That was the starting point. But I wanted to write about a party that was excessive and to note down all the absurdities of that degree of wealth, so I decided to describe it from the point of view of an outsider who was desperate to belong and yet simultaneously hated himself for this desperation. That meant he would notice everything. Not only that, but he would notice it in a certain, acerbic way. That was Martin.
Once I had his voice, I knew I had to explain his obsession and that was the starting point for Ben and the secret that has bound the two of them together for so many years. I also knew I wanted to explore the age of inequality – the ever-widening gaps between the haves and have-nots in 21st century society and the lingering stain of class, entitlement and arrogance among the ruling elites. A party was the perfect melting pot for these themes because it was a practical way of bringing together a big group of disparate guests, from different backgrounds.
The character of Lucy, Martin’s wife, was a later addition and she came about because I didn’t want Martin to be entirely unsympathetic. Although he occasionally acts in unpleasant, sometimes sociopathic ways, I wanted the reader to understand why he was still worth rooting for. Lucy became a stronger character the more I wrote of her and arguably undergoes the biggest transformation through the course of the novel, which I really like.
I did the bulk of the writing in Los Angeles, which is one of my favourite places in the whole world because you can write outside while getting a tan. Being in a different city in a different country and acclimatising yourself to a different way of life can be extremely liberating as a writer – it shifts something in your creative brain and allows you to breathe and think in a new way. I do also think that there’s something about the Californian blue skies and vast horizons that cheers the spirit.
I finished the novel during three months living in Cambridge, in a beautiful house lent to me by the parents of a dear friend. The house itself was incredibly inspiring – it was filled with books and a sense of comfort – and it was very helpful given that I was writing all the scenes set in Cambridge while I was there. In fact, a key plot twist takes place on the street I was living on – and the house itself makes a brief appearance (it’s the one with the blue shutters).
I initially called the book Little Shadow, which is Ben’s wife’s nickname for Martin. I liked the darkness of that title, the sense of someone trailing around and never quite having their boundaries clearly defined. But then I worried it sounded too much like a ghost story. For me, The Party worked better because the whole book unfolds over the course of one evening at the party itself, and it also has a triple meaning – a celebration; a political faction; or a ‘guilty party’. All three of them have particular resonance for the text.
The Party is fundamentally a novel about what happens when love goes wrong. Ben and Martin’s friendship is warped, unequal and founded on an accumulation of half-truths and lies. Martin is essentially in love with his best friend, but refuses ever fully to admit it to himself. He’s also in love with the way of life Ben represents, but will never gain access to the rarefied world of the British elites. Instead, Martin seeks to dissemble and inveigle his way into Ben’s affections in the only way he knows how.
For me, a true friendship begins with honesty – a quality that neither Martin or Ben fully possesses. Real friendship is also about an equality of spirit, a sense that you’re never judged or disapproved of, but valued and loved for who you are. I’m extremely lucky that I have incredible friends, all of whom support me with astonishing kindness and generosity. They also make me laugh a lot, which is another essential ingredient to any lasting friendship – and that’s why this book is dedicated to them.
Elizabeth Day’s Mood board for The Party
I was interested in the dynamic between these two men – I don’t know who they are but I liked the way one of them looked so eager and hopeful, while the one on the left is moodier and detached. It made me think about the mental distances that exist between people occupying the same space. There’s tension in this picture in the same way that there’s tension between Ben and Martin – you want to find out what caused it.
I’d never heard of the German-born American artist and graphic designer Winold Reiss before coming across this arresting image in researching The Party. It’s originally a portrait of the photographer Isamu Noguchi and it hangs in the Smithsonian. What I loved about this image was the duality between male and female, which represents so much of what Martin struggles with. This man is wearing a suit but wants to express himself with a feminine slash of red lipstick. It’s only while writing this caption that I’ve realised the red lips which drew me to this portrait in the first place were a later addition by some unknown hand! I suppose all art is like that – inspiration can be a sort of collage from different sources.
Sophie Ploeg is a Dutch artist working in the UK and I chose this painting of hers because it reminded me so much of Lucy – the woman’s face contains both uncertainty and spirit and I’m left in no doubt that she’s thinking all sorts of intelligent thoughts behind that quietly pretty brow.
This is a still from a film I can’t remember and when I had the picture on my mood board, I covered the glamorous lady on the left so that all I could see were the two men. Again, it reminded me of the dynamic between Ben (on the left) and Martin (on the right). ‘Ben’ is gregarious, outward-looking and turned away from ‘Martin’. Martin is focused on something apparent only to him. He looks a bit uncomfortable, and as if he doesn’t quite belong in the setting despite wearing all the right clothes.
I mean, who doesn’t want a photo of Dominic West on their wall? I had Dominic West in my mind all the time that I was writing Ben – visually, this is what he looks like to me.
This is a gorgeous photograph of the actors Freddie Fox and his father Edward Fox. Freddie reminds me of Martin – he has a slightly effete look which works. Edward reminded me of what Lord Fitzmaurice might be like. Again there’s a slight aloofness coming from the ‘Martin’ character here, while the ‘Fitzmaurice’ character is engaged in his own world and having a whale of a time!
This is a picture of three of the actors from the film The Riot Club, which covers some of the same territory as The Party in terms of privileged boarding school boys going to Oxbridge and wreaking havoc. For me, these three represented the uncomfortable triptych of Ben (handsome, aristocratic, self-confident) Martin (desperate to fit in) and Jarvis (always looming in the background, waiting for his moment to pounce). And, obviously, none of these three is particularly painful to look at, which helps when in need of inspiration.