THERE IS SOMETHING pleasing about the title of Tessa Hadley’s brilliant new novel – an event that always sparks joy to borrow a phrase from the Japanese tidying-up expert who wants us to throw away most of our books. Late in the Day is Hadley’s seventh novel and I am thrilled to add it to the clutter of joyous books with which I share my home.

It’s an apposite title for this perceptive, elegantly written, ironically witty book, in which tragedy befalls a quartet of longtime friends with the shattering death of one of them, although it could also be a fitting title for the 62-year-old’s memoir, should she ever forsake fiction – which, Heaven forfend! In any case, Hadley claims her own story isn’t that interesting so she will not be writing about her “fairly quiet, ordinary life.”

Now regarded as “one of the greatest stylists alive” (Washington Post), Hadley did not publish her first novel – Accidents in the Home – until she was 46. Today, she’s professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University and her psychologically acute short stories appear regularly in the New Yorker.

“It took a long time to get that Late in the Day title, by the way,” she admits. “I was panicking, then that little phrase popped into my head and it was the right one.”

She may be a late starter but she believes that she is becoming more and more daring in her writing. More prolific? “Oh, dear perhaps I write too much?” Surely she is making up for lost time? “I suppose I am,” she acknowledges, speaking from her London home on the eve of a publicity tour of the United States, where adulation is already being heaped upon Late in the Day -- “a gorgeous, utterly absorbing novel” (Boston Globe) and “It’s to her credit that Hadley manages to be old-fashioned and modernist and brilliantly postmodern all at once” (New York Times).

Work has begun on her eighth novel – she’s also published three collections of short stories – but she confesses to feeling a tad frustrated that she will have to lay it aside for several weeks as she zigzags across America, from New York to San Francisco and points between. “An unfinished novel feels like a room shut inside me,” she has written. “Yes, I do spend a lot of time fingering the key to it in my pocket.”

Bristol-born-and-raised, Hadley read English at Cambridge University. She taught at a comprehensive and hated it so much, she cried on the way to the school every morning. Always though she was writing, but unable to sell any of her work while living in Cardiff and raising three sons and three stepsons with her husband, university lecturer and playwright Eric Hadley. They now have six grandchildren. In her late thirties, she gained an MA in creative writing at Bath Spa University before writing a PhD thesis on Henry James.

After Accidents in the Home was published in 2002, it was a while before she came into her own, but adds that she would not change having had 20 deeply depressing years of no one listening to her. It gave her time to observe and to listen – her skill with dialogue is remarkable. She battled on, starting novel after novel about, say, the miners’ strike or French political prisoners in the 1870s.

They have all long since been consigned to landfill, she confides. “I was very political back then. I was trying to write but I just couldn’t do it because I was absorbed in all the ordinary things that are the supreme mysteries: children, marriage, friends. I am profoundly interested in the family and in our relations to other people and, yes, how the past presses on the present and how the present transforms the past.”

In Late in the Day, the narrative shifts in the aftermath of the death between the present and the past, telling of two middle-class, fiftysomething married couples who have known each other since student days. Christine, an artist, is married to sardonic Alex, a Czech poet who has published only one collection and teaches happily at a primary school. Lusciously languid Lydia is married to wealthy gallery owner Zachary, “a striding cheerful giant with torrents of energy.” Each couple has a grown-up daughter living away from home. When Zachary drops dead of a heart attack, four become three, then three become two – and, gloriously, one.

“What came first was the configuration,” says Hadley. “I knew I wanted to do something about two long relationships. I have no idea where that came from; I just felt it. Then I immediately thought it would be such fun and a bit wicked to have A plus B, then C plus B, then A plus C. Just play that game! This was long, long before I started writing. But then I thought, ‘Somebody dies!’ It just seemed inevitable and powerful, and I couldn’t change it. I knew I had to begin with that.

“Originally I thought I would write chronologically, beginning with them young and configurations of their pairings, but it would be hard to write a novel where you give four characters equal space, then halfway through have one of them die. It’s very hard to manage that and not feel like a cheat or being mean to the reader. I just knew without even thinking about it that every time we read about Zachary in his twenties, his thirties, his forties, we know what is going to happen.”

If she had a worry about the novel at the outset, she would have loved to have done something straight and simple. “But it seems I never do that! I do jump backwards, doing that funny thing of keeping a story running across the top in the present day then dipping back on separate occasions. Perhaps it’s a little bit fuzzy at times but I felt as I was writing that people would follow me, be with me, despite the intricate structure.

“I hope that I live very much in the present in the good sense but the presence of the past in the present is just me. To me, the past seems to be layered in the present. I have always been that sort of person. Even as a bookish little girl I was aware that my grandparents had been young, that they had been children. I used to interrogate them, so I knew about their brothers and sisters and the ones who had died. I knew all about my parents’ past too.” (Her father was a teacher who played jazz; her mother a housewife who painted. Her paternal uncle is renowned playwright Peter Nichols, whose plays include A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and Passion Play.)

But then, she continues, she has always had a sense of the future and what it must hold. “It’s just me – I don’t ever see the present as a single overwhelming landscape without looking through to what produced this present, what accidents and choices produced it.”

Certainly, Hadley is a past mistress of the “domestic” novel, a domestic goddess of literary fiction, if you like. When she is in the thick of writing, she becomes totally absorbed, forever thinking about it. Some of her best ideas come in the bath, or in bed just after she has put out the light, she has written. “Yes, I do have to put the light on again, apologising, and get out of bed to fetch my notebook. It’s that dreamy moment just before sleep carries me away, when imagination is especially good at foreseeing, feeling its way to the true next thing.”

She is constantly being favourably compared to Virginia Woolf – as well as Jane Austen and Henry James – so does she have a room of her own?

“No, I don’t. I write at a little Pembroke table in our bedroom. I have always feared that a dedicated study could overwhelm the spark which seems to depend on what I’ve described as an accident, a sideways approach, a kind of calculated carelessness. I have no problem reading fiction while writing; I have no fear of that. When I sit down to write, I often read a few sentences of something brilliantly good by, say, Alice Munro, then work begins.

“Writing is hard work, but such joyous freedom to bring something new into being. It’s a magical time when you are waiting for your characters to come to you out of the fog after dimly perceiving them for a long time, then finding you really like their voices.

“It’s such fun being so many people!”

Late in the Day, by Tessa Hadley (Jonathan Cape, £16.99).