Award-winning author and journalist Elizabeth Day chats journalism, novels and hot Ribena

Hollywood’s everyman Matt Damon found himself a focal point for the Internet’s collective ire back in September 2015.

“Matt Damon thinks gay actors should stay in the closet.”

“Matt Damon is a homophobe.”

The accusations flew in thick and fast, his comments taken thoroughly out of context, and he rapidly ascended that very public wall of shame – Facebook’s top trending.

Damon actually, in typically reserved fashion, said: “I think you’re a better actor the less people know about you period, and sexuality is a huge part of that. Whether you’re straight or gay.”

The journalist sat opposite Damon when he made those remarks was The Observer’s Elizabeth Day.

She spent the latter half of 2015 doing what pop stars call ‘conquering America’.

A columnist by 12, feature writer of the year in 2013, and a Betty Trask award for her first novel Scissors Paper Stone.

Day is an outrageous talent and her interviews, features and now, TV reviews win her almost weekly acclaim.

She has a knack for telling stories which people acutely feel, whether that’s through laughter, sobs, or both.

“I’ve always been what I would call curious, and what others might term nosy, about other people,” she admitted in a typically self-depreciating fashion.

Lots of people are nosey, but few get to interview A-listers and fewer still do so with such success.

“The act of asking questions came naturally to me but the art of interviewing is something I had to learn to get better at,” she insisted.

“The interview is a curious beast because it masquerades as a conversation but actually it’s an entirely manufactured set up where the interviewer has a list of questions they need to ask.

“Often there’s always one they know the interviewee is going to hate and as a journalist you kind of have to brace yourself for that one and know that asking it is part of doing your job.

“The interviewee has stuff they need to promote and a whole pile of other things they don’t want to talk about while pretending to be easy and charming and natural.”

Remove the agenda and it can boil down to something much simpler.

The real craft, which Day possesses in spades, seems to be in moving past the pretense, the fabricated layer of coolness to reveal a personality worth hearing about or a story that needs to be told.

“I’m fascinated by what makes people tick, what their upbringing was like, how they get on with their family, what makes them laugh or cry, and I suppose it all comes back to the same thing – it’s about trying to make sense of life.”

Grandiose, maybe, but she’s right.

For all the glitz and glamour of interviewing Matt Damon, Day’s best work, and the pieces she says elicit the most personal pride, are those done far away from Hollywood superstars.

Kendrec McDade is one of the 1,134 people killed by US police officers in 2015.

One of the African-American men who make up 2% of the US population, but comprise 15% of those killed by police in 2015.

The 19-year-old was killed by two officers in Pasadena, California on March 24 2012.

Despite never activating their emergency lights or turning on their sirens, which would in turn have activated a dashboard camera, the two officers claimed they feared for their lives.

The officers were following up a 911 call for a stolen laptop.  The caller, who later admitted to lying about this fact, said he had been held up at gunpoint and the suspect was a black male.

McDade found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and the officers, believing he was the suspect, chased him into an alley.

Trapped between the patrol car and an officer on foot, he was shot four times from the front and three from behind.

Despite the circumstances Pasadena police resisted an Office of Independent Review report which until Day came along remained unpublished in full.

McDade’s mother’s lawyer Dale Gronemeier called Day’s article ‘the best article that has ever been written about Kendrec’s shooting’.

“That is the kind of journalism I am proudest of doing,” she admitted.

“Where I, hopefully, let someone’s story speak for them. I really admire narrative journalism where the journalist removes themselves from the prose in order to let the action speak for itself.

“To my mind, that’s how you show respect for the story a person you’ve only just met is choosing to trust you with – they deserve your humility.”

Throughout Day’s telling of McDade’s story, tears or vomit never seem far away and how she wrote it without enveloping her laptop in a puddle of weepy sick is a mystery.

The difficulty it seems is retaining distance from something as atrocious as McDade’s case, but Day suggests to the contrary.

She maintained that if you cannot empathise, you cannot possibly do the story justice.

“I think emotional distance is overrated. One of the reasons I am a writer is because I want to be able to communicate an experience in a way that makes the reader not just understand it but feel it.

“That can only be done if you, the journalist, feel it first.

“When I meet the people who are in the grip of some devastating grief or injustice, sometimes I think it’s important to show them if you are moved by what they are saying because it’s real. It’s honest. It’s human.”

This wealth of experience has been poured into three novels: Scissors Paper StoneHome Fires and Paradise City.

Most journalists would tell you that writing fiction and writing fact are two completely different entities, and that being a talented writer does not make a great journalist.

Day is pretty adept at both. Asked if the two were difficult to combine, she said: “Well, it’s not exactly coal-mining.”

“It does require two different mindsets but there is also overlap.

“The other wonderful thing about journalism is the people I get to meet and the intrusive questions I get to ask – there’s no better preparation for writing character or dialogue.”

She cites fellow journalist-cum-author Tom Wolfe as inspiration, along with Anne Tyler and Vera Brittain.

Another author she admires is Elizabeth Jane Howard – author of The Cazalet Chronicles and former wife of Kingsley Amis.

“Howard is one of those great writers who never got her due partly because she was a woman married to a more famous man – Amis – partly because her novels are never showy and don’t shout about their style and partly because she writes about families.

“When female authors do this, they’re pigeonholed as being domestic observers, whereas when men do it, think Jonathan Franzen, everyone says they’re writing a state-of-the-nation novel.”

Day has managed through both her journalism and her novels to capture the state of more than one nation.

Although she traded in Blighty for California’s sunshine, she’s safely back on British soil – away from those pesky over-friendly Americans who she said were less likely to run a mile when she mentioned her profession – all thanks to a home-comfort she could not live without: hot Ribena.

Picture courtesy of Jenny Smith Photography, with thanks

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