From Pride and Prejudice to Podcasts: a (somewhat) Idle Chit Chat with Elizabeth Day
‘I am so sorry for gushing!’ is something I keep having to remind Elizabeth Day whilst we speak. The trouble is, I can’t seem to help myself. I don’t think it’s an actual word, but Day is, very gush-worthy. Author, journalist and podcast host, she is a new form of triple threat.
I first heard of Day from her journalism. As I tell her in my initial (and typically gushy) message: ‘I am always pleasantly unsurprised to discover, when I finish reading an article I’ve particularly enjoyed, more often than not it has been written by you!’ She has written four novels and her fifth, ‘part memoir, part manifesto’, will be released in April. The book is called ‘How To Fail’, taken from her enormously successful podcast ‘How To Fail With Elizabeth Day’. The podcasts are a brilliant set of interviews in which Day asks guests to reassess their biggest failures, examining just how much they’ve learned from them. After speaking to Day I decide that perhaps my biggest failure would be my total inability to conceal my admiration for her? I’ll leave it for you to decide.
Maddy Fletcher: I should start by stating that I’m absolutely thrilled to be interviewing you. In a similar vein: from the long list of incredible people you have interviewed in the past, were there any subjects you were particularly excited to speak to? Also, is there anyone you are yet to profile but are dying to do so?
Elizabeth Day: Thank you! I'm delighted to be chatting to you too. Clint Eastwood sticks out as a pretty amazing interviewee because he's a bona fide Hollywood legend. Initially I was only given 20 minutes with him and that added to the nervous anticipation. In the end, he was so charming and generous that he gave me double the time. It was an early lesson in realising that the true stars - the ones who've been in it for a long time at the top of their game - are successful at least partly because they're charismatic and polite to people. There are a few notable exceptions to this rule, but generally I've found it to be true. In terms of dream interviewees, I'd love to do Barack and Michelle Obama, Jay Z and Beyonce (that makes it sound like I want an orgy with them, which I don't...I mean...well..not as much as I want an interview). Dr Dre would be up there too - I'm a big 90s hip hop fan.
MF: I have an article lined up detailing my fascination with Beyoncé, so I couldn’t agree more with you. Something I have noticed whilst listening to How to Fail is the differences with which men and women tackle the show’s demands. I found it ever so slightly funny that Sebastian Faulks struggled to come up with a single failure, whereas nearly all the female guests rattle their failures off very freely. This is clearly not the case for all the male guests on your show (I thought Alastair Campbell’s interview was incredibly (and brilliantly!) honest) but I certainly think there is a often a noted difference between male and female guests’ ability to dissect their failures. Do you agree and did you anticipate this?
I suspect that women are probably taught from an early age to be more self depreciating than men, thus the discussion of their failures comes fairly naturally. What I have found so intriguing about your podcast is that previously I would have considered this instilled sense of self deprecation amongst women to be a negative. A lack of confidence that we ought to shed in order to succeed. Maybe this is to an extent still true, but I think that your podcast, and it’s reevaluation of failure, suggests that an ability to admit and learn from your failings is incredibly positive. So: are women, better equipped to fail, thus more likely to succeed?
ED: This is an interesting one on many levels. I was fascinated when I first started approaching interviewees to appear on the podcast to find there was a general difference between how men and women responded to my request. Most of the men replied saying they weren't sure they *had* failed, and maybe I should look elsewhere? Most of the women's automatic reflex was to say they'd failed at so much that it was going to be hard to whittle it down. As you point out, this does not apply to everyone and I'm disinclined to stereotype by gender. Also, as the podcast has grown and more people understand the idea behind it (which is that we learn from our failures rather than allowing ourselves to be defined by them forevermore), the men I now have on are far more willing to open up - so I suppose they've become a self-selecting group.
