This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.


Elizabeth Day has succeeded through failure. The success is undeniable: her podcast has seen 35 million downloads, her novel Magpie is this week’s Book at Bedtime on Radio 4, and her new book, Friendaholic has already drawn praise from such luminaries as Booker Prize-winner Bernardine Evaristo. But her “failure” is a bit more… complicated.

In 2016, aged 37, and after eight years working as a staff writer at The Observer – without promotion or pay rise – she quit and went freelance. That dramatic career shift coincided with seismic changes in her personal life: “I was going through a divorce and ultimately unsuccessful fertility treatment,” she tells me candidly. “Then I got into another relationship that ended three weeks before my 39th birthday. I felt personally like a failure. I was looking down the barrel of my 40s, not where I thought I would be. I felt devastated.

“If you’ve ever been through heartbreak, you’ll know that you can’t really listen to music because it makes you feel like the star of your own dispiriting indie movie. So I started listening to podcasts and I realised they were an amazing place to have intimate conversations. Because I was feeling like a failure, I wanted to ask people about when they had felt like failures, what failure had taught them, and how they got through it.”

In July 2018, Day eBayed her wedding dress, hired a sound producer, secured sponsorship from a houmous brand (the money was minimal, but the houmous plentiful) and designed her own logo with felt-tips. That was the starting point for How to Fail, the chart-topping podcast that has amassed those many million downloads, has had a run of sell-out live shows and hosted the likes of Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Greta Thunberg as guests.

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“The podcast is one of the greatest gifts life has given me, because I feel accepted as I really am. For so much of my life, I was trying to pretend to be better than I was. At The Observer I was trying to be perceived as more serious, more high-brow, cleverer than I felt. In relationships, I was trying to work out what the other person wanted me to be, then try to be the best version of that. With How to Fail, all of that went and I was able to be myself. People liked when I shared something of my own vulnerability. That was so liberating.”

Speaking to Day, it’s hard to imagine her being anything other than successful. She’s articulate, her responses are well formed and thought through, she is instantly likeable. It’s no wonder she has created such an intimate, loyal listenership, one that made her memoir, How to Fail: Everything I’ve Ever Learned from Things Going Wrong, a bestseller.

Podcasting aside, Day is an established author, with five novels and four non-fiction books to her name. Friendaholic unpicks Day’s own addiction to friendship while also looking at the concept’s social history and trying to give this complicated yet important relationship in our lives a language.

“Friendship is the passion of my life,” she says. “It’s my platonic love affair that has seen me through so much; it’s been such a consistent support throughout my life. I started thinking about how we elevate romantic love so much in our society but we don’t pay a lot of attention to friendship, even though we know it’s important.”

The idea for the book occurred to Day during the pandemic, a time when many were reassessing the relationships in their lives. “Our diaries had emptied out overnight and we missed certain people and not others. I realised that before lockdown, I’d spent so much time saying yes to people who asked, that I hadn’t spent enough time with my core group of friends who never place demands on my time. That was the starting point for the book.”

What followed was a work that unpacks the significance and evolution of friendship, but imbued with personal memoir. Day interviews five of her closest friends – each of whom represents a different aspect of what friendship means to her – including journalist Sathnam Sanghera with whom she was initially set up on a date, but who has become a good friend. Others include her best friend of 20 years, and another who had a brain haemorrhage and had to reassess her life.

So what is Day’s main takeaway from writing the book? “How much I love my friends! That sounds like a cop-out, but I spent a wonderful time with five friends asking questions I wouldn’t normally. I love them all for their extraordinary generosity and perception.”

And now, with such success to her name, does that put even more pressure on her creative endeavours to perform well? “It’s not difficult for me to keep writing because it’s my passion. But having an audience makes it so much more rewarding! Getting where I am now was never my plan, but it’s so much better than the plan I had for myself.”

Friendaholic is available to purchase now.

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