Cambridge graduate, a successful career as an award-winning author and journalist, invitations to A-list parties... why life is good for Elizabeth Day
Having just sold the television rights to her new book, the novelist, who spent her childhood in Northern Ireland, tells Una Brankin about her memories of her life here and the dark underside of the party scene
As a young girl in the late 1980s, Elizabeth Day would cycle to Claudy village to buy a copy of Jackie magazine, immerse herself in its picture-stories, and dream of becoming a writer.
Roll on a couple of decades, and she has achieved her dream in two fields: fiction and journalism. Since she graduated with a double-first in history from Cambridge University, the doctor's daughter has won awards for her newspaper and magazine features and her novels, and she has just sold the dramatisation rights for her fourth book, The Party, a compelling literary page-turner which has been compared favourably to The Talented Mr Ripley, The Riot Club and Brideshead Revisited.
"Writing a novel is like taking your entrails out in public and saying, 'like me, like'," she says in cut-glass tones. "I do read reviews and take any criticism - from critics I respect - to heart. I do care, so I'm delighted with the reviews for The Party."
On top of all these accomplishments, she is charismatic and extremely attractive, too (prettier in the flesh, in fact, than she is in photos or on screen for her occasional newspaper review slots on Sky News). These are the attributes she has given the aristocratic hedge fund manager Ben Fitzmaurice, the host of the glitzy bash at the centre of her new novel. Dashing Ben has been worshipped since college days by the deluded and less well-heeled arts hack Martin, the chief narrator of the action, and keeper of a scandalous secret which could bring down the whole Fitzmaurice clan.
"His life had been almost too easy", Day writes of the overprivileged Ben, who is "guided by naked self-interest … this sense of entitlement you get when you're from a good family, when you have money, when you grow up in a stately home and go to a public school and Oxbridge and you're good-looking and you never had to fight for anything".
The object of the drippy Martin's lifelong obsession, Ben is depicted as a dark-haired rugger-bugger type, married to a beautiful "but undeniably boring" Sloane called Serena. Yet, it was the blond Robert Redford - as the flawed heroes of The Great Gatsby and The Way We Were - who sprang immediately to my mind when I read The Party over three long nights.
"I'd have Dominic West as Ben - he has such presence on screen, but he's too old. Sorry, Ben", muses Elizabeth (38). "I'd have Vivien Leigh as Serena - she'd have to have a blonde wig. Martin's a tricky one. I can imagine Joan Crawford playing him - in drag. And for Martin's wife, Lucy, it would have to be an everywoman. Eva Marie Saint, from A Streetcar Named Desire, maybe …"
Her cast wish-list doesn't include her recent Radio Times interviewee, Poldark star Aidan Turner, despite her finding the Dublin-born former electrician "witty, quick and self-deprecating", and possessing of "a positively Heathcliffian stare".
It's too early in the TV dramatisation process for the real casting of The Party, but the novel's glowing reviews and inclusion in summer reads lists, from Irish broadsheets to Vogue and Glamour magazine, should ensure high viewing figures, whichever luvvies land the meaty roles.
The story of shenanigans and hushed scandals in high circles might never have seen the light of day, however, if Day had not abandoned a semi-autobiographical novel in The Party's favour. She had 40,000 words written about an English girl living in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, before dropping the idea.
"It didn't seem to flow," she admits. "Every sentence was hard work and it was too close to my own experience. I should have distanced myself a bit. I was in a cafe in London and I thought: 'I don't want to write this'.
"So, I ditched it and decided I was going to write something fun and glamorous about rich people. I began writing about a party I'd been to in the Cotswolds for the great and good of society, and that was the start of The Party."
Born in the south of England, Elizabeth moved to Co Londonderry in 1982 at the age of four, with her older sister Catherine and parents Tom and Christine. A general surgeon at Altnagelvin Hospital, Tom operated on victims of the conflict and rushed to Omagh to offer his help at the time of the bombing there in August 1998, which killed 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins.
"I'm very proud of dad for all he did to help people of both sides," she says. "We'd go through armed checkpoints to and from school, and I remember bombscares and hearing bombs go off in Belfast, when I was at Methodist College for a year.
