Four adult siblings come together for a three-week holiday – and must decide whether they’ll keep their family’s old, neglected summer home. It may sound like the setting of a Chekhov play, but here it’s British author Tessa Hadley at the helm. In her new novel “The Past” she steers readers through the little dramas, secrets, and deeply-felt emotions of one family, against a richly-described natural background. Hadley’s short stories and novels often include portraits of families and strong, complex women…and “The Past”, her sixth novel, features both. Author Tessa Hadley on her new book, why it took until age forty-six to publish her first novel, and what compels her to write about ordinary lives.
- Tessa Hadley Author of six novels including "Accidents in the Home" and "Clever Girl"; frequent contributor to The New Yorker; professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University; her new novel is titled "The Past"
Read An Excerpt
From THE PAST by Tessa Hadley Copyright © 2016 by Tessa Hadley. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She recovering from a voice treatment. Two children creep into an abandoned cottage in an English countryside and find something disturbing, but they tell no one. This is one of the secrets and small dramas in British author Tessa Hadley's new novel, "The Past."
MS. SUSAN PAGEIt centers on the ties and complexities of one family as they vacation together in their late grandparents' home. American readers may be most familiar with Tessa Hadley's many short stories that have appeared in The New Yorker magazine. Now, here sixth novel is getting rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic and Tessa Hadley joins me in the studio to talk about her late-starting career and her new book. Thanks so much for being with us.
MS. TESSA HADLEYIt's lovely to be here.
PAGEWe're going to invite our listeners to join our conversation just a bit later in this hour. Our toll-free number, it's 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email at email@example.com or find us on Facebook or Twitter. So, first, set the scene for us, the setting of this new novel which takes place in a period of just three weeks. Where are your characters?
HADLEYThey're all gathered in this house in the west of England. I never say exactly where it is, but it -- I know where it is. It's in Somerset, in fact, by the seven estuaries so not real seaside, but lovely shallow estuary country. It's a beautiful part of England. And they all know this place intimately and it's sewn into their childhood and their memories, but none of them live there. They all actually come from cities and they gather for this important sort of question of what they're going to do with this house they all love, but that really what's it's for now that nobody actually lives there.
PAGEI'd like you just to read us a short section of your book to give us a sense of what it's like. I know you've chosen a passage. Tell our readers what you're about to read to them.
HADLEYWell, there are four siblings and they're all sort of in their 40s and this is a scene between two of the sisters, Alice and Harriet. Alice, she's the sort of romantic, slightly exaggerated, full of feeling. And Harriet, if you like, is the opposite. I suppose that's what siblings sometimes do, define each other almost. You be that and I'll be this other thing. And that's kind of what these two have done and this is a scene between the two sisters. Harriet, reserved, shy, uncomfortable, not bothered about her appearance.
HADLEYAnd I hope that this scene brings out some of the dynamic between them. "Alice went inside to brush her hair before supper. She remember, as she always did, that her mother had sat at this same dressing table first as a girl and then again later when the children spent their summers here with her and their father went off painting. Slanting late sunlight glinted on Alice's bottles of scent and makeup and nail varnish. The luster jug with its posy, gold threads in a scarf, the heap of her jewelry, none of it valuable, but each piece striking and interesting, rich with sentimental associations.
HADLEYWherever Alice settled, she had this gift of applying little touches to make the place distinctive and attractive as if she were composing a scene for a play. She had moved from one room or flat to another very often in London, transforming each one in turn into a nest full of curiosities and nice things. Looking in the mirror now, she held her brush suspended in the air, staring over her reflection's shoulder to the reflected room behind. Quietly, she breathed aloud, 'my dear,' although she didn't know who she was speaking to.
HADLEYHer fine hair crackled with static, floating up towards the brush. Breaking her mood, Harriet was suddenly present blocking the reflected space in the mirror, intruding on her reverie. Of course, it wasn't Harriet's fault that she had to come through Alice's room, but she crept about so quietly. Because Alice was startled, she couldn't help being annoyed. Harriet made her feel caught out in vanity. She dropped her hairbrush and twisted round from the mirror. 'Goodness. Are you spying?' 'I thought I ought to tell you," Harriet said gruffly, 'that I've arranged with work to take more holiday so I will be able to stay here longer after all.'
HADLEYGuilty, Alice was aware of overacting her delight. She jumped up from the dressing table stool to kiss her sister, feeling how Harriet stood stiffly in her embrace, not knowing how to yield to it. 'Oh, Hettie, I'm so pleased. Thank you,' she exclaimed. 'And I know I don't deserve you doing anything nice for me. I'm a grumpy old stick. I'm sorry.' 'I didn't do it for you,' Harriet said. 'It's good for me to have a break. I'm enjoying myself.' She didn't look much like it, Alice thought.
