Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley

Hadley Captures a Life in Clever Girl
An exclusive Authorlink interview with
Tessa Hadley

By Ellen Birkett Morris

Clever Girl
by Tessa Hadley

Buy this Book

June, 2014

In her novel Clever Girl, Tessa Hadley covers fifty years in the life of Stella, who we first see as a girl in 1970s Bristol. We follow Stella’s ups and downs in a series of episodic chapters that detail her struggle for self-determination. Hadley discuss the creation of this novel and her own evolution as a writer:

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a writer – degrees, jobs, workshops, writing groups, classes, and mentors that helped you along the way.

“. . .just the usual apprenticeship: writing and failing.”

HADLEY: Mostly, it’s just the usual apprenticeship: writing and failing. I wrote four misconceived, bungled novels before I began to be able to do it. I was imitating other people and trying to write books like them – which I’m sure is part of the apprenticeship. It takes a long time to learn to write like yourself.

I did then do an MA in Creative Writing – actually, in the university where I still teach (Bath Spa University in Bath, England). That was a wonderful experience, not because anyone could ‘teach me how’, but because I could suddenly hear myself, how I sounded. Nothing lifts your game, makes you surpass yourself, better than being read.

AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about the title Clever Girl? While the reader knows Stella is clever, we get to see her make mistakes, mess up and choose poorly.

HADLEY: The very words ‘clever girl’ have a disparaging, dangerous edge. I thought it was a wonderfully rich pairing of words, one of those found treasures, a bit of well-used language which yields up lots when you handle it and put it under a strong light. No one uses ‘clever girl’ quite innocently, the words are often meant to cut girls somewhat down to size, warn people off. Stella’s cleverness is a two-edged sword, it helps her and gets in her way. Of course, it makes her able to narrate my novel. I couldn’t have handed over the telling of it to anyone less clever.

“. . . it begins with a flavor, an atmosphere, entangled with scraps of story. . .”

AUTHORLINK: Where do stories begin for you? character? plot? image? first line?

HADLEY: With a story, I think. Which is not quite any of the above – or it’s all of them. It’s more straightforward for a short story. I get a picture of a little knot of interaction which seems rich and funny and suggestive. Some of the scenes are already ‘there’, in my mind’s eyes, as things that will be rewarding to work, give off a lot of heat. But even with a short story they only come in bits. A beginning can hang around for months before one day I know how I can end it. As for novels, there’s more labor involved there. Perhaps it begins with a flavor, an atmosphere, entangled with scraps of story… Clever Girl was easy-ish because it was episodic. I thought of it, to begin with, almost a story, a chapter, at a time… Of course after I’d got started I had to begin to see the longer playing out of what happened to her, see the larger shape of the whole thing.

AUTHORLINK: How did the premise of the book develop?

HADLEY: I’m not quite sure what the premise of the book is. Perhaps it’s that Stella in all the ordinariness of her life is like a woman warrior, battling through all the pitfalls and horrors (an accidental pregnancy, the murder of her lover, an affair with a married man) that threaten to overwhelm her. I think I had that warrior feeling – and the sense of the cleverness then as a sword, even if two-edged – from early on. At first chapters were called things like ‘Honour’, and ‘Servitude’, and ‘Fraternity’: however, that was clumsy. But there is something grandiose like that going on the background of these humdrum happenings.

” It feels as if Stella is making up her own life as she goes along. . .”

AUTHORLINK: Stella seems determined always to follow her own desires, to be self-determined whatever the consequences. At the same time she is at the mercy of her times, namely the social changes of the 1960s and 70s. Can you discuss the interplay between these two things?

HADLEY: Perhaps that’s the premise. The eternal tension between self-determination and being determined by one’s epoch. That interests me hugely – sometimes the very features of our lives which feel most distinctive and original, and which we’re quite sure we’ve invented, turn out to be expressions of the Zeitgeist. And yet it’s the heavy labor of individualization which brings the Zeitgeist about, which brings change. It feels as if Stella is making up her own life as she goes along, disregarding all the rules; yet her life with all its rebellion is also characteristic of the era of her youth, the nineteen-seventies.

“. . . the hardest thing was finding a rhythm for the second half of the book . . .”

AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing Clever Girl and how did you overcome them?

