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Tessa Hadley on new novel 'Free Love' and making life changes mid-40s

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

It's the late 1960s outside London, and a bourgeois couple in their 40s open up their home to a dinner guest, a self-righteous, aloof young man in his 20s. After dinner, in a moment of spontaneity, the housewife, Phyllis Fletcher, shares a secret kiss in the garden with the young visitor named Nicky. That's how Tessa Hadley's latest book, "Free Love," begins. The kiss sets off a series of consequences that unearth family secrets spanning multiple generations. In the unraveling, the novel explores idea of youth, sexuality, innocence and awakening to new ideas.

Tessa Hadley joins us now. Welcome.

TESSA HADLEY: Lovely to be with you, Elissa.

NADWORNY: So I wonder, where did this novel start for you? Like, was it a specific character or a scene or a storyline?

HADLEY: I've never set a novel in the past before. I mean, it's not like history. I was alive in the '60s. I was a child. But it's by far the furthest back I've gone. And I have a feeling it started when I wrote a short story called "An Abduction," where I set it in the home counties in the 1960s. I didn't grow up in that part of Britain, and I wasn't exactly part of that class, that sort of very bourgeois, very settled, very respectable world. It's not mine.

But writing that short story, I discovered that I love to write about it, perhaps because it's gone in a way. I don't think that world exists anymore, that very English sort of stiff-upper-lip thing. But then, it was lovely. The whole of the story of "Free Love," the whole of its unraveling to the end kind of came to me almost all at once. That really doesn't usually happen, but it just fell into my lap.

NADWORNY: Well, the book starts and centers around an affair, but the affair is not really what this book is about, is it?

HADLEY: No. I sort of think it would be a bit tedious, really, after so many hundreds of years of the novel being so much centered on the adultery of women - "Madame Bovary" and "Anna Karenina" and so many others. I kind of think in a way, as women's lives have become more free and divorce is available to all, there just isn't the same tension.

So I couldn't make my heroine just a sort of wronged, imprisoned, constrained woman who must break free. That wouldn't work. But having said that, I did realize that I had to do it justice.

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

HADLEY: Otherwise, the book wouldn't work, would it? I have to make it kind of sexy, and I had to make us feel temporarily their real passion together and how it transforms everything for both of them, actually. But no one would have believed me if I'd said, this is going to change the world for both of them. This is transfiguring and transformative. It will last forever. No.

NADWORNY: And in a way, that was kind of like your brain goes out the window for a bit (laughter).

HADLEY: Yeah. That exactly. I had to write their brains going out the window, particularly hers, except what - I describe her brain, I suppose. I describe Phyllis' mind, that she's apparently a very flexible, very light, very easy woman. But, in fact, she's stubborn. And the minute she thinks to herself, oh, I've been wasting my life, oh, I love this man, it's sort of set in her.

And that trait in some people really fascinates me, actually. Some people - and I'm probably more like this - are incredibly doubting as to what's real in one's thoughts and emotions and experiences and what isn't. What am I really feeling? Am I just putting that on?

But some people have this - you know, they make the great heroes and heroines of history. Some people have this sort of conviction that what they intuit and feel at a given moment is the truth, is the whole of it. And she has that.

NADWORNY: Yeah. I think we kind of use the word spontaneity, and it feels a bit lacking, maybe. There's less depth. But actually, it can be quite calculated.

HADLEY: Yeah. Even the kiss isn't spontaneous because Nicky, the boy, initiates it. And he isn't thinking, oh, my God, I'm overwhelmed with desire. He's actually thinking, these people are bourgeois. And if I'm brave and if I'm careless and different, I ought to kiss her.

NADWORNY: Yeah. How can I disrupt this world? I love that as a motivation. Yeah. I wonder if you could read a passage that kind of gets at what we were just talking about. It gets at what's in Phyllis' head. It's on Page 71.

HADLEY: (Reading) She remembered those first few weeks afterwards as coinciding with the long, drawn-out Indian summer, when the light and heat were thick as oil. Phyllis postponed for a long time any acknowledgement of the difficulty in their love affair. She didn't mention the difference in their ages or bring up the subject of her husband. In her thoughts, she held away, too, any idea that they were doing wrong. Morality she pictured as an inexorable mill, grinding out its judgments irrefutable but ugly, like the machinery in a factory, alien to the subtlety of her inner life. She knew that her betrayal of her husband and children was wrong, but in the same impersonal, dulled way that she knew from school about the Treaty of Vienna or the abolition of the Corn Laws.

NADWORNY: (Laughter) What do you think now, reading that back?

HADLEY: I just actually find my own joke funny, which one shouldn't do, but I did. (Laughter) I've obviously dredged up those - the Treaty of Vienna and the Corn Laws are absolutely from my own education. Yeah, I'm sort of glad that I'm doing that work of irony, really, around the love.

It's what we were talking about earlier, that I am not saying, here is this magnificent, transfiguring thing. I'm kind of - I mean, I'm - the narrator, the writer is quite detached.

NADWORNY: So for Phyllis, you know, you center on the choices that she's made in her 40s, and I know you published your first novel also in your 40s.

HADLEY: Yeah.

NADWORNY: I wonder if you have any advice for making change in that time of life.

HADLEY: Oh, gosh. I wouldn't listen to novelists at all. They don't really know anything better than anybody else except how to write books.

(LAUGHTER)

HADLEY: It was a good time for me. Yeah - because I had - for various reasons, I had had a strangely old-fashioned previous 20 years. Between being about 23 and in my late 30s, really, I was a housewife with babies and keeping a home and furtively writing in a very ashamed, sort of unsuccessful way, writing terrible books that didn't come to light. So I think it was in my late 30s when I went on a writing course. I mean, I went on it very skeptically because I didn't really think anyone could teach anybody to write. I still don't.

But what I didn't realize in advance was how incredibly liberating it would be to be writing for other people - not abstract other people but people you were going to see on Thursday. And that exerts a brilliant pressure on your work, as you might think, oh, that's boring. Oh, I can't read that out to them. It's awful. That was fantastic, and I felt my writing just rise to the occasion.

So, yeah, change your life. Don't run off necessarily with a young man of the - you know, hey, I didn't do that. But it could work out. That's rather entrancing from this distant perspective in my 60s.

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

HADLEY: But instead, I went on a writing course. So there we are (laughter).

NADWORNY: I love it. Well, that was writer Tessa Hadley talking with us about her new novel, "Free Love." Thank you so much, Tessa. It's been a pleasure.

HADLEY: Lovely to talk to you, Elissa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANGUS AND JULIA STONE'S "PAPER AEROPLANE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
Elena Burnett
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.