Life after Death: A Conversation with Tessa Hadley

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Late in the Day differs from Tessa Hadley’s six previous novels in that it features two central male characters, has very little emphasis on children, and follows a much longer story arc. University friends and graduates Lydia and Christine connect with Zachary, another student, and Alex, one of their teachers who is only a few years older than they are. Lydia feels drawn to Alex and Christine naturally connects with Zachary. But at some point they change partners: Christine marries Alex, and Lydia marries Zachary. We first meet them at a breaking point in their long, four-person relationship that spans jobs, moves, group vacations, and children, as the novel opens with Zachary dying. Hadley then moves back and forth between the past and the present to deliver a story that’s at once heavy and dark, but ultimately redemptive and freeing at the end.

Tessa Hadley is a UK writer and professor is the author of seven novels and two short story collections. She has been a regular contributor to the New Yorker since 2002. Hadley is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and has either won or been shortlisted for many prestigious writing prizes. She won the O. Henry Prize for her short stories “The Card Trick” (2005) and “Valentine” (2014), and she was on the Orange Prize longlist twice (2008: The Master Bedroom, and 2011: The London Train). She also won the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize in 2016, for her novel The Past.

I spoke with Ms. Hadley a week before Christmas, successfully connecting with her over the eight-hour time difference between her home in London and mine on the Canadian west coast. We discussed her new novel, the ways in which it differs from her previous ones, and what she’s working on next.

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The Rumpus: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.

Tessa Hadley: It’s a pleasure.

Rumpus: How did the story behind Late in the Day actually come to you?

Hadley: I wanted to write a novel that covered three or four decades of these people’s lives. I wanted to write long marriages, as that seems to me a really, really interesting subject. We are married now longer than ever in the past, not because people divorced in the past, necessarily, but because people died. In the nineteenth century, if you managed to be married to someone for sixty years, you really were against the odds. So there’s this formative growth, where two lives begin together in their twenties and then continue through their thirties and forties, and grow around each other’s shape.

It’s so strange that people stay together so long, because they can change so enormously from what they were when their relationship began. I just think that’s such a rich, ripe subject for novels to discuss. And it isn’t a subject that’s been at the core of the history of the novel. Courtship used to be at the core of the history of the novel, and also adultery, and in a way neither of those things are quite as interesting as they used to be. Courtship because we don’t really do it like that anymore, and it isn’t so final anymore, and adultery because not quite so much is at stake. You can have an adulterous affair and then you can leave your first husband and you can go and have another family with the new one and there’ll be a lot of heartbreak on the way! It’s still a subject, actually it’s a subject of my new novel I’m just starting. But it doesn’t have the power it once had with Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina.

So here’s a new subject, not quite as dramatic as either of those, but nonetheless: the fact of couples enduring through decades. I wanted to write that and I thought, “well, we’re going to need some drama to happen, obviously, it can’t just be flat.” And then I thought, What if there are two couples, and they’re sort of a little bit intertwined, like A is with B and C is with D, and then C is with A, and you know, what fun to twist them around and play the game differently. And then, one of them dies.

I almost had the shape before I had the people. Also, I thought at first that the death would happen three quarters of the way through, and then before I started writing I knew that would be very hard to write because it would seem wanton or cruel to the readers who’d lived with these people thus far, to suddenly do that, and it would also be hard to make it plausible. It’s very hard to write something like that coming out of the blue. I thought the novel had to begin with it, actually. And the minute I thought that the novel had to begin with a death and wind back from there, it seized my imagination and I had that first scene very powerfully, the sweetness of ordinary disregarded daily happiness that we hardly know we’re in, until that phone call comes.

Rumpus: I think that was a really good choice to make to start at that part. It’s kind of like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking—you’re starting at that break point, that point where everything changes.

Hadley: Yes, and of course then everything else is read through it, which is far more powerful than to live through everything else and then suddenly drop this horrible, cruel event. It could have been done; there are ways of doing almost anything. But I think this was right, and I never regretted it. I knew it made things a little bit structurally complicated, that I would have to be coming backwards and forwards between the present and the past. But that was my only fear, and I hope it’s worked anyway.

Rumpus: Late in the Day feels a lot darker than your other books. The emotions are dark—there’s a lot of grief, there’s jealousy. The characters are quite serious. Christine works very hard to keep Alex happy, to keep Lydia happy. It seems that the only easygoing character was Zachary and he’s gone. And then there’s also the heaviness of the past around these characters. Did you intend for the book to be this dark when you first started writing it, or do you even think it’s dark?

Hadley: I think it is, and that’s been another fear of mine for it, because in a way I sort of love to write a kind of comedy. Not laugh-out-loud comedy, but I do like to write comedy. But how could [Late in the Day] be otherwise, really? I don’t know why it seized me, but it did. I knew I was embarking on something dark, and I did have my moments when I was writing it that I was worried that it was too dark, that it wasn’t enough fun. But there we are—that was the novel as it was and I had to be true to that.

Rumpus: The characters are almost pulling in opposite directions. Lydia wants somebody now that Zachary’s gone, Christine’s pulling towards her work, Alex is pulling towards his work and also towards Lydia. Do you see this book as a statement on marriage in particular or on long-term relationships in general?

Hadley: I think it’s just those particular people and that they have a particular history of being. In a way, the four of them have been a thing for years. And it’s sort of what happens in one of those games where you heap up wooden blocks and pull out a piece. What happens when a piece is pulled out? The three who are left are thrown into chaos by the sudden absence, sadness, and grief.

