Elizabeth Day talks Motherhood, Fertility, and Failure at UEA Live

On 27th October, UEA Live was joined by Journalist and podcast host, Elizabeth Day, in discussing her current projects and latest novel, Magpie. Day starts off by joking about the plot twist of the book, and the trouble she has explaining Magpie without spoiling it.

Magpie is a psychological thriller focussing on a young woman, her partner, and their new obsessive lodger. The book has themes of motherhood, mental illness, fertility and what it means to be a woman. 

As a writer, Day only understands her themes once she’s finished writing, truly realising what interests her as she completes more books. One of her recurring themes is the idea of what constitutes mental illness, pointing out that we have a history of ‘othering’ mental illness. In explaining this, she says she “wanted to show how someone can live with a serious mental condition” whilst showing “a great deal of humanity” remains, especially considering how demonised mental illness can be in literature. Her writing has a focus on unreliable narrators, but it’s important to her that they’re always sympathetic. “We’re all unreliable narrators in our own mind,” Day claims, which is why she doesn’t want to create unlikeable characters, as it ignores the multifaceted nature of mankind. 

When asked about her writing process, Day explains she is a very character-first novelist. Rather than drowning in post-its scribbled with plot points, she had a sheet of paper with character description and basic setting points. It is more important for her to write into the voice of the character and to understand them. However, with Magpie this was different. She knew, at the start, what the themes of the novel were and what the major plot twist was going to be. By having three characters set in one house, she heightens the sense of claustrophobia and oppression her narrators feel. 

As well as being a fiction novelist, Day is a journalist, hosts her podcast How to Fail with Elizabeth Day, and has several non-fiction books published. All these occupations link together for Day, like a mosaic, as her podcast explores the human condition which feeds into writing her characters. Her journalistic training helps her meet deadlines, and the broadcasting, she claims, “has just been a delightful present.” When describing her array of careers, she claims, her favourite of them all is writing books, as “I do genuinely feel most myself when I’m in the flow writing on my own.”

In giving advice to new writers, Day states, “the key to great writing is authenticity.” If you’re trying to write like other people, you’re more likely to fail than if you write as yourself from your experiences. Day emphasises that your voice is unique, and you’re best when being yourself. Whilst discussing her podcast, and how it has inspired her in her own life, Day says, “talking about failure has an extraordinary way of stripping back your pretence and making you vulnerable and honest.” After hearing this, I, for one, know which podcast I’m listening to next.

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Louise Collins

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May 2022
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