Tessa Hadley: 'I cried on my way to school every day'

She was a 'hopeless' young teacher. But why did it take the writer another 23 years to hit her stride as a novelist?

Tessa Hadley is that rarest of novelists – one who seems happy to discuss both her life and work with equal candour. "I like chatting about my books. Other people's more – but mine too," she says cheerfully when we meet on the top floor of a Waterstones in London. "I know it's cooler to hold something back. J M Coetzee is a wonderfully fluent critic but sees his books as coming from a different place. No talk can replicate that place. One is not an authority on one's books. You are hoping that what you say is true."

Hadley's unerring eye for what is true – in everyday human behaviour, thought, and relationships – has won her a host of admirers including Anne Enright, Peter Parker and The New Yorker, which has published excerpts from Hadley's new novel, Clever Girl, over the past few years. Set almost exclusively in Bristol during the second half of the 20th century, it is an intimate, engrossing and eminently English coming of middle-age story from one of Britain's finest writers. Her heroine, Stella, undergoes many trials – murders, affairs, having one child in her teens, another in a socialist commune – in her heroic and romantic pursuit of self-realisation.

The narrative is episodic and deeply personal, but slowly coalesces to form a mosaic of British life over the past 50 years. "The book tracks an extraordinary few decades in which things that had enormous power in the Fifties, such as class, were unpicked in the Sixties and Seventies," Hadley says. "Young people were standing nowhere as the parameters around them changed. It must have felt as if they were making up their own fate in ways their parents did not. The giddy freedom of the Sixties was both liberating and terrifying."

It's hard not to draw parallels between Stella and her creator. Both read avidly as teenagers, both entertained literary aspirations which were derailed by circumstance: namely, marriage, preg- nancy and family. Hadley acknowledges the congruencies between fact and fiction only to swat them away. "It is not very autobiographical except that, deliberately, Stella is born in the same city and the same year as me. But she absolutely doesn't have my life. She is much braver than I am, much more audacious."

Hadley's background was certainly more secure and nurturing than Stella's. Her father was a teacher who played jazz; her mother was a housewife who painted. Nevertheless, the family can boast of some serious literary form: Hadley's paternal uncle is Peter Nichols, whose A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and Passion Play have both been successfully revived in the West End this year. "He came from nowhere, Pete. It is admirable and extraordinary. He was kicked out of Bristol Grammar School for being idle. They later put him on the honour's board in gold leaf."

This finds an echo in Stella's own adolescent situation, in which her cleverness separates her from her parents' world. Her aspirations are unexpectedly scuppered by what Hadley describes to me as "biology advancing like a great juggernaut". Sex isn't the issue, she insists. "It's simpler and more dreadfully fundamental: it's becoming pregnant. It knocks Stella off course. That on the whole doesn't happen to boys. They become fathers, but it's not such a drama happening inside one body. This new life inside you, which will demand of you if you choose to keep it. Your cleverness isn't much use. You need to be loving, and good and dutiful."

This is a more intense recasting of Hadley's own experience. A bookish teenager, she did not share Stella's taste for avant-garde writers such as Samuel Beckett and William Burroughs: "I do think it is a gender thing. I intuited that writers like Beckett and Burroughs were not keen on that terrible old phrase – the pram in the hall. When I was a teenager, I was reading about how to live. I couldn't fit my sloppy, messy, hopeful, female side into that austere, male framework."

A real pram in the hall would appear soon enough. First, Hadley read English at Cambridge. "Unhappily. I loved the books but didn't feel at home there. I thought it was a chilly, funny, odd place." Then she entertained an idealistic ambition to be a teacher. "It was a complete disaster. I was 23. I went to a rough comprehensive. I was political: I wanted to bring light where there was darkness. All that rubbish. I was hopeless. The kids ran rings around me. I cried on my way to school every morning."

This unhappy experience goes some way to explaining Hadley's early loss of confidence as a novelist. Although she was trying to write fiction, it would take another lifetime (23 years) before her first book, Accidents in the Home, was published in 2002. "It took me a long time to come into my own authority. It can be very circuitous to find your way to what's plain, what's natural to you, the best forms for your mind."

Her misadventures in teaching had another, equally profound consequence. They convinced Hadley to start a family: she has three sons, and three step-sons. Becoming pregnant "is a hugely equivocal moment for women", she says. "Once it's done it becomes formative. Most mothers would not dream of going back. But how enormous a moment that is. The sheer shock, when after a couple of days of being good and devoted and self-sacrificing to this little creature, you think 'Now it's my turn.' Then you think 'Not for another 18 years, actually'. I am not complaining. It's deepening." She pauses. "However bad it was in moments, having a baby was always better than teaching."

In this, Hadley's story does echo that of her fictional heroine: both found their voices, their identities as individuals, wives, mothers and working women, through literature. For Stella, it was reading. For Hadley, it was writing. Yet both come to the same moral of their story.

"The things that aren't under your control are the most interesting," Hadley says. "Stella says it herself. It isn't what goes on in your inward life that is most important. It is what you do with what befalls you. We can't pre-empt this. In the end, when you look back, those substantial accidents are the test, much more than what you have schemed."

Clever Girl, By Tessa Hadley

Jonathan Cape £16.99

'Why must the world of real things always be relegated to second place, as if it was a lesser order, as if everything abstract was higher and more meaningful?'

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