Mothers Who Write: Tessa Hadley

by Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D.

Photo of Tessa Hadley
Author Tessa Hadley
"Pearl doesn't really like her mother's clothes. They're much too sober and sensible, and they still have the stamp of the style that must have stood for political radicalism in her youth and now makes Pearl wince: flat childlike sandals, stripy knits, denim pinafores. But Pearl sometimes manages to persuade her into buying something more extravagant; there's a satiny pink top heavy with beads and sequins, a pair of loose green silk crepe trousers. Pearl also sometimes borrows her plan black lambs' wool sweater and amber drop earrings, her underwear, her T-shirts: mixed with her own things they're all right, and her mother's clothes have the advantage of being clean and ironed..."
--From Everything Will Be All Right by Tessa Hadley

Although English author Tess Hadley was creating her own books at age nine, she confesses she often didn't get beyond the first chapter. When it came time to pick a career, she pursued a teaching degree from Cambridge rather than writing, but after a "disastrous" year in the grade school classroom, marriage and motherhood seemed like attractive alternatives. She settled down with her husband and focused her energies on their three sons, who are now aged 23, 20, and 12, and her three stepsons who visited frequently. Despite all these demands on her energy, she confirms that even at the very worst moments of being up with a cranky baby at midnight, motherhood was far superior to teaching children!

In her forties, Tess made the decision to plunge back into the public side of life. She returned to school to get her Master's degree, which was the launching point of her publishing career. As a graduate student she wrote a novel that "still wasn't quite right," but which gave her an extraordinary degree of self confidence, and inspired her to continue.

Now she has two novels that are quite right: in 2002 Accidents in the Home was published by Picador and Henry Holt and in 2003 Everything Will Be All Right came out from Henry Holt. She also has short stories in The New Yorker and Granta, and was long listed for a Guardian First Book Award.

"Fantastically subtle, absorbing and insightful. This is prose to die for," is how The Guardian described her first book. The New York Times Book Review said: "The link between reading and adultery, refined and elaborated since Flaubert, governs affairs in this rewarding, concentrated first novel about a voraciously literate 29-year-old Englishwoman and her family and her glamorous childhood friend (and the friend's boyfriend, who may be no reader at all)."

Reviewers comment on Tess's ability to pull "real life" into her writing. Author Margaret Livesey says: "In Everything Will Be All Right, Tessa Hadley has written a novel so full of lived experience that by the end I was hard pressed to separate my own life from those of her heroines. This is a wonderfully complex and vivid portrait of women's lives during the second half of the twentieth century." Jessica Mann of The Sunday Telegraph glowed: "Tessa Hadley gets the feeling of each decade exactly right, from post-war austerity to contemporary plenty . . . Too many females and too much feminism puts off some judging panels, but for the woman-only Orange prize, Hadley is my early tip." "This is a fascinating study of the intricate minutiae that makes up human relationships . . . Hadley writes with intelligence and grace in this skillfully crafted narrative, which will leave readers touched by its range of understanding and experience." says Anna Ruddick of Ink Magazine.

The evolution of Tessa Hadley the author took a long time. She had her first child in 1980, but spent fourteen years "secretly writing" while her children napped or attended school. Her decision to return to for her M.A. and then her Ph.D. in English opened up a different world of literature, and she realized if she wasn't able to publish commercially, she could be content in academe. Tess's Ph.D. thesis was on Henry James, a study she later tidied up and made readable enough to publish (Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure, Cambridge University Press, Spring 2002). However, almost without knowing it, as she was writing about James she also began the manuscript which would become Accidents in the Home.

Now she teaches a course on The Short Story and Creative Writing at Bath Spa University College in Wales, and works on both fiction and scholarly articles. Her special interests in English are in the novelists, particularly Jane Austen and Henry James, along with early twentieth century writers.

What inspired you to write?

Everything Will Be All Right by Tessa Hadley
While I was at home with my children, I wrote routinely, fitting it in when I could, some short stories and probably three novels. I didn't know much about the business of getting published, and now I realize the rejection letters I got were actually quite encouraging. At the time it seemed like a failure, so I would put the piece away and mourn it. Although I felt low about my writing, I wasn't ready to work full-time because the teaching experience had left me with a fear of having to give over my body and soul to a job.

When you're hooked on writing and can't get it all out, it's terrible! So I had to keep writing. When I finished the novel I wrote at the same time as my Ph.D. thesis, I showed it to a friend and colleague who had an agent. He showed it to her, but she thought it might be difficult to sell. Then three weeks later she called up and had sold it! She arranged to get me an agent in New York who sold it right away to Henry Holt. It was incredible how it all happened so quickly after all those years of trying.

How old were your children when you started to write?

Even when they were very young, writing was such a wonderful thing it kept me alive. Some aspects of motherhood -- especially very young babyhood -- can be so difficult, but I found if I could have three hours a day to step into this other world, it kept me going and I could enjoy my children. In that way, writing helped me be a better mother because I could escape for three hours and then go back to other things with real pleasure. With my second child, I had a "child minder" which felt very greedy, but that was my time. I couldn't justify it, but it was crucial.

