This interview is based on one conducted by Gwen Davies at the Dylan Thomas Centre as part of their festival, November 2011
Tessa Hadley, born in Bristol, teaches Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, where she gained her own MA. She is the author of 4 novels, of which her debut, Accidents in the Home, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. Her debut short fiction collection, Sunstroke, appeared in 2008, and her latest, Married Love, is due in January, when the pb version of The London Train also appears. Tessa lives in Cardiff.
NWR: The London Train has an unusual structure in two parts, linked by the Cardiff-Paddington train and the character Paul (a husband in Part 1 but a lover in Part 2). When I reached the middle and came to a new section entitled ‘Only Children’, I thought I’d stumbled into two novellas by mistake. The parallels and links quickly became clear but this and your experience in short fiction made me wonder: was The London Train conceived as a novella?
TH: It had a rather long and tortured history, as some books do. One’s hope is that none of this shows up on the book’s surface later – so perhaps one ought not to confess to the torture? I wrote the first part as a full-length novel, that didn’t work. I got the voice wrong, it felt flat and spiritless. Then I changed the story, kept some essential elements, rewrote from the beginning completely, in mostly new words – as a novella. As I was drawing near to the end of that, I had an afternoon of tumbling visions – that it needed another novella to match, its twin; and that this one would be a woman’s story, as my first part was a man’s story. And the second part, Cora’s story, wrote easily as a dream, as if to compensate for the difficulty of the novel’s beginning. All the connections which made the novel whole, and not two separate parts, fell into place naturally, as if they’d been waiting for me all along. Writing, sometimes one struggles against a stiff headwind, sometimes one bowls along more easily. Does this working difference show, in the finished work? I’m not sure.
NWR: The novel emphasises the perception of Cora and Paul, those characters most unhappy in their marriages, that they are both from a class ‘lower’ than their spouses. It also includes subplot lines involving classless or displaced immigrants (for example Pia’s Polish boyfriend, the Iranian from the immigration detention centre, Cardiff asylum seekers). How has your interest in privilege and class developed as a writer, and is it fair to say that for many of your characters, class is bound up with feelings of guilt?
TH: I’m not sure many people still think of any class as ‘lower’ – certainly Paul and Cora don’t. They’re proud of their class origins, and assert them often; both of them are firmly middle-class – a writer and a teacher/librarian – but carry their family working-class history as a point of honour. I suppose there is some guilt for Paul, if you want to call it that (this doesn’t work for Cora, whose own father had already made the crucial break into teaching); the classic unease of the clever working-class boy whose education, which is what his parents have aspired to on his behalf, nonetheless takes him away from his parents, estranges him from them, because the currency of his thought is no longer the currency of theirs. He has loved his mother dearly, yet she can’t really enter into his thinking, nor he into hers. Class and its complexities, its tangles in consciousness, its subtle markers, are an irresistible part of the mix for any writer, a wonderful grit to drop into the machinery of any story. When Paul and his wife Elise quarrel (she comes from a boarding school, house-in-France background), they use their class history against each other. They would use anything that came to hand, and that hurt enough, of course. Paul sometimes uses his class origins as a weapon in his quarrels with his friends, too.
NWR: Both sections of your novel contain ironic digs at ‘women’s fiction’. The Bookseller reported a 10% fall in sales of titles in this genre during the first half of 2011. I’m sometimes tempted to describe women’s fiction as ‘chicklit with deeper psychology and more guilt’. Is this fair, is ‘chicklit’ the same as ‘women’s fiction’, and what are your views on any labels that may have been applied to your own books?
TH: The ironic dig is Paul’s (not mine). Cora isn’t ironic, she means what she thinks, about how lifelike lots of what’s called ‘women’s writing’ is, how much more feeling and more true to real experience than some more ‘highbrow’ novels (horrible term, but one’s dealing in such shifting categories here). I’m not myself participating in this debate, in these little teasing references; I’m just enjoying describing it. But as I’m sure my own books are often read as ‘women’s fiction’, I suppose I’m more likely to be closer to Cora’s ‘side’ of the argument than Paul’s. I always knew Paul would never read my books. Perhaps they’re in that pile by his wife’s bed. By the way, I hope there isn’t much guilt in my books. I don’t think we’re as guilty as we used to be, now that our idea of duty is so diminished (mostly for the good?); guilt needed duty to measure itself against. I’m not sure how interesting guilt is as an emotion, these days (it can seem indulgent). I’m interested in conscience, though – which isn’t the same thing.
