Elizabeth Day: “I like writing about rich people – it’s so liberating”

The novelist’s forthcoming book, The Party, is about “the dangerous arrogance of a ruling class and the damage that can cause to other people”

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Elizabeth Day’s new novel, The Party, couldn’t be more topical. The main action is set in 2015, at the height of David Cameron’s Conservative government. “I was a bit worried when Theresa May came to power,” the author says now. “But I think we’re almost looking back at the Cameron/Osborne era with a hint of nostalgia.” 

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The Party is Day’s fourth novel (she’s also a journalist, and writes for RT). It isn’t published until 13 July, but it’s already attracting attention, and television rights have been optioned for a four-part drama. 

The story is focused on the heart of the British establishment, following a group of privileged young men as they progress from public school to Oxford and a fictional Bullingdon Club, and end up running the country. It’s seen through the eyes of Day’s anti-hero, Martin Gilmour, a journalist who can never quite keep up with the smart set, and invokes other literary tales of outsiders, from Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley and LP Hartley’s The Go-Between to Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.  

Although Martin has been married to Lucy for 14 years, he is in love with his best childhood friend, Ben Fitzmaurice. Did Day find it hard writing as a closeted gay man? “It came to me quite naturally,” she says. “I didn’t find it that difficult to think like Martin because we have certain similarities in that sense of outsidership. Although he is darker than I am and more twisted and more repressed, some of his experiences are mine.” 

The Bullingdon Boys, as seen in Channel 4’s 2009 drama-doc When Boris Met Dave

When Day, now 38, moved with her parents at the age of four to Northern Ireland, where her father worked as a surgeon, “it was quite a dislocating experience”, she says. “We moved in 1982 so there were still bombs going off.” Her English accent meant she never fitted in at school. Her way of surviving was to talk less – and observe. It also made her a writer. At the age of 12, she successfully pitched a column to the Derry Journal.

When her parents took her out of her Belfast secondary school and moved her to an English private school, she consciously decided “to befriend the most popular girl in my year”. She recalls being invited home by girls who lived in lovely country houses with flagstone kitchens and Agas. “It gave me a chance to observe how a certain sector of English society lives.” 

After reading history at Cambridge, in her first job in journalism at the London Evening Standard she continued, subconsciously, to gather information about that world, as she was sent to cover “extraordinary parties”. Later she moved on to The Observer, where she spent eight years as a feature writer and celebrity interviewer. 

In person, Day is warm and charming. But her early novels tackled painful topics: war, abuse and family dysfunction. Her first, Scissors, Paper, Stone (which won a 2012 Betty Trask first novel award), about a troubled mother-and-daughter relationship, caused disquiet at home. “My poor mother, who is the loveliest woman, went into stunned silence before saying to me, ‘Do you have dark thoughts all the time?’ I had to reassure her that yes, I get to explore them on the page but no, I’m not depressed.” 

Day’s last novel, Paradise City (2015), was inspired by the downfall of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the disgraced former head of the International Monetary Fund. In the book a female journalist interviews billionaire Sir Howard Pink, who sounds like an amalgam of Topshop’s Philip Green and former M&S head Stuart Rose. “I like writing about rich people,” Day laughs, “because it’s so liberating. Not being a rich person myself.”

When she first had the idea for The Party, Day was going through a “tricky time” in her personal life. “I’d just had a miscarriage and my marriage was in the process of imploding.” Although she was halfway through writing a new novel about an unhappy English girl, “loosely based on my time in Northern Ireland”, she set it aside. “It was really depressing writing about terrorism and bombs and people getting shot at. It felt like I had to dredge every word up from subterranean depths. I wanted to write something fun.” 

The party of the book’s title is Ben’s 40th birthday celebration, where Martin and Lucy realise they are being slowly frozen out. “I’d been to a real-life party some months before at which I’d met rock stars, supermodels and a former prime minister, so I started by describing my own impressions of that intensely surreal evening. This male voice came to me as I typed and became Martin, my protagonist.”

Day’s setting may have a frivolity to it but her message is serious. “The Party is about the dangerous arrogance of a ruling class and the damage that can cause to other people,” she says, citing Cameron’s gamble on offering a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. “And I think that applies to every single ruling class, whatever policies they make.” 

Elizabeth Day will be on Open Book on Radio 4 on 16 July

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