"I remember going past the Europa Hotel and seeing all the panes of glass shattered and a car outside mangled, and of course I heard people talking about the bombing in Claudy, (which killed nine people) and seeing the memorial statue of a young girl in the village.
"I've always been very aware of history and how it affects what's going on in Northern Ireland, and I was incredibly thrilled about the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and how Derry seemed to become such a vibrant city and full of confidence after that."
An ardent liberal and leftie commentator, she is "horrified" at the power deal struck between Theresa May and the DUP.
"Party politics aside, we have a Prime Minister who has done a deal at such an intensely important time in the Stormont negotiations," she says crossly. "There's no way she can stay neutral. She could have stood aside, and said 'Sorry, I've made a mistake'.
"Politics has become so wildly unpredictable - it makes it fascinating, but scary. It's a worry that there are so many in politics who will promise so much in election campaigns, then say 'Sorry, no cash for that'. It's demeaning to the public.
"Arlene? There isn't so much a focus on her, personally, but there is a terrific concern about the party being anti-women's rights, and their stance on abortion."
As with many good writers, Elizabeth felt a sense of otherness from a young age. As a posh English schoolgirl in south Derry, and, subsequently, as a boarder at Malvern St James Girls School in Worcestershire, she was somewhat of an outsider at important stages of her youth.
However, she had the advantage of being "confident and wilful", and fitted in wherever she went - she even wrote a column for the Derry Journal at the age of 12.
But that sense of "outsidership" has infiltrated her novels, not least The Party, which focuses on the scholarship-winning Martin, who doesn't wear the right clothes or speak with the right accent at his public school. Desperate to belong, he connives to befriend the dazzling Ben, and becomes his "little shadow" at Cambridge University, where his cloying devotion and ladder-climbing efforts are mocked by the toffs.
Of her own experience at Cambridge, Elizabeth says she had an amazing time and got a wonderful education, "but there was this higher strata there, and that hasn't changed much from the nineteenth century".
"As in the book", she adds, "there was a Pitt Club - all male, for former Eton and Harrow schoolboys, and drinking societies still operating, which was very interesting to observe." It's very much the territory of David Cameron's youth, although there's no 'Pig-gate' carry-on in The Party.
Says the author: "Cameron did go to Eton, then Oxford and then into politics, and there's the danger, in that respect, that you don't know anything about the world that exists beyond your own bubble. There can be a risk of arrogance. Theresa May didn't go to public school and she's not clubbable, but she has her own issues.
"The fact is, we are now seeing a climate of division between people who live in the same city. The Grenfell tower block is social housing in one of the richest enclaves of the city. Cladding was put on to make it less of an eyesore, and that turned out to be highly flammable. This division concerns me. All my books are about divisions between people and the lack of understanding between them."
She believes that elitism and snobbery are not as rife now, and that social mobility is still achievable, citing the modern aspirations to new money.
"But - like sexism - it is more insidious and nuanced now," she observes. "It's no longer acceptable to discriminate in terms of social class, but it is still done in more subtle ways. For example, in the media, there are those who can afford weeks and weeks of work experience, as their way in. So, although there has been change, there are still barriers."
One of the most affecting passages in The Party concerns the date rape of Lucy, the well-intentioned but damaged wife of the cold Martin, who fails to see in him what the reader can detect a mile off. Day very skilfully depicts a familiar scenario of university nightlife, involving a naive fresher with too much to drink (Lucy) and a handsome charmer who lures her to his digs and won't take no for an answer when he goes too far.
The author escaped such a misfortune in her college days, but she has friends who have been sexually assaulted.
"It's a terrifyingly widespread problem, particularly on university campuses," she says. "Lucy doesn't report the rape to the police because she, like many female undergraduates, wrongly assumes she must be partly to blame. As a young woman, in your late teens and early 20s, you are still struggling to find your way and only at the beginning of a lifelong journey to understand yourself.
"Because Lucy is still unsure of herself, she's also unsure of how to be in a relationship, and the rape knocks her confidence to such an extent that she turns it inward and questions herself, rather than her attacker.
"I think it's only years later, when she's in therapy, that she realises what happened to her and is able to give it the label it deserves - and this happens in tandem with her facing her own anger for the first time. By the end of the book, I feel Lucy is the strongest of all of them, because she's the only character who is able to be honest about - and true to - herself."
