A Thing of The Past

Tessa Hadley on crafting a novel, speaking to readers, and finding time to dream


in Conversations

In her latest novel, The Past, Tessa Hadley writes about four adult siblings who come to stay for a few days at their grandfather’s house in order to decide the future of this place that has meant so much to their past. Hadley first became known in this country for her short stories that regularly appear in the New Yorker. Hadley was reached by phone at her hotel before an appearance at Free Library of Philadelphia. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

RA: When your novel was sent to me, all I knew about it was that it was called The Past, and I thought of course it was going to be a huge, mammoth work dealing with hundreds of years of histories and continents, something that’s worthy of such a huge title. Obviously the past is a huge subject in it, but it’s dealing with a tiny family. What made you put a title so broad on a subject so intensely focused?

TH: It took me ages to get that title. I was about two-thirds of the way through and I had about three or four working titles, all of which I was pretending to myself I was satisfied with, and suddenly it was just so obvious. I suppose what I really think is you’re right — there’s something funny about calling it The Past and then it’s this tiny little fragment of one family history in one country. But that huge great big billion-year past is made up of tiny little pieces, and the tiny little pieces, like that little family, the shards of individual pasts, actually capture in them bits of history, bits of historical change. In the novel, we feel the change between 1968, that moment when the great plates underlying our cultural and social life seemed to be shifting, and then the present, 40-odd years later, when, well, maybe one of the things one feels is that they haven’t shifted as much as everybody thought they were going to in 1968. I hope that always the individual story kind of opens onto the bigger history, if in a winding way.

RA: One of the things that strikes me about your writing is the intensely detailed descriptions you give things. Whether a stream or a tree, they’re going to be described in your writing, and I’m wondering if you’re using visual memories. Were you creating a house you knew?

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The Past by Tessa Hadley

TH: No, it’s made up. I mean, the landscape I know, I know it quite well, and that house is vaguely borrowed from a house I once glimpsed, but not a house I know. I think I am just that kind of writer who needs to have everything in the scene very, very embodied, rather than abstractly gestured to. And it sounds as if I’m saying that I’m better to have a rich kind of descriptive writing, and I don’t think that at all. I think each writer has their own imaginative temperament, and mine is one where if I’m going to have people in the scene, I have to have their physicality and some sort of quality of their presence, and if I’m going to be in a place, whether it’s a room or a garden, I’ve got to find the words to make that place present on the page. And then the shorthand won’t do. To say, “The stream was tinkling at the bottom of the garden and the sky was blue” just won’t do anything — that’s inert language. So what you have to do to make the place vivid, visceral to the reader, is to kind of scrape away the layers of lazy language shorthand that one’s mind offers on the instant and try and recapture, like an impressionist painter trying to recapture the freshness of the physical experience instead of accepting the visual code. So you’ve got to find new, fresh words for making that thing, that place, present.

RA: At the opening of the book, as each of the sisters arrived at the house, I was seeing something different. As that sister arrived, what she saw was revealing something of her personality as much as the house. And I saw three different visions right at that opening.

TH: Of course, that’s one of the joys of telling a novel in the way I told this one. My last novel, Clever Girl, I did all through one voice — it’s actually written in the first person, and my heroine filters everything through her sensibilities. That’s fine, that’s one way of doing it, but, in reaction to that, for this one I gave myself the luxury of lots of points of view. I do exactly what you say — it’s not in the first person ever, but I’m inside this head, then that sister, then this sister, then the little girl, and so on, and one of the luxuries it gives you is that you can say the same thing all over again — differently each time. Exactly like assembling an item, a place, a person, a little scene, through a set of photographs from different angles — the item is changed by the person looking at it.

RA: So even at that early stage you had fully sorted out the sisters’ characteristics?

TH: Very much so, very much so. I wouldn’t have dared start with them until I’d felt my way into them quite a lot. But of course that doesn’t feel like a closed system. As the writing builds and builds, you know that thing happened, you know the feeling of her mind in that context, but you can’t quite predict or preempt what she’ll be like or he’ll be like a little further on, in a different place, looking at something else. And one of the great things about a novel, as opposed to a short story, is that, if it’s working, you build behind you this great sort of weighty mass of your characters which you’re leaning on, you’re riding on. They’re kind of lifting you like a wave; whereas in a short story you’re having to start from the beginning and build quickly. But in a novel, that sense that you accumulate mass and traction as you write on is really rich.

RA: So these four siblings — how did you sort which characteristics went to each one? Was that something where you came up with the people or you had a situation and you had to divide the characteristics to get there?