HADLEY: I think the part which told about Stella’s youth was easy. I was born in exactly the same year as her and in the same city, so that although she’s not me, I knew all about her. Dreaming up episodes of delight and trauma for her was fairly easy. Youth is wonderful to write about – love and sex and revolt against parental rule. Middle-age, though, is just as interesting but harder. Often, so much of the adventuring has moved inside the person, there’s less outwardly to show. I think the hardest thing was finding a rhythm for the second half of the book which was as driving as the one I found for the first half. Also, the chapter where she lives in a commune was difficult to write – not because the material wasn’t there, and full of promise, but because I had to handle so many people, and make them all count, within a short space. No wonder the novel favors narratives of the nuclear family! So much easier to put on the page.

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your research for this book.

HADLEY: I didn’t really do any. As I say, ‘I was there’, it’s my era and my city, so I was just remembering and inventing. But I do always keep a running list of questions in my notebook, about things like makes of car, and how much a washing machine cost, and whether such and such a flower would be in bloom in such a month. I’m not sure that can be dignified with the name of research.

“I can work well for four hours now whereas I only used to be able to write for three.”

AUTHORLINK: How has the process of writing changed for you as you have gained more experience?

HADLEY: I think I may be better at persevering, less prone to panic. You have more faith in your ability to solve the knotty crises, because you’ve solved other things before. I know my way round certain problems. My eye is better trained to spot redundancies, I think. And I think perhaps I’ve got more relaxed and bolder, more willing to take my time with things, dwell at length inside a scene or jump right across it. I can work well for four hours now whereas I only used to be able to write for three.

AUTHORLINK: Talk about the process of revision for this novel. Who was your editor(s) and what was it like working with him/her? How many revisions did you do and what was your main focus when making changes? Advice on revision for apprentice writers?

HADLEY: First of all there’s all the revision you do for yourself, before you even show an editor. Unusually, this novel didn’t have a complete rewrite – something about its episodic structure made it come out in its essential right form first time. Others have needed recasting completely, at some crisis point of disenchantment. I do like rewriting: that point where you can see the wood instead of the trees, and you can just slash away at all the mess, getting what’s essential in it clearer and clearer. Cutting down all those trees which you grew with such care. But I’m a really slow and careful writer even first time round. I never throw down a careless draft, thinking I’ll come back and make it better later. I have to kid myself that what I’ve done is final. Until I look again and see it wasn’t. Most of the work with my editors on this one was down in the detail, avoiding the manic tics of repetition, bits of cliché which slip in. My editors were Dan Franklin at Jonathan Cape in the UK and Jennifer Barth at Harper Collins in the US.

AUTHORLINK: Are there particular habits that you would encourage writers to cultivate – habits of the mind or attitude or work habits?

HADLEY: Each writer is completely different. Exactness, I think, is the thing. When you’re looking out of a train window at a landscape, or at the weather, or a someone sitting across from you in the doctor’s waiting room, work at it in words until you’ve got it captured, and conveyed it. It’s an exhausting effort. Anything less, and language will slip into its lazy habits, giving you a cheap simulacrum of the world instead of expressing the real thing.

“I think the real writers . . .just . . . can’t give up trying to write, even when they are most discouraged, and most want to stop.”

AUTHORLINK: What is your advice to new writers on staying encouraged and focused on the right things?

HADLEY: Some discouragement seems to be part of the deal! I think the real writers are partly just the ones who are so crazy they can’t give up trying to write, even when they are most discouraged, and most want to stop. And read, read, read. Every time you love something you read you feel this double pulse of despair – why should I bother? and inspiration – that makes me want to do it.

AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on next.

HADLEY: Clever Girl covered fifty years of a woman’s life. My new novel more or less covers three weeks, in the present. Four siblings in their forties gather for a holiday in their house in the country. Their mother died young – this is the house where she grew up. Tangled interactions, agonies and discoveries.

About the Author

Tessa Hadley is the author of four highly praised novels: Accidents in the Home, which was long-listed for the Guardian First Book Award; Everything Will Be All Right; The Master Bedroom; and The London Train, which was a New York Times Notable Book. She is also the author of two short-story collections, Sunstroke and Married Love, both of which were New York Times Notable Books as well. Her stories appear regularly in the New Yorker. She lives in London.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.