Elizabeth Day: ‘A lot of people were yearning to talk about failure’

Author and broadcaster Elizabeth Day, 42, was raised in Belfast and later became an award-winning journalist, including a nine-year stint at the Observer. In 2018 she launched the podcast How to Fail, which has topped the iTunes chart, spawning live events and two books. She hosts Open Book on Radio 4, Sky Arts Book Club and is a judge for this year’s Women’s prize for fiction. She’s the author of five novels, the latest of which is Magpie.

What was the initial inspiration for launching How to Fail?
A romantic break-up, three weeks before my 39th birthday. It had been my first long-term relationship after my divorce and I felt like such a failure when it ended – staring down the barrel of my 40s, single, divorced and without the children I longed for. My life looked very different from how I’d thought it would. I started listening to a lot of podcasts during that time, because music seemed too resonant with my heartbreak. One of them, Esther Perel’s Where Should We Begin?, made me realise the form lent itself to intimate, honest conversations. I thought it would be interesting to get people to talk about the things that went wrong, rather than the external successes, and what they’d learned from them.

Was it a slowburn success or did it take off immediately?
It took off pretty instantaneously, much to my surprise. I think a lot of people were yearning to talk about failure because they were exhausted pretending everything was perfect. It helps you feel less alone if other people – including celebrities who appear to have it all – admit there were times when they felt their life was a mess. We’ve had more than 21m downloads to date.

Do guests need much persuading to take part?
Luckily, no. I strive to create a safe, supportive atmosphere. I’m not out to trip anyone up. Plus it helps that I ask guests for their three failures in advance of recording, so they set the parameters of the conversation. The best compliment is when guests tell me it felt like therapy.

Who’s still on your guest wishlist?
I just got one of my dream guests, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and she was incredible. Still on my list are Marcus Rashford, Dr Dre, Michael Jordan or either of the Obamas.

What was your last small failure?
I got very sweaty during a Zoom call earlier. I fail to return phone calls and texts a lot. That makes me worry I’m a failure as a friend.

Has the success of How to Fail undermined its own brand values?
The premise has always been that if you learn from your failures, you can turn them into a sort of success. I don’t mean success in terms of dollar bills or golden limousines, but being your authentic self and finding fulfilment that way. So actually How to Fail has fulfilled its own prophecy in a way that I never anticipated.

So there’s no How to Succeed spin-off coming soon?
No, that would be interminably smug [laughs]. I’m extremely aware that some people find the notion of How to Fail trite, but I don’t think they’re properly engaging with the premise. They’re failing, in fact, so they’re accidentally on-brand.

Your new novel, Magpie, is a psychological thriller about motherhood. How autobiographical is it?
A whole heap of it is based on my own experiences of fertility and the things some women go through in their quest to become mothers. It can be a confusing and grief-stricken journey. I felt like I hadn’t seen that represented in fiction that is happily mainstream. What I aspire to write is widely accessible literary fiction. I wanted to put my experience somewhere because it’s one of the most meaningful things I’ve been through in my life and I wanted to write the truth of it, so readers could potentially see their own reflection.

Why is fertility such a rich and fascinating subject?
It goes to the core of who we are as human beings. It’s an interesting lens through which to view how humans operate – and what’s provoked in them when it doesn’t go according to plan. The obsession, the self-inflicted cruelty, the jealousy – but on the flip side, the compassion and kindness. It’s a knotty, complex web.

Was the book written in lockdown?
The bulk was. I’d already started writing but was in a slough of despond about it. Then the first lockdown hit and I went into a further slough of despond, along with the rest of the nation. For six weeks, I couldn’t write. I like to work in cafes and obviously they’d all shut down. I only started writing again when Starbucks drive-through reopened. I’d collect a cup of jasmine tea and set up a fake cafe at home, complete with ambient coffee shop sounds on YouTube. That unlocked something within me.

Hasn’t your last novel, The Party, been optioned for TV?
Yes, by World Productions, which makes the little-known Line of Duty. It’s exciting but I’m also hyper-aware that TV is a long, slow process. I’m also in the process of hopefully adapting How to Fail, the memoir, for Sky.

Are you an Instagram influencer now?
Ha! Well, I do have a blue tick, which I suppose gives me a certain amount of influence. But mostly what you’ll see on there is pictures of my cat, Huxley. I’ve had companies offer him free cat food, so maybe he’s the real influencer? No, Instagram has massively helped the podcast grow. It gets a bad rap and of course there are dark sides to all social media, but it’s given me a platform I never had before. Plus I’m too old for TikTok. I just can’t get the choreography.

What’s the next book in the pipeline?
A nonfiction book about friendship. During the pandemic, I think so many people underwent a reassessment of friendship and what it means to them. I want to look at that through the lens of a few specific friendships in my own life.

As someone who presents book shows and judges literary prizes, how do you respond to bad reviews of your own novels?
Any time I get a negative review, I remind myself there are people out there who don’t like cheese, so there’s no accounting for taste. It honestly helps. Having said that, I no longer read Amazon reviews because I was sick of being compared unfavourably with a five-star set of vacuum cleaner bags.

Talking of cheese, how are your current consumption levels?
Cheese is an integral part of my happiness. I’m half-Swiss and our national dish is basically a bowl of melted cheese, so it’s in my DNA. My favourite cheese is an aged comté or gruyère. Although a slice of cheddar on a hot buttered crumpet takes some beating.

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