SL Meets… Elizabeth Day

SL Meets… Elizabeth Day

Elizabeth Day is an award-winning author, journalist and broadcaster. A keen reader, she’s also a judge for this year’s Women’s Prize For Fiction and hosts Sky Arts Book Club and Radio 4’s Open Book. Perhaps best known for her chart-topping podcast, ‘How To Fail’ – which has featured everyone from Phoebe Waller-Bridge to Matt Haig – Elizabeth loves to celebrate the things that haven't gone quite according to plan. As she gets ready to publish her fourth novel ‘Magpie’, we sat down with her to chat career advice, her recent wedding and dream podcast guests.

My new novel Magpie is a story of obsession and what happens when you think you've got your dream life sorted, but it doesn't go according to plan. There are themes of jealousy, fertility, motherhood and belonging. I hope readers will be surprised by the twists, but the setup is essentially about Marissa, a woman in her late-20s who, after some disappointing online dating experiences, has met a man called Jake. Only, he seems too good to be true. They move in together quickly and start trying for a family. When Jake’s business starts struggling, they take in a lodger, Kate, who exhibits all sorts of slightly odd behaviour. 

To write it during lockdown, I had to create my own café. I normally write in coffee shops and obviously that wasn’t an option. It took me about six weeks to get back into a routine, but once I did, the writing really flowed. I would go into our spare room at the end of the working day and put my phone on airplane mode, make myself a cup of green tea and download ambient coffee shop noises on YouTube. It genuinely helped – even though we were in the middle of this collective global event, those were a couple of hours every day where I felt quite at peace with what I was doing.

Being in lockdown informed the book in two ways. Magpie mostly takes place within the confines of a house, so there's a deliberate feeling of claustrophobia and being locked in – and that was clearly something I had first-hand experience of. The second thing was very personal. At the very beginning of the pandemic, I found out I was pregnant. And then I had a miscarriage at eight weeks, which was really devastating and the worst miscarriage I've had – my third. It was really tough. But having had that experience, I found it easier to write about a lot of the things I explore the book. 

All my fiction is autobiographical. I always explore themes that are interesting to me or that I'm currently brushing up against in my own life. All my characters, even the ones who act in unlikeable ways, are facets of myself. Maybe I'm just hugely self-obsessed, but I don't think there's any such thing as a truly unlikable character if you’re doing your job as an author, because your job is to explain the motivation in a way that makes it relatable. There are autobiographical experiences in Magpie in terms of fertility treatments and journeys, and what happens when you go through that and yearn to be a mother – but it doesn't happen straightforwardly. Those are absolutely lifted from my own life. I haven't ever seen those things presented in fiction in quite the way I wanted to read them, so I wanted to use the lens of emotional truth you get in a novel to examine all those things.

It’s ironic that How To Fail has turned out to be the most successful thing I’ve ever done. That was completely unintentional. The idea came about because my 30s were a decade of intense transition: it was the first time I went through fertility treatment; it was the first time I got married – to the wrong person as I got divorced after three years – so that was a big failure in my mind. At the same time, I was failing to have children, so I failed to become a mother, which is something I always wanted. Yet professionally speaking, my career was going quite well – I was a star feature writer on a Sunday newspaper, but I didn't feel fulfilled and didn't feel like those two sides of my life were the same person. Then, after I got divorced, I got into a new relationship with a really different person and thought I'd make wise, different, judicious decisions. But that relationship came to an end three weeks before my 39th birthday. It was really devastating because it removed a lot of the emotional scaffolding I’d put around those experiences and really forced me to look at myself honestly. Looking closely at the things I’d thought I’d failed at, I acknowledged I’d survived each and every one of them – and that made me feel strong.

I was listening to lots of podcasts to get over my heartbreak. Listening to music was too upsetting. Esther Perel’s podcast Where Should We Begin was a major influence because I remember thinking it was incredible that you could have such intimate conversations using this form. So those two ideas came together: what if I opened up the conversations I was having with my friends about failure and what we learned from it to a wider audience, and what if we did an interview not about successes, but about those times in life when things went wrong? Now, I'm now very grateful I was dumped, because that's where it all came from.

Mo Gawdat is someone who's had a direct impact on how I live my life. He’s the former chief business officer of Google X who developed an algorithm on how to be happy, and has been on my podcast twice. He believes he can teach anyone how to be happy and his thinking incorporates a lot of Buddhist thought, as well as scientific insight. He’s still the guest I get messaged about the most. He lost his son Ali at the age of 21 and has spoken incredibly movingly about that and how to live with grief. 

Irish people are amazing interviewees. Maybe it's because of the cultural tradition of oral storytelling, but Jamie Dornan, Marian Keyes, Graham Norton, Andrew Scott, Adrian Dunbar have all been brilliant. More recently, I had the opportunity to interview two of my heroes: Gloria Steinem, the legendary feminist – who was an absolute dreamboat – then Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, who had been on my list of dream guests since I launched the podcast in July 2018. She was so vulnerable and honest about losing both her parents and it was a really beautiful experience for me as an interviewer.

All my fiction is autobiographical. I always explore themes that are interesting to me or that I'm currently brushing up against in my own life.

Gloria Steinem is famous for saying, “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” We were talking about fear and specifically why women feel fearful a lot of the time and she said another way of looking at fear is as excitement: maybe you're fearful of the unknown, but it could also be excitement, because where else can you grow other than into the unknown? Sometimes when you feel fear, it's a sign you’re being presented with the opportunity to grow. 

Alain de Botton is another of my most downloaded guests. He said a couple of things that really stuck with me. One was: “A relationship is not a failure just because it ends.” I thought that was a very simple, but profound concept. Just because I had been through a divorce and had that other relationship end, just because any friendship might end or because a parent might die, it doesn't mean you didn't have the wonderful stuff as well. It doesn't mean that it didn't teach you something you needed to know. 

