THERE’S a journalist in Elizabeth Day’s new novel.
She’s called Esme Reade and, through her we gain some insight into journalism including the mechanics of a good interview. Arriving to meet the author, I’m nervous, in case my own interviewing style is scrutinised and found wanting.
Elizabeth laughs when I mention my misgivings, and confesses that she is nervous too. A staff writer with The Observer, she’s not sure that she has mastered the art of being interviewed.
“I find it weird,” she says. “It’s a whole other dynamic, and I never know if I’m making any sense.” It turns out to be a fascinating hour, as, deep down, I knew it would be. Because I talked to Elizabeth four years ago when the journalist’s first novel came out; and found her a generous and thoughtful interviewee.
Paradise City features four characters who live in London. Wildly disparate, their lives interweave in unexpected ways.
“I don’t plan my novels much,” says Elizabeth. “I feel if I plan for a long time I’m putting off the inevitable, almost like doing revision timetables as a way of delaying the revision. But I have an idea of where to start and to end, and what characters I want. I like the freedom for them to make those unexpected connections. I love the films of Robert Altman and the novels of Maeve Binchy, where people are always crossing paths,” she says.
Paradise City opens when Howard Pink, a self-made millionaire makes a pass at Beatrice Kizza, an immigrant who is working as a chambermaid.
“I took that from the incident with Dominique Strauss-Kahn in New York,” says Elizabeth. “In that case, the chambermaid alleged she had been sexually assaulted and Strauss Kahn denied it, but I found their different perspectives fascinating and wanted to explore what might, or might not have happened.”
The third character is Carol Hetherington, recently widowed after a long, extremely happy marriage, who is struggling to find meaning in life again, and there’s Esme Reade, the aforementioned journalist, who, in training, is given all the nasty jobs like door-stepping.
“I don’t do that anymore,” says Elizabeth. She has worked her way from diary writer, through news to features. “But I’ve had to in the past, and it’s really not nice.
“There was one horrific time, when a 15-year-old schoolboy had hanged himself in his room. The newsdesk asked me to go and see if his parents would talk to me. I turned up at their house in the north of England, and they were all dressed in black; they had just buried their son.
“I felt appalling. I hadn’t known. But they were very kind. I left a carefully written letter with them, and the father decided he would talk to me. I went back the next day. He wanted to pay tribute to his son.”
Like Esme, Elizabeth struggled between her ambition and ethical standards.
“My grandmother was married to a diplomat, and belonged to the Diplomats’ Wives Association. She once gave me a really great story, but didn’t want to be quoted. My editor wanted quotes from her, and I wasn’t prepared to get them. He said, ‘Do you want to be a journalist, or do you want to be a grand-daughter?’ I said ‘I hope I can be both.’ He ran the story without her quotes.” If Esme borrows something from the author, Howard Pink could not be more different. Was it difficult getting into his skin?
“I had enormous fun writing Howard. It’s fun to write about glamorous parties and being driven around in a Bentley by a chauffeur. And he came to me fully formed. He’s a blustering, entitled, superficially arrogant individual, but deep down he cares what people think, and he believes that he is a fraud.”
The writing of Howard, and his perspective as a man has changed Elizabeth’s outlook on life.
“All of last year I was going through unsuccessful IVF treatment, and a miscarriage. It was a nightmare coming to terms with my body not doing the things it was
meant to do. Writing a male protagonist made me feel better about myself.
“Howard is unapologetic. He has a sense of entitlement having worked hard for all he has; he will take things first, and ask later. While writing him, I analysed how I write emails. When pitching a feature I’m always apologetic. It’s, ‘I’m sorry to bother you, it’s probably a rubbish idea.’
“I started thinking, how would Howard approach it, and he certainly wouldn’t write like that. I’ve changed. I have more of an awareness of who I am. And I do contribute something. I do have skills that I bring to a situation, and I feel less unsure.”
Unlike many of today’s writers, Elizabeth never took a course in creative writing. But then she didn’t learn journalism either. Armed with a double first from Cambridge, she was thinking of taking a masters, when she was offered work experience on the Evening Standard; and that quickly turned into a job. She’s never looked back, though she swears she took risks each time she moved from job to job.
“After a year on the Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary, I wanted to be a more mainstream journalist. I wrote emails to everyone I’d ever met or heard of, and went to the Sunday Telegraph on a three-month trial. I was a news journalist which was great training, but I wanted to be a feature writer, so I put out feelers and joined the Mail on Sunday.
“That was great, but then I wanted to write in my own style, and in the Mail there is a distinct house style. That’s when the Observer came in.”
With the day job as staff features writer on the Observer, it’s tough fitting in the fiction. Elizabeth writes in cafes in the evenings and at weekends, and for this book, spent two weeks spirited away, writing full time.
“In one way I would love to write fiction full time, but I love journalism. I feel it feeds into my fiction. I get a lot of ideas from it, and it’s great to keep writing to deadline.
Writing is a craft as well as an art. At the moment I have a nice balance. I’m very lucky,” she says.
Elizabeth is happy with her new novel, as well she should be. It’s a fabulous read; compelling, heart warming and redemptive. She felt a certain freedom in writing it, having found her second novel one that simply had to be written.
“Home Fires was about World War One from a woman’s perspective, and about the impact on the family after the death of a young man. It stemmed from personal experience,” she says.
“I had an ex-boyfriend who I loved very much. He was my first great love and he was killed in Iraq while working as a freelance journalist. I was 24 when it happened. It massively affected me, and I needed to write about it. I had to get it out of my system before I could write anything else.”
She hasn’t entirely left the issue of grief behind; it links all the principle characters in Paradise City. It almost destroys Howard Pink, whose only daughter disappeared while she was at university. In the novel, he sets up a foundation in her name.
Elizabeth did something similar for her ex-boyfriend.
“He was an incredibly special person. People would get together and talk about him. There’s not a day goes by when I don’t think of him. When he died I wrote about him for the Sunday Telegraph. I gave the money I received for the piece to his school, so that they could set up a history prize. It was important to me that people remember him.”
* Paradise City, Elizabeth Day Bloomsbury, €20.55; Kindle, €15.28
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