In Conversation with Author and Journalist Elizabeth Day

Elizabeth Day started writing at the age of 12, contributing to her local paper at the time, Derry Journal. After graduating from the University of Cambridge she then went on to write for the Evening Standard, The Sunday Telegraph, The Observer and more recently The Mail on Sunday. She has also published five novels and two manifesto or memoir-style non-fiction books.

Yet, she is now most well-known for her podcast How to Fail With Elizabeth Day. The concept is simple – Day invites public figures to speak about any three failures from their lives. Her guests have ranged from politician Ed Miliband, to author Jacqueline Wilson, to bake-off winner and chef Nadiya Hussain. The podcast is now onto its 14th season, a testament to how much it has resonated with listeners. Despite the seemingly simple concept, there is something comforting in knowing that even the most ‘successful’ people have experienced failure, so I asked her how the idea for the podcast came about.

“My background is in print journalism and I spent about 15 years working for Sunday newspapers. I did a lot of celebrity interviews and it was an amazing experience to meet people at the epicentre of fame. But what my editor wanted was really a potted biography of all the wonderful things that the celebrities had done in their lives. I find that interview format really frustrating after a while, and a bit superficial. I always feel like it’s those moments in an interview where you see someone’s vulnerability, what makes them human, or when they reveal something that hasn’t gone according to plan… those are the most revealing moments.”

Although Day first noticed the importance of vulnerability and failure through interviewing celebrities, it quickly became relevant to her personal life too.

“My thirties were a decade of intense transition. Alongside my career I got married and divorced, then started a new relationship that also didn’t work out. Suddenly at the age of 39, I was single again, a divorcee, and I didn’t have children even though I really wanted them. I felt like a failure in my personal life because I hadn’t achieved the things that I thought I wanted for myself. I decided to go to LA and because I was heartbroken, I didn’t want to listen to music. So I started listening to podcasts instead. All those things: my feeling of failure in my own life, my frustration at the type of interviews I was being asked to do, and my discovery of podcasts, all came together. That’s where the idea for the How to Fail podcast came from.”

Day has a way of making even the most famous guests open up about moving or even traumatic events in their lives, allowing them to be vulnerable without judgement. I wanted to know how she deals with this vulnerability in a sensitive way.

I just listen. I think that’s actually the thing that is most underrated as a life skill, but also as an interviewer of skill.

“As you know, I ask all of my guests to come up with three failures a week in advance of the recording. This is so I have time to prepare, but also so that the guests are the ones who set the parameters of the interview. But I think that the key is that I’m not unnecessarily intrusive about things they haven’t chosen to talk about. When someone opens up to me, I find it such a privilege that I just listen. I think that’s actually the thing that is most underrated as a life skill, but also as an interviewer of skill. It’s holding the space for someone to say what they need to say, and listening actively and with respect.”

It is through Day’s careful handling of her interviewees’ feelings that the podcast can, at times, almost feel like a therapy session of sorts. Day told me how she handles this herself, on a personal level.

“Sometimes people share trauma with me and it can be really sad and difficult to process. So I myself have weekly therapy with an actual therapist rather than a podcaster – and that really helps.”

The podcast has now welcomed over 100 guests in its five years of existence, so I asked Day which of the guests have stood out the most, or shared the most touching stories.

“Alexandra Burke, the singer, came on and was so incredibly open. She is one of those women who was so unfairly treated by the fucked-up culture of the early 2000s talent show era. When she came on the podcast it was the first time she had spoken openly about that, and about her mom’s death and its impact on her. It was so raw and honest, that there was a part of me thinking ‘is it okay for me to put this out there? It feels so tender.’ But I spoke to her about it and actually, it was a really powerful conversation because of how vulnerable she had been, and listeners loved it.

Another person who really surprised me with her openness was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. When we did the interview her parents had died recently, and one of her failures was her failure to save her father, and another one was her failure to save her mother. I mean, wow, that’s incredibly powerful. One of the things I love about Chimamanda is the clear-sightedness of her prose, and she was so clear-sighted when she spoke on the podcast too.

There’s one more person I want to add who is the actor Andrew Scott. One of his failures was his failure to be heteronormative, which isn’t a failure at all of course, but that was why he chose to speak about it. He talked about his journey with his sexuality and I was really pleased that he did because it turned out to be quite enlightening.”