HADLEYShe looked strained and there were purple stains on the fine skin under eyes as if she hadn't slept. Alice hoped this wasn't because she'd been put in that awkward poky bedroom. She had some clever concealer which would work wonders with those under-eyes, but she was wary of offering it, thinking Harriet would only despise her. Harriet prodded around among the bottles on the dressing table. 'I've never gone in for any of this clobber,' she said. 'What is it all?'
HADLEYAlice was watching her closely. 'Look,' she said, 'sit down on the stool. Let me try something on you, just the least little thing. It's only the teeniest smudge of cream. No one will notice. You'll only look prettier.' Harriet's expression as she hesitated brimmed uncharacteristic full with mixed reluctance and yearning. She gave way and sat submissively with her back to the mirror. Alice rummaged in her makeup bag and then, very carefully, tenderly, stroked on the concealer and after that, a very light foundation, eye pencil, eye shadow, mascara.
HADLEYTheir two faces, for once, drew uninhibitedly close without any antagonism, Harriet's vulnerably proffered, Alice absorbed in what she knew supremely well. 'Oh, no,' Harriet said with horror when finally she looked at her reflection. 'It isn't me. It isn't right. Take it off, Alice.'"
PAGEThat is Tessa Hadley reading from her new novel, her sixth. It's titled "The Past." So your character, Alice, she's at the very opening of the book at the cottage where here late grandparents had lived, where she had spent some time growing up, trying to find her keys, unable to find that. Is this some allusion to "Alice In Wonderland"?
HADLEYDo you know, I actually don't -- it must've been in my mind and do you know, I did think, yes, I did think of even calling the book something to do with "Alice Through The Looking Glass." I couldn't make that work. So it was, wasn't it? But I've never conscious thought of my Alice as that Alice, but it's cropped in a few reviews and I see that, of course, that was the echo. That was what I was picking up on somehow. Do you know, what I thought was if I call it "Alice Through The Looking Glass" in any way, then I can't have my character called Alice.
HADLEYAnd I knew she was called Alice. I had that there right from the very beginning that she had to be that name.
PAGEWhen you're writing a novel like this and it's got four or five, six central characters, how much do you know about them when you start? When you start writing the first chapter, do you know this is what they're going to do, this is what they're like or do they sort of evolve and surprise you even as you write the book?
HADLEYBoth those things, actually. And it does vary from character to character. What tends to happen is that a couple of them from the very beginning, the whole story is -- the whole dynamic that you grasp when you first dream of the book is surrounding these individuals. So you have them from the start and I had Alice and I had Harriet, actually. Others of the siblings took longer and were harder to build. I didn't believe in them with quite the same solidity that then they came. You have to work on it.
HADLEYAnd what you begin with, it's so funny. It's quite fleeting. You don't begin with a biographical outline. You begin with glimpses and fragments and pieces. That stuff about Alive being able to make anywhere she settled beautiful with her collection of things, that feels like something I had right from the beginning, but I wouldn't have known exactly what she did for a living. That came later.
PAGEYou know, there's a twist, really a double twist right at the end, in the very final paragraphs and we won't say what it is 'cause we don’t want to spoil the surprise, but I wonder, at the beginning, did you know that that -- what you reveal at the end was true?
HADLEYNo. I didn't, actually. No. And probably even more significantly when I was beginning the novel and for quite a long time of writing, I thought the whole novel was going to be set in this three weeks. That was part of the fun of it. I just -- my previous novel, "Clever Girl," actually covers almost 50 years and I thought, now I'm going to do one that just covers three weeks and that will be a challenge and it will be fun and it will in some ways easier and some ways harder. I think it's harder, actually.
HADLEYAnyway, I thought the whole novel would be just in that three weeks and then at some point, I had one of those bad weeks when I thought, it's not right. It's not right. The rhythm is too drawn out. I need something dynamic. And then, I had one brilliant hour, actually, in the bath thinking, I know how to solve this. I know what happens. It suddenly drops back 35 years and there is the central section where we go back to 1968 where the three older siblings are children and the fourth one isn't actually even born yet.
PAGEAnd you know, one thing that struck me about that was when you were in the present, the experience of the people who are children in the present are echoed by the adults when you go and talk about them as children.
HADLEYYeah, that's right. That's right. So I deliberately did have a couple of little things where the two children in the present are playing in the stream in their Wellington boots, damming up the stream or failing to dam up the stream, of course, thank goodness, and then I go back 35 years and their, you know, parents or uncles and aunts are doing exactly the same thing.
