PENNY McCORMICK talks to writer ELIZABETH DAY about MENTORS, inspiration, and finding her own voice …
Brought up in Northern Ireland, before completing her education at Cambridge university, Day has been a successful journalist writing for the Evening Standard, The Sunday Telegraph and The Observer. As the author of several books including Home Fires and Paradise City, her current novel The Party is one of the must-reads of this summer.
Who has been your biggest mentor?
I don’t think I’ve ever had a professional mentor. I’ve been given opportunities by brilliant people at key points in my life – Pat McCart, the editor of The Derry Journal, gave me my first column; Dominic Lawson, the editor of The Sunday Telegraph, gave me my first newspaper staff job and Helen Garnons-Williams, was the editor who decided to publish my first novel and who edits me still. I wouldn’t be where I am without them.
But really, when I think about it, my true mentor for all sorts of life wisdom is my best friend, Emma. She knows me so well but is also incredibly insightful about everything. She’s actually a psychotherapist and I can’t recommend the combination of best friend and fully-qualified counsellor highly enough. Whenever I go through something difficult or challenging, Emma is my first port of call. She also makes me laugh like no-one else.
What has been the most important inspiration for your work?
Reading. I’ve always loved reading and some of my earliest memories are of reading books in various parts of the house. In our family home in Claudy, Co Derry, there was a vast, overgrown rhododendron bush that I used to squirrel my way into. I’d spend hours there, reading the latest novel I’d got my hands on.
Reading gave me a love of literature but it also taught me how to write. It’s why I still read voraciously, even when I’m writing books of my own. I find other authors perpetually inspiring and often go back to see how they’ve handled particular elements of their craft – how they’ve used tenses, for instance, or how they’ve shifted viewpoints or kept the pace lively.
What have you learned about finding your own voice?
As a woman, I’ve learned it’s incredibly important to spend time finding out what you want and expressing your own needs, as well as saying no to the things you don’t want to do. A lot of women are raised to be pliant and pleasing and I think I spent my 20s trying to be the perfect girlfriend, daughter, friend and employee by never once complaining, in the belief that I’d somehow be rewarded for my silence. Actually, all that happens is you end up in the wrong relationships, feeling overlooked and resentful. It’s so important to be true to yourself and your instincts.
As an author, finding my voice came to me when I realised it wasn’t about trying to write like a writer I admired; it was simply about writing as myself, with truth and honesty.
Who’s your favourite fictional heroine?
Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice: she’s bright, funny, charming, headstrong and a woman before her time. Plus we share the same name. How could I not love her?
A writer’s duty is to …
Connect; although I stole that from E M Forster to be fair.
What causes are important to you?
Care for the elderly. As a society, we’re increasingly youth-focused and it bothers me that older people are often ignored and isolated. As a journalist, all of my most interesting interviewees have been well over 70 and my grandparents were some of the most wonderful people I knew. I hate the thought that we’re forgetting about people who have so much life knowledge to impart, so I give monthly to Help the Aged in the UK.
Proudest moment so far …
Winning a Betty Trask Award for my debut novel Scissors Paper Stone.
What are some of your rules to live by?
Listen more than you talk.
When things get difficult, eat cheese.
What’s your motto?
The universe is unfolding exactly as is intended. I try to remind myself that everything happens for a reason, even if that reason isn’t immediately apparent.
What are your fashion must-haves and indulgences?
I love my Topshop black denim dungarees. Honestly, if I could spend every day in a pair of dungarees with loads of pockets, I’d be happy. I would buy all my clothes from Madewell if I could, and am on a one-woman mission to bring them over from the States. I have a terrible shoe habit and recently bought a black pair of Sophia Webster heels with gold angel wings on the back to wear to the launch of The Party. My indulgence would be scented candles. I’ve yet to find a good scented candle with a fragrance that lasts at any sort of reasonable price, so I’ve convinced myself that splashing out £50 on a diptyque one is an investment rather than an extravagance.
The Party by Elizabeth Day is published by 4th Estate.
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