In this episode, Zibby and Tessa explore the intricate art of writing and the transformative power of literature. Using Tessa’s new collection, After the Funeral, as a backdrop, the discussion dives deep into character creation and how to turn ordinary moments into extraordinary narratives. Tessa also highlights the challenges writers face, emphasizing the balance between self-criticism and self-belief. For those enthralled by the realm of literature and the magic of storytelling, this episode promises profound insights.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Tessa. Thank you so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” a second time, this time to discuss After the Funeral, your collection of short stories.

Tessa Hadley: It’s lovely to be here, Zibby. Thank you.

Zibby: As you know, I was such a huge fan of Free Love. So excited when this book came out. The way you write is just — I actually was reading passages out loud to my kids at the breakfast table this morning. I was like, “Listen to how beautifully she writes.” Then I was like, maybe I shouldn’t be reading this. Why don’t you tell listeners about the collection, what inspired it, what some of the stories mean to you, and all that?

Tessa: It doesn’t really have a theme. Quite often, I’m asked, did you have a theme for these stories? Does it have a strand going through it? The truth is it’s just the last twelve stories I wrote. There are themes in it, of course, but they’re my themes. They’re just the themes that would inevitably emerge whenever I wrote anything, really. What I tend to do in my rhythm of writing is to always have a novel on the go but punctuate that with taking time out to write short stories, partly because that’s just how my writing has developed. It really works for me. I have said sometimes, writing a novel is a bit like being married. It’s a long-term commitment with its ups and downs. I suppose I’d have to go on to say, then, that short stories are like a fling. They’re like an affair. You just take time out from this deep, long, difficult commitment to a novel. It feels like a very free space when I’m writing something short. Partly, it’s just simple. If it goes wrong, all right. You’re heartbroken. If it doesn’t work, you can’t get the ending, you can’t make it like you want it to be, it’s horrible, but it’s not like a novel not working. There’s something careless about writing it. Equally, it’s to do with the length of a short story. That’s careless. You can throw something in there which is sort of hot and funny or exciting, and you don’t need to follow through, whereas a novel is all about follow-through. What then? What if you did that? Then what? A short story is play. It’s just my last twelve stories. It felt like about time to have another collection.

Zibby: Your last twelve affairs, so to speak.

Tessa: My last twelve affairs. That’s where the analogy breaks down. That would be insane.

Zibby: That is one of the themes that you write about a lot. That is in this book as well, and Free Love, exploring what it is when you have something so steady and then you fall into something else or you change gears. Even in the first story, After the Funeral, it’s not from the point of view of the mom, but from her paramour, essentially, who makes his decision of what to do with his marriage. You’re just obsessed with this whole thing.

Tessa: Me and every other writer. What does fiction want to do? It wants to cluster around the places where life intensifies, the places where the marriage, if you like, or whatever steady state it is, is suddenly thrown into prominence. We suddenly see what otherwise is just our medium, like a fish in water. When it’s threatened, jeopardized, cut across, someone dies, someone falls in love with somebody else, those fractures are when the steady state is shown for what it is. I think naturally, fiction chooses to sit on those places of fracture. One of them is absolutely where a marriage that can look pleasant, lovely, continuous, settled suddenly stops looking like any of those things but in a way, becomes intensified by the threat.

Zibby: Wow. Even just how you talk about ordinary things, it’s amazing. It’s like there’s a room, and then when you come in, the room becomes completely decorated with all these bright colors. I don’t know how to describe it. It just changes a simple sentence into something very decorated, in a good way.

Tessa: That’s a lovely thing to say. I think that is what I’ve always felt about writing, about the writers I love, is exactly what you’ve just described. Life can seem drab. I have literally just spent the morning here booking trains, organizing, sending emails. Life can seem like that. What’s for supper? I’ve got to do that. Good writing gives back to all that everydayness. It isn’t that I want fairy tales or something about a princess or, for that matter, a war. It can bring to the most mundane details, a kind of lining which turns them into gold. That’s a mixed metaphor. It brings a magic to them which spins straw into gold, like in the fairy tale.