And maybe what you said about how they are fixed in their patterns is why the upheaval seems very cruel when it comes (and I don’t mean Zachary’s death now, I mean Lydia and Alex getting together). It seems at first like more anguish, but actually I think it’s a kind of taking a new breath, and finding new selves to go forwards with. So, probably at the end it should feel not like a happy ending but it also isn’t, “Oh dear, something awful happened and what came out of it was more awfulness.” It actually feels as if the violence of Lydia and Alex getting together has broken fixed patterns—exactly what you describe. It was quite a fixed marriage between Alex and Christine, it didn’t feel very fluid; the pair of them weren’t flexibly alive to one another. Which doesn’t mean to say that they didn’t love each other or that they didn’t even respect each other, but it was something hardened.

Rumpus: Ultimately your books are about women. The domesticity, the endless details of family life: looking after the kids, doing the shopping, cleaning house, sharing parenting, etc. All of this is experienced through the eyes of female characters, and it often seems as though the male characters are incidental to the main story. They still affect a woman’s character, because of what we talked about earlier that characters don’t develop in a vacuum, but in a way, it’s as though the men are sort of set apart. Do you consciously structure your books this way?

Hadley: I very much know that I write with women at the center; maybe that is inevitable.

I was really hoping that, in Late in the Day, Alex and Zachary would feel more central. I tried to make them not just products of the women’s lives or aspects of the women’s lives, but men doing their own thing, going after their own thing. And I’m actually much more sympathetic to Alex than a few of the early readers, who really are quite cross with him, though a couple of them were sympathetic. I quite like those rather dangerous men who just won’t conform and won’t quite buckle down to being nice. It occasionally worries me about women, the pressure upon women to be nice, and their own twisted ways of being nice, so there’s something I quite like about men refusing to do that.

Rumpus: I agree with you that Alex and Zachary are more central in Late in the Day then the male characters in your other books.

Hadley: Sarah, you’re just saying that because I wanted you to! [Laughter]

Rumpus: No, they are definitely more central! Particularly when you think about Alex, and his lack of respect for Christine’s ideas and her art, which we discover through his actions and through his conversations with Zachary. I think that’s a huge impact on Christine’s life.

Hadley: It is, and it’s the worst thing about him, in a way. But there are other things about him in the book that I really hope are very appealing. He’s quite gifted for life, in the ways he acts. He’s a good teacher, a really good teacher. But I did give him that one cruelty: an obliviousness, in that he’s an old-fashioned man and he can’t quite grant Christine independence—she’s got to slightly be his creature. That felt true to that kind of man, when I wrote it. But I hope it won’t be read as the last word on him, that he’s just awful. And in fact I’m quite hopeful that he’s going to be happier with Lydia actually. They’re going to suit each other much better—she’s quite old-fashioned as well.

Rumpus: There were two scenes in particular in Late in the Day that I thought were a bit odd. The first was when Alex travelled to Glasgow and visited all those little dive flats to find Zachary’s daughter. For some reason, I just couldn’t picture someone doing that. How did you come up with that scene?

Hadley: Well, I think it’s that sense that Alex can’t tell Grace, Zachary’s daughter, on the phone. This is one of the moments when I’m very admiring of him. The women are a bit collapsed, they don’t know what to do, and really Lydia is insufficient at this point but, fair enough, she’s stricken, horrified, and shocked. Alex needs to find the girl to tell her because he’s sort of her godfather. He can’t replace her father, but he’s a strong man, and he has a good instinct to act, and he has to find her in person to tell her.

Rumpus: And it also gives him something to do because he needs to act.

Hadley: Yes, that too, yes.

Rumpus: The other scene that I thought was interesting was when Lydia was staying with Christine and Alex, and she climbs in their bed in the middle of the night because she’s cold. That struck me as really odd.

Hadley: Well, it is odd, but it’s one of those scenes that just came to me as soon as I began—in fact, before I began, I knew that was where that first section ended. Partly it is of course, a sort of symbolic representation, literally acted out in their lives of what’s going to happen between them. Not that any of them know that at the time. She climbs in between them, and that is the rest of what’s going to happen, like in mime.

I think such strange things do happen under those moments of stress. They fascinate me. I think life is often odder than we tell it, and that weird stuff comes about. Lydia’s alone, terrified, terrified of death, terrified of what her life’s going to be. She’s in a strange bed, grieving, utterly bewildered and lost. It doesn’t seem to me at all impossible that what you would do is climb in between your friends. And then of course it’s almost as if the act precipitated the rest of the novel, in which she really will literally climb in between her friends.

Rumpus: Starting the book with Zachary dying, then writing beyond Alex and Lydia getting together, helps you achieve that arc of the instigating event at the beginning of the book, but moving past Lydia and Alex getting together also allows you to show Christine’s life changing. Like you said, the violence of Alex and Lydia getting together has broken fixed patterns, so now things have changed for Christine as well. And because you keep writing past that point, we’re able to see that more positive story.

Hadley: In a way the moral is there is life after death. It goes on—what happens next doesn’t stop. That’s good that that’s what you took away from it.

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Photograph of Tessa Hadley © Mark Vessey.


Sarah Boon (PhD, FRCGS) has bylines at Longreads, Hakai Magazine, Terrain.org, Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, Science, Nature, and Water Canada. Find her on Twitter: @SnowHydro. More from this author →