Three years ago, Elizabeth Day was writing a novel based on her experience of growing up, as an English girl, in 1990’s Northern Ireland. She’d got 40,000 words in, but it wasn’t working out.
“It was so depressing,” she says. “The task felt herculean. Every sentence had to be winched up from a great depth. I was in Pret A Manger in the King’s Road when I decided to ditch it and write something fun. It felt really liberating.”
She was coming out of a difficult time in her life. Her marriage to Kamal Ahmed had ended; she’d battled with fertility issues, and she’d started to re-evaluate her life.
“I acknowledged my dark side. I was always worried that I would disappoint people. If I admitted that my marriage wasn’t working I would be a terrible failure. I thought if I wasn’t always cheerful and pleasant people’s perceptions of me would change, and that ultimately, I wasn’t a very nice person. Letting go of all that was such a relief.”
This admission comes as a surprise. Tall, vivacious, and sparklingly alive, Elizabeth has had a glittering career since being head-hunted by Max Hastings, fresh from her double first at Oxford University. This is the third time we’ve met, and she greets me warmly, remembering details of our previous interviews.
Having abandoned the Northern Irish novel, Elizabeth started writing about a party – and the glitz and glamour surrounding all that.
“I decided to write it from the outside perspective, so someone arrives at that party feeling that they don’t fit in. As soon as I started it, I found the voice.”
The resulting novel, The Party, is a fabulous psychological page-turner with an unreliable narrator at its heart. Martin Gilmour, son of an embittered single mother, wins a scholarship to an exclusive boarding school, but feels totally alien. When the aristocratic Ben Fitzmaurice befriends him, he’s immediately dazzled, and it gains him entry into a new world.
If Ben and Martin’s marriages somewhat impede their friendship, Martin still considers Ben his closest friend – and almost a surrogate brother, but the events at Ben’s glamorous fortieth party spell disquiet. Martin and Lucy feel uncomfortable, but surely nothing can damage the friendship? Not when Martin holds a dangerous secret.
I adored the novel for its authenticity; for the way it encapsulates class and entitlement in modern day England. And although Martin is misguided, and is not, traditionally, likeable, I rooted for him throughout. The Party reminded me of Engleby, Sebastian Faulk’s novel about a psychopath.
“You’re the first person to have said that,” says Elizabeth, nodding in agreement. “Engleby was a major influence. So were The Talented Mr Ripley and The Go Between. There’s something really appealing to me of an unreliable narrator. You get to piece together the gaps, and sometimes what is not said is as important as what is said. It becomes like a detective story for the reader, piecing together this puzzle and gradually it illuminates in your head. There’s something enormously satisfying about that.”
Did she find the mood in England seeping in?
“Yes, it absolutely did. The book is very influenced by the government of David Cameron. There is a danger, if you have, for instance, been to Eton, sailed through Oxford and become a career politician, you think the world is yours for the taking therefore you can be callous with people and things and policies.
“I always remember meeting one of Cameron’s special advisors on education. It was the time when they were debating whether to ditch the educational allowance which allowed people from more disadvantaged backgrounds to get grants for university. The guy said, ‘well obviously we ditched it, because I don’t know anyone who used it, do you?’ I said, ‘well I do, but isn’t it interesting that you don’t.’”
Elizabeth’s first two novels were relatively dark. Interviewing her, for the first, she told me she’d accepted that she could never write humour. But there’s plenty in The Party. And that element, she says, was partly the influence of Anne Enright.
“I was interviewing her, on the phone, for The Forgotten Waltz, and I asked her how she managed to be so brilliant at writing serious and funny at the same time. She said, ‘That’s life. People I know are serious and funny,’ and I realised it is possible. Since then I have tried to be more like her.
“I think female authors feel they have to write big serious issues so as not to be pigeonholed as a domestic novelist, but actually every story starts with a family. Anna Karenina does; so does the Corrections.”
The author has great sympathy for Martin.
“He’s had this weird upbringing, so he latches on to someone who seems to know all the rules; that’s his way in. He puts Ben on a pedestal, and loves his so much, and all his social circle, and that obscures what actually is happening. As soon as he sees Ben is not who he thought he was, his whole world collapses. There is something so tragic in that.”
Martin marries Lucy because she adores him, and he tolerates her, but feels she’s predictable, and a bit of a mouse. Yet she understands the ramifications of class and cliques much better than he does, and, ultimately, is defined by her strength.
“She is a complicated sometimes contradictory woman. I wanted the reader to understand, through her eyes, what made Martin appealing. Otherwise he is just a sociopath for whom we don’t have pity.”
Elizabeth has wanted to be a novelist since she was four years old. And although she adores journalism, it’s her books that she’s most proud of. And since we last met, she’s left the Guardian in favour of freelance work, and, is now a columnist with The Daily Telegraph, though writing for a variety of publications, and continuing to contribute to Sky News and BBC Radio 4. Has she now got the balance right?
“I love not having to go to an office and having the freedom to choose what I want to do, but I’m less good at saying ‘no’ to things. My challenge to myself, this year, is to rebalance my equilibrium, and have more time for novels. I’d like to be a novelist who does occasional bit of journalism. But I do feel the journalism feeds into fiction. Being able to ask people questions is such a brilliant resource for a writer, and it’s given me access to glitzy parties. Also, it reminds me that writing is a craft as well as an art.”
Finding it increasingly useful to go away for stretches of time, Elizabeth adores writing in Los Angeles.
“My absolutely favourite place is The Coffee Bean. It has a lovely patio with sockets, and you sit there and get a tan while you type, surrounded by wannabe screen writers, and people from the local AA meeting.”
Life is good. In a new relationship with Jasper – to whom the book is dedicated, Elizabeth feels happier in her skin than she ever has. Is she ambitious?
“I’m on an unceasing quest to get somewhere, and I’m not even sure where it is. Obviously, like everyone, I have dreams of winning the Man Booker Prize. But I want to keep on writing and keep on getting better.
“I love coming to Dublin because people have welcomed me, and have taken me seriously as an author and I can’t tell you how much that means to me. In England that is sometimes difficult for people, because they know so much of my journalism. It’s confusing to them.
“Writing fiction gives me more pleasure than anything else in my life, other than relationships. I can’t imagine not doing it. As a novelist, I think you need that.”
The Party by Elizabeth Day. 4th Estate €14.68 Kindle: €9.25.
Published in The Irish Examiner, 26th August.
© Sue Leonard. 2017