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Why ‘inspirational women’ was an obvious theme for our new Letter To My Younger Self book

Big Issue books editor Jane Graham explains why the theme for the second Letter To My Younger Self collection became obvious as she looked back over her interviews

The first volume of Letter To My Younger Self was published in 2019. The weekly feature I first pitched as a single column in The Big Issue’s Scottish edition in 2007 had become one of the most popular and talked about double-page features in the UK-wide magazine. It felt like a good time to take stock.

We had hundreds of uniquely intimate interviews with some of the most intriguing, talented and powerful high-achievers in the world. We knew there would be a public appetite to read (or re-read!) some of our most insightful encounters, to get inside the heads of daredevils, megastars, rebels and trailblazers like Buzz Aldrin, Paul McCartney, Margaret Atwood, Werner Herzog, and Billie Jean King.

Over the years the weekly Letter To My Younger Self has garnered a reputation for discovering new truths about interesting people. Big stars are unusually willing to reveal personal information in their interviews, perhaps because The Big Issue is trusted as a magazine with integrity, unlikely to seek out big headline controversies or exploit sensitive material.

That first volume did not entirely stem the feeling that a lot of terrific material remained unearthed. A second volume was inevitable. What struck me going over the multitudes of great interviews – including many conducted after the release of that first book – was the emergence of particular threads among women; experiences, frustrations, aspirations and regrets shared by women of all ages and backgrounds. The content of ‘Volume 2’ became obvious. Because what a collection of female voices can do, and even the most enlightening of books by individuals can’t, is draw out those themes – career ambitions, relationship worries, psychological barriers, disappointments and rewards – which connect numerous women regardless of class, race or other differences.

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As I read over the selection in this book I became fascinated by these similarities. An early lack of self-esteem was notably common, even in some of the most ostensively outgoing and confident characters. Despite decades of success in films and TV shows, actor Alison Steadman said she still “worried that I was about to be found out for being rubbish.”

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Letter To My Younger Self: Inspirational Women is out now.

The much celebrated Baroness Shirley Williams MP, regarded as a political powerhouse, berated herself for having what she called “a deep female tendency” to aim for the second top job, and wished she’d had the nerve to run as leader of the Labour Party. Dawn French recalled how her confidence went up and down, and admitted how jealous she felt when her comedy partner Jennifer Saunders had a huge hit without her.

We might remember her as a formidable presence in folk music and civil rights campaigning but Joan Baez described her young self as “angst-ridden, extremely shy and fearful”. Even the effortlessly glamorous Debbie Harry of Blondie said the main impact of media interest in her made her feel awkward, unsure of how her male colleagues felt about her being in the spotlight.

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Anxiety about appearance, and how others might judge one in relation to it, also ran high. She began her career as a model but actor Keeley Hawes described her young self as a “gawky, gangly” girl who “always thought there were other people better than me in the room”. James Bond star Rosamund Pike said she “was not the one boys were interested in” and remembers anxiously covering her “embarrassingly rosy cheeks with corrective green make-up”.

Gavin and Stacey writer and actor Ruth Jones and soul singer Mica Paris were among many who recounted how their weight affected their confidence, either in regard to self-perceptions or professional pressures. After having her first child Mica (at size 14!) was told by her record company she looked “like two people in one body” and would have to go into training. When she was just a size 12, Ruth said she spent a lot of time just thinking about her weight, the issue constantly “playing on my mind”.

TV stalwart Joan Bakewell, fabulous firecracker actor Anna Chancellor and the formidable Jess Phillips MP spoke movingly about their regrets regarding marriages entered too early or pregnancies which, in hindsight, perhaps came along too soon. There are a number of memorable stories in this book about broken marriages, heartbreaking abortions and young women struggling to be confident mothers when they were still unsure what kind of adults they were turning into themselves. Such concerns were voiced by far fewer of the men I’ve interviewed – more common among those were regrets about not being around enough when their children were very young.

Another thing I noticed was how complicated many women felt their relationships with their mothers were, though most managed to form better friendships as they got older. As for dads; presenter Mariella Frostrup, who “hero-worshipped” a father who “wasn’t that interested in children” was just one of many who adored their fathers but felt they had to work hard for the attention they craved. Actor Honor Blackman remembered her fear of her father, who sometimes ‘whacked’ her, and slapped her face when she first put on make-up, but she loved him just the same. The uniquely frank Eileen Atkins, star of numerous popular TV shows and movies, had a family life full of the most incredible experiences; her jaw-dropping revelations led to one of the most talked about interviews The Big Issue has ever run.

You will notice in a number of interviews there are pauses, ellipsis’ and unfinished sentences. I have tried to convey moments when the interviewee has been caught by the emotional impact of pulling up a half-buried memory or considering someone important in a new way. Conversations about lost connections, periods of great happiness or sorrow, or unsatisfactory endings to relationships, often led to unexpected waves of affection for undervalued parents, loyal friends, life-changing teachers or, perhaps most pertinently of all, their own innocent young selves, before they knew what life was about to throw at them.

Despite the varied struggles and obstacles experienced by many of the women included here, I very much hope that this book will leave you full of optimistic and inspiration.

I have tried to put the chapters in an order which reflects the trajectory of a fulfilled woman; from her early dreams, through transformations and obstacles, towards a mature understanding of what is truly important in life. Every story is one of ultimate success and achievement, often against what looked like insurmountable odds.

So many times I’ve finished an interview and, upon walking out of the door or clicking ‘leave’ on the Zoom meeting, wanted to punch the air, buoyant and in awe of the awesome woman of substance and strength I’ve had the privilege of spending time with. When I finally hold the first finished copy in my hands, I know who I’ll pass it straight on to. It will go to my teenage daughter. Who could be better?

Jane Graham is The Big Issue books editor

Letter To My Younger Self: Inspirational Women is out now. You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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