PAGEWe're talking to Tessa Hadley about her new novel. It's called "The Past." We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll go to the phones. Give us a call, 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today. With me in the studio, Tessa Hadley. She's the author of six novels. They include, "Accidents in the Home" and "Clever Girl." She's a frequent contributor to The New Yorkers. She's a professor of creative writing in her native Great Britain. She has a new novel out, her sixth. It's titled, "The Past." Your novel is all about families...
PAGE...about this family. Is there a point you're trying to make about families?
HADLEYI suppose to capture that dynamic where families love each other, they are fundamental to each other, they are a fundamental support system, and they're a nightmare. And somewhere -- one -- that's where fiction finds its best home is exactly on that tension, that fracture point between what's good and what's terrifying about how powerful family is.
PAGESo tell me about your own family and are there echoes of your family in the family you write about in "The Past"?
HADLEYNo. Not really. No. No, it's pretty made up. I'm kind of astonished by how -- I feel as if I know these families. But it's not very like ours. I mean, perhaps class wise, age wise. But, no, my grandfather most certainly wasn't a vicar. He was a traveling salesman and a policeman on the other side. So, no, no. I come from a slightly pretty bourgeois family than this one.
PAGETell us about your family.
HADLEYMy parents, both still alive -- which is lovely -- and both well and very sharp and bright. My dad was a school teacher then, but also a very good jazz musician. So he would be very envious of me being here in this city, which I think is the birthplace of Duke Ellington, isn't it?
PAGEIt is. There's the Duke Ellington High School...
PAGE...here, for talented, artistic teens. Yeah.
HADLEYHe took us, me and my brother, to hear Duke Ellington when were children. He -- I think he was playing his 70th birthday concerts and world tour at the time. I've grown up with jazz. That's my home music to me. That's my dad. And my mum is lovely, very -- do you know, I think little bits of Alice might be based on my mum. She's the one who will be chasing me around the house -- not now, thank goodness, that I'm nearly 60 -- but with tweezers to pluck my eyebrows or advising I put on more makeup, you know? Not like the mum of tradition who's telling you to take it off. She's so beautiful and so good with makeup and clothes and things.
PAGEHere's an email we got from Sam. Sam writes, I see you didn't write your first novel until your 40s. Did you decide late to become a writer? Or were you trying all that time and it just wasn't working?
HADLEYI wish I could say the first thing because that would be so much more glamorous. But I'm afraid to say, I was -- I tried. I always knew that it was the only thing I would be any good at. And I was always hungry to do it. And I wrote about four novels. I've now, I guess, I've forgotten, they've gone. They're in the trash. They've disappeared off the face of the earth. And they just didn't work. And I -- it's opaque to me quite why. I don't know why, until I was in my 40s, I couldn't find the truthful voice in which to tell the story I had to tell.
PAGEDo you think you had to grow up? Did you have to have more life experiences before it would work for you?
HADLEYYeah. I do. That is right. It seems an awful -- it seems like it took an awful long time growing up. Other writers have done that by the time they're 25. Yeah. I think I'm almost too impressionable or something. I didn't have a forceful, authoritative sense of what I thought. I had lots of opinions, but they were sort of flying all over the place. And then -- I don't, you know, something settled down around 40.
PAGESo you wrote four novels.
PAGEThey weren't very good. Did you try to get them published?
HADLEYIgnorantly. I knew nothing about the publishing business. But I did send them off and I would have a letter back that said a few lines, you know, we can't take this. And I would not try again. I would just put it away, nearly die inside. But, you know, who feels sorry for you? This is your own business, isn't it, if you've tried and failed to write a novel. And then I would say, no more. Obviously can't do it. And then after six months, this thing would niggle inside me again. and I would think, no, this one's going to be the one. This is the one. I can do it.
PAGEWe know there are a lot of authors who struggle. Even authors who become very famous and influential and very popular, they struggle to get a novel published.
PAGEHow did you manage to get your first novel published? How did that work?
HADLEYOnce I had written "Accidents in the Home," I -- it was quite easy. But I think I kind of owned that by having the other four to -- no, not getting anywhere with them. There is something I ought to say, which is that, in between, before I got my first novel published, I did do an MA in Creative Writing. And I went on it very skeptical. That's like your MFA over here. I was very doubtful that anyone could teach anyone to write. And I really was doing almost -- it was like a last-ditch, you know, I've got to try something here. And I think that was -- it was a watershed, because suddenly I wasn't all alone. That's something to do with what happened. I wasn't just writing for myself, alone -- not in an actual attic, but in a metaphorical attic.
HADLEYSuddenly I was writing for an audience who were -- at precise people who I would meet each Thursday in class. And I was hearing how my words would sound in their ears. I do think that made a big difference to me.
