I caught up with Elizabeth Day about many things. It’s not often a super star journalist, award winning author and writer about key issues gives you her time. Given that her work and thoughts have been in such iconic places as The Observer, Grazia, Vogue (all hail the bible), Elle and Marie Claire I thought I’d have to write some really clever questions, then I thought no, lets just do the usual thing and see if I can bring some of the things I love about one of my fave twitterati to you. Thank you Elizabeth for taking the time to be a guest on my little corner of the web. So on with the interview.
(I also recently reviewed her novel Home Fires and you can read that here.)
If you could be remembered as only one of the following three would it be a) Author, b) Journalist, c) Famous Raconteur?
Author. And journalist, if they can fit both on the gravestone.
I recently read Home Fires, a truly excellent book, however while reading it I was struck by the idea that no matter what your story is, whether a vignette of a family struggling to come to terms with the decline of two main characters or a space fighter fantasy involving aliens and smuggling what essentially matters is that the reader finds connection to the characters, and has emotional reactions to them?
I totally agree. For me, all great stories start with a human relationship – a family, a friendship, even a die-hard enmity. The reason I write about people, essentially, is two-fold. One, I think readers can, as you say, establish a more immediate connection with a character going through an emotional journey they might be able to relate to (that’s the theory, anyway). And two, because that’s what draws me in as a writer. Understanding each other is the stuff that makes us human. That’s what drives me as both an author and a journalist. And, in fact, one of my bugbears is that critics and prize committees can be very sniffy when women write about families – there’s a tendency to dismiss it as a ‘domestic drama’, whereas when Jonathan Franzen does it, it’s a state-of-the-nation novel.
As a journalist and novelist are there times when you see a news item and think if I put this in a novel people would say it’s too far-fetched?
Truthfully, no. Because weird, challenging, amazing stuff happens all the time – sometimes in the most mundane settings – and I think human beings have an endless capacity for credulousness, which can be good or bad.
You often write about topics relating to rights, what do you think is the biggest issue we face, and also the most solvable, though these are never going to be the same?
Oh wow. I don’t think I can pick just one, sorry. Here’s three:
Racism. The stuff that’s going on at the moment in America, where unarmed black men are being shot on the street by police officers, where a black woman can’t drive her own car without being pulled over and ending up dead in police custody three days later, where a white supremacist teenager kills nine worshippers in church because he’d been raised in a culture of hate – all of that I find immensely disturbing. And there is a flavour of it in Britain too, with stop and search. If I had to grow up in an environment where I was mistrusted and abused on a near-daily basis by the state, I would feel really fucking angry too.
Sexism. The older I get, the more I think women are absolutely great. And it’s just appalling to me that we’re in 2015 and 1 in 5 women aged 16 – 59 has experienced some form of sexual violence and that only around 15% of those choose to report to the police. It’s shocking that women working full-time still earn £5,200 (15.7%) less per year on average than their male colleagues. It pisses me off that there’s a socio-cultural expectation that we should be people-pleasers, ignoring our own wants and needs to make life easier for other (mostly male) people at home and in the office. And it’s extremely annoying when other people (again, mostly men) believe they have the right to tell us what to do with our bodies or define us according to our ability – or not – to have babies. I suppose this one is the most solvable, especially with the founding of the Women’s Equality Party of which I am very proud to be a member.
Refugees: Basically, people fleeing the most appalling hardship and brutality, deserve our kindness not our scorn. We have a moral imperative to help. I would urge everyone to watch this short film, which puts it better than I ever could: http://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2015/sep/10/we-walk-together-a-syrian-familys-journey-to-the-heart-of-europe-video?CMP=share_btn_tw
Polly Vernon seems pretty awesome, is she?
If you cut her, she would bleed awesome. I count myself lucky to be her friend.
You recently wrote a brilliant piece on how walking in London has become a real nightmare. How would you solve this, and remember tasers are available under the budget when I get elected mayor?
Thank you! I think maybe a walking awareness course, similar to the driving theory test? Either that or I should just chillax.
Do you have a specific space to write like a study or office, or do you just take the notepad/laptop and type where you get the urge?
I have a desk, although at the moment I’m living in LA for three months so I don’t have a permanent home in which to place it. So the desk is in storage. I tend to write my journalism sitting at a desk (preferably not in Croydon’s Shurgard HQ) and then go to cafes to write my fiction. I like the hubbub of other people in the background and I like being able to differentiate between the two forms.
What’s the most “Guardian” thing you’ve done, wincing at quinoa being mis-pronounced is not allowed?
Well, a lovely colleague of mine recently brought in some home-grown lemon verbena and made us all a fresh herbal tea using it. I drank it and enjoyed it a lot. I think that’s pretty Guardian, isn’t it?
Home Fires feels a lot like you have swapped Iraq for Sudan for part of the story, what made you choose the location?
I invented a modern-day conflict in Sudan because I’ve never been to either Iraq or Afghanistan and didn’t want to presume I knew enough about either conflict or to offend anyone who had served there. I also wanted to make the point that military conflagrations are increasingly part of our reality and can happen almost anywhere, in places you might not have been paying attention to and Sudan has been the site of some horrifying tribal conflict over the last few years.
On Twitter the other day you were talking about the playlist you had made, what is dickens is on it to make it “so hot it’s created it’s own microclimate”?
Ha! I’m a massive 1990s hip-hop fan, which is incongruous, I realise. So there was a bit of Dr Dre on there, a bit of Notorious B.I.G and a dash of Xzibit, Missy Elliott and Jay-Z. I mean, even as I’m writing that down I want to listen to it. Oh, and one of my absolute favourite songs of the moment – Alessia Cara’s Here. It’s an anthem for all those anti-social people who go to parties pretending to be sociable. Like me, basically.
Would the world be better if IDS rapped “you can do it, if you put your back in to it” rather than used made up tales to promote returning to employment?
Yes. I would pay the £220bn benefits bill just to see that. (I wouldn’t. But I’d throw in a fiver if we could get some kind of Kickstarter thing set up.)
As a writer since you were 12, (see I did my research) what is the biggest tip or piece of advice you could give me?
Well, doing your research would definitely be part of it, so you’re already ahead. For journalism, my biggest piece of advice would be to listen first, then write. Other people’s stories are precious, beautiful things. If someone is going to entrust you with theirs, you need to treat it with respect. And often, if you listen properly, what you thought was going to be the story turns out to be something else entirely different and more meaningful.
For fiction, my biggest piece of advice is not to be discouraged by the realisation that you’re never going to write like your heroes and the chances are you’ll never write anything wholly, completely original either. What *is* original and unique is you – no-one else on this planet has lived your experiences or been privy to your innermost thoughts. That is what makes you special and what will make your writing different from anyone else’s.
Also: do a lot of it. Writing is a craft as much as an art and it helps if you practice.
Will you send me US fashion magazines for the next three months?
I mean, I could say yes here but if I actually think about what that would entail – buying the magazine, paying the postage, making a trip to the post office – I think I’d have to admit to myself I just can’t be arsed. Sorry.
We must have a fashion question, describe the Elizabeth Day go to look?
Argh. I don’t have one! What I *aspire* to is a kind of nonchalant aesthetic that is half-Swedish, half-French and incorporates a lot of excellently cut jeans.
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Photo (c) Jenny Smith Photography