Zibby: Reading it and writing it, for you, it’s both. What are some inspirational things that you’ve read? We’ll do an analogy. You to me are who to you in terms of writing?

Tessa: One of my strong early writing memories is discovering Elizabeth Bowen, who’s an Anglo-Irish writer of the mid-twentieth century, quite modernist, but at the same time, always writing about real people doing real things, a little bit of crazy supernatural around the edges. I can remember taking her books out from the library when I was probably thirteen or fourteen. Maybe I was twelve or thirteen. I decided it was time to read adult books. I came from a family that always had books, but they weren’t intensely literary. I had no idea. I really didn’t know Henry James from Hugh Walpole or Compton Mackenzie. You wouldn’t even know those names. Nobody reads those people now. Henry James, yes. The other two, no. There I was confronted with all these names of unknown, mostly Edwardian writers. Where was I going? I picked out Elizabeth Bowen because I liked the cover. It was as simple as that. She had a complete works. I loved the pictures on the covers. I can remember reading, for instance, I think it’s her second novel, The Last September, which is set in Ireland at the time of the Troubles. It’s a great favorite of mine now.

I literally didn’t know anything about Ireland or Irish politics. I didn’t know about the upper-class people that the novel is mostly engaged with. I didn’t know that you dressed for dinner. I can remember thinking, were they not dressed before? Were they still in their pajamas? In other words, I was reading in a code that I could hardly interpret. I hardly knew at the end of the book what had happened. What was that about? Something in it communicated to me that thing we’re talking about. It promised me that life was intensely rich, that every detail was packed with power. That’s such an important promise, especially when you’re twelve, thirteen, fourteen. You don’t know what life holds for you. In a way, perhaps a lot of grown-up discourse around you is quite dreary. As much as I love my parents, pragmatic, is that all it is? Then books give you, instead, this sort of — it’s like putting on a magic ring or something. The whole thing is charged with power. Though I could hardly understand her books, her sentences, something about the density of the writing just had that promise for me.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing.

Tessa: Do you recognize that?

Zibby: Yes, I recognize it. I love what you said. Just elevating the mundane, essentially, taking your everyday and making the smallest things into a story, you’re changing your life into art, which gives it meaning.

Tessa: Exactly that.

Zibby: It’s amazing. You said that these were affairs from your novels. Were these multiple novels that were the interstitials?

Tessa: Yeah, I think they are. I think I was writing some of them while I was writing Free Love, which we talked about last time. Then some of them, I’ve been writing while I’ve been struggling, actually, struggling with my new novel, which is still only halfway through. I’m riven with doubts, but then I usually am. Then I think, oh, that’s all right. You usually are. It’ll be okay. Then I’m thinking, but that isn’t a guarantee. What if this time you’re right? I’ve been agonizing over this novel. I’m sure wholly familiar to you and to everybody who writes.

Zibby: Still, doesn’t make it any easier. What is this novel about? Where are you running into trouble?

Tessa: It’s quite a sprawling novel. I think that’s part of the trouble, whereas I felt that Free Love had a very — I did feel that even while I was writing it. I felt it was like shooting an arrow from a bow. It had a target. I knew where it was heading. This one is more sprawling. It’s centered around an old woman, which I thought would be so interesting to write about. I actually think it’s hardest to write old people as I’m becoming one. We’ve all been children. We’ve all been adolescents. We can all tap into those experiences. Actually, you know, unless you are writing while you’re in your seventies or eighties, you haven’t been there. I think the tendency to go back to cliché and have a dear old gray-haired grandmother on the rocking chair is strong. Most of the old ladies I know, including my mother and my aunt, who are around ninety-ish, are just so nothing like that at all. My elderly lady, who is in her early eighties, is a big feminist character who was, in her heyday, having a crazy life, difficult, extreme, brilliant, in the sixties and the seventies. Now she’s elderly. She’s living in the countryside in Somerset in England. Her family and assistant and neighbors are gathered around her. It’s one of those stories, classic in that it’s a neighborhood story. They’re coming out of lockdown, actually. That’s not a big thing in the book, but the sense that lockdown did create old-fashioned scenarios where you were stuck with the people you were near to, both your own family and then maybe as things eased up, a couple of people locally, and almost Jane Austen-like in the enforced intimacy. You had to find your neighbors interesting because they were what you had. That’s the core of it, is my character.