PAGEAnd women, I think -- men have complicated lives, but women have very complicated lives.
PAGEAnd I wonder if that's part of it, too?
HADLEYHmm. Yeah. Well I was -- I was bringing up my children in the years of failing to write, if you like. And in one sense, I always think, well, I was so lucky I had all those hours when they were at school. In a very old-fashioned way, I didn't get a job for a very long time. I was a housewife, I suppose, secretly writing. So -- but, yes -- but there was a self doubt that perhaps had to do with gender somewhere.
PAGEAnd did your kids say, oh, my mom, she's a writer?
PAGEOr, like what was their attitude toward the fact that you kept writing these novels?
HADLEYDo you know, it was the most wicked thing. My sons are so ironical, so sort of send everything up. They somehow, on some little computer, got hold of the title of one of my failed novels, which was called -- I can't bear to repeat it -- it was called "Crazy Salad," which is a quote from Yeats. But it's...
PAGEAnd a Nora Ephron book, too.
HADLEYOh, is that right?
PAGEYeah. That's right. Yes.
HADLEYOh, wow. I didn't know that.
HADLEYWell, I feel vindicated now because what they did, they would weave these words, crazy salad, into their conversation at every opportunity and then fall about laughing. So if you're asking me, did my children respectfully support my burgeoning career as a would-be writer, the answer has to be no.
PAGEI'm sure they're very proud of you now. Now, you know, one thing about "The Past" is the world of nature is almost a character in the book. And I was wondering if you would read a section of the book that talks about this natural landscape in which you have placed your characters.
HADLEYYes. I'd love to. This is from quite late on in the book. And it's a game. It's Alice and Harriet. And it's where Harriet's missing. They don't know what's happened to her. And Alice is worried out of all proportion really. And she sets out in the dark to find her sister.
HADLEY"The sky seemed more full of light as it drained from the earth. On her way down the disused road, Alice could still just about see if she looked up, though not her own feet, not in the tunnel of darkness under the trees, knotty, thick-leaf branches black against jeweled blue, like a wild wood in a children's book. A white house floated on the road below her. This was the mill where they made paper for artists. Emerging from the tunnel, she saw bats like clots of darkness breaking away from the gathered darkness in the trees and under the eaves of the house. These felt like the forms of her own anxiety clotting in her, breaking up inside her thoughts.
HADLEYShe had only come out, grabbing a pullover and someone's clammy waterproof in the scullery, stripping off her strappy sandals and plunging her bare feet into damp, anonymous Wellingtons, because it was intolerable waiting at home. But you don't even know which way she went, Fran said. Beyond the paper mill, the road climbed up again and, at the top, Alice crossed a stile onto a path over a field. This was the way they most often came to walk when they were children. She was wading now in a cold, white, evening mist, risen out of the damp field that swirled around her knees as dense as milk. She had brought the torch, but she didn't want to put it on, not yet. Who knew how much life the batteries had in them.
HADLEYAnyway, she could still see. It was not quite dark. A few swallows were swooping and twittering in the broad space of the field in the last light, dipping into the mist and darting out of it. Alice began to call her sister's name."
PAGEThat is Tessa Hadley, the author of "The Past," a new novel that is just out. We're so glad to have you with us on "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to the phones. We'll go to Paul, who's calling us from Florida. Ocala, Fla., is that right, Paul?
PAGEOcala. Yes. Well, thank so much for joining us.
PAULYes. Wonderful, wonderful program. Tessa, I'm mesmerized by your prose. I hope someday that I'll take up the challenge of writing fiction. Right now, I'm working on nonfiction, which has been pressing on me for many years. But, you know, if I didn't have too many books on my shelves, I'd order your book now. But I'll put it on my Amazon wish list. And, you know, maybe 10 years from now, I'll have a chance to read it. I congratulate you for being so perseverant, or for persevering for so many years. You know, I've discovered in my life since I've attempted to write that the longer my own personal history is, the easier it is for me to have something to say worth reading.
PAULBut not only are you a good writer, you're a good reader. And -- but that's not true for a lot of authors. They can write well but they can't read. And so, you know, you have two talents there. And you really should be pleased with yourself.
PAGEPaul, thank you so much for your call.
HADLEYThank you so much, Paul. That's a lovely thing to say. I've always loved reading. I love reading other people's stuff out loud actually. And, yeah, that's -- it's such a joy to do if you do like doing it. And as for -- you talked about perseverance. That makes it sound like a virtue. But, you know, sometimes when I was starting on that third or fourth novel, I thought it was a bit insane. I can't, you know, I could have gone -- done something useful in the world instead of embarking on another. So -- but perseverance is a very nice way of thinking about it. And I imagine you'll probably feel the same thing, you know? Sometimes the test between a writer or not a writer is, if you can give up, then you're not really one.
