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Elizabeth Day on the scandal that inspired her brilliant new novel

By Una Brankin

Published 02/06/2015

People watcher: writer Elizabeth Day in Belfast city centre
People watcher: writer Elizabeth Day in Belfast city centre
as a child

Elizabeth Day is people-watching when she spots me arriving to meet her in a Cathedral Quarter bar in Belfast. There's an immediate connection - we're both lofty and wearing coral-pink, and we're both full-time journalists.

But she can write to her heart's content in the din and clatter of a busy cafe, I need solitude and silence. "Background noise doesn't bother me - I'm usually sitting at a desk in an office so I like to switch off from that," she grins.

"Writing is a solitary activity, as you know. I like people-watching and it feeds into what I'm writing, both fiction and journalism."

The beautiful Co Londonderry-raised writer has just published her third novel, Paradise City, a compelling tale inspired by the 2011 scandal surrounding Dominique Strauss-Khan, the former head of International Monetary Fund (IMF), who resigned following allegations that he had sexually assaulted a hotel employee in New York. Already the book has attracted glowing reviews from novelist Esther Freud, comedian/writer David Baddiel and Orange fiction prize-winner Francesca Segal, who described it as "a beautiful portrait not only of four lives but of a city - London springs vividly to life in this tender, absorbing novel".

The capital has been Elizabeth's home since she left Northern Ireland in 1998, after a year at Methody, to attend Malvern St James Girls School in Worcestershire.

English-born, she moved to the rural village of Claudy at four, with her parents, Tom and Christine, and older sister, Christine, when her father took up a post as a general surgeon at Altnagelvin Hospital.

Given the strong Claudy cadence, it's surprising it has left no trace at all on her BBC English accent.

"I've never spoken with a Derry accent - my parents are English; I never picked up the Irish lilt," she explains over a Lemsip for an encroaching cold. "But you want to fit in, so I spoke less and observed more - and in Northern Ireland, it's the most important things that are left unsaid, and writers are good observers.

"And moving away at the age of four, I think, made me a more thoughtful person. I felt that I didn't really fit in but I wasn't unhappy. I had a great childhood; there was a lot of love in our family."

Good company and very attractive, the award-winning 36-year-old has perfect olive skin and empathetic hazel eyes. She resembles Keira Knightley, without the jutting jawline, and has been mistaken for the Australian actress Jacinda Barrett (who appeared in Brigid Jones, The Following and the Netflix hit Bloodline). A regular on the Sky News newspaper review - "I'm the resident Leftie when Kevin Maguire isn't available" - she's endearingly chuffed when complimented, but doesn't like watching herself on screen.

Writing, rather than broadcasting, has been her goal from a tender age, even before she started a column for the Derry Journal at 12. The late Sunday Life journalist Linda Gilbey was one of the first to encourage her youthful ambitions.

"I always wanted to be a writer but in my seven-year-old mind, I thought there wouldn't be much money in it, so I thought I'd better do something else," she recalls, chattily. "Linda Gilbey was a very formative influence - I met her at a health farm near us and she told me to write to all the newspapers and tell them I wanted to be a journalist.

"So I wrote to the Derry Journal and the editor at the time wrote me a very sweet letter and invited me to write a column, which I did in a willful, precocious and slightly annoying voice. I wrote about stuff like how I hated permed hair, and how I thought Cliff Richard was too old to be a singer and should retire … terrible. Who was I to say?

"I was an odd child - I had this innate inner confidence. I was terrible at maths but good at English, and both my parents being massive readers, I was surrounded by books. Mum liked Jane Austen; dad was into EM Forster."

Her parents are also now based in London, and elder sister Catherine has a career in the civil service. Elizabeth has few Derry connections these days but keeps in touch with her childhood friend from the city, an architect now based in Chester.

The Day family all have fond memories of their time in the north-west, where Elizabeth's mother became an adept windsurfer and water skier.

"My dad loved Northern Ireland for the landscape and the people and my mother took full advantage of all the beautiful nature, too," she recalls.

"My parents are non-judgemental, sociable, generous people who would always encourage both me and Catherine to make new friends and have an outward-looking perspective, while also ensuring we understood what was going on politically here, and were never taking anything for granted.

"I lived through an eventful period of Irish history, from 1982 until 1998 - I left 15 years ago - and it was incredible to experience that. That's why I studied history at university; history is so important. It defines."

It may seem like Day leads a charmed existence, but there have been some troubles in her life. Her parents were surprised at the "darkness" in her widely acclaimed first novel, Paper, Scissors, Stone, (about marred family relationships affected by a history of child abuse from a male lead character. She is also open about the counselling she receives for dealing with difficult emotions like grief.

"I have had therapy in the past and have returned to it recently because of some things I've been through," she writes in an emailed follow-up to the interview (we ended up chatting too long, about the technicalities of writing, and ran out of time).

