'I was so much more sorted as a child...'
When journalist Elizabeth Day's marriage imploded, writing her gripping new book 'The Party' provided an outlet for her anger - and a welcome haven
Elizabeth Day's new book, The Party, her fourth, is the story of Martin Gilmour, a rather nondescript creature who in boarding school forms an obsessive attachment to the glamorous upper-class Ben Fitzmaurice, gaining himself the rather demeaning nickname Little Shadow in the process.
His emotional devotion, the true nature of which he refuses to acknowledge, continues throughout college and on into their working lives in London, where Martin becomes an art critic and Ben a successful hedge fund manager. Already garnering comparisons to The Talented Mr Ripley, The Great Gatsby and Brideshead Revisited, the book pillories the callow shallowness of the very wealthy and their ability to retreat into their great fortune.
Martin, the main voice of the narrative, is not particularly sympathetically rendered. The true hero of the book, a thriller which enfolds with page-gripping, read-in-one-sitting intensity, is Lucy, Martin's wife. At first sight a rather downtrodden creature who adores Martin despite his at times ill-concealed distaste for her, she undergoes a personal awakening and emerges as the narrative's only admirable protagonist.
As it happens, Day had originally not intended Lucy to have a voice. It was to be all Martin's point of view. It was her editor who, after reading the first chapters, suggested that a sympathetic female voice was needed.
"At which point I groaned, because I was like 'I don't want to write a sympathetic female voice, that's so sexist and reductive'," Elizabeth says with a laugh, contorting her face in a moue. "So because I was a bit miffed, I started writing Lucy, but deliberately not writing her - if that makes sense?
"I wasn't over-thinking it, and her voice came to me quite quickly. And I think that's because some of her experiences are my own, and I was writing from what my own perspective would be, should I find myself in that situation."
Like Lucy, Day's own personal life imploded in the last few years, her plan of marriage and children falling apart.
"On an emotional level, writing this book saw me through two of the hardest years of my life," she says. "I had fertility issues, and my marriage ended in divorce. I moved out of the marital home, and I went to live in LA for a bit. So it was a time of enormous change and confusion.
"It was hard, at points, and writing The Party really got me through that. The great thing about writing novels is that you will never feel fully alone. Because any time you start to feel lonely, you can go to a cafe and open up your laptop and carry on writing, and be around the characters you've created. That's partly why I wanted to write a party, because it's enormous fun to describe a really glamorous, wealthy setting, with all these fabulous people. It was nice to have that level of escapism, because of everything else that was going on."
Day has described in first person articles a lifetime of anger building up inside, repressed as she fell back on people-pleasing habits, then finally flooding out. She was at her angriest when writing this book, she has said, but it is the one she's most proud of because "it came from a place of untrammelled honesty. It came from a place of me.
"What I was referring to was that those two years were about me being really honest with myself about who I really was and how I felt," she explains now. "And that I was enough just being me. I think most of my life I'd put on a bit of a performance. And I hadn't even realised I was doing it, it came so naturally. And when you go through a kind of life crisis, or a life change, you're really confronted with that image of yourself. And so I feel like I became a lot more honest, and a lot happier with myself as a result. And therefore my writing came from a place of me whereas before, definitely with my first novel, I was trying really hard. I mean you always try really hard with something that's the first attempt, and I was trying really hard to write really well. And I think I've learnt as I've gone on that obviously, you seek to write well, but it shouldn't all be about effort. It should also be about ease."
Lucy, The Party's main female character, suffers a miscarriage, as did Elizabeth herself. "I loved writing Lucy, because it was a cathartic experience in many respects."
During the course of the novel Lucy is forced to acknowledge and confront her anger, something Day says women in general, and she herself, struggle with.
"If you're lucky, like I was, and you had a very privileged upbringing, that was kind of middle class, and if you're a straight woman, then you're raised to believe that you'll get married, and have kids, and it will come quite easily," she reflects. "When that didn't happen, and I had to have IVF, and that was unsuccessful, and then I got pregnant with a miscarriage at three months, I felt as if there had been a lie perpetuated, and no one really talks about that stuff."
She disguised her anger from herself so successfully, she reflects now, that for a long time she thought it was sadness.
"I didn't really know what to expect when I started out the IVF treatment, and I was angry about that," explains Day, who in person is delightful company - articulate, intelligent, funny. "I thought I was really sad about it, and then after a while you realise that you're using sadness as a masking emotion, and you're kind of angry." She dealt with that anger by writing, therapy, and high intensity physical exercise.
