Tessa Hadley, FREE LOVE

Tessa Hadley, FREE LOVE

Zibby is joined by best-selling writer Tessa Hadley to talk about her latest —and highly anticipated— novel, Free Love, which captures the emotions and consequences of a 1960s affair. The two talk about how Tessa has relaxed into her writing style over the course of her last four books, her journey from a lifelong writer and storyteller to published author in her forties, and what classic works of literature may have been like if authors always had access to the copy and paste feature. Zibby and Tessa also compare the different idiosyncrasies between British and American dialects.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Tessa. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Free Love.

Tessa Hadley: It’s a pleasure to be here, Zibby. Thank you for having me on the program.

Zibby: Of course. I have to say, I posted that I was reading your book over the weekend, and so many people were like, oh, my gosh, Tessa Hadley has a new book out. That’s so exciting. You have a fan club over here.

Tessa: Lovely to hear. It’s always been a bit of a miracle to me how those books that, in a way, as I write them, they feel very British, very English, I just love it that they obviously set off a reverberation that you in America respond to. That’s such a privilege for me.

Zibby: Everything in Britain seems more exotic. It’s like Downton Abbey. It’s the accents. I don’t know.

Tessa: Of course, it works the other around, Zibby.

Zibby: I don’t know.

Tessa: You realize we . I suppose that’s a lovely thing, isn’t it? Isn’t it one of the great novel traditions that we read American novels and Americans read our novels? It’s the same English, but it’s full of such different worlds. We do know each other in all kinds of ways, but partly through our fiction traditions.

Zibby: It’s so true. Actually, I cohost a podcast with a woman named Tracey Cox. She’s in London. Just even hearing all the idiosyncrasies in language when we talk about the most basic things, I get such a kick out of each word.

Tessa: It’s funny. When my first books were published in America, first of all, the editors kind of wanted to change everything, like drawing pins and pushchairs and flats and rubbish instead of garbage. In the end, when we’re reading an American book, we want strollers and pacifiers and diapers. I don’t know why I’m doing that baby thing. Those are all the words that spring to mind that are different. That’s part of the pleasure, isn’t it?

Zibby: Yes, I think you’re right. I think you’re absolutely right. Of course, part of the pleasure of this book is that you are an absolutely beautiful writer, as I’m sure you know but maybe doesn’t hurt to hear again. From the very beginning, the way you create a scene and get us so close to the dressing room and then as you go through from dingy flats to backyards to all these things, even watching the car outside waiting as she goes and gets her stuff, all these images are so visual and amazing. You just sink right into it.

Tessa: That’s just lovely to hear. Of course, I can’t quite know that about myself. You’re just doing, in a workman-like way, the best you can. It’s always just delicious when people say, I saw it. I was there. I saw it. That’s what you want.

Zibby: Would you mind giving a little synopsis of the book? Then maybe I could just read a passage that I thought was particularly great to hear.

Tessa: It’s quite unusual for me in that it really is set in, especially to someone as young as you, it must seem the past. It’s the past. I was only a little girl in the 1960s. I’ve set my whole novel in 1967 and 1968, which is a long time ago. I think we appreciate, from the vantage point of now, that it was pivotal. It was a moment at which everything changed. I wanted to feel that change, but not in the abstract, not as a piece of sociology. The change happens in my story across one woman’s life. She begins the book giving a casual family dinner party. She’s a bourgeoise suburban housewife. Her husband’s a civil servant. He’s a really decent, nice man. They have two kids. She’s happy with her life. Then something happens at the dinner party. I’m not spoiling the story, really. It happens so quickly. A young man kisses her almost randomly because he thinks that would be an un-bourgeoise thing to do. He’s a rebel. He’s a dropout. He’s an intellectual. He lives in a shoddy sort of in a weird, dilapidated art deco place in West London where the counterculture is happening. That kiss, it really is a sort of Sleeping Beauty thing. It awakens Phyllis, the housewife. She pursues him to his room. Her life changes in every possible way. The novel fans out from there. It doesn’t only follow what happens to her and her love affair. It also follows through on, what does that do to the family? What happens to her husband? What about those two children? What becomes of them? The whole thing widens out.

