Former World No.1 James Willstrop has written a new book, titled ‘Interviews With Inspiration’, in which he has interviewed people from all walks of life, including squash, other sports, and the arts.
The Englishman spoke to the likes of Ramy Ashour, Jonny Wilkinson, Jessica Ennis-Hill, Stefan Edberg, and Alexander Hanson over a six-year period, before bringing all of those talks together into the book.
We caught up with James to discuss the process behind writing it, how the idea came about, and how other people’s stories have helped him in both squash and life in general.
What Is This Book About?
JW: It is a compendium, or collection of interviews that I gathered over the last few years really with certain characters. There were quite a few criteria on how I came across these characters. Some of them, I went for people that I really admire or have inspired me. Some were down to who I could get in touch with, get hold of and who would support me and help me. Essentially, it’s people and I think there are 21, 22, interviews with people who I think have got some interest in what they say, they have been inspirational to me.
A lot of them have been very high achievers but it is not always about the achievements necessarily. I have done a lot of sporting interviews, but a lot have gone outside of sport, in terms of interviewing my physio Alison [Rose] for instance, an eye surgeon, some chefs. People I have really been interested in and their working methods and how it compares to what I have done, I guess.
It just interests me to see people in other areas, and obviously it interests me to hear what other sportspeople do and how they go about their days and how they cope with success and difficulty and failure. Essentially that’s it, it is a collection of interviews that interrogate some of these people and hopefully there is stuff in there that is interesting. Some of it will be more interesting than other bits and some things may be repeating other stuff but hopefully, it nails down a few points and it gives an insight into their world really.
What Inspired You To Write This Style Of Book?
JW: That sort of diary format, it wasn’t an autobiography as such, but it had elements of that and it was quite personal and, kind of, my story, I guess.
I love writing and I have gone to university and studied it so I know I want to write but this follow-up was an idea I had quite quickly after Shot and a Ghost, but it takes so long to do. I just think this was the opposite really. This was asking other people what goes into their worlds and just those conversations. When you get two people together that have been to those depths and have experienced interesting things, that is quite an interesting outcome.
I love that sort of interview, whether it is on the radio, podcast, whatever. I think a lot of people enjoy that, where you’ve got two people who have been in different areas, coming together to try and analyse, look at, and reflect on what they have both done in their times.
It was a totally different thing to do compared to the diary format of the first book, and I guess, a bit more interview-style, a bit more formal. I hope it brings out some emotion like Shot and a Ghost did, but it is perhaps more about these other people, with a little bit of me because I can’t help myself! Hopefully it is pretty different anyway!
Why Did You Choose These Specific Athletes?
JW: Obviously, it is great to get some names, there is no point in denying that if you get those names, those people will draw readers in and that helps. They weren’t all just done because of their names, though. These people have all been incredibly era-defining people, if you like. We all know about the Jonny Wilkinson World Cup and those sorts of iconic moments; you can’t scrub those images of him kicking that ball. I was pretty young at that time. Jess Ennis at the Olympics, as well. They are all such iconic times and images that we all remember from recent sporting history, so it was great to get those people to speak to me.
They were so lovely, and I can’t thank them enough for what they gave, the time they gave to me. I hope that it was a balance really, of trying to find those people, but also making sure it was true and that they had really inspired me. I didn’t just want to get people because they were famous, these people have really moved me in some way.
Obviously, there are also a lot of people in there that aren’t as famous, that have been just in squash. I could do a whole book like this in squash and that would be a great project to do as well. I wanted to come outside of squash a little, really. I had Ramy [Ashour] and Jonah [Barrington], which was tremendous, and hopefully that will cover the squash fans.
I wanted a range, and it was lovely to get those very famous people, but it was a nice range of people and experiences, and that is exactly what I was looking for.
Did The Athletes Share Any Attributes?
JW: There were a lot of common themes. Maybe, I sometimes thought whether I had repeated those things a bit too much and maybe that might come out and people might criticise it for that. There are bits in it where certain themes come up and I really tried to talk about them and get into the nitty-gritty of those themes. They will come up a lot and there are certain principles about achieving and getting good at something. We all know that hard work works and certain patterns that all these people have.
Hopefully, I am pretty sure that each one gives a slightly different slant on it, and even if they had said the same thing sometimes, they tell you in a different way. Some of my favourite times were where they would just tell a story about what happened to them and give it to me in story terms instead of facts. Those were the great bits, just re-living some of the experiences they have had.
Yes, they would often refer to the exact point that someone else had made, but they were bringing their own experience to it as well, so there is probably a bit of reputation, but there were also so many different points that were made by them. So many unique and interesting points that each gave.
*How Does Squash Life Compare To Other Sports?