Zibby: Then what’s the holdup? Where are you struggling?

Tessa: One or two of the characters — I’m trying to talk about class, which I always am interested in. My young woman, is it that? It’s her. It’s my heroine. I do think I’ve got her now. I’m getting a hold on her. It took me a long time to feel the dimensions of her. She’s the young assistant who comes to help Eva, the elderly lady, with writing her memoir. She’s falling in love with Eva’s son. It’s a love story, actually. It is a love story. Somebody else is in love with him too. It’s going to be a classic love triangle. I found it much easier to make the bad girl. The dangerous, beautiful girl, somehow, she was much more fun and easy to do. To get my serious girl, I’ve been struggling. I think I might have got a hold of her. She’s begun to feel more multidimensional to me in the last few chapters.

Zibby: Maybe you should have the older lady having just passed away or something. You did that so well in this book, and what happened in the aftermath.

Tessa: Actually, funny you should say that. That’s uncanny because it does begin with the intimations that somebody’s dying, but it’s an old lover of hers. The news comes from Italy that one of her old lovers is very ill. He’s going to send her a letter. Then the news comes. A death frames the book a little bit, but it’s offstage enough for it not to feel too tragic.

Zibby: Interesting. I can’t wait for that. It sounds like it’s going well. I think it’s all in your head. I think it’s going to be just fine.

Tessa: Fingers crossed.

Zibby: I’m rooting for you.

Tessa: That’s good.

Zibby: I know this is going to sound like a crazy question. When I sit down to write a sentence, I don’t think a lot about — tell me what it’s like writing the sentences that you do and how it is you get all of the details, even when you describe. Maybe even talk about how you write your descriptions of people. Even the doctor with his long legs that he has to fold up and all the references that you scatter through of his sighs and the way you use words even to describe colors, like skylark blue or whatever you said, do you do that on first glance? Do you go back and add more details when you go back? Does it all come out fully formed? That was a rambling question, but I hope you know what I mean.

Tessa: That’s a really interesting question. That’s what writers are always so interested in and what I’m so interested in in other writers. It’s interesting. I think it kind of depends which bit of the writing you’re doing. Dialogue, definitely, often, first time through, I’m not getting that quite right. That can really thicken up and get better the more I reread. I seem to hear, oh, he says more than that. It’s funnier than that. That’s what she would say in response to that. That often comes in bits. Then for the narration of the story, you can hear that in your head when you start the story, particularly with a short story, particularly with the beginning of that story you’re talking about, the title story, After the Funeral. I could see those little girls. I could hear myself telling the tale of them. The physical description of people, I almost do it slightly different. It’s so important to me to get the presence of the individual. I think it matters in my life. It matters to me that we can see him or her. That can take a while. I’m writing on the computer, but I’ll have my notebook open beside me. When I come to the place where I think, I want them to see him, they’ve got to see him, I’ll really make a mental effort. It is like stretching your muscles in your mind, in your imagination. I can see him. How am I going to make that in words? I’ll jot down lots and lots sometimes, but I don’t want lots and lots in the final version. You don’t want to read a paragraph of, he was like this, like this. He had a nose like this, eyes like — you don’t want to read that. In fact, the more there is sometimes, the less powerful it is. You learn to select the crucial things, the four dots of description which will, between them in your reader, evoke him. It’s a very fascinating thing psychologically.