I do think that women, like me, who have been raised in the 80s and 90s, were broadly taught by society to be nice and amenable and pleasant and pliant and kind - these were all worthy female attributes. Whereas a lot of men have been brought up to believe they should be bold and assertive and go-getting. That is definitely changing, and I take great heart from the way our world has become less binary. Having said that, I do think there's a residual attitude that women are expected to self-deprecate while men are expected to self-promote. There's been some interesting research done about this in the workplace - the idea that men will go for a promotion if they meet six out of 10 of the criteria, whereas women are more likely to focus on the four they don't have and therefore won't apply. In this way, their perfectionism becomes the enemy of progression. So I do believe there's a sense in which women might be more attuned to noticing the things they're not doing right or the things that have gone wrong for them, and to analyse and process what that means for them personally or how much of a part they had to play in it. And as you astutely point out, this might actually mean that they are better placed to learn from their mistakes and to evolve from them, which paradoxically leads to a greater sense of 'success' both in personal growth and possible professional achievement.
I do think that it's important for women and men to reclaim the language around this - which is why, in my How To Fail interview with Jessie Burton, we talked about how crucial it was for women to be able to say they were ambitious without there being any negative connotation around it and why I'm always careful to ask men how they feel about being fathers, in order to redress the balance of decades of high-profile women being relentlessly asked about how they juggle careers and children. I think it's only by having these sorts of open conversations that we stop adhering to these socially-constructed 'norms' which don't really fit our individual selves. That's when we stop holding ourselves back.
MF: Now for the most important question of this entire interview. I read that Elizabeth Bennet is your literary heroine - I sincerely hope this is still true because I wholeheartedly agree. Obviously the brilliance of the novel Pride and Prejudice is completely and utterly indisputable, but I am very interested to know your thoughts on one pressing P&P problem: which do you prefer the BBC adaptation or the Keira Knightley version?
ED: I love this question so much! I prefer the BBC version because Jennifer Ehle will always, to my mind, be the quintessential Lizzie Bennet. However, although I realise it's borderline heretical to say this, I think Matthew MacFadyen is a better Darcy than Colin Firth *ducks for cover*
I do like the Keira Knightley film though - I thought it was clever how the director Joe Wright cast actresses who were the same age as the Bennet sisters in the novel and I am, unfashionably, a huge Keira Knightley fan. I think she's a very underrated actress, partly because her beauty means a lot of people don't seem to be able to take her seriously. Also I've interviewed her and she's really great and funny and doesn't take herself too seriously (plus she ate a croissant for breakfast).
MF: Mia and I have long debated Colin Firth as Darcy, she’s in your camp but I think you’re both completely mad: he is perfect. Moving on, before I enter into a Darcy induced rage. I’m really interested in the relationship between written journalism, podcasts and women. It appears to me that so many of my favourite female writers have ‘boosted their profiles’ (whatever that really means) through podcasts. I have countless friends (mostly girls) who religiously listen to How To Fail, The High Low, Control Alt Delete, Love Stories etc. Lots of these friends (myself included!) didn’t necessarily read a great deal of journalism before, but now have a group of firm favourite female writers we were introduced to via the world of podcasts. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that this is an especially good time for women in journalism, and I wonder if somehow the sudden surge of podcasts has anything to do with this? I’d love to know your thoughts on the matter.
Furthermore, even though I don’t think I actively pick podcasts by the gender of their host, a glance at my library looks like a scene from an all girl’s sixth form. There are just so many exceptional female led podcasts: The Guilty Feminist, Table Manners, Guys We Fucked, Call Your Girlfriend (I could go on and on). Unlike so many other forms of media which are enormously male dominated, podcasts appear to have a much more encouraging gender balance. Do you agree, and if so, have any thoughts as to why?
ED: This is such a lovely thing to hear, it really is. The reason I was drawn to podcasting was because it was something I could have complete creative control over, whereas in my written journalism, I was at the behest of a commissioning editor who would want me to make certain cuts or write up the interview in a certain way and would want me to ask certain questions relevant for a specific publication. It was endlessly frustrating that, because of word counts or decisions made above my head, I could often never include what I thought were the most interesting and personally revealing parts of any interview I did when it came to writing it up.