PAGEOh, that's a good test. Paul, thanks so much for your call. Our phone lines are open, 1-800-433-8850. Here's an email from Jenny. She writes, is Tessa Hadley a fan of Virginia Woolf? "To the Lighthouse" and "Mrs. Dalloway" come to mind from the description of your writing.
HADLEYI'm really -- I really like her an awful lot and I've read her for, you know, since I was a teenager actually, I remember first reading "To the Lighthouse." But I'm not such a fan as other people are. I have another writer, who was her contemporary. They knew each other. They were friends, I think, who is Elizabeth Bowen, who's less read and less well known. And actually, of the two, I think it's Bowen that I prefer. And how can I explain that? I -- it's -- I find something just faintly bloodless in Virginia Woolf, just a little bit cerebral.
HADLEYWhereas, what I like about Bowen and what I dream of and aspire to in my own work is to make my characters incredibly embodied and in their physicality and have their physicality in the room, touching other people, if you like. So, yeah, I, you know, she's tremendous. She's extraordinary and she does things nobody else does. But she's not one of my absolute favorites.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're talking to Tessa Hadley about her new book, "The Past." Now there was a review in The Guardian last summer, when the book came out in Great Britain, that said that you specialize in bright, brittle, defensive women with unsatisfactory love lives and a knack for self-sabotage. Do you think that's right?
HADLEYYes, probably. It's a great tradition. I certainly am not the founder of that tradition. Alice Munro comes to mind. She writes a lot of very bright, brittle women with unsatisfactory love lives.
PAGEDo you think of yourself as a feminist writer?
HADLEYYeah. I mean, who isn't a feminist somewhere? I think of myself as somebody who's incredibly interested in what it -- what the differences between the sexes are and how those play out in one's deep life, at levels we don't know. It doesn't matter how you correct the superficials, there are these profound levels at which you think differently because you're a woman or because you're a man or whichever. Quite whether those are hardwired or cultural almost doesn't matter, it's that, there they are. And, yeah, I'm so interested in that.
PAGENow, there are two main characters in your book that are not British women. One is the brother...
PAGE...a male. Was it harder to write the male character?
HADLEYI think it was in this case actually. He was hard. And, you know, maybe, if I went back, I would want to do something a little bit more with him. He resisted my analysis a little bit. He resisted my imagining. But there we are. No, I do believe that women can write men. And I think I've written other men in others books who were more...
PAGEIt's interesting, you thought maybe you would do something different with him. Do you think about that with your -- the books that are published in hardback? They're set in stone. They're in print. And you think, oh, I wish had done that or, gee, I should do this?
HADLEYVery little. Usually, it's at the level of the sentence. When I'm reading it out, I suddenly think, what did I, you know, why did I put that one in? Mostly it's about why didn't I cut it? Why didn't I cut it? But very little actually. Mostly, they're done when they're done.
PAGELet's talk to Marti. He's calling us from Bethesda, Md. Marti, thanks for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MARTIHi. This book sounds wonderful and I'm a fan of audio books. And I'd like to ask the author if this is going to be put on audio.
HADLEYCertainly in the U.K. it is. I actually don't know whether it's going to get done in audio in the U.S. I'm not quite sure.
PAGEAnd audio books here, often, it's the author himself or herself who record it. Do you do that? Is that -- will you record the one...
HADLEYNo. No, I never have. I would, you know? Though it's quite a -- that's a big read. But I've had a couple of lovely actresses who've done my stuff in the U.K.
PAGESo you talked about your long struggle to become an author. But you were working as a school teacher for a while. Not successfully, I gather.
HADLEYThat was very brief. That was definitely my really failed career. That was when I was just 23 and I had such a strong vision of how wonderful a school teacher would be, bringing light and life and the world of literature to these kids. And I had such good examples. My husband's a fantastic school teacher. And I kind of wanted to do what he did. And then I was just hopeless at it actually. I really was.
PAGEBut you teach today more successfully, right?
HADLEYI do. Yeah. I mean, part -- it's much, much easier teaching adults. I have to say, I have an enduring, enormous respect for the real work school teachers do. Because they're -- it's a double job. You have to be good at controlling the class and making the discipline work, of course without showing it at all. It's the teachers who were shouting their heads off that are out of control. That was me. Though, my husband can just walk in a room and the kids went silent, fearfully. And then, of course, he could enchant them with his stories and his reading and his getting them to work. So, oh, I'm so admiring him. I wasn't good at that.
