Elizabeth Day: Home fires burning bright

13 March 2013

Journalist and novelist Elizabeth Day is back with her second book, Home Fires, a delicate examination of a family in the wake of a bereavement and the effect that war has on life back home. Her writing is emotive - sad and triumphant in equal measure and the book has a lot of heart. Elizabeth is also a successful journalist, writing features for the Observer.

Nikesh caught up with Elizabeth to talk about her process - writing fiction and journalism, how she put Home Fires together and what she really thought of rapper Snoop Dogg.

Hello Elizabeth, how are you today and what did you have for breakfast?

I'm very well thanks. Enjoying the sunshine after what has felt like approximately a decade of overcast skies and skin-rippingly cold wind. For breakfast, I had a Jazz Apple (I'm very particular about my apples), some Brazil nuts and raisins and a cup of Rooibos tea.
In your years as a journalist, who has been the most surprisingly fascinating interviewee?
Snoop Dogg was unbelievably charismatic and clever and basically reduced me to a pathetic, giggling schoolgirl. And although I don't agree with his politics, Clint Eastwood was deeply charming - we had 20 minutes of allotted time and it overran to 40. He was just effortlessly engaged, wise and interested in other people - it's rare to get that combination in modern-day actors. 
But actually, the most fascinating interviewees have been the ones you never will have heard of - the ordinary people who have experienced extraordinary things. I did a piece on homelessness at the beginning of the year and spoke to men and women who had been living on the streets for years. I learned so much from them - about basic survival, the endurance levels required and also the petty things you never consider like having to carry your stuff everywhere you go in case someone else steals it, and that being a real nuisance when you just want to look at the DVDs in HMV.
The two modes of writing are different but complementary. In both, I need to tell a story.Can you talk a bit about yourself the novelist and yourself the journalist and whether you'd always planned to write fiction and the difference in your working processes for fiction and journalism?
I've always wanted to write. From a very early age I can remember thinking writing books would be a lovely thing to do. The idea of being a journalist grew out of that. I realised that, if I wanted to write, I needed to learn my craft and it would be brilliant if I could be paid for doing so. I was about seven when I made this decision and I've never regretted it. So I went into journalism always having a pipe dream that I would one day write fiction too. 
The two modes of writing are different but complementary. In both, I need to tell a story. When I write a feature, my main aim is to communicate with the reader in a fluent and engaging way. I have a series of points to get across and a series of voices I want to make heard. I have a loyalty to the people I write for and about. 
When I write a book, I want to convey the texture of feelings and emotions with as much precision as I can muster. I want to develop rich, complex characters and to have a sense of the rhythm and lyricism of language. I'm interested in an emotional, rather than a purely factual truth. And I really try not to think of readers or critics or anyone else. There's an immense liberation in that - in journalism, I self-censor more because I'm aware an editor is probably going to read it and cross out all the adjectives. In fiction, I tend to allow myself to write without too much restraint and then I go back and edit. Brutally. I could probably have edited every sentence some more, to be honest.
On a practical level, I have different processes for the two forms. For journalism, I write at my desk and I sit there until the piece is finished. I don't allow myself to get panicked by a blank page. I get things down. I try not to put myself into the text too much: the kind of features I write should be about giving other people a voice, not emphasising my own. 
For fiction, I write on a laptop in a cafe - any cafe with strong coffee and not too many toddlers. I set myself a target of 1,000 words and I just get on and write them. Then, the next time, I'll read through what I've done and edit. I'm a great believer in leaving words to settle overnight and going back to read them with fresh eyes. Things leap out at you that you don't notice when you're tired.
...my columns for The Derry Journal at the age of 12 on Kylie and Jason are quite something to beholdHow did you get into journalism?
I wrote for local newspapers all through school (my columns for The Derry Journal at the age of 12 on Kylie and Jason are quite something to behold) and was a section editor for my university paper. I also got work experience and internships wherever I could. I did a History degree and was thinking about doing a traineeship scheme or a postgraduate course after graduating but my friend dragged me along to a careers evening I didn't want to go to and bizarrely, I ended up speaking to the deputy editor of The Londoner's Diary on the Evening Standard. He offered me a week's work experience, which turned into a job. After a year on the Standard, I went to the Sunday Telegraph as a news reporter on a three-month trial. Luckily they kept me on.
Your second novel is out now. Tell us about it. What was it about the war that made you want to tell this story?
Home Fires tells the story of one family and the impact war has had on that family through the generations. There are two connecting strands: one section is set in 1920 and follows Elsa, a six-year-old girl whose father has just come back from the First World War a changed man. The second section deals with the modern-day fortunes of Caroline and Andrew, whose son Max is a soldier and is serving overseas. Max's absence forces them to confront truths about their own marriage and about each other. Their home life is further disrupted by the arrival of Andrew's mother who has suffered a stroke and is no longer able to care for herself.

