists, detailing episodes that took place when they were in their 20s, their 30s and their 40s.
She said she was “sort of writing an old—fashioned novel”, but in a modern way, because marriage over time was “quite a new subject”.
“You hold on to each other as each changes its skin and interests and self,” she said.
Hadley had two main reservations when she was writing the book. One concern was that it would be too complicated structurally.
“The other was that it was too glum. I’m probably a comic writer – not laugh-out-loud, but social comedy,. I don’t want to be mawkish,” she said.
Langeskov raised the issue of whether Hadley’s books are examples of the “Hampstead novel”, the term given to books set in Hampstead or somewhere similar and dealing with the lives and loves – often adulterous – of middle class characters. Hadley said that her background and circumstances meant that that was not the type of book she aimed to write.
“I was 46 when I published my first novel, which more or less means in my mid forties when I started writing it, when I had something truthful to say. Something authoritative,” she said.
She indicated that she wrote about characters who were not well to do and who were at times instead simply trying to get by, a situation she is not unfamiliar.
“This is a small family and they’re probably living on next to nothing. They’re buying lentils because they’re incredibly cheap. I used to feed my kids on lentils because they’re incredibly cheap and filled them up. I’m sounding much too defensive – you’ve absolutely touched a nerve,” she said, albeit with a smile.
Before her 2002 debut, Hadley wrote several novels that went unpublished, and she indicated that interpreting the world through prose was not an interest that came late in life.
“I was desperate to write, but that was not because I wanted to be a writer. [What was important was] making a record of this life, and thinking that I wasn’t properly alive unless you can make a record of this life. I love films, but I’ve never felt unless I can make a film with this stuff, I’m not alive,” she said.
However, during her pre-published years she knew that success was not a certainty, however many times she tried.
“If you’re a cabinet maker and you keep on mucking up a table, you will eventually do it. But with novels you can go on writing them but you can keep putting them in your draw. There’s no guarantee,” she said.
If Hadley had any advice for her younger self, the woman “who wrote those awful first novels”, one of which was about the miners’ strike, and another of which was set in a 19th-century penal colony, it was to move closer to home, to write about what is familiar.
“I would advise her to do what I eventually did. Stop wandering around trying to write other people’s novels. Come home, let yourself into your own house. You have to do the most obvious thing, but it’s amazing how long it takes you to do that,” she said.
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