Book of the Month 10 Questions - Tessa Hadley

Free Love by Tessa Hadley is our Book of the Month for January 2022. Here the novelist answers our ten burning questions...

1. Tell us a bit about the writing process behind Free Love. How long did it take?
I started to write it at the end of 2018, and sent it off to my agents in November 2020. I can’t remember exactly when the story of Free Love came to me, but I know that it occurred – very unusually – all of a piece. There are about three pages at the beginning of my notebook for this novel, where more or less all the story is written down in very broad outline, including its ending - along with first sketches of the main characters. Planning a novel isn’t usually so straightforward. The story for this one fell into my lap somehow – which doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of doubts and difficulties, as always, along the way.

2. Free Love takes place in 1967 London and the new youth revolution, what drew you to this time and place?
I had written a short story called ‘An Abduction’, set in the 1960s and in the Home Counties. Although I was only a child in the 60s, and although I’ve never lived in the kind of suburbia I describe in that story and at the opening of Free Love, something in that combination of time and place stirred my imagination and seemed particularly rich for writing. But I couldn’t have managed a whole novel, I think, set inside the world of bourgeois respectability, with its constraints and inhibitions; so as a counterpoint I tried imagining its absolute opposite, the unbound new freedoms of the counter culture, turning everything upside-down. I loved setting my characters’ story down at this moment of extreme contrast – it offered so many opportunities for imagining, and writing – though without taking sides, I hope. I didn’t mean to judge, or condemn the suburban conventional life: the novel isn’t a hymn to freedom or anything so simple. I just wanted to capture one of those moments in our cultural history, when so much turns on the hinge of change. And I wanted to observe that fracture happening, in this case, across one woman’s body.

3. Through Phyllis’ story, the novel maps dramatic transformations in society at the time, particularly for women. How far do you feel we’ve come since then and how much further do we have to go?
This is a complicated question, because individual lives aren’t just way stations in a forward march of progress. Sometimes we can seem to condescend to the past, from the heights of our moral positioning now. Women’s lives in the 50s and 60s were woven in all their complexity around the way things were in those days, their stories were just as full as our stories. Our experience flows into the forms of our particular moment in history and culture, we find our meanings and our fulfilment inside those forms. At the same time, paradoxically, progress is also real. The 1967 Abortion Law Reform Act, the 1969 Family Law Reform Act, the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act: these have made real differences, improvements in the texture of women’s lives. It’s a good thing, indubitably, when women’s lives don’t revolve any longer, or revolve less at least, around the power of men. The realist novel is good at teasing out this paradox, that lives can be so rich and full - and so suggestive for the imagination - under conditions which, viewed from a strictly analytical viewpoint, ought to be condemned. The novel’s aesthetic apprehension runs deeper and darker, at best, than its political analysis.

4. Which characters or themes still occupy your mind after finishing the book?
All of them, none of them. For a while after finishing a book, my mind dwells inside the scenes I’ve written and the stories I’ve set down, inside my characters. This is very different to the restless and questing and anxious way I think about those scenes while I’m still writing. The world of the book has come into being now, and I can move about inside it like a visitor, as if it were a building, no longer mine, with different rooms inside it. But by now, when I’ve finished all the rewrites, I’m not thinking of changing anything. I’m finished with those events and those people. Everything I know about them, everything I want the reader to know, ought to be there in the book. If the book’s done its work, there shouldn’t be anything more to say. I must admit however that, because Free Love is set in the past, I have once or twice played the game of wondering what became of my people in the decades afterwards. I do have some ideas, but I ought to keep those to myself.

5. How much of the book was written in lockdown and how did that effect the writing?
I planned to finish it in 2020, but in retrospect I wonder whether I could have, if it hadn’t been for lockdown. There was something about that enforced quiet, the lack of sociability, nowhere to go. And that discipline of returning day after day to my desk, that flow of work unbroken by travel or teaching – perhaps the novel flowed because of it. I was so glad that purely by chance I’d set it in the past, so I didn’t have to address the pandemic in any way. Too raw, too new, I wouldn’t have known how to write about it yet.

6. For readers who enjoy Free Love, what other books would you recommend?
I drew on certain wonderful English fictions of the 60s, in trying to capture the feel of those times: Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone, Nell Dunn’s Poor Cow and Up The Junction. Also Samuel Selvon’s novels of West Indian life in the 50s.

7. What was the first book you loved?
Tom’s Midnight Garden was a doorway out of children’s reading for me. Children’s reading was deep and wide, but the Midnight Garden awoke in me the adult preoccupations with time and change and the power of the present moment, the same ideas which preoccupy me now and which I try to write about.

8. What was the last book you read?
I thought this year’s Booker winner, Damon Galgut’s The Promise, was marvellous, funny, terrifying.

9. Who is your hero in fiction?
Sometimes it’s Elizabeth Bowen. Sometimes it’s Henry James. Sometimes it’s Colm Toibin or John McGahern. These are heroic writers. Oh, and Nadine Gordimer and J M Coetzee.

10. What are you working on now?
A new novel.

Free Love by Tessa Hadley is our Book of the Month for January 2022. Find out more and order your signed copy here.