NWR: Your fiction is notable for an acute degree of psychological perception, leading to strengths in terms of empathetic characterisation. The crime writer Mark Billingham argued in a recent Guardian supplement, ‘How to Write Fiction’, that it is empathy that drives suspense and pace rather than plot. The London Train contains important twists and red herrings (for example Pia’s pregnancy, Gerald and Elise’s relationship, the detention centre scandal, Robert’s injuries close to the end). But for me, suspense increased threefold with the possibility that Cora and the inhibited, decorous Robert might get back together again. Which was your main suspense tool for this novel, plot or empathy?
TH: I’m not sure I can separate these. It’s a really interesting question. For me story (it’s a better word than plot, which always has overtones of Colonel Mustard with the lead piping in the library) is part of the miracle of people and lives. How extraordinary, that such things happened – or didn’t happen. Our appetite for story, for stuff, for the abrupt swerves and changes that life produces – a birth, an accident, an affair, a fortune or the loss of one, daily work, a death – is as deep as human community, surely. Without stuff happening, people don’t exist as themselves (even if their story is that nothing much happens); their personalities and the texture of their experience come about through stuff happening – or not happening. Therefore I can’t quite separate the empathy a writer most wants to create in the reader, from the massed elements of a character’s history, their adventures, their choices, the junk-shop jumble of family connections they drag with them… But it’s wonderful to think that the empathy is the susupense. Yes, that’s very nice.
NWR: The ‘london train’ links Wales and London, with the novel being set equally in both locations. Its Monnow valley settings offer evocative descriptions of landscape. However, I sense a conflicted attitude (possibly authorial, possibly character-led) towards feelings of belonging to place; Paul, especially, seems to resent his farmer neighbours’ attachment to the land. And I was almost shocked to hear from Cora’s mouth what I’ve come to think of as the outdated, or even taboo terms (in our post-devolution Wales): ‘parochial’ and ‘provincial’. Are these terms intended ironically and do they show aspects of Cora that you as an author might regard ambivalently? What is your approach to portraying ‘Wales’ in novels? May you tackle creating a ‘rooted’ community in your fiction?
TH: I don’t think I have that ‘rooted’ experience you’re talking about – although I’m not sure why, as I’ve lived in one city for thirty years now. Perhaps city-dwellers aren’t ever rooted in quite the way you mean – and definitely, although it makes excursions into the countryside, my writing is about an urban scene, it’s what I know and where I belong. I’ve thought a lot about those term ‘provincial’ and ‘parochial’. I think they might need rehabilitating, for a new age. I read an article by a political theorist, on how the necessity for politics in the 21st century is that each nation (this was referring not to Wales but to the UK in a global context) must abandon its parish histories, imagine itself outside them. This may well be true for politics, it probably is. But what I thought was: without parish histories, no novels. Novels are parish histories, whether they’re set in Bristol or Cardiff or London or Rouen or Boston or Abuja (even if the parishes are full of transients, too). Novels’ specificity, which makes their worlds not interchangeable with other worlds, is of their very nature. So parochial and provincial aren’t negative terms to me. I treasure the specifics of locality. I love the hiddenness of evolved forms of human living, in places away from the coarsening spotlight-blare of power. I’m suspicious of the confidence of anywhere that imagines itself a ‘centre’. I remember the subtitle of Madame Bovary, moeurs de province. There’s a novel which overtly deplores the pokiness and dullness of the backwaters of provincial France - yet all the while embodies its least detail in a poetry of such beauty that it endures into our unrecognisably different time.
NWR: What is your next writing project?
TH: I’m more than halfway through a novel which is written in the first person, a woman’s history from her childhood in the nineteen-sixties. She’s my age but nothing like me, much braver. All sorts of things happen to her (see empathy and things happening, above!) I want her to embody a kind of heroism of the domestic, of the hidden, private life.
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