Of course, before starting the How To Fail podcast, Day was better known for her press journalism. She has previously spoken about how at the beginning of her career, while working for The Sunday Telegraph, she was asked to write a piece on an ‘orgasm machine.’ At the time, the sexist culture surrounding journalism meant that she didn’t question it, but upon reflection, she’s described how demeaning the feature really was. I asked her what the situation is like for women in journalism now.

I put up with so many things because I thought that was the price of admission into a private member’s club that was run by men, for men.

“I think it’s changed massively for the better. In the early days of my journalistic career, I put up with so many things because I thought that was the price of admission into a private member’s club that was run by men, for men. I was so grateful to be given opportunities that I said yes to everything. So I said yes to that demeaning feature where my male editor, who was in a position of power, asked me to try out an orgasm machine. I even had my photo taken trying out this ‘machine’ by a male photographer. He was really nice, but thinking back on the situation it was so weird! I was in my bed in my flat with this photographer coming in to take a photo of me with electrodes strapped to my ankles.

Looking back that was so incredibly suggestive, and I didn’t realize that another way of seeing the situation was as an exploitative one. That they were exploiting my naivety and the fact that I was grateful, and scared to say no. That happened a lot in so many different ways, and I just got used to very mild sexual harassment being interpreted as flirting or banter. It was the Me Too movement that made me realize that, actually, I didn’t have to put up with that anymore.”

I picked her up on the fact that she described the sexual harassment she faced as ‘mild,’ pondering whether women are taught to diminish everyday sexism and harassment, because we are so aware of just how much worse it can be.

“I totally agree,” she replied, “I also think that women are constantly contextualizing their emotions. In a way, it’s a really beautiful thing, because we know that so many other women have experienced so much worse, that we don’t want to claim their pain. But the flip side of that is that, as you say, we can err on the side of diminishing our own experience, and brushing it off.”

With regards to journalism nowadays, Day said: “it has hugely changed, but still not enough. Men are still overwhelmingly in positions of editorial power and there can be a sense that women are chosen to write “female” things. I also think women who are columnists are expected to trawl through their own personal lives for their writing, in a way that men aren’t. Having said that, I think that the media as a whole has become so much more democratic because of the internet. For example, Tik Tok is where I find some of the most innovative creative content nowadays, and that’s really disintermediated access to people who want to get their journalistic work out there. While there are a lot more opportunities now, the other thing to keep an eye out for is social class and privilege in the media, because historically so many internships were unpaid. Only people who were financed by their families could get a foot on the ladder.”

Alongside her journalistic career, Day has developed a career as a novelist. Her most recent book, Magpie, was released last year and deals with themes of infertility and motherhood. Day herself has been very honest about her own struggles with infertility, and the impact it has had on her life. She explained how she came to speak and write about it so openly.

“It was an active decision. When I wrote Magpie I was still in a place where I was yearning for parenthood, and didn’t know how I was going to get there. I’ve run the whole range of fertility treatments – IVF, egg freezing, surgical procedures – just everything you could imagine, as well as three miscarriages. I felt like I’d never read the truth of that process in fiction, in the way that I would have liked to when I was going through it myself. So it was an entirely deliberate decision to write about it, and I found it really cathartic. The number of messages I’ve received from women, and some men, who have been through infertility battles and who say they felt seen in the book’s pages, has made it all worthwhile.”

Day was as generous and thoughtful with her time in our interview as she is with her guests in her own podcast. Despite wanting to pick her brains even further, I ended our time by asking what she would say to anyone wanting to write or start a podcast.

You have something important and unique to say, because no one else on this planet has the set of life experiences that you do.

“First of all, you have something important and unique to say, because no one else on this planet has the set of life experiences that you do. If you are passionate about the thing that you are creating, and you put it out there, I promise it will find its own audience. You don’t have to tailor what you think to make it fit in with someone else’s audience.

The other thing is to just get on and do it. For a really long time, I knew that I wanted to write novels, but I put myself off starting it. I think there’s this myth that you have to be struck by some stroke of genius to start creating, but podcasting is as much a skill as it is an artform. You need to create the thing for the thing to exist, which is another way of saying ‘put words on the page,’ even if you think they’re rubbish. Even if you don’t think it’s the best podcast ever, you can change that. The most important thing is to put the art out there.”

You can find Day’s podcast, How to Fail with Elizabeth Day, here.

Image Description: portrait of Elizabeth Day against a white background

Image Credit: Elizabeth Day