HADLEYBut I love teaching that I do now. I teach people of all ages, from sort of 23 up to 83. And I can't think of anything nicer than sitting in a room with eight really smart people who've read the same Eudora Welty story as me and we passionately dive into it and discuss how its working and why does she do it that way and why does it end where it ends, and all those things.
PAGEWe're talking with Tessa Hadley about her new book, "The Past." It's her sixth novel. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll go back to the phones, take some of your calls and questions. 1-800-433-8850. And we'll read your emails, email@example.com. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking to Tessa Hadley about her new novel "The Past." Let's go to the phones, take another caller. Rosalind is calling from Macedonia, Ohio. Hi.
ROSALINDHi. Yes, it's Rosalind. But I wanted to thank you for taking my call, and I am enjoying the program immensely. I am not familiar with Tessa, but her books sounds intriguing. And my question is, is there sort of like a mystery angle to it? Because it's -- the description has -- it seems like it's been implied, but it's not really clearly stated. So I was just wondering about that.
PAGERosalind, thanks so much for your call.
HADLEYIt isn't a crime novel or there is no great big secret. There are two ways I suppose in which I play with things that have happened that we don't quite know what they are, and gradually we uncover them. One of them is this dropping back into the distant past when the characters were children. And in that section, we sort of learn things about them, their mother, above all, their mother who is dead in the present of the novel. And we learn what she was really like, and how that's affected all of them.
HADLEYAnd then there is one little game that I play, which I won't give away, with the relations between the past and the present. There is a surprise buried in the novel.
PAGEThere is a surprise at the very end.
PAGEAnd in a way a mystery you didn't know was there is solved. You've read from the first section of the book, which is in the present, and the last section of the book, which is in the present. Please read us something from the center section of the book, which is set in the past.
HADLEYYeah, I'd love to. And so this is actually Harriet again, though I'm calling Hettie here because that's her little girl name. And, you know, it was the strangest thing to have been writing those people as in their 40s, middle-aged with their whole lives sort of present behind them. It was strange to suddenly go back and be writing them as children. Almost impertinent. That's why I had to change their names slightly so that I could describe them as little. I mean, Alice is actually Nappies. That was a peculiar thing to do, but it was good. It was a good friction to sort of get me imagining this past. So this is Hettie standing at the window in the same house with -- 35 years earlier, but it's the same house.
HADLEY"Standing at her window in the dawn light, Hettie saw the strangest thing. The light often woke her up here in the country. When her eyes flipped open out of her dreams, the new day waiting in the room was so distinctively surprisingly present, that it was impossible, it was almost impolite to close her eyes again as if she hadn't seen it. The children's bedroom overlooked the front garden as their mother's did. And on this particular day, almost as soon as she took up her post between the silky, lilac colored curtains, in her nightdress, with her bare feet in the ice cold, which pulled ankle deep on the floorboards, she saw her daddy walking past in the lane outside.
HADLEYHe was wearing his big duffle coat with the hood down. In fact, she heard him before she saw him. In the stillness of the early morning, she heard the tramp of his boots coming from the direction of the woods, displacing the little stones on the road, crunching them and sending them skittering. This made her know that he was real. And then when she did see him, it was only the top third of him because the rest was hidden by the garden wall. But she was so sure that it was him. No one else down here had that long hair, and that untidy beard, and that intent way of walking with his head down and his shoulders hunched up.
HADLEYYet how could he be coming from the woods when it was only just light? And strangest of all, he didn't stop at their house and come inside to see them. Of course, she was expecting him to turn in at the garden gate and come up the path. She was already to fly downstairs and be the one to let him in, and the first one carried around in triumph on his shoulders announcing to the sleeping house that he'd arrived. But he went on walking past the gate and down the lane out of sight. And he never even turned his head to look at the house, though he knew it as well as they did, and must surely have known where he was. He never looked up to see his daughter watching at the window. And then he was gone.
HADLEYThen for a while Hettie could hear the noise of his boots in the distance. The whole thing was so improbable that afterwards as it settled down into her memory, she thought she must've been dreaming or that she'd confused reality with an illustration in a picture book. Their dad was in London or somewhere else, Paris. She knew that really. She never mentioned what she'd seen to anyone, because it couldn't really have happened. And her mother got angry if Hettie invented things. When she came to a certain page in their book of nursery rhymes, Mr. Foster going to Gloucester in a shower of rain drawn in a purpose pencil and wearing a top hat, Hettie turned over quickly because it brought back a sharp pain of disappointment."
PAGEThat is Tessa Hadley reading from her new novel "The Past." Your sixth novel, how is it different from the novels that you've written before?
