In conversation with

Elizabeth Day

author, journalist, host of How to Fail podcast

elizabeth day author journalist

Introduction

Introduction

Elizabeth Day is one of the 28 women writers to contribute to Sonder & Tell’s book Comfort Zones published by Jigsaw (order here

Elizabeth Day was penning her first newspaper column at the tender age of 12. In the years since then, the world of media has transformed. On the one hand, the rise of digital and social platforms mean that it’s easier that ever to find an audience; on the other, readers are increasingly accustomed to free content – and writers have had to adapt. Elizabeth says: “I am now not only a journalist but an author and a podcaster. We can no longer rely on the print media to be a job for life”.

Elizabeth remains first and foremost a writer – she has a columnist at The Mail on Sunday’s You Magazine and is the author of four novels. Yet it’s her recent foray into podcasting that has really caught our attention. An expert interviewer, with How to Fail Elizabeth speaks to public figures – including Dolly Alderton and Otegha Uwagba – about the things that have got wrong in their lives in order to better understand their success. Released just last month, How to Fail is now also a bestselling book.

For Comfort Zones, however, Elizabeth flipped failure on its head and unpacked its counterpart: “Success in an intimate relationship depends on your being able to be yourself, at all times, and feeling good about that.” On the eve of the publication of the anthology, we asked Elizabeth about her favourite stories. 

Question and Answer

What kind of stories did you love growing up?

This is quite bleak but I loved stories about the Second World War – Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian; When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr and The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier to name but a few. I also loved Roald Dahl and the way his tales fired up your imagination. Nothing was too wild for him to write about.

goodnight mr tom
"This is quite bleak but I loved stories about the Second World War"

How has the landscape of journalism changed since you first started out? What skills did you need to do well then, versus now?

It has changed a lot. When I first started doing work experience in newsrooms as a teenager, there was only one computer connected to this new-fangled thing called ‘the internet’ and you had to take turns using it!

The explosion of online content and social media has been great in some respects – it’s easier for journalists to get on-the-ground material and connect with people they need to speak to; it’s a phenomenal resource for activists; you can research everything at the click of a button and it’s easier to get your voice heard as a new writer. But it also comes with its fair share of baggage – online comments can be vicious and the fact that everyone can now produce content means that consumers and advertisers are sadly less likely to pay to be featured in print, which in turn has meant a severe dwindling of resources for newspapers and wave after wave of redundancies.

Having said that, I firmly believe that talent is always in demand and in terms of the skills-set, I don’t think it’s that different. The ability to listen, to engage, to connect, to empathise and to communicate are the most important qualities you need – these can be deployed on any platform. And yes, shorthand is useful, but not obligatory. I suppose the key thing is to be flexible and open to diversifying. I am now not only a journalist but an author and a podcaster. We can no longer rely on the print media to be a job for life.

You’re well known for your profiles for titles like The Observer and Harpers Bazaar. What are your three tips for hosting a great interview?

Listen. Listen. Listen.

Honestly, I can’t over-state the importance of that. Many people believe the key to a great interview is having all the right questions mapped out in advance. It isn’t; it’s listening to what the person is saying and engaging with that.

You’re the author of four novels! What’s the key to creating a really strong character?

I think one of the main things is not to worry whether they’re likeable or not. Convincing characters do not need to be nice. They need to be real.

“When a relationship finishes, it is a gift. As devastating as it feels, if a relationship ends it is always because it is not the right one for you. ”

Elizabeth Day, Comfort Zones

What was your motivation behind starting the How to Fail podcast and what story are you hoping to tell through it?

The motivation was [cliche alert!] a romantic break-up. At 39, I found myself single, divorced, childless and unsure where my future was headed. It wasn’t where I’d expected to be at that stage in my life. But as I got over the heartbreak, I realised that I was growing so much as a person and working out what I truly wanted. I was forced to get to know myself and to confront some dark thoughts and, in doing so, I became stronger and felt freer than I had done in ages. Looking back, I realised that all the major breakthroughs in my life had come about as a result of failure and I began to think how great it would be if, instead of pretending to be perfect all the time, there was a safe space where people could talk about what failure had taught them. I passionately believe in spreading this message: that success, strength and self-knowledge can only come from having experienced failure and from choosing how you respond to it. We are not necessarily born with courage, but we can develop it by flexing the muscle of our emotional resilience.

Any stand-out advice from your interviewees that have really stuck with you?

Yes, one is that failure is just what it is. It’s the emotion we attach to it that can make it seem overwhelming. The author James Frey taught me that. Another thing that stuck with me came from Deborah Frances-White who hosts The Guilty Feminist podcast. She said that we should treat failure as a data gathering exercise: so if you fail at a job interview or someone you went on a date with doesn’t text you back, you can choose not to take that personally and to view it instead as a necessary data gathering exercise to get you closer to the thing that’s right for you. She talked about scientists and how, if they’re doing experiments to cure a disease and one of the experiments doesn’t work, they don’t automatically think ‘I’m rubbish. I’m a failure. I’ll never be able to crack this’. Instead they think, ‘That hasn’t worked so I can discount it; now I can try a new thing and get closer to finding a cure.’

how to fail
"Failure is just what it is. It’s the emotion we attach to it that can make it seem overwhelming"

What can we expect from How to Fail the book?

Part-memoir, part-manifesto, it’s inspiring, funny, moving and packed full of personal anecdotes from my own life. I hope, anyway!

How did you go about deciding what to write for Comfort Zones the book?

I’m often asked for my views on failure, but I thought it would be interesting to look at its’ flip-side: success. Particularly because I think that women and, even more specifically, British women, struggle to lay claim to success for fear of being thought arrogant. It’s not arrogant, it’s confident!

9781527234475
"I’m often asked for my views on failure, but I thought it would be interesting to look at its’ flip-side: success"

The Storylist

Books

  1. The Snakes by Sadie Jones
  2. Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith
  3. You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian

Magazines

  1. You Magazine by Mail on Sunday
  2. Saturday Times Magazine by The Times
  3. Culture by The Sunday Times

Podcasts

  1. The High Low by Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes
  2. Table Manners by Jessie Ware
  3. Slow Burn by Slate
  4. You Must Remember This by Karina Longworth
  5. Bitch Sesh by Casey Wilson and Danielle Schneider
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