Elizabeth Day: I hadn't ever seen my experience of fertility reflected in fiction

As her latest novel Magpie is published, Elizabeth Day speaks to Jennifer Stevens about writing through a pandemic, infertility and her Derry Girls childhood
Elizabeth Day: I hadn't ever seen my experience of fertility reflected in fiction

Elizabeth Day

Interviewing a professional interviewer is never easy. As well as being a best-selling author, Elizabeth Day is the host of the phenomenally successful How to Fail podcast and week in, week out, asks some of the most well-known authors, actors, presenters and personalities in the world to discuss the failures that made them who they are.

I’m a fan, both of her podcast and her books — there have been two works of non-fiction and this week Magpie, her fifth novel was released — but instead of discussing her new launch we’re deep into a conversation about our shared fertility experiences.

“I’m sorry. That’s my fault. Occupational hazard,” she laughs when I tell her to stop asking me questions.

Magpie is a psychological thriller about motherhood and it comes with a twist. A big one. That I didn’t spot.

“I love hearing that because that’s the thing when you’re writing something with a twist. I didn’t want to show it to my editor or my agent until I’d got to the twist. I basically wrote the whole thing before I could show it to them because I genuinely wanted to get their sincere reaction. I’m like you.

“I pride myself on being able to spot a twist a mile off and normally I can do it. I couldn’t do it with Gone Girl and I couldn’t do it with The Sixth Sense but that’s it. So I’m extremely happy to hear that you couldn’t see it coming.”

Day wrote much of this novel during the successive lockdowns of the last year. It was hard but kept her going through a difficult time and she found unusual ways to cope with missing her usual writing locations.

Elizabeth Day
Elizabeth Day

“Yes, it was weird and it also kept me sane. I think there are a lot of things during lockdown that people found that got them through and I should start off by saying I didn’t bake a single loaf of banana bread. I didn’t learn a new language. I didn’t do any life drawing. I don’t have children, so I didn’t have to home school, so this was my thing.

“I had started writing it before everything but then I did that classic thing when you’re writing a book of re-reading it all and going, ‘This is just rubbish. This is just absolute rubbish’.

“Then about two months into lockdown I returned to it. I normally write in cafes and I really, really missed being able to write around the murmur of other people.

“But I realised that I could recreate a cafe at home by listening to ambient coffee shop noise on YouTube. It really, really helped so I would do that every day. Every evening from about five to seven I would put my phone on airplane mode, and I would listen to those coffee shop sounds. It would make me feel I was connected, and I grew to really love that golden hour of writing.

“I loved it to the extent that - this will make you laugh - when there was a brief lockdown respite last summer and I was like, ‘Oh and I can go to a cafe again’; I went to one and I was sitting outside and it was so noisy that I had to put my airpods in and listen to the same YouTube coffee shop sound just to get myself back in the zone.”

What makes Magpie particularly successful are the small details about infertility and the desperation to have a child that Day gets so right. It’s not something you see on the page very often and there were moments that took my breath away with their tiny, nuanced realism. Day has spoken openly about her struggle to have a baby and experienced a miscarriage early in the pandemic. It was her third.

“I particularly appreciate hearing from people who’ve been through struggling to have a child and read Magpie because I really did write it for women like us. I hadn’t ever seen my experience of fertility reflected in fiction the way that I would’ve liked to read it. Which is truthful, really, and I don’t think it would have been the same book had I not been through what I’ve been through.

“I don’t think I could have written this, in the same way, had I not experienced it myself. I could have done all of the research and everything and I could have got all my facts right, but the emotional labour of going through something like that is an experience that is difficult to convey unless you have actually been through it.

“It’s one of those things that’s so difficult because I don’t like those feelings. I don’t like feeling jealous. I don’t like feeling rage. I don’t like feeling that life is unfair when I see a mother and toddler walk down the street, and yet when you are at your lowest points, when you are going through some of this treatment or when you’re dealing with grief that comes about a result of it not being successful, those are things that you feel and it’s so human to feel them.

“As ever with fiction, it starts off at the kernel of my experience but then I twist it through degrees and it was really helpful for me to have two main female characters, three, I guess, with Annabelle, through which I could explore what motherhood meant in its different ways.”

In a newspaper interview in 2019 for her book How to Fail, Day actually said that she didn’t think that her struggle with fertility would become a book of its own, something, evidently, that changed in the last two years.

“I remember saying that, and actually when How to Fail the book came out, I was in a much happier place in my life than I had been, but it was still like there were still moving parts to it and it was a bit unsettled, although I was with the man that I am now married to and he is wonderful, at that stage, I still wasn’t entirely certain of where it would end up.

“I haven’t talked publicly a lot of it even though I have talked publicly about much of it, but I still don’t feel ready to do that, so I think that fiction enabled me to release a bit of pressure from myself. It’s such a shit show, that’s the technical term, and I can probably only write it when I’m through it, whatever through it will mean for me.” When all our lives became incredibly small in March 2020 Elizabeth took the time to reevaluate everything she was doing and the busyness of her life pre-Covid.