Zibby: I have to say, I am so glad that I read this book cover to cover because I would never have predicted the way it all twisted and finished up. I couldn’t believe it. Well done.

Tessa: There’s a surprise that I had up my sleeve. I had it from the beginning. I knew it. I knew it was going to happen.

Zibby: Really? Oh, my gosh.

Tessa: I wrote around it, holding it back and yet at the same time, I hope, putting little seeds and signs in there.

Zibby: I would have to go back now and reread it to find the clues because I completely missed them.

Tessa: You’re not meant to. It’s just that you’ve got to make it work when you do get to that point. You think, oh, my goodness. You mustn’t then think, oh, no, that’s not possible. It’s got to work with what you’ve read so far. That’s what I meant. You weren’t meant to think it in advance.

Zibby: All right. Either way, I couldn’t believe it. I was like, oh, my gosh. Here’s a little passage just to show your sensational writing. It’s towards the beginning. Well, not so the beginning. It’s seventy-seven. “His –” Is it lascivious? Is that how you pronounce it? It is, right?

Tessa: Yeah.

Zibby: “His lascivious, uninhibited gaze was as arousing, almost, as if he touched her.” By the way, this is where Nicky and Phyllis are getting together. “She had never been seen like this before or allowed herself to be seen without any ironic deflection, not with Roger,” who was her husband, “nor that other man. Getting his pleasure, Nicky was so heedless and unconstrained so that she too was unconstrained and didn’t care how he saw her. Married love was too kind, she thought. It hovered on the threshold of this knowledge and never went inside, never took the necessary liberties. Because her shared life with her husband was grown-up and considerate, they had made love considerately, like innocence. Also, she’d been ill with miscarriages after giving birth to Colette, which was why, in the end, they had come home to England. This had shadowed their lovemaking with the gravity of failure, made them apologetic. Nicky had no history of failure and no grown-up authority in the world, so when he made love to her, it was with his whole, frank concentration and with such urgency as if nothing else was important. That was what Phyllis thought then too. Nothing else was important.” I love that.

Tessa: Of course, it’s just one truth. That’s one of the great things about the novel as a form. You can have that, and it’s true. Nothing else was important. Then you put something next to it in the chapter which makes you think, oh, yeah, actually, that doesn’t last long. All sorts of other things are important, like your children. That’s what I love about novels. They hold all these truths alongside each other. They’re all valid.

Zibby: Yes, it’s amazing. I know, I felt so badly for her children just pining away, really, and the son.

Tessa: Maybe one pines. Maybe the other, the daughter, I feel, might be a great survivor. I think she might use her mom’s vanishing and abandonment of the family — I think Colette, her daughter, might use that as a stepping-off board for her own adventure, which will be even bigger.

Zibby: Maybe you should write that next.

Tessa: Aha! Maybe I should write that.

Zibby: You should write a whole novel about Colette and what happens with her life. You should get us all the way up to the present.

Tessa: When I was planning this novel, I did briefly entertain the idea of bringing the story up to the present. I’ve done that before in novels. I’ve had a big stride through time. I just thought it was too long. I wanted the focus. I wanted the intensity of that eighteen months or whatever it is. Perhaps it’s two years.

Zibby: No, you’re right. This was perfect. That’s why we need to jump ahead and see what happens next.

Tessa: That’s a lovely thought. I will hold it in mind, Zibby.

Zibby: Just mull it over in the midst of all your other stuff.

Tessa: Oh, I will. I will. I promise.

Zibby: Take me back a little bit to how you got started in this whole field and how we arrived here.

Tessa: You mean writing novels at all?

Zibby: Yes.