TH: It happened so much in the dusk — the dusk of imagination. It’s so hard to sort out those layers — a story, a character — I feel they come at once, because the story makes the character and the character makes the story. With this story, I know that I began with that darkish scene where poor Harriet, who’s rather an inhibited, awkward, ill-at-ease character who sort of tamped down the sensual in herself, accidentally eavesdrops on her brother lovemaking with his new wife. It strikes up something in her, something that she really isn’t used to and that undermines her self-possession for the whole of the novel — that’s the core of the novel in a way. It began with that, and I have absolutely no idea where it came from. It looked like something from a film as I saw it; it looked almost like a still from a Bergman film. Most people would have just thought how embarrassing and shut the door or whatever. For it to matter, she had to have that sort of lack and repression, I suppose. And then obviously I’m thinking right, well I’ve got this family, I’ve got this place, they’re all locked in together for three weeks, so I’m going to need a very bright, kind of forceful contrast to my Harriet. Somewhere out of that, Alice came. I heard that voice with Alice, that funny thing where she keeps imagining that she’s talking to a lover, and she’s got no idea who that is, there isn’t a man in mind, but she sort of speaks endearments to him in her head. I can’t explain quite what that means, but I knew that was Alice, and that was Alice at that particular moment of her life.

RA: Reading you feels very English to me. And I was wondering if there was anything that you felt Americans had a hard time getting about your work.

TH: It’s such a lovely blessing that it all makes sense to anybody over here because I feel it’s English too, and I’m addressing an English subject — I hope with irony, not with nostalgia or sentimentality. But it does translate, and that’s lovely to me. I have the most gorgeous readers here who are so astute that I can’t put my finger on anything that they don’t get. I suppose the explanation of how it translates and it is possible to read such an English book from such a different country is that we love American books and we read them and we’re not thinking all the time, oh dear, I need a glossary here or I need a translation; we’re thinking Ahh, America. I get it.

RA: Talk a little about what a country house like that means to the English — we’re not as familiar with such things here.

TH: Possibly, when you ask me that question “Is there anything that doesn’t translate?” my tiny hunch is that you’re making it bigger and a little bit grander than it is. They have never been a wealthy family. But they still have the country house. The furniture in that house is shabby, sad, not antiques even. The wallpaper is faded, and they can’t fix it. The house itself is nice, but it’s small. It’s nothing special.

RA: One of the things about the house is, and I think in maybe ten years no one will believe such a thing happened, you can’t get email or cell phone service unless you go to this one spot.

TH: You know, you are so right, because we do have a cottage in West Somerset, which is where I — I never say so, but that’s where I’ve set the book — and, until last year we couldn’t get a mobile signal. You just couldn’t. And when we went down there, we just said to everybody, hard luck, no mobile signal. We did, about four years ago, have Internet put in, but before that we didn’t have it. Until recently it didn’t seem imperative, and then suddenly, actually life can’t move forward without it.

RA: What’s going to be lost when in fact we can go hide in our iPhones, and when we’re stuck in an isolated cabin with family we don’t want to see we can pick up our iPads?

TH: Do you know what I think? I think we just continually lose things and get things, so of course something will be lost. Some emptiness. It’s very nice to not be empty and to have contact and resources and stuff to do, but I do sometimes think emptiness is good for us and boredom is good for us. The last thing I want to be is a sort of deplorer of the modern, you know? Who knows what change brings? People thought all those things about television and they thought them all about the telephone. We will be alright and we won’t be alright and things will be good and things will be bad and it’s just different. Of course, being not young, I do panic slightly at the super-connectedness, but, this is my hunch — nobody agrees with me and I’m probably wrong — that our besottedness with the connectivity will fall away. It will seem ordinary, and then it will actually seem boring. And a new generation might come up who are bored by their parents’ obsession with email and phones and texting. I might be wrong; it might be that it taps into something so deep in the human psyche and the human need for contact that it doesn’t happen, but it’ll be interesting to see. We’ll be alright. People make sane out of all sorts of material.

RA: I’ve read your short stories in the New Yorker, which is about the best venue you could get in our country for your short stories.

TH: My pride and joy. I’m so proud, even though I hadn’t been to America when I was published here. That’s amazing, isn’t it? Or maybe I just went first in the year I was going to be published — but I knew all about the New Yorker. I’d never looked at it or held it, but I knew that all the writers that I loved most in the world had been in the New Yorker, so I can’t tell you how proud I am of that.

RA: Do you write stories as you’re writing novels?

TH: Yeah, I do. It’s lovely because writing a novel is actually very, very difficult.

RA: I assumed it would be so consuming you wouldn’t have time to take a break and churn out a short story.

TH: No I think it’s very good, at least for me. I never understood that thing that some writers say, “I wrote it 17 hours a day; I didn’t speak to anybody; I locked myself in a cabin in the woods.” I’m not like that. So mostly I just work four hours a day when I’m not doing other things. From time-to-time, especially when there’s a natural pause, it’s a really good idea, I think, to do something else: maybe some reviewing or some other kind of writing or best of all a short story if there is one floating around waiting to be written. I need that freed-up time without the pressure of do the next bit, do the next bit, what’s the next bit — some dreamy time, when unexpected things will come to me and suddenly I know what happens at such and such a place, and some unexpected lovely little gift of an idea will float in. You need some dreaming time. •