I've always been fascinated on the impact war has on the home front because I'm interested in unexamined bits of history.Was the family based on any real stories or families you'd heard about? How did you balance family drama and tragedy with real life events?

I've always been fascinated on the impact war has on the home front because I'm interested in unexamined bits of history. It struck me that although lots had been written about men's experience of the First World War - the men who died in the trenches, or those who came back suffering from extreme shell-shock - not that much had been written about the women who coped with the aftermath. I was intrigued by the idea of a man who - on the surface, at least - survived the Great War unharmed and who returned home to a daughter who had never really known him and a wife who had been surviving for four years without him. It must have been the cause of pain for so many families - the women struggling to understand and the man unable to find the language to convey what he had been through. I was hugely influenced by Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, which does detail a woman's experience with such ferocity and emotion that, after reading it, you never look at the First World War in quite the same way again.
The modern strand was influenced by my day-job. For a while, as a journalist, I was coming into contact with a lot of parents who had lost their children in Iraq or Afghanistan, many of whom felt let down by the government who had sent their beloved children to war. I wanted to explore this in Home Fires, as well as the idea of a woman who is angry in her grieving, rather than docile and accepting. I wanted to look at the corrosive nature of loss and also ask a deeper question about whether it is better to die a hero than come back a damaged man.
The third element, which I think is crucial to the book, is a study of ageing. Andrew's mother has suffered a stroke and is reliant on others, which is a cause of immense frustration to her. I think we shy away from examining the indignities of age and it was important to me to get across how difficult it is both to care for the elderly and for the elderly to cope with their own infirmity. This was definitely influenced by seeing my own grandmother go through something similar - and the impact it had on my mother looking after her. It's partly why Home Fires is dedicated to my grandparents.
Being a journalist, how did you avoid a degree of impartiality on some of the socio-political elements of the book?

It wasn't difficult for me to avoid impartiality! If anything, it's probably too partial. Once I'm in the mind of a character, I completely lose that sense of journalistic objectivity. But the book does include a walk-on part for my newspaper, The Observer.
Did you find writing about grief and bereavement difficult? How did you keep a novelist's eye for such tragedy?
Yes but I also found it necessary. I've experienced the loss of several loved ones in my life, some of whom had reached old age and some of whom died far too young. The quality of grief you feel is different and I wanted to get that across. I'm not sure how I kept a novelist's eye - there was just all this stuff I wanted to express, that I wanted to describe in the most authentic way possible and the best way to do that seemed to be fiction.
...trains really are a wonderful place to write: there's that sense of being cocooned and calm...With such a busy dayjob, how do you find the time to write?
I write on a laptop in a cafe drinking a strong Americano that gradually cools as I begin to overstay my welcome. Partly because of my busy job, there's no particular time of day - I snatch a few hours wherever I can. In the evening, after I've filed a piece. On a train somewhere (trains really are a wonderful place to write: there's that sense of being cocooned and calm). And at weekends, I'll go for a bicycle ride, then settle down to write without having to worry about newspaper deadlines.
Having said that, there are times when I need to have a solid week working on the book without any other distractions and then I go to St Ives where dear friends of mine have a beautiful flat overlooking the sea and the lighthouse that inspired Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse. Home Fires was redrafted there.
Tell us about your storytelling club at the art gallery you set up?
Pin Drop is a fantastic initiative I co-founded with the gallerist Simon Oldfield that aims to re-engage adults with the spoken word. We present contemporary and classic literature read by world-leading narrators in unexpected contexts, places and locations. Narrations are held in brilliant spaces - be it a contemporary art gallery, a museum by candlelight or a film studio. At the moment, we're doing weekly sessions at Simon's gallery at 6 Carlos Place, Mayfair. There is no fee to attend one of our narrations and no requirement to buy an author's book. It is open to all comers, unintimidating and inclusive. We've found that the idea has really captured people's imaginations: in a world where communication is conducted through computer screens, friendships are maintained online and adult literacy is on a downward curve, there's something lovely about switching off your mobile and being told a story for half an hour with a glass of wine in your hand.


...you can write seriously without losing an element of humour, or so I'm told.What are you currently working on?
I'm writing something set in London, with four main characters whose stories intertwine. Each of the characters has lost someone important in their life and they are defined almost as much by this person's absence as by their own presence. So it's loss and absence... again. But my challenge this time is to allow some lightness into my writing: you can write seriously without losing an element of humour, or so I'm told.
What book are you currently reading?
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. It was recommended to me by a couple of people, one of whom said it was an extraordinary study of grief and age (my two pet themes! Hooray!) and one of whom was my mother, whose advice I always follow.
Home Fires by Elizabeth Day is out now on Bloomsbury

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