When I used to teach, I’ve done workshops on, describe the person sitting opposite to you. The first thing you have to say in those workshops is, there will be no reading out. Nobody is going to see what you’ve written about them. We’re not going to hear it. We’re just going to do it. Try and get the presence of that person. Not every writer wants or needs to do that. Not all writing works like that, but I love it. Funny enough, Elizabeth Bowen, who I was just talking about, she’s brilliant at it. It isn’t like a painting. With a brilliant painting, you really can see the person as if you’re in the room with them. Writing will never do that. You can actually read Anna Karenina and think she’s blond all the way through and discover she has — I don’t actually know. Is she blond or black-haired? Oh, my goodness. I don’t even know which of those is true, and yet I feel as if I know Anna Karenina’s physique. There’s a marvelous Henry James thing about Charlotte Stant in The Golden Bowl where he says she has a waist that is like one of those soft purses where you have a ring around the purse which gathers the leather in. I see her all from that. You can see it. I think she’s probably corseted, isn’t she? People don’t naturally have waists like that. Women were in those days. I see the looseness of the body in that concentrated waist. It’s very sexy. He says other things about her too which give her to you. You just have to find the triangulation point that will direct your reader to the right type. It’s a mystery. It’s a really fascinating study in itself, a little bit apart from other things that one does in writing.

Zibby: We offer these Zibby Classes, or just classes from Zibby Media. I feel like you should teach how to describe people or something. You should do another workshop. It is fascinating. I think it’s an area that’s so hard. In reading, you can tell when people have a gift for it and when they don’t. It is that crazy thing because, essentially, you’re just trying to get people to conjure it up in their own minds in whatever shape.

Tessa: They will conjure it up not in words. It’s that, isn’t it? You’ve conjured it. You’ve got it. Now find the words that will somehow make the same conjuring in the person who reads your words. I know, it’s really interesting and mysterious. have fun teaching it.

Zibby: It’s like a sorcery.

Tessa: It’s sorcery. It is sorcery.

Zibby: Amazing. What do you think about how hard it is to get books into the world these days? Even you, this master, elegant, perfect — you’re such a pro, but you still have to jump into the water of swimming fish with everybody having a book out every two seconds. What do you make of what the culture of book release is like and what you do with literature coming out versus — everything’s just coming out into this big funnel of information that people have to quickly pick something out of. How do you feel about that? What do you make of it?

Tessa: Partly, I think, keep faith. When I was first published twenty-three years ago or whatever it was, I think everybody was very anxious about the future of books and whether anyone would have time anymore for a slow read and a subtle read. I think in the end, with all the cacophony of noise that’s around us, just as you describe, and all the claims on our attention, the truth is that people love reading. Almost, they are learning now to love it very deliberately as a different kind of attentiveness to watching what’s on Twitter and what’s on the news and what’s on the podcast. Instead, just take yourself away, and one sentence at a time, follow what a writer is putting on the page. Let them challenge you. Take your imagination there. I’ve got a kind of faith that if somebody writes a good book — it isn’t easy to get it published. I know enough really discriminating publishers who are in it because they love good writing. I believe that books will get published and will get out there and maybe won’t be best-sellers, but you can build an audience. There are enough reviewers out there, fewer and fewer. That’s a sad thing. I don’t know what it’s like in the States. Here, definitely, our review pages are squeezed and squeezed. There’s less room for reviewing. That’s a shame because I do think reviewing is an important part of the culture. Still, we have podcasts like yours, in fact, Zibby. We have here in the UK too, lively young women who wish to dedicate their time, as you do, to talking about books and comparing them and discussing them and going into how it’s done. What’s not to like? I have faith. I think one could’ve been doubtful, but all the evidence is that reading is a very, very special part of our culture and that people are valuing it almost more rather than less. Does that make sense to you? You’re in a better position than me to know whether that’s true.

Zibby: I love that. It’s encouraging. I feel that people, because it’s now gotten to a point of complete overwhelm, that there is just factually too much information and it’s coming at us so quickly, that people have had to take stock and make decisions more consciously than they used to, as opposed to, I’m just going to pick up a book this afternoon, this summer, Sunday, or whatever. I think the whole culture of making it into lists and sharing something about it and posting it — somebody was just saying to me that what they love about writing is that it’s the only thing you do completely alone, but yet you’re never alone in it. It’s something that connects you to others without being with others. That made her feel such a part of things even when she was alone.

