Elizabeth Day: The best writing is an exercise in imaginative empathy
Elizabeth Day has lived an eventful life. A former journalist, broadcaster and an author of six books, Day has over the years won numerous admirers thanks to her popular podcast How to Fail which in turn led to a non-fiction book How to Fail: Everything I’ve Ever Learned From Things Going Wrong.
The premise of the show, the author says, was quite simple. “I launched my podcast, How To Fail in July 2018. The premise was simple: I would interview seemingly ‘successful’ people about the times in their lives when things hadn’t gone according to plan. The idea of the podcast came out of failures in my own life, and my realisation that I’d learned more from them than from the times when everything had gone right,” she says.
What transpired was the thought to put pen to paper and with a well maintained journal, in no time, there was something on offer for the writer — a memoir. “After two years of the podcast, I realised not only that certain themes kept coming up again and again but that I also had this incredible resource of collective wisdom from my guests that had changed the way I lived my life for the better. So, Failosophy came about as a distillation of all that - it explains seven key ‘failure principles’ and offers pragmatic, aspirational and helpful advice from a range of people, including myself, on what do when you encounter crisis or a bump in the road,” she adds.
“There are insights and quotes from former guests including Malcolm Gladwell, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Alain de Botton, Meera Syal and many more,” says the author, whose latest work Failosophy: A Handbook For When Things Go Wrong takes these reporting further.
What about the lockdown? Is solitude a gift for an author? Day says it is, but only when writing. Otherwise, the trappings of these odious past few months have restricted an author’s touch with the world. “The answer is both yes and no,” she says, adding, “I cherish solitude when I’m writing, but I wouldn’t want it all the time. I think it’s necessary for writers to be engaged with the world around them in order to write better books and to gain a deeper understanding of other people. The best writing, for me, is an exercise in imaginative empathy.”
Day is also a popular fiction writer. Her novel Scissors Paper Stone (2012) won the Betty Trask Award propelling her to stardom. The 42-year-old author says Indian literature, in particular, has had a major effect on her literary aspirations ever since she can remember.
“I think India has produced some of the best epic literature. The country has such a noble literary history,” she says, adding, “I love the novels of Rohinton Mistry - A Fine Balance is one of my all-time favourites. Jhumpa Lahiri is an incredible story-teller. I admire all her work, but especially her short stories. A Temporary Matter is superb. Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music is, again, one of my most cherished books. I’ve also read Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, Aravind Adiga…the list goes on and on...” she concludes.