From a practical standpoint, how has being a mother affected your writing?

The topics I write about are hugely affected by motherhood. Since my life from age twenty-three through my thirties was completely taken up by motherhood, all of my ingenuity and interest have been focused on that. It's the challenge of trying to capture in writing the essence of women juggling home and work, women with babies, sexuality and young mothers, the division of labor -- that's been my story, and that's what I know about.

Does it make your children uncomfortable to have a mother who is a writer?

Well, they're boys, so they don't read fiction anyway! My step daughters-in-law and my sons' girlfriends have read them because they were curious, but my sons don't seem to care. They prefer history to novels and don't see that novels are really history, too. I would rather they wait to read them anyway, so they can see that side of me when they're ready.

Has there ever been something from your child's life you wanted to write about but didn't for privacy reasons?

I'm more protective of my children than of other people. One of my stepsons did recognize himself in one of the books but he was lovely about it. We authors are pretty shameless, aren't we? We're always hungry to use the darker, nastier things we see in life, but you can handle it responsibly. For example, if you're writing about difficulty with teenagers, you could change genders or use the tensions obliquely and sideways so no one can see his or her life in it.

How did your own mother influence you as a writer -- if at all?

A lot! I didn't have a career until later, much like my mom. She's always been interested in my writing -- she did the illustrations for those books I wrote as a nine year old. She's a natural reader, too, so I share my manuscripts with her even before my husband. I interviewed her for my second novel and used a lot of details from her life in the book but she didn't take offense, and it was fascinating to learn so much about her past.

Any other thoughts on how being a mother has influenced you as a writer?

Accidents in the Home by Tessa Hadley
A.S. Byatt has talked about women developing later as writers, and how maturity and motherhood are sort of a backwards route to writing. That was true for me. Although I look back now and know I was not that happy with writing in secret and being rejected by publishers, I'm glad I had that time. It was almost as if I needed a period of privacy and solitude to develop. It was a plus and a minus, but I wouldn't exchange being at home for those years.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a third novel about one family. I had been working on a different book for about a year, but it wasn't right so I put it aside, and in some way that helped me with the family one. Oddly enough, four weeks after I started the family book, I figured out what was wrong with the other book, so I'll do it next.

It's a horrible process when you feel dissatisfied and full of hard critical thoughts about something you're writing, but then when you admit there really is something false about the book, giving it up is a good feeling. Unfortunately, starting on the new one is frightening. I ask myself, "What if I fail again?"

What are your writing habits?

Writing every day is too much for me -- I find I get really stuck. I write three days a week, and sometimes on a weekend or evening. I sit down for four hours and write tightly, focusing on the book page by page. When I'm the sort of person I'm really impressed by I go for a walk after writing in the morning.

I keep three notebooks, one for stories, one for odds and ends, and one for whatever I'm working on at the moment. We have a tall old house, and for some reason I write in the bedroom because that's where I'm happy. I have a couple of pictures on wall: one of Henry James's house and the other a lovely still life of bowl of fruit with a very contemplative quality. Those two things bring me inspiration.

My youngest son is still at home, so I turn off the computer when his school day ends. He's a film watcher, so he understands what it means to be fascinated with stories. Both my son and my husband are very tolerant of my writing habits, but if it's an evening or weekend I'm writing, I'll let them distract me.

When I'm well on in a project I have a couple of friends that I sometimes show work to, but right now I'm not part of a writing group. At a certain quite late stage, I have two readers who are really valuable to me.

Do you have any advice for other mothers/writers?

Mothers at home have an advantage because they have a lot of quiet time with little children which offers the opportunity for private thinking. That can feel lonely but in reality, it's quite nourishing because it makes your thinking deeper than it would be if you were constantly working.

Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure by Tessa Handley
Do I think you need to get the M.A.? Well, a degree has a useful function. Although mine didn't teach me how to write, it was precious to be in a context with people interested in and willing to work on things. It also provided me with an important network. Writers have always created these communities for themselves, though: creativity doesn't always come within the walls of the academy. So, I don't think writers have to be formally educated either as a writer or a reader. Books are accessible to anyone who loves them and anyone who wants to can respond with their own writing.

There is this idea that publication will ease all your fear of failure. Once you are, though, you still worry about all the other people who will be affected if you fail: agents, editors, etc. At its worst, that's the most demoralizing thing.

So take it slowly and don't think about getting lots of money, but think about developing your writing. Getting published is one thing, but if your book doesn't sell enough, a publisher won't want your next one. Although it's hard to refuse a large advance, find an agent who will think about that in the big picture of your career. See what kind of clients the agent has had, how much experience he or she has had, and what kind of vision they have for you and your career.

Finally, don't be afraid that you don't have enough to say. Your experiences are as interesting as globetrotting!

**Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D., is a mother, wife, author, and Associate Professor of Medicine at Penn State University in Hershey, PA. She is the author of Surviving Ophelia (Perseus, 2001; Ballentine, 2002), Girl Wars (Fireside, 2003), and The Starving Family (Champion Press, 2005). Her website is located at

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