HADLEYI had a very distinct feeling about this one, even in conception before I'd begun to write it, that I -- it seemed rather late, my sixth novel, but that I was really writing a very novel-ish novel for the first time. Quite a few of my others have been built in a slightly episodic way with each chapter almost having the shape and the tension of a short story. That's not fair to my other novels. And actually I like that episodic structure. It seems to me quite realistic, quite like life is, one thing happens and then another and then another.
HADLEYBut with this one, I seem to have my hand on the whole shape all in one. And I was -- well, as I say, it seemed ate to have learned it, but I was very -- I was proud of myself to have conquered that. Incredibly difficult thing to write a novel. It's so hard. When I'm working with the students, I feel these, you know, often writing such lovely prose, but it's not just that. It's like building a bridge out across a river. And you don't know where you're going to bring it down on the other side. Really difficult.
PAGELet's go to Troy calling us from Orlando, Fla. Troy, thanks so much for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
TROYHi, thanks for having me. I just -- first of all, I just wanted to congratulate Tessa on her characterization. Just after that first excerpt she read with the makeup, when you introduce the next selection with -- when Alice is searching in the dark, I immediately thought to myself, oh, that's such an Alice thing to do.
HADLEYOh. That's nothing.
TROYI already felt like I knew these people, you know.
HADLEYFantastic. Yeah, and you'll write of course. It is a sort of thing she would do slightly against reason, a bit absurdly setting out in the dark to search for her sister who's missing. It's romantic. Yeah. It's crazy.
TROYYeah, I really enjoyed that. And also I wanted to ask you if you could sort of go back in time and give advice to your younger self as you're just starting out, what kind of things would you say?
HADLEYWell, I suppose it's that business, like the last caller, it's about perseverance. It's about keeping going, except that I think that that's slightly mad. But the advice would be, the stories that you really have to tell will be the ones that are so obvious to you, you can't see them. When reads other people's books, you fall in love, you're besotted with these other writers, and you think, there's other stories that are worth telling. And I haven't got anything. I know that isn't just me. I know that's a common experience for apprentice writers.
HADLEYAnd the truth is that when you do eventually find the stories you have to tell, it does feel like coming home. That's why you know -- you suddenly know that your writing is better. Very clearly you think, ah, this is what I have to say. So I don't know how you find your way in there, but it's worth at least knowing that that's what you're looking for. They're the stories that are most obvious, the stories you're living inside.
PAGETroy, thanks so much for you call. Well, you know, you focus not on -- this isn't a "Star Wars" kind of story or a murder mystery. You're focused really on the rhythms of ordinary lives. These are people we know. These are people who may be in our families. How do you keep that kind of going in a dynamic way, in a way that compels you to keep reading it?
HADLEYYeah, and I guess that's the challenge that the novel that is a realist has, that it can't import alien invaders or a serial killer. You know, that isn't its terrain. Nothing wrong with doing those things. It has to find the quiet explosions. But there's a wonderful phrase from that writer, Elizabeth Bowen, Anglo Irish writer of the Mid-20th Century I was talking about earlier, she talks about life with the lid on. And I love that. The sense that in this small, safe, seeming place of the family with the lid on it, actually the explosions that do happen, well, they're enormous because they reverberate round and round inside this little unit of the family.
HADLEYSo when Harriet is sort of smitten by passion for the first time, much too late, much too painfully, much too riskily, that's where my novel began. It began really with Harriet falling into this desperate new condition of crazy feeling that she has blocked out before. And I just knew that was life with the lid on. That was like setting off the dynamite, but not allowing it to go anywhere outside.
PAGEAnd that is due in part, she's able to take the lid off, because of a character, the other second character that is not a British woman, and that is an Argentinean woman who has married the brother. It's the first time his sisters have met her. Why did you include her?
HADLEYWell, I suppose, again, Susan, that's another bit of an answer to the question you just asked about how does one sustain the interest when you're writing about what's ordinary and to hand, and one answer, of course, is the what's ordinary, and to hand is fascinating when you know how to look at it. But a good recipe for making that ordinariness exciting is to drop something new into it. It's like having a sort of solution in chemistry, and you drop some further chemical into it. And everything suddenly precipitates out, and all the stuff that's in there becomes evident, becomes a manifest because of a new ingredient.
HADLEYSo I invented my rather suave, rather impenetrable, mysterious, powerful, very attractive and groomed Argentinean lawyer who isn't like this family at all. I imagine that's why Roland has married her, because she isn't anything like his family. And put her into the mix, and stuff will happen. And that's sort of -- yeah, that's how this story works.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go back to the phones. We'll talk to Susan calling us from Peletier, N.C. Susan, hi, you're on the air.
