Elizabeth Day: 'I'm sick of being told that I'm not allowed to tell my story'

The journalist, author and broadcaster speaks to Olivia Petter about failed relationships, breaking up with a younger man and the roots of that shocking miscarriage scene in 'Fleabag'

Sunday 31 March 2019 16:43 BST
'Women’s stories have been marginalised for too long'
'Women’s stories have been marginalised for too long'

There’s a scene in the new series of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s dark comedy Fleabag that stands out. In the middle of an awkward family dinner, the heroine’s sister Claire (Sian Clifford) rushes to the bathroom. Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag follows, offering her a wad of tissue, assuming it’s a heavy period. It isn’t. It’s a miscarriage.

For journalist and author Elizabeth Day, it struck a particular chord. It was her own restaurant miscarriage that inspired it – “although mine was over brunch not dinner”, the 40-year-old tells me, in an airy bookshop cafe in central London. “Phoebe’s a good friend,” she explains. “She called me months ago to say she’d just written an episode and unwittingly put something in it that I’d told her.”

To some, the thought of having an experience you’d lived through turned into television would induce an avalanche of anxiety – especially one as traumatic as this. But Day was more than happy for the Killing Eve writer to use her story. Firstly, it was “incredibly respectful” of Waller-Bridge to call first, she says, but it was also an opportunity to raise awareness for an under-discussed and common issue. “The more that is shown about this, the better,” Day says, pointing out how little screen time is given to women’s health problems. “We almost never see menstrual blood, but look at how much blood from violence there is.”

The topic that Day and I are actually here to discuss is failure. In 2018, she launched “How to Fail with Elizabeth Day”, the podcast where guests discuss three of their biggest failures. Ironically, it’s been a huge success. Now, she’s written a book on the subject: How to Fail: Everything I’ve Ever Learned From Things Going Wrong, a memoir-slash-life-guide based on failing, at everything from family and relationships to sport and “being Gwyneth Paltrow”. It includes quotes from previous podcast episodes – guests have included Lily Allen and Alastair Campbell – but the majority of it is written in Day’s voice.

This is a woman who graduated from Cambridge with a double first, has won multiple awards for her journalism, and written a best-selling novel called The Party, a gripping thriller with shades of The Talented Mr Ripley. She’s supremely gifted, yet failure has somehow become her thing.

“You can look at people and think they have everything,” Day says, glossy-haired and clad in a white polo-neck with gold jewellery. “But to hear them say they’ve failed is an incredibly democratising thing. Opening up to that shows vulnerability, and connecting to what makes us most vulnerable is what makes us human.”

I’m still not convinced Day or her roster of high-profile guests are suitable spokespeople for failure, so I press her on it. “You never really know how someone’s feeling inside,” she says. “I have an extremely wonderful life and I’m incredibly privileged. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t phases of my life that weren’t really tough to live through.”

Day was her own podcast guest last year and, like her predecessors, picked three failures to unpack. One was her “failure” to conceive, in a society that places that stamp on women who make it past 35 without children. It’s something she gets asked about a lot.

“I always thought I’d follow the conventional narrative of getting married and having children. But it didn’t work out that way and I will never tire of talking about it until the stigma attached to that is addressed,” she says, her speech quickening. “There’s an overwhelming weight placed on women to become mothers, and if they don’t, the failure is [seen as] theirs. Even if it’s not a medical failure, it’s perceived that you’re not maternal enough or that you must be slightly weird or obsessed with your career.”

Day’s difficulty was, in fact, primarily medical. She went through two cycles of in-vitro fertilisation during her three-year-long marriage to BBC journalist Kamal Ahmed. Neither worked. Then, to her surprise, she became pregnant naturally but miscarried after three months. “It’s been a long journey for me and it has been really sad, but I’m now at peace with the fact that it’s highly unlikely I’ll have my own biological child.” Her tone is breezy. “I’m extremely open to adoption and I’m also lucky that I have godchildren and nieces in my life. That is a real gift.”

In 2019, this attitude shouldn’t seem progressive. But apparently it is. After we meet, a newspaper runs an extract from Day’s book online, with a headline that skews her optimism: “Elizabeth Day opens up about the agony of her childlessness”. Day quickly posted a screenshot on Instagram urging her followers to “please ignore” the publication’s wording.

Two months after Day miscarried – “one of the most gruelling nights of my life” – she and Ahmed got divorced. She doesn’t name him in the book or during our conversation today, and recounts the details of their split carefully, revealing that it was her decision and little else. “I write about him as a fact,” she says, explaining that she was keen not to describe him extensively, so as to keep the focus of that chapter on her own trajectory.

After the divorce, Day found herself single for the first time in 17 years, aged 36. What followed was a series of “hilariously bad dates” with men she met on apps and through friends, including one who came to her flat with a camp bed because hers was “inconveniently sized”.

She soon fell in love with a younger man. After two years together, he broke up with her “out of the blue”. It was three weeks before Day’s 39th birthday. She recalls her feelings at this time in a chapter entitled “Anger”, because what was initially extreme sadness soon spiralled into “something far more jagged and uncomfortable: it was anger. I was so f**king angry.”

Fleabag series 2 trailer

Day explains how she was angry at herself for pretending a nine-year age difference didn’t matter, and at him for not being ready to have kids yet, and having the biological luxury to say so. “You think women are magically ready for babies at the precise time their ovaries kick into gear?”

Looking back on it all, though, Day sees her relationship “failures” as the biggest learning experiences of all. “Because every time one ended I felt so devastated, then I realised I was strong enough to deal with it. After a break-up you realise you have all this latent strength that needs firing up, and once it’s fired up, no one can ever f**king take advantage of you again.”

Even when speaking heatedly, Day forms sentences that flow fluidly from start to finish, like a car purring through the countryside. I suspect this is because she’s an experienced interviewer, and has well-oiled responses to questions she would’ve asked herself in this scenario. But when I ask whether any of the exes she writes about extensively in the book have read it, that fluency hits a slight bump. “No”. It’s the first time Day has given me a one-word answer. She pauses, looks elsewhere, and contemplates a response to the single question I gather she might not have anticipated.

She smiles and resumes. “They don’t know they’re in it, but I don’t see this as settling scores. My story is my story and I will tell it how I want to tell it. I’m actually sick of being told that I‘m not allowed that. Women’s stories have been marginalised for too long. It’s not acceptable any more. It’s time to reclaim the narrative in whatever way we can.” This is the second time in our hour-long conversation that I resist an urge to high-five Day – the first was when she told me she “genuinely loves an aubergine” and I passionately concurred.

We move on to discuss what’s next on the agenda: live shows for the podcast, a return to novel writing and a trip to California with her boyfriend (“a wonderful man with three exceptional children”), whom she met on a dating app last year. “Sometimes the things that are best for you won’t come in the package that you anticipated,” Day says. “But you have to allow that to happen, and give opportunities the space to flourish. There’s no point living your life according to your projected self. I used to be someone with a five-year plan. Now I feel so much more present and content when I’m just open to possibilities as they arise.”

How to Fail: Everything I’ve Ever Learned From Things Going Wrong is published by 4th Estate on 4 April. Elizabeth will be performing How to Fail Live with a special guest at the Bridge Theatre on 5 May. Tickets:

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