On top of that, I'd always loved doing radio, but was never asked to do enough of it and when I did come up with my own ideas for programmes, the commissioning process was so lengthy and involved that, quite honestly, it seemed like a waste of time. Like you, I'd listened to a lot of podcasts and loved them, so it seemed a natural fit. I'd been very inspired by watching my friend Phoebe Waller-Bridge just go out and do her own thing in response to not getting the roles she wanted (and that became Fleabag, which worked out well...) so I applied that mindset to How To Fail With Elizabeth Day.
I'm not sure that the podcast surge means it's a particularly good time to be a woman in journalism, but what it does mean is that journalists of all genders get the chance to put out material exactly how they want, and to have their podcast held in a beautifully curated library of other podcasts which means it's accessible to lots of people who are looking for something engaging to listen to. That elevates the podcast from, say, the blog, because right from the start, thanks to iTunes, you can be promoted right next to a classic like Serial, and that's so exciting.
MF: On an entirely separate note: I was very happy to see you on Good Morning Britain defending Love Island against Piers Morgan. I find Love Island strangely life affirming, because actually, unlike most reality TV, there’s a huge emphasis on being kind to each other. I think this was no better exhibited than in ‘original’ Laura from last season - for whom my love knows no bounds. I could frankly write a dissertation on how unassumingly wonderful I thought she was in the villa: consistently sticking up for the other girls, without making an enormous display of it. Anyway, I will stop my highly unscientific analysis of Love Island but I’d love to hear your answer to two incredibly crucial questions: who was your favourite on this years show and (obviously) who would you have wanted to couple up with in the villa.
ED: I loved Laura too and I hated the way she got dubbed 'old Laura' on social media. She was 29 for goodness' sake! My favourites were Jack and Dani, sorry to be so unoriginal, but I really did think they embodied the best of what Love Island is about: real people being nice to each other and honest about their vulnerabilities, trying to form a lasting relationship. I said it to Piers and I'll say it again: it's fascinating anthropological television. Although I'm straight, I would have wanted to couple up with Samira who was ridiculously overlooked by all the stupid men in the villa and then got shafted (not in a good way) by Frankie. She seemed funny and smart and I would have enjoyed her company.
MF: Speaking of reality TV: I’m intrigued to know your opinion on ‘art shaming’. The idea that it is embarrassing to not know about certain high brow pieces of art, but even more humiliating to indulge in the low brow. I made the absolutely fatal error of referencing Lucy Watson from MIC in an university English Literature seminar the other day. I can safely say I have never misjudged something more: disdain does not even begin to cover the expression on my tutor’s face. However, the fiasco got me thinking about art shaming more generally. Yes, I clearly should not have decided that my fairly serious seminar was an appropriate time to reference Chelsea’s most notorious woman, but equally: I shouldn’t be made to feel like a philistine simply because I have dabbled in ‘trashy’ telly. I’d love to know your opinion on the matter.
ED: Lucy Watson is a brilliant thing to talk about in any seminar because she refuses to conform to the traditional norms of 'feminine' behaviour (she's rude, aggressive, she doesn't care what people think about her) while also subscribing to all the modern norms of 'feminine' appearance. I'm fascinated by her!
As you can already tell, I think the distinction between high and low brow art is entirely bogus and designed to make us feel disenfranchised by a cultural elite who want to stay in control of what they deem to be 'taste'. It is absolutely fine for us to like what we like and to be guided by our own judgement in such matters. Of course, that doesn't mean I think a piss-poor piece of graffiti on a train carriage is of the same quality as Picasso's Desmoiselles d'Avignon, but it does mean I have the right to be moved or stimulated or amused or entertained or simply diverted for a few seconds by both. I have learned as much about human behaviour from The Real Housewives franchise as I have from the novels of Tolstoy. That isn't to say I believe The Real Housewives is great literature, any more than I'd claim Anna Karenina would be great in Channel 5's Big Brother slot. It simply means I can appreciate them both, for myriad reasons. I also believe that creators need to have their eyes open to the world. I, for one, need to be immersed in what's happening right now, in order to have new ideas. It's why I prefer writing in cafes rather than isolated country cottages. I want to be around people, so that I can understand them better.
- Maddy Fletcher