SUSANWell, hi, thank you for taking my call. This is wonderful. And I've not read your book, but I look forward to doing that. And you've mentioned two of my most favorite writers, Elizabeth Bowen and Eudora Welty.
SUSANAnd they're both mostly recognized as short story writers, but they've written novels of course. And I know you've written short stories, and they both also were published in The New Yorker. So I'm interested in the intersection between short story writing and novel writing. But I also am curious to find out if you have been influenced by their characters, the girlhood experience of their characters. And usually they tell the story through the girls' experiences. You're telling it through the grown woman. And just to throw out a last thing, have you seen the movie "Summer Hours"? And I believe it's a Spanish or Latin American filmmaker. And it seems -- if you haven't seen it, I think you would want to, okay?
HADLEYOkay. Well, it sounds as if we have just the same taste, so I think I should look that up, "Summer Hours." Okay, I haven't seen it, no. And, yeah, they -- I'm sure you'll write the wonderful way both of those writers use, if that's the right word, children's consciousness to crack open the adult world and see it with clear eyes. Must be an influence on me. I mean, would be an influence on any writer. Children, they're so marvelous, aren't they, since a book? Because they can do that. Because they peel away the layers of convention and taking things for granted. And they just look -- I mean, the children in this new book of mine finds stuff in a cottage, and they find this big stash of pornographic magazines actually.
HADLEYAnd they're trying to work out, "What is this for? Why would anybody want to do this?" And my little boy actually asked at some point, "Why weren't there any men?" Which I said -- I loved unpicking the familiarity and asking the big question. But, no, it's -- children are always just a wonderful access on the world. And as for your question about the intersection of the short story and the novel, that's worked beautifully for me. I love the feeling of the irresponsibility of the short story. Sometimes in the middle of writing a novel, I'll break off and I'll treat myself to writing a short story instead.
HADLEYThat thing I talked about where a novel is such heavy engineering. It's like building a bridge out into nowhere. And instead, well, a short -- I don't quite know what metaphor to use for the short story, but it's just a single freestanding thing. And you can throw stuff into it. You don't have to follow-through. You have to just have one essential, strong, tensile curve that will make the story work. But, no, I've loved having both things and feeling able to do both things.
PAGEAnd, of course, you may be more familiar to American readers for your short stories in The New Yorker. But now do you feel it that you're not a short story writer, you've really -- you're really now a novelist. That's where you're invested.
HADLEYI really want to go on being both. I would feel very bereft if I felt I couldn't go on writing the stories.
PAGESo tell us about how you go about writing. Do you do it at a particular time of day, in a special place? Do you write out longhand? Do you use a laptop? How do you do that?
HADLEYFirst thing is best. And my first thing is not particularly early. I don't get up at dawn or anything like that. I'm rather idle and I stay in bed and have tea and read books. But it ought to be the first thing. Colm Toibin, wonderful Irish writer, says something marvelous. He says, you should write in your pajamas. And it doesn't matter whether you literally wear the pajamas. It's just such a great idea. Don't do any business, and if you got any sense, don't do your emails or anything like that. Go fresh from your dreams, via reading in bed, that's fine, into writing. So that's my only sort of rule.
PAGESo you do it the first -- when you wake up...
PAGE...whenever that might be. That's when you do it. And do you do it in an attic? Do you do it in a basement? Where do you write?
HADLEYI actually just write at a desk in our bedroom. We've moved recently to London for the adventure of it, so we could only afford a very small flat. But do you know, in fact, when we lived in Cardiff, we had a huge house. I could’ve had a study, and it never crossed my mind. I always wrote in the bedroom. I think if I had to study it, I'd feel like a fake. I'd suddenly think, "Oh, my God, I've got to write--I've got to write something that suits this study. So I'm sort of still pretending. I sit down at this little table -in--in the bedroom, and right there.
PAGEAnd do you write in longhand or...
HADLEYNo. I absolutely love -- I mean, I could read -- I know one can train one's brain to do anything. But I -- mine now loves the flexibility of writing on the computer where you can throw a scatter down of words almost, bits of sentences, and then go back in and work and work into them. In a way that would be very actually messy longhand, and you'd end up with so many crossings out and arrows and things. I mean, of course it's doable. Of course it's doable. But I'm kind of -- I'd rather love the way I'm doing it in Word.
PAGETessa Hadley, thanks so much for joining us. She's the author of six novels, "Accidents in the Home," and, "Clever Girl." A frequent contributor to The New Yorker, a professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University. And we've been talking about her sixth and newest novel "The Past." Thanks so much for being with us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
HADLEYThank you, Susan.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.