“The great unanticipated benefit of it was that my diary just emptied overnight. Far from that being unmooring or terrifying, I actually relished it. There was a part of me that really needed that space just to reassess the whole pile of stuff in my life, like what I wanted to do. I think it makes you really reevaluate certain friendships and it makes you really understand what’s important. Within the collective trauma that we experienced, I was very lucky. There were positives to be had. One of them was I got on so well with my partner that we ended up getting engaged during that time and married. I feel like that’s a really wonderful thing to come out of it.

Elizabeth Day
Elizabeth Day

“Also, I did know people who had Covid. My mother had Covid very early on which was really scary, but she has survived it and is stronger than ever. Really, all of my concern is with people who have lost loved ones because that must be such a difficult thing to come to terms with grief when it seems like so many people have had similar experiences. The death of your unique loved one is lumped in with loads of other deaths and becomes a statistic. I think that must be so hard.

“Because I wasn’t busy in the normal way of things I wasn’t going out in the evenings and catching up with my friends, so it was basically just work, sleep, and reality television, that was it. Everything was on the screen and getting away from that as I have done recently has been really healthy and nourishing. I think I just need to rebalance everything a bit, now.” Obviously I can’t let that reality TV comment pass by without finding out what she watches.

“I love all forms of reality TV but my particular favourite is the Real Housewives franchises. I love them and I subscribe to this service that enables me to get all the American franchises the day after they air. So that’s mostly what I was watching. My favourite used to be New York, but New York had had a terrible season. At the moment, Potomac is amazing. It’s a new one. It’s a new kid on the block. It’s very good.” 

Another TV show that she adores is Derry Girls but it’s become a shorthand for her when she needs to explain her childhood to people.

“We moved over to Northern Ireland when I was four and then my parents lived there for the next 22 years. I went to primary school in Derry. Then I went to secondary school in Belfast. I then got a scholarship to boarding school in England so I went there when I was 13. I was still coming back to Ireland for holidays, and then I left full time after graduating and I went to live in London.

“What really helps me explain my formative years to people is Derry Girls, which is the best thing ever on television. It’s just a really brilliant way of being able to explain what my experience was, because my experience was totally Derry Girls from the point of view of the weird English cousin Jake. I feel everyone in England now has a shorthand to what my upbringing was. When people ask me if I’ve seen the show I’m like, ‘Have I seen it? I’ve lived it’.

When she got to secondary school Day didn’t fit into any of the cliques. “I have always spoken with a very English accent. People assumed that you were part of an army family, I wasn’t. My dad is a surgeon and just happened to have a job there. It was just that awkward thing of feeling like I didn’t fit in. I was also a year young for my year. I was this geek who spoke with a British accent who no one could really place. I’d grown up in the middle of the countryside, I wasn’t very cool. 

"I was just aware that I was finding it quite difficult to make friends and people were teasing me behind my back. It’s one of those things, isn’t it? Teasing is such a diminishing term. It’s definitely like, it feels like a 1980s, 1990s term and I think so much interesting necessary dialogue has happened around the language that we use. I wouldn’t put it as strongly as bullying but I suppose some people might. I think othering is a really good phrase to use. It was definitely an experience.

“But I have to say, Ireland has a special place in my heart. Not only as the place I grew up, but also it was the first place, I feel, that fully embraced me as an author and I’m forever grateful for that.”

Seven books later and Elizabeth Day is celebrated as an author everywhere now. Launch week doesn’t get easier with each book though.

“I’m practicing saying I’m excited instead of saying I’m nervous because so often I think it can feel quite similar. I’ve just decided to remind myself that I get to do all of this rather than I have to. It’s something that I would have dreamed of in my wildest dreams when I was four years old, eight years old, ten years. Imagine taking that child by the hand and being like, ‘This is what we get to do now’. She would be so thrilled. I’m excited for her and for me.”

When Magpie is launched and out in the world Day can concentrate on the rest of her jobs. She has the podcast of course, and now presents both a radio and TV programme about books. She’s also writing a pilot script for a fictional adaptation of How to Fail, the Memoir and her novel The Party has just been auctioned by World Productions, who made Line of Duty. She also plans to write a nonfiction book on friendship. This does not sound like a woman restricting her diary.

“The pandemic taught me that I want to be less busy. The thing is I’m busy doing more things that I love. I’m gradually eliminating the things that I don’t like so much. I’m trying to be much more considered. My partner and I both discussed it like how nice it would be to have dinner together at home making the most of our house. I’ve got a deal with myself now that I’ll go out two nights a week and that’s it, beyond that, I just say, I’m really sorry, I’m not free. I don’t need to explain it.

“I think honestly it’s such a radical feminist act because women are constantly taught that they have to explain their decisions and that they have to provide an easy definition as to who they are to whoever they encounter. Choosing not to do that is really liberating.”

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