"I am totally up-front about how helpful I find it, in terms of understanding myself, seeing the world more clearly and coming to terms with grief.

"Going to therapy means I'm a calmer, more centred person and that I don't have to bother my friends all the time with my moaning.

"Having said that, my best friend Emma (to whom Paradise City is dedicated) is a brilliant psychotherapist and that really is the perfect combination."

Elizabeth's second book Home Fires (2013) - not to be confused with the current TV drama series - is dedicated to her husband of four years, BBC business editor Kamal Ahmed. As his plus-one at exclusive business-world parties, she was perfectly positioned for her research into the arrogant character of self-made millionaire Sir Howard Pink in Paradise City.

"It's not based on Dominque Strauss-Kahn but the incident fascinated me - these two conflicting accounts of one central episode," she says. "I wanted to look closely at that sort of situation from the point of view of two different characters. He thinks (this behaviour) is the norm; obviously she doesn't."

A third perspective comes from Esme, a young tabloid journalist. Unsurprisingly, her creator has also written for tabloid newspapers. After her graduation from Cambridge, Elizabeth worked for the Evening Standard on the Londoner's Diary for a year before becoming a news reporter on The Sunday Telegraph, initially on a three-month trial.

While working for the Telegraph, she won the Young Journalist of the Year Award at the British Press Awards in 2004. Dominic Lawson, then editor of The Sunday Telegraph, was quoted at the time as saying Day was "probably the most brilliant young talent that most of us have seen in 20 years."

Subsequently, she wrote for Elle and The Mail on Sunday, and has worked as a feature writer for The Observer since 2007.

But while denying Esme is an alter-ego, Elizabeth has used her experience of door-stepping - and the moral compass involved - in her new novel. One of the stories she covered in the past involved the Rumpole of the Bailey writer Sir John Mortimer, after he discovered that the Butterflies actress Wendy Craig, had given birth to his son, following their short-lived but passionate affair, 40 years previously.

"I was doing the Londoner's Diary and was sent out to doorstep Wendy. I'd almost hoped she wasn't in but when I arrived, she was coming back from shopping. But she was perfectly nice to me, and confirmed the story. Afterwards she contacted me to say that she was glad it had been me who was sent out to her.

"Another time, I had to doorstep a family who had just lost their son to suicide after he'd been bullied. It was appalling. It turned out to be the day of the funeral, so I left immediately but the (news) desk asked me to go back.

"I didn't think it was appropriate so I wrote a letter instead and posted it through the door. The next day the father spoke to me and gave a beautiful tribute to his son. It was a nice piece."

As one of the Observer's leading feature writers, Elizabeth also gets lots of big star interviews, some more forthcoming than others.

"Kenneth Branagh was fascinating - I came over here for that," she enthuses. "He has very blue eyes - yes. Like me, he sounds very English but he can switch into a very strong Belfast accent in a flash. We've lots in common but the other way round. He felt like an outsider in England.

"Clint Eastwood was great, too - he was 78 at the time. I'm a massive fan; I was wondering if I would make his eighth wife or whatever number he was on. He was promoting The Changeling with Angelina Jolie - she flew past us down the corridor at one stage. Yes, she's really beautiful in real life, I'm afraid."

Meanwhile, former Hollywood brat-pack icon Rob Lowe gets the vivid feature writer's vote for "most disappointing".

"I'd flown thousands of miles to Toronto for a 45-minute interview with him, and gone to the wrong hotel but still got there on time," she recalls, frowning vaguely at the memory. "He was incredibly charming at first and chatted personably about the film he'd just made with Ricky Gervais, The Invention of Lying, and along the way he said he found it difficult to trust people.

"He was the subject of several lawsuits at the time and when I brought it up, he looked at me strangely and then publicist comes in and shuts the interview down. I was completely bamboozled. I asked if I could have one more question, but no.

"I was so surprised - it turned out all this was on a list of banned topics that I hadn't received. It was badly handled but I was able to set up a phone interview afterwards. I included the incident in the piece though - I thought it was quite revealing, the whole way PR operates."

On cue, her publicist appears to take her away for photographs. She draws her coral coat close, despite the late spring sunshine, and bids me goodbye with a genuine smile, guaranteeing Paradise City is next on my reading list.

  • Paradise City is published by Bloomsbury, £16.99. See

Her most cherished

Book: Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Film: Rear Window

TV drama: The Killing (the original Danish one, with Sofie Grabol and "the jumper")

Radio show: The Archers, I've been listening since I was four. I know that makes me deeply uncool, sorry

Album: 2001, Dr Dre

World leader: Barack Obama. For being the first and proving it was possible

Food: Aubergines

Drink: a dry Vodka Martini with an olive

Pastime: Going to the cinema

Confidante: my best friend Emma

Motto: Everything happens for a reason, even if that reason isn't immediately clear

Belfast Telegraph

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