I recently got married. My heart really goes out to the wedding industry, they’ve had such a tough time over the past year. It's a second marriage for both of us and I think that’s helped, because we didn't want a big wedding anyway. The most important thing for us was being together – and being civil partners – although we’re going to have a big party as soon as we possibly can. Like many couples we had to cancel and delay and postpone, but it ended up being perfect, as we managed to do the legal side of things in December and that turned out to be extremely special in a way neither of us had anticipated. Then we did one for our parents and Justin’s children at the end of April. It was wonderful because we got married at The Pig hotel in Devon and everyone there felt like family and made everything perfect for us. I wore a dress designed by Kate Halfpenny, who really took me under her wing – she knew better than I did what would suit me. My whole thing with How To Fail is that imperfections are what make life more perfect and that was absolutely the case with our wedding. Now, I can totally understand why people elope – it's just really romantic.

I love TV. I’ve just started The White Lotus but – I know I'm in the minority – I'm not loving it yet. I loved Mare of Easttown so much, and also just watched My Unorthodox Life on Netflix, which was entertaining. Some of my favourite TV shows during lockdown were Normal People (phenomenal), Industry (really enjoyed), The Undoing (brilliant until the last episode) and Line of Duty (ditto). I also really liked The Queen's Gambit.

I especially love reality TV, especially the Real Housewives franchises. There are loads of hilarious podcasts in America that analyse the show. One I'm listening to at the moment is called Watch What Crappens, where these two brilliant gay guys act out the programmes and they’re so funny. I can’t get enough of them. You Must Remember is another of my favourites – it's all about the forgotten or untold secret stories of Hollywood history. The host, Karina Longworth, does these brilliant mini-series – she did one on Joan Crawford which I loved, and she did one recently about a film producer called Polly Platt, who I’d never heard of, resurrecting her reputation. I also listen to Table Manners with Jessie and Lennie Ware, and very unfashionably, I listen to The Archers. I’ve been listening to it since I was four. It’s going through a particularly good patch at the moment.

I’ve also read some amazing books this year. Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It's so wonderful and an unbelievably funny but profound and poignant novel about two sisters, Martha and Ingrid. Martha lives for much of her life with undiagnosed mental health issues, but the point of the book is about what it is to be human and how we connect. Every single page made me snort with laughter or cry. I also really enjoyed Intimacies by Katie Kitamura, which is a completely different beast. It's a very minimalist novel but I found the themes super interesting. It's about a translator who works at The Hague criminal court and what gets lost in translation when you're trying to connect or communicate something. Then there’s Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny. She writes like a funny Anne Tyler.

The amount of people who come onto the podcast and say they failed at something during their 20s is huge. It’s a really difficult decade and for many of us it's full of transition.

The best piece of advice I’ve ever received came from Emma Reed Turrell, a psychotherapist – and my best friend – who wrote a brilliant book this year called Please Yourself, which is about how to stop people pleasing. She's given me so much incredible advice over the years, but she said this thing to me once about the importance of congruence in what you do, and being able to bring your whole self into every single situation – whether that be professional or personal. I think it’s good advice: you should do work that enables you to be your fullest self, and if you're doing work that doesn't allow that to happen or if you're working in a place where you feel you have to be limited or wear a mask or present yourself in a certain way, then it might not be the right place for you. It’s advice I now really live by – it's about trusting that you are enough.

The amount of people who come onto the podcast and say they failed at something during their 20s is huge. It’s a really difficult decade and for many of us it's full of transition. If you’re currently reading this and you feel lost and confused that you're not doing the right thing, I promise you're not alone. We – particularly as women – have been sold a myth about how our worth diminishes with age. That has been the opposite of my experience. I feel the most fulfilled version of myself now in my 40s. Life is not a race, and sometimes we're encouraged to think of it like that and were encouraged to be competitive and to pit ourselves against other women, but actually it isn't. Just because your 20s aren't your decade doesn't mean that your 30s won't be, or that your 40s won’t be even better. Slowing down a bit and allowing age to do its magic – that's such a radical act of acceptance and it's one of the most feminist things you can do, because you're tackling the pernicious myth that age is weakening, when actually it’s the evolution of wisdom and strength.

Elizabeth’s favourite…

City? I absolutely love LA. I haven't been able to get there because of the pandemic and the travel corridor hasn't opened up yet, but I love the lifestyle. I feel like the best version of myself there, plus the weather's great.

Restaurant? I love Brunswick House in Vauxhall and love the chef, Jackson Boxer. I went to his newer place, Orasay, the other night and that was delicious. 

Cocktail? At the moment, it’s a margarita. One of the few skills I developed during lockdown was making the perfect margarita – I've got the quantities just right and use Casamigos tequila –I've totally bought into their whole advertising campaign and the fact it’s owned by Randy Gerber and George Clooney.

Label? I love Rixo. Bella Freud is amazing, too – I love a good trouser suit and her tailoring is incredible. Ditto Paul Smith for trouser suits. I've recently been introduced to LF Markey and I love it so much – I love how it looks, it’s been designed with a real person in mind. I have just recently purchased what I think might be my perfect pair of jeans from Silver Lake. Trying to find jeans that fit me has been a lifelong thing, as I’m quite tall. Finally, Me&Em. I have one of the jumpsuits and some of the jeans, and really like them. 

Beauty product? The thing I use every single day is Liz Earle Cleanse & Polish face wash. It's honestly the best thing I've ever found, because it exfoliates and removes all of your make-up in one fell swoop. And I always use a moisturiser with SPF.

Magpie by Elizabeth Day is out now – and available to purchase here. Listen to How To Fail here, and follow Elizabeth at @ElizabethDay.

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