Inspirational characters help James Willstrop to expand creative side

LIKE every other sport, squash has been no stranger to the pandemic, coming to a virtual standstill almost 12 months ago before slowly plotting its way back to normality.

Heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill, footballer Stuart Pearce, actress Denise Gough and artistic director, James Brining, right, are all interviewed by James Willstrop in 'Interviews with Inspiration'.

A handful of events have been staged in the past few months but it will be some time before the sport is able to return to how it life on court was pre-lockdown.

Former world No 1 James Willstrop may be approaching the twilight of a hugely successful playing career but, for some time now, he has already been exploring other interests, chiefly centred around the arts.

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Back in 2021, Willstrop released the critically-acclaimed book Shot And A Ghost, chronicling a year in his career, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Sports Book of the Year Award.

Author Julian Barnes attends the Gala screening of "The Sense of an Ending" in April 2017. Picture: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

It was a project which definitely scratched an itch and unleashed a creative desire in Willstrop which has never really gone away, so much so that he has just released a second book, Interviews With Inspiration, bringing together a series of interviews he has conducted in recent years with various sporting icons, as well as people from other walks of life.

His aim? To find out what drives his subjects to be successful, while drawing parallels with his own career and the choices he has made along the way.

The interviews may have taken years to compile but, with squash taking an enforced backseat, the last few months have enabled Willstrop to see the project through to completion.

Acknowledging himself as a ‘slow reader’ who finds great sprawling publications ‘problematic’, Willstrop adopts the simple, approach of publishing the interviews as they occurred, with maybe a little judicious editing here and there.

Playwright Simon Stephens, pictured in August 2016. Picture: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images.

It enables readers to ‘dip in and out’ of the 350 pages. While the book may start with Willstrop interviewing 2012 Olympic gold medallist Jessica Ennis-Hill, you can bypass that in order to catch his chat with, for example, either former England footballer Stuart Pearce, or author Julian Barnes.

Throughout, Willstrop provides insight by giving his own take on what his interviewee has just spoken of, often comparing it to his own, similar experiences.

The format goes against the advice of some within the industry, but Willstrop is rightly pleased that he stuck to his guns.

“Lockdown gave me time to try and get the book finished,” he said. “I’ve been doing these interviews with people who, I guess, I’ve seen around or trained with in some instances or have just inspired in some way in either sport in other areas, for a long time.

INSPIRING: Hull KR and former England and Leeds Rhinos' head coach Tony Smith. Picture by Allan McKenzie/

“One of the fascinating things for me was to interview people from other walks of life, rather than just sport, to see what the parallels were.

“I’m quite curious about people and how they work in their fields and to find out how it relates to what I do as a squash player and see what the crossovers are.

“I like the interview format and then, here and there, I’ve put my own thoughts in. I don’t know whether it is ideal in terms of a publishing or selling point, but I just wanted it to be very natural.

“It was about listening to what these people had to say, not just in terms of their success or achievements, but also what the detrimental effects of their success were and what they think about it when they look back on things.

JamesWillstrop, in action during the British Open in Hull in 2019. Picture courtesy of PSA World Tour.

“How it has affected them mentally, what it has taken out of them, the highs and lows.”

There is no certainly shortage of people to ‘dip in and out of’ with Katherine Grainger, Alistair Brownlee, Steve Redgrave and Chris Hoy also coming under the Willstrop microscope, along with Jonny Wilkinson and Stefan Edberg.

Current Hull KR head coach Tony Smith is also interviewed, while Leeds Playhouse artistic director James Brining, actors Alexander Hanson and Denise Gough, vegan chefs Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby and playwright Simon Stephens also take part.

Writing is clearly one of the main driving forces for Willstrop these days, although there is no intention, he insists, to put down his squash racquet any time soon.

He has recently completed a masters degree in creative writing at Leeds University and hopes to go on to write scripts for TV and film, as well as material for the theatre – he is in the process of further developing a one-person, semi-autobiographical play that he did for the last module on his course.

“I’m loving playing more than ever and the pressure’s off a little bit now as I can just enjoy playing the sport rather than thinking every game has to be a case of grinding myself into the ground and aiming for No 1,” said Willstrop, currently ranked 17th in the world.

James Willstrop's new book - 'Interviews with Inspiration'

“Those days are behind me and I’m just not able to go at that intensity anymore. It was too hard and isn’t sustainable but it allows me to keep enjoying the game and if I can stay at a certain level then I’m really happy doing it.

“I loved doing the book, it took a long time, but I’d do another one. It’s all my own work and my own funding, so it would be hard to do another but it was certainly an enjoyable way of speaking to these people.

“I learned so much and that’s what I hope other people can get from it. I hope they can pick it up – some bits they might relate to, others a bit less so.

“They might want to skip a chapter and go to the people they most want to read about and that’s fine.

“If they can learn from something that I’ve written in there and take just one little bit out of it and put it into their lives, then that’s good for me.”

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