The dark side of Day

Scissors, Paper, Stone
Elizabeth Day
Bloomsbury; €15.99

ELIZABETH DAY has led a charmed existence. A doctor’s daughter from Northern Ireland, who has beauty and brains to burn, she attained a double first at Cambridge.

She planned to do a masters in journalism, but was scooped up by Max Hastings, and trained by the Evening Standard. She won a prestigious award, and went on to work for the Sunday Telegraph, the Mail on Sunday and Elle, before taking her current job writing features for the Observer.

Elizabeth though, wanted more.

“I’ve always wanted to be the author of a novel,” says the 32-year-old, when we meet in Dublin. “My heart is in fiction. I realised that at a young age, but I thought I couldn’t go into novel writing straight away.

“I knew I’d had to have some training, so I became a journalist. And I’m glad I did. One of the primary mistakes people make when they start creative writing is to put in too many adjectives and adverbs. Journalism teaches you to pare down; you learn that you don’t need that extra.”

To distinguish from the day job, Elizabeth started writing fiction in London cafés; and after a few false starts she began to write in the voice of a woman who was married to a man she loved, but who was unkind to her.

“This time it felt different,” she says. “It felt like a release. It was, almost, a relaxing thing to do. I wasn’t trying to be clever. I wasn’t planning. I was just writing in this woman’s voice, and it felt much better than my other attempts.

“I’d been working at the Observer for a year, when this woman, Jessica Woollard, phoned me out of the blue. She asked me if I was interested in doing a non-fiction book. I said I didn’t want to, but was trying to write fiction. She read the first 5,000 words and said the novel was definitely worth pursuing. I sent her the novel in batches, but didn’t tell anyone else I was writing it. Jessica sold the book to Bloomsbury.”

This chain of smooth success could easily have gone to Elizabeth’s head, but she’s modest, shrugging off her achievements. She’s brilliant company, both interested and interesting. And she’s adored her trip to Dublin, saying it’s been the high of the whole publishing process.

Scissors, Paper, Stone opens in the aftermath of an accident. Charles wakes on the pavement, and gradually realises he is near death. A car flipped him off his bicycle. When the police tell his wife, Anne, she reacts strangely. Shutting the door on the police, showing no emotion, she continues to make a beef casserole.

“She has this delayed way of dealing with things. That comes of the way she has led her life. She would want that space to work out her emotions, and then she will go and deal with the reality.” For the remainder of the novel, while Charles lies in a coma, Anne, and his daughter, Charlotte, visit constantly, as they think back over their lives with him.

Both mother and daughter love Charles, and yearn for his approval, but, an autocrat, he’s difficult in the extreme. To me, this wonderful exploration of an unhappy marriage seems to be all about control. But Elizabeth says its more about trust, or a lack of it.

“But it’s interesting you should say that,” she says. “Because I hate the thought of being out of control. Ceding control to someone else scares me more than anything else.”

The book isn’t autobiographical.

“But I was exploring elements of my own feelings, and when I began to write Charlotte, her voice came very naturally. If something happened to me, or was bothering me, I would put that feeling in the book. It was great therapy.

“Anne isn’t based specifically on anyone,” says Elizabeth. “There’s a bit of me in her, and in all the female characters. And Charlotte’s boyfriend Gabriel has elements of Kamal [Elizabeth’s boyfriend], who the book is dedicated to. Kamal is wonderful at drawing me out and challenging me.”

The one scene of the book that was taken straight from Elizabeth’s life, was, ironically the only section that her editor, Helen Garnons-Williams, found unconvincing.

“I went to see a counsellor at one time, and she was great. She really helped me. I wrote the scene where Charlotte sees a counsellor directly from that experience. But my wonderful editor said the counsellor wouldn’t have got to the bottom of things so easily.”

Having achieved this lifelong ambition, is Elizabeth planning to ditch the day job anytime soon?

“I hope I’ll go on writing books, and maybe have the balance more on the books than the journalism. But I think it’s good to keep your hand in at journalism. Then you don’t start to think of writing as an art form.

“It’s important, I think, not to get weighed down in a novel. You have to realise the importance of getting the words down on the page to communicate something. The most important thing is to be truthful. You don’t have to be startlingly original.

“For me, literature should be either inventing a new world, a new way of looking at things, or inventing a new style, like James Joyce. Or it should be looking at something familiar with fresh eyes, so that the reader looks at it in a different way.”

When Elizabeth’s parents first read Scissors, Paper, Stone, they were surprised by the darkness of the book.

“They were both incredibly supportive. It helped that the book was so obviously not about them. But my mother did say, ‘I didn’t realise you were so dark.’ She was worried that I had these dark thoughts. I do have a sense of humour, but I can’t write it. Much as I would love to write in the style of Evelyn Waugh, that is not going to happen.”

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