JW: That is a good question. I don’t know really. Unquestionably there are similarities, and I think that all of the sportspeople have all got similar attributes. The fact that they can take on an awful lot of pain, for instance, and get themselves up to train, push themselves and feel fatigue and pain every day of their lives. That is the sort of stuff that kept coming up, but I think that some of the really interesting bits came from some of the actors or writers.
You would get these really interesting comparisons and I was looking for that a little bit. Just one example would be the Alexander Hanson interview. I felt like there was a really interesting bit in there where he came up with the subconscious as an actor. He is trying and pushing to find the right scene, or line, and it wasn’t working. He described it to me, and he would almost push himself to work harder when he was in that rut. He would work harder to learn his lines, pushing himself, and something was blocking him.
He let go of all that and took time away and almost gave up. What he said was that it allowed his self-conscious to come in. That was one of my favourite bits of the book really because I have known that feeling so well as a squash player. You train so hard and pushing yourself and I have seen it all around the Tour. A lot of players push themselves so hard. The amount of work these guys are putting in to get to the best of their ability is unbelievable. They are so driven!
It has taken me a long time to learn this but sometimes you just need to not keep working, almost. I am sure we could all apply this to everything we do. You keep pushing for something but sometimes you need to take your foot off the gas and then you can find a way through it.
That was an example really, where that struck a big chord and I hope that there are other examples that people can read, like what Alex has said, and just go ‘Wow, that is interesting, and I could use that in my world to make myself a bit better’.
Have These Interviews Changed Your Mindset?
JW: I think that if I went through it again, there are loads of times where, and I don’t want to be digging this up too much, people can decide for themselves when they read it, but I felt like even when I had read through it several times, I kept getting little bits. I think there are loads of bits in there where I am like ‘Yeah that is so good, I need to use that more’.
Jonny Wilkinson, for instance, talked a lot about the visualisation the he used. I did the interview quite a while ago now and it has really helped me in the last few years of my career to take on board his specific way of using visualisation in terms of psychology in sport.
His ideas, and what he said, gave me another layer. I knew about visualisation and psychology but the way he explained it gave me another layer of it and it was almost a lesson really. The way he talked about if he was training on a bike, a bit less specifically off the rugby field, he would actually be making it very specific to rugby. So, while he was doing the interval session on the bike, he was imagining the rugby field and the tackles that are made and the next play and who he is going to pass to.
A lot of athletes, again I have seen it, and I have done it myself so many times, where I have just got on the bike and gone through the motions and done a hard session. That is fine but he was taking it to the level of making it as specific as I can. Going on the bike but improving himself at rugby. That is just one of those examples and there were loads where I would take that on board.
Stefan Edberg said a lot of stuff about match play. For instance, how he used match play more than practice, certainly towards the end of his career. I totally see that, and I see how valid it is. These points come up, and no question it has helped me to change what I do or adapt what I do.
How Long Has This Project Taken?
JW: I think I started building the interviews up 6, 7 years ago. I had written the first book and I love writing; I love writing books. That seemed to go well with people, it got nominated for an award and all this business, so it gave me a bit of impetus, but I wanted to get on to the next one and do another really.
I found that it was something exciting to me just to interview these people and get all these ideas. In reality, it was much harder work. In many respects it was great, and I loved it, but you can sit at a desk and get your books out or go online and do all your research and you can write your book. However, with this, there was so much more involved in terms of having to contact these people and get hold of their agents for those really famous ones.
I said in the introduction bit that that was not very easy for me. It doesn’t come that easy for me and you can’t get in touch with these people that easily. It took time. I would get the interview and then it takes time to transcribe the interviews and so on, and I wanted to add my own bits. It has been a time-consuming business, but until I had all the interviews done, and that has taken me a long time from getting in touch with them, meeting them, getting them done. Yeah, it has been a bit of a long process, I will try and make the next one a bit quicker.
Has Having This As A Focus Helped During COVID?
JW: Crikey yeah. For one thing, it gave me a little bit of time in the summer. It allowed me to have another go and getting people interested in the book and writing to publishers again. That was when the interest came from Pitch Publishing and it gave me that space to do it.
I love writing and if the book’s no good, it is no good, but I have enjoyed it. I felt like it has helped me and it’s worthwhile. Hopefully people at this point in history might take a bit of solace out of reading books, watching TV and films. It is helping us all, isn’t it, so I feel quite lucky that I have got a passion, that I have interviewed such generous people and I have gotten to know some of them. I just feel very lucky to do something like this and if it gives a few people something, then that’s good.
Have You Got Plans For Future Books?
JW: On the uni course, it was a lot of fiction. A lot of plays which is something I am really interested. I have talked about my love of drama and live theatre. I am having a little go at writing something for children and pottering around when I have a bit of spare time.
Having kids has changed that and having them has given me an insight into children’s literature, so it’s nice to have a go at that. I am not sure more sports books are probably the answer. I think I might have a go at something fictional and see if anyone is interested in that, but it is enjoyable so I will keep doing it.