Tessa: You’re right. Often, one feels that. When you’re writing, you feel like, I can be clearer and more exact about what I mean. Of course, I can. Even chatting with one’s most intimate friends — it isn’t an either/or situation. One desperately needs to chat with one’s intimate friends. There’s something about the personal discipline of thought that goes into writing and that goes into reading. I don’t want to be pretentious about it, but it is some kind of spiritual exercise, actually, and some intensification of awareness that is so precious and so valuable and, you’re right, this contradiction of its solitariness. Yet in its very essence, if you’re writing, it’s to communicate. If you’re reading, you are communicating with that person who wrote it. I think it’s almost odd when you’ve read somebody’s book and then you meet them. You actually think, oh, but I know you. I know you more than any amount of having a coffee together can do. I know you deep down from the way you make your sentences and your pictures. It is a fascinating way of humans speaking to one another, actually.

Zibby: So true. Every so often if someone says that to me or they read my memoir or they follow me on Instagram or whatever and they’re like, this is so funny, I feel like I know you, I usually say, you do know me. You know me very well. I just don’t know you. Tell me about you. I already laid all my cards on the table. What’s up with you these days? Are you reading anything amazing? Where are you going on these trains and everything that you’re planning? What are you going to pack to go?

Tessa: I’m going this afternoon just across to Bath, which is only an hour and fifteen minutes away on the train, to do something. It’s a lovely, lovely bookshop there called Topping & Co. That was where I used to teach in Bath, so I know the beautiful Georgian town very well. I know that bookshop. That’ll be very nice. I expect there’ll be, probably, some of my ex-students there, I’m hoping, and some of my colleagues. Then my husband and I are going up to Edinburgh. We’re going to Glasgow first to see my brother and then Edinburgh in Scottland, as of course you know, for the literature festival up there. That’ll be lovely. Then I’m going to a super book festival in Denmark called the Louisiana Festival. I keep thinking I’m coming across to the Southern States. It’s a beautiful art museum north of Copenhagen. Apparently, it’s a very special festival, so I’m looking forward to that. That’s what I was booking this morning.

Zibby: Fun. Amazing. You’ve given so much advice already. For the person who’s listening today and is in a similar spot, stuck in their own writing the way you seem to be, what is your advice to them?

Tessa: Not necessarily keep going because of course, here and there, there’s a story or a novel which one shouldn’t, which one gives up. What is it? I think the best thing is to train your brain — I did used to so go on about this to my students — in reading your own work as if it wasn’t yours. You never can one hundred percent. Of course, you can’t, but you have to actually make your head ache with looking back over that chapter again and again and trying to get some distance on it. Sometimes I play tricks on myself, like changing the appearance of the thing on the screen and then changing it back again just to jolt it into unfamiliarity. I know a lot of people print it out, which I don’t do, but that seems another way of jolting it so that you’re reading it as if it were a book, not words by you. Actually, I feel as if learning how to do that, even though it really does make your mind ache, is an essential part of being self-critical. There’s a juggling act which one never learns to get quite right. There’s a juggling act between the criticism that is absolutely necessary where you think, oh, I’m not doing that well enough — I can make that better. That’s too long. Take some out. Then there’s the criticism which is just, it’s no good. Throw it away. Somewhere between those two, you have to find your path of believing in yourself but doubting yourself. I do not have an answer to that path. It’s a thicket you just have to machete your way through one way or another. Maybe at the end of it, finally when the moment comes, you need somebody else’s eyes on the work, and maybe all the way through. When I was an apprentice writer, I did. I needed other people to read me at the right moments as I was going along. I don’t do that so much now, but it was precious at the time.

Zibby: Tessa, thank you. This has been so amazing. I feel like I’ve just gotten a private masterclass. I really appreciate all of your time. I have just so much respect for you. Thank you so much.

Tessa: Zibby, lovely to talk to you again. What fun. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Have fun on your trip. Bye.


Purchase your copy on Bookshop!

Share, rate, & review the podcast, and follow Zibby on Instagram @zibbyowens