Counsellors or therapists feature, to some degree, in all Elizabeth Day novels. A strong advocate of counselling, she is open about her own experience of it. "I know there is still a sense in Britain and in Ireland of caution in talking about feelings - you should just get on with it - and I've huge sympathy and admiration for that kind of approach; but for me, it's a way of understanding feelings of anger and so on, you realise that's not the best way of handling things.
"Therapy is incredibly important to me. It has helped me make sense of my own life. And it has got me through some very difficult years of my life, with fertility issues and getting divorced. I'm really grateful for it."
When she was married to journalist Kamal Ahmed, the Economics Editor of BBC News (they separated after four years, in February 2015), Elizabeth had two rounds of IVF before becoming pregnant naturally. She then suffered a miscarriage at three months.
"It was tough. Some people don't understand that it just doesn't happen for some women," she remarks, no hint of self-pity evident.
"I'm very lucky to have writing; it's a real vocation. I think I would be sad otherwise, at not having children, but I very much hope that I will have some day.
"There are so many scientific advances now and you can worry too much and forget to live to be happy in the now. Some women just overwhelmingly need to be a mum. I don't; it doesn't define you as a woman. I feel like the standard bearer for this.
"There are endless parades of newborns on Facebook - at one stage, all my friends were having babies at the same time. Without children, you feel you don't belong to that special group. You're seen as a bit weird.
"Even Theresa May got the brunt of it during the Tory leadership campaign, from her rival Andrea Leadsom, when she suggested that having children gave her an advantage over childless Theresa. That was outrageous."
The Party is dedicated to the writer's younger boyfriend, Jasper Waller-Bridge - a music manager and younger brother of Fleabag writer and actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge - "for running into the street and being in my corner ever since".
"He's tall - which is very important when you're five feet eleven," she laughs. "We met at a christening party - he's my friend's brother and she did me the fabulous service of introducing me to him. It's great to be with another creative person."
She's already writing her fifth, "more suspenseful" novel, which has a back-story set, in part, in Northern Ireland.
But what of that discarded manuscript about the English girl living here in the closing days of the last century? 40,000 words is a lot to throw away ...
"It's another story about outsiders - I might return to it," she concludes. "Ireland is so deeply important to me and there are so many Irish writers I respect, I'd want to be sure to get it right next time."
That's another one for the future reading list, hopefully. In the meantime, book lovers, go and get The Party. There's some sparkling company between those covers.
The Party by Elizabeth Day, 4thEstate, £12.99
Elizabeth’s best and worst of partygoing
Best bash I've ever attended?
A Christmas party held by my friend at the end of 2015, where I met her brother for the first time. He is now my boyfriend. So, OBVIOUSLY, that's the best party ever, in my eyes!
I once travelled to a wedding in a far-flung part of Italy on my own. It took four hours to drive to the venue from the airport and when I got there, I knew absolutely no-one, other than the bride and groom. I spent a lot of time at the reception talking to a 16-year-old cousin who, after a bit, said: 'Anyway, I'm going to go and talk to my friends'. A waiter then spilt a tray of drinks on me. I couldn't even escape to my room, because it was on the edge of the hotel courtyard where all the celebrations were taking place. I was so happy to leave that one.
I met Pierce Brosnan, the late, great film director Robert Altman, Rosamund Pike and Kate Winslet in one night at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards, which I went to as one of my first jobs as a professional journalist, so that was pretty good. They were all lovely, but particularly Robert Altman, and Pierce Brosnan's wife complimented me on my tuxedo, so I've loved her ever since.
Worst party guest?
People who don't think you're important enough to talk to and keep looking over your shoulder in case there's someone they'd rather be with, are the worst. That happens a lot.
My best friend, Emma, who's a therapist (a wonderful combination). She does an amazing dance routine to Salt N' Pepa's Push It.
My ideal party and ideal famous guests?
It would be black-tie, with endless champagne and canapes, leading into a night of dancing, and held in a beautiful French chateau (listen, no-one said I was a cheap date!). I'd like to invite Beyonce and Jay-Z, Barack and Michelle Obama, Dr Dre, Evelyn Waugh, the Kardashians, Henry VIII and Leonardo di Caprio. Now wouldn't THAT be a party?