Tessa: Just mania, really, being an obsessive reader from a very early age, being one of those little girls who was actually quite shy and bad at being in a crowd and joining in. I had my intense friendships with certain girlfriends. This is when we were eight, nine, ten, eleven, a bit. We imagined. We had imaginary games. I always think that, actually, that’s where the germ for the novel-making, the story-making comes from. It was when we sat down together and said, we’re living on an island. We’ve got these children. That’s what their names are. We have to row to the mainland. This was one game we played month after month for a few years. I think that was important. I was reader obsessively. I loved to read everything, went to the library, took out the books, read them, took them back. Then at some point, that crossed over into being, I want to write a book which will capture my life, which will capture my world, not my life exclusive to me, but the word I’m in. Then there were long years of trying to do that and failing, actually, while I was, relevant to the title of your podcast, while I was a mom with young kids. I was not only reading lots, because that was my salvation — I was talking to my best friend about that. I was talking about — her daughter just has given over her life twenty-four/seven to her children. That’s my friend’s grandchildren. My friend and I were saying we couldn’t do that. We had to greedily claw back time for reading. I imagine that’s what your podcast is sort of all about.

Anyway, so not only was I reading in my time of being a mother to young children — now I’m a grandmother. They’re all very grown-up. I was trying to write. Actually, I was a very slow starter. I had quite a lot of anguishing years of failing to write and writing about four novels that were no good at all. They’re now in landfill. Thank goodness. That’s what I was doing. Then in my forties, late, I got published. Although that was very painful for as long as the apprenticeship lasted and wasn’t working, now it seems right. It seems the right part of the story. I sort of needed to get that mature for me — this is not true of everybody, but for me to be ready to tell my stories the way I wanted to. Then one wonderful day, I found an agent. I’d hardly known before how to even do those things. I wasn’t with the world of publishing. I did do an MA in creative writing, which was like your MFA. That was a wonderful transition, not really because — no one can teach you to write, but you have an audience. You have, almost like an editor, somebody working with you. You also learn, oh, you need to send it to an agent. You need to probably send it to quite a few agents, all that stuff. One wonderful day while I was at work — I was teaching at the time. In the office, I got a phone call. I was going to be published by Jonathan Cape. Then only a couple of weeks later, I had a phone call from Jennifer Barth, my wonderful US publisher who’s still my publisher. A transformation began. A very, very joyous moment for me.

Zibby: Aw, that’s amazing. Tell me about your novels. I know I read about it on your website.

Tessa: This is my eighth. They’ve all been published both in the UK and the US. I had Jennifer Barth from the beginning. That was marvelous. She was with Henry Holt then. Then I moved with her to HarperCollins. I knew I’d failed at those great, big, clunky, ugly novels. I began to know I could write a short story. I had a grasp of that arc and that shape. I wrote a couple that I was satisfied with. Accidents in the Home, my first novel, is really structured as a series of short stories put end to end that are all about the same people. It is a novel. It’s about them. Things change. Time goes on. I managed to achieve that by still dealing in small pieces. It was only on about my third or fourth novel that I really suddenly felt the spaciousness of the novel form and I was able to relax a bit and wait for things to happen and resolve themselves and follow through more slowly. I’ve felt confident in that way for the last three or four novels, I would say.

Zibby: Wow, that’s interesting, the idea of sort of stretching out like you’re putting your feet up.

Tessa: Of course, you’re so not putting your feet up.

Zibby: No, I know. Of course not.

Tessa: But you’re right. It sort of does feel like stretching out and letting yourself go into the local writing of the novel, not quite worrying about where it’s going. You are, all the time, worrying, but you can have those two things at once. You can be local and precise and get that bit right, but you still sort of know where the bridge is going to come down. You’re building a long, long bridge across a wide river. You can see where it’s going to come down, but you’re also just concentrated on that bit. Actually, as a metaphor, that doesn’t work terribly well. I’m sure an engineer would tell you that is no way to build a bridge, but it’s a good way to make a novel.