"I think women who are angry are dismissed as shrill, or overly aggressive, or rampant feminists in a negative way," says the 38-year-old. "Men who are angry are seen as bold and assertive and manly. I grew up in the 1980s where you had films like Die Hard, and at the core is an angry man. But their anger is seen as somehow empowering and macho. And there weren't that many "angry women" on screen - other than Glenn Close, who's a bunny boiler because she was spurned by a man.
"And what I wanted to do with The Party is show that a woman can be as empowered by her anger as a man. I think we'd live in a much healthier society if women just faced their anger, realised it was part of them and that it can be a really creative stimulus, in the same way happiness can be or love can be.
"I think things are changing a lot now, but if you grew up in the 1980s as a girl, chances are you were taught to be pliant, and pleasant, and kind and nice. And I think sometimes, this was certainly my experience, if you want to please people, because you want people to like you, because deep down you've got an unsure sense of self, you rely on other people's reactions.
"And I think that's what Lucy does as well. That's why she ends up married to Martin, because she wants him to like her, but he's always withholding the full extent of the affection that she needs.
"And there's something fatally compelling about that for certain women, and I would include myself, in my 20s, as one of those women."
Day is one of those writers who wears her talent lightly. The book's descriptive passages are beautifully rendered, perfectly capturing scenes and characters without ever falling into dull linguistic showboating.
As well as her novels, Day is one of Britain's leading features journalists, a career that she laughingly explains was in the planning stages from the age of four.
"I was so much more sorted as a child," she smiles now at her childhood decision to be a writer. "It was really weird, because there weren't any writers in my family, but I'd grown up in a house surrounded by books. My dad used to read to me at night. I think that I just loved books. So at four I was like 'I like books, I want to write them'."
To back up the income from the books she figured she would work as a journalist. "I remember thinking I should be a journalist first, because that way I'll earn some money. Joke's on me," she says bursting into laughter. Aged 12 she met a "real live journalist" staying near her family home, whose advice was if you want to write, start now. Inspired, she wrote to the editor of every local newspaper. The editor of The Derry Journal replied. Her mother took her to meet him and he commissioned a fortnightly column. "I've never had a column since," she smiles.
Around the time that her personal life came crashing down, she decided to leave her staff job on The Observer, where she had worked for almost a decade.
"Yes, I changed everything," she reflects with a laugh. "Apart from my friends and my family. It was really daunting. I've been freelance for a year now. I absolutely love it. I wanted to spend more time writing novels, that was the prime motivation, because that is my true love."
Now, her writing is in such demand that she is commissioned by most of Britain's leading broadsheets and several glossy magazines, as well as some of America's most popular websites. Of late, actress Kristen Stewart has "rocketed up" to her top five interviewees of all time. Overall favourite was Clint Eastwood (before he became a Trump supporter, she is quick to point out). "He was so charismatic." The worst was Rob Lowe, whose PR apparently shut down the interview midway, after Day had flown to Toronto.
Like Martin in The Party, an interloper who never really fits in whatever the milieu in which he finds himself, Day's upbringing left her feeling something of an outsider. Her family moved to the North of Ireland when she was four, and she has also spent time living in Paris and Russia, as well as attending boarding school.
"A lot of my life was spent moving around, and not feeling like I belonged," she explains. "I had an amazing experience growing up in Northern Ireland, and I'm so grateful for it. But I've always spoken with this accent," she says referring to an accent that could be described as received pronunciation. "So it was quite obvious that I was an outsider, even though that was my home. I had to become accustomed to fitting in, and finding a way to fit in."
The dissolution of her marriage and her adult home led to a temporarily peripatetic existence.
"When my marriage broke down, I moved out of our shared home, and there was a period of a year where I was living firstly with my mother, secondly with an amazingly generous friend, thirdly in an Airbnb in LA, and then thanks to the incredibly generous parents of another friend, in a house in Cambridge. So for a year, I was living in other people's houses. Which was exactly what I needed to do at the time, because it was about finding myself again.
"And actually I really enjoyed that period of transience, because I had chosen it. And at the end of that year, being able to move into a rented flat in North London, which is where I live now, was such a gift. It just felt so unbelievably special and emotional when I walked in. Being able to hang my paintings where I wanted to, and put my desk in pride of place in the bay window. I just felt a sense of calm that I hadn't felt for a very long time."
The book is dedicated to her boyfriend, the brother of a good friend. "I have an amazing boyfriend called Jasper and The Party is dedicated to him. He's wonderful, he works in music. I feel very, very lucky actually."
The Party by Elizabeth Day is out now, published by 4th Estate, €18
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