Author Elizabeth Day on the inspiration behind writing The Party and her fascination with unreliable narrators.
I started writing The Party by ditching something else. For months, I’d been forcing myself to tell the story of an unhappy English girl transplanted to Northern Ireland in the 1980s, at the height of The Troubles. It was a dreary tale of teenage outsidership set against a backdrop of bombs, bullying and more bombs. I don’t know why I did it to myself. Every time I sat down at my laptop, it was like wading through treacle. It felt as if I had to winch every sentence up from a great subterranean depth. Finally, 40,000 words in, I gave up.
I was in a London branch of Pret A Manger when it happened. I like to write in cafes, amid the hubbub of other people. On this particular day, I logged onto my computer and I just knew I couldn’t carry on. I’d been going through a tricky time in my personal life – I’d just had a miscarriage and my marriage was in the process of imploding – and I wanted some respite. I didn’t want to write about terrorism and unhappy adolescents. I wanted to write about rich, glamorous people having fun! I wanted to write about a party.
It just so happened that I’d been to a real-life party some months before at which I’d met rock stars, supermodels and a former Prime Minister, so I started by describing my own impressions of that intensely surreal evening. I automatically wrote in the first person and then this male voice came to me as I typed. It was the voice of an outsider desperate to belong and he observed everything at the party in great detail, as if taking notes for future study. He was effete and slightly pretentious but he was also shrewd and capable of being acerbically funny. That voice became Martin, my protagonist.
Martin is an unreliable narrator. I’ve always been fascinated by unreliable narrators because I love the ambiguity of their tone. As a reader, you’re left trying to see between the gaps of what is being said in order to work out what is really happening, and that strikes me as a lot like life. As a writer, it’s fun being able to play with people’s prejudices and preconceptions and much of the tension in The Party comes from the collision of Martin’s narrative with his wife Lucy’s version of the same events. Martin sees Lucy as a pliant, loyal spouse. But she turns out to be much, much more than this.
The Party has many influences, including The Talented Mr Ripley (both the novel by Patricia Highsmith and the superlative film adaptation), The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. A few early readers have also compared it to Brideshead Revisited, which is absurdly flattering. What all these works have in common is the voice of the outsider: the person who sits on the edge of the action while secretly wishing to be at the centre.
There’s a little bit of that in me. In fact, there’s probably a bit of it in all of us.
13th July 2017
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