Zibby: My daughter last night, I said something, and she said, “Really?” I said, “No, no, no, it was an analogy.” She’s like, “What’s an analogy?” I’m like, “You are to your brother like this person is to…” She’s like, “What?” I was like, “It’s also like –” We had this whole conversation about the difference between analogies and comparisons and similes. It went nowhere.

Tessa: Brilliant. No, no, that will not have gone nowhere. It will have gone inside. She will be mulling over that.

Zibby: Maybe she could store it away for the SAT prep or something. That’s funny. What’s your process like when you’re writing a novel?

Tessa: I like to have one started. While Free Love is now being published this week in the UK and in a couple of weeks in the US, I have got the beginnings of a new one just very tentatively down. I think about it first. I make some notes, but it’s all about story and character and shape. It’s not research. I’m not doing heavy sessions in the library. I never do those, actually. I make it up first. Then sometimes I check. I think, oh, I wonder what nursing was really like in the 1960s. I had to do a little bit of research about that for Free Love because one of my characters is a training nurse. I would hate the idea of spending two years reading stuff about the 1960s and then eventually getting down to writing. I think you’ve got to go the other way around. Imagine it first. Dream it first, loads and loads of dreaming, really.

This is putting your feet up again. You’ve got to just relax and let the story come inside your head exactly as we did when we were those little girls thinking, what should we play? I know. It’s that. It’s a magical thing. Then you also have to be strenuous with it because you are a grown-up and you’re going to deliver a novel. You have to strenuously think, will that work? What can I do with that? Where could I take that? Lots of that thinking, but not loads of post-its and not notebooks full, just some sketching. Then I do actually write from the beginning to the end. I don’t write a very, very rough draft. At the time, it feels as if I’m writing the book. Of course, then I do go back through it. I do cut a lot. I’ll sometimes put new scenes in even before I show it to anybody. I know lots of my favorite writers who do write a thin, quick, forward-pushing kind of draft and then go back and fill it out. I was talking with Lily King who’s .

Zibby: I love Lily King.

Tessa: I was talking to her about her stories the other day. She was saying it was a breakthrough for her when she learned to just write ahead, just push on with momentum and come back later. I’m very controlling, and I can’t do that. I am writing rather finished, final-seeming prose even if, of course, later I’m tinkering with it. I write, hopefully, unless there’s any catastrophes, slowly. It takes me a couple of years to write a novel slowly from the beginning to the end. I’m thinking all the time not only about the local bit I’m writing now, but I’m also thinking, what do I need to come? Is it time to build that in? Where shall I reveal that secret I’ve got up my sleeve? How would I best do that? And so on and so forth. It’s a funny back-and-forth between this sentence, this scene. Like you said at the beginning, try and make them see what I’m seeing in my mind’s eye, but at the same time, trying to hold the long span of the book.

Zibby: Wow. Do you type it, or you handwrite it?

Tessa: Type it on the computer. Handwriting the notes in my notebook and tinkering in my notebook and scribbling and jotting, but the actual sentences are going onto the computer. I love that. Of course, I did write the first, those awful novels, on a typewriter. Now that seems so immobile. Once it was there on the page, you could paint bits with Tipp-Ex and do that. The loveliness of being able to cut and paste and move around and just suddenly, oh, that paragraph should be there, the ease of that, I actually can’t now imagine what it must have been like for most of the great writers I mostly admire.

Zibby: That’s what I was just thinking. All of the classics, what would they be if they had been tinkered with, cut and paste?

Tessa: I think what it must be is that it’s simply, where you do a certain level of composing, they’re doing more in their head before it goes down onto the page, to a certain extent, whereas I, we, in our era are able to almost throw down at an improvised level onto the page and then perfect on the page. It must be that. Henry James used to dictate verbally to a secretary who took down his words. That’s very difficult to imagine, isn’t it? But he did.

Zibby: Yes. She should get some credit. I hope she does.

Tessa: Oh, she does. She does. She’s quite famous. There was a man first, a young Scot. Then there was a woman, Theodora Bosanquet. She wrote a book about him afterwards. She’s recognized.

Zibby: She’s got her due? Okay. This is my naïveté about Henry James and that. Oh, well. Amazing. What advice would you give for an aspiring author? To an aspiring author, I should say.

Tessa: I would say read, read, read. That’s what fertilizes everything. Read the books you love. Don’t read dutifully, but devour the books you love. Look at how they’re working, not to spoil them. It doesn’t spoil them, but to just admire what’s going on. Watch the sentences. In a way, my advice would be don’t do it unless you manically need to. You’ll find nearly every writer will say, I couldn’t stop. I failed. I hated it, but I had to try again. That process will sort people out. Those who do a first manuscript and it doesn’t really work, they’ll just give up. That’s fine. That’s very sensible of them. They can do something else like cook lovely dinners or something. If they want to write, they will pick themselves up and try and try again. Keep trying. My breakthrough, how I got the first stories right is, look close to home first. You don’t have to write about yourself. You don’t have to strictly write about what you know. When I was writing those first stories where I thought, I have something real to say, and I wasn’t just imitating other writers, it was because I was finding it very close at hand around me in the places I’d lived, the kind of people I lived with, the stuff I knew as a person, the very limited wisdom I had about life from family, motherhood, daughterhood, and a certain class, I suppose, and a certain pattern of relations that belong to my era. All of that stuff that, almost, I’d gone beyond it thinking, well, that’s boring, that’s not worth much, instead, that is the place that most of the best writing begins. It begins at home, but that doesn’t mean literally writing your own story. It begins at home and close to home, in your neighborhood.

Zibby: I love that. That’s amazing. Are your kids so proud of you? Do they tell you that? I hope.

Tessa: They are. They’re all boys, men, so they’re ironic and teasing, but they are. They are. They’re all coming to my London launch. I’m going up to London for my launch tomorrow. They’re all turning up. We’re going for a meal afterwards.

Zibby: That’s so sweet.

Tessa: It is really sweet.

Zibby: That’s so great. I wish I were in London to just pop by your launch. I would love to go.

Tessa: I wish you were. It would be so nice to see you there. Do you have boys? Do you have girls? A mixture?

Zibby: I have two boys and two girls.

Tessa: How lovely. Four, great. I had three boys.

Zibby: It’s fun.

Tessa: It is.

Zibby: It’s a circus.

Tessa: A circus, absolutely, and occasionally, extraordinarily vexing and difficult, but it’s all .

Zibby: I have to tell you, as I’m watching and listening to your story — I have my first memoir coming out. I’ll be forty-five, almost forty-six this summer when it’s going to come out. I’ve been manically writing it and rewriting and rewriting it for basically twenty years at this point. I’m listening to you and I’m thinking, wow, that’s so neat. I could try to just keep doing this.

Tessa: Yes, exactly. You can.

Zibby: Maybe I’ll be sitting there one day on a podcast or whatever is invented by then talking — my kids are nowhere near — they’re tiny. Maybe one day, I’ll be the grandmother who’s writing the books. How cool would that be?

Tessa: Congratulations. That’s very exciting. That’s lovely. How super. It feels very, very good, doesn’t it?

Zibby: Thank you. Yes, it’s nice. Thank you, Tessa. It was so lovely to talk with you today and catch your own little English idiosyncrasies and all of that along the way after we talked about it at the beginning.

Tessa: I’m sure they’re all Lovely to talk to you, Zibby. Thank you so much for having me on the podcast.

Zibby: Have fun tomorrow. Buh-bye.

Tessa: Bye-bye.

Tessa Hadley, FREE LOVE

FREE LOVE by Tessa Hadley

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