Zoe Williams is one of my favourite journalists and wrote the excellent 'Anti-natal' column for The Guardian during her pregnancy which has led to the book What Not to Expect When You're Expecting.
How did you become a writer?
I started off as an editorial assistant on the Evening Standard. These were the days when people thought you were fantastically clever if you knew how to save a word document and you could unblock a paperjam in the printer. If you could do all this and drink four pints at lunchtime, they thought you were a genius. I wheedled my way into writing about my drunk lifestyle, in a column called The Slut's Guide, but sincerely, my office skills were so advanced - not only could I save my own work, I also knew where the stationery was stored and what is meant by "Purchase Order" - that I think I should have aimed higher. I should have gone for leader writer or something. Anyway, for about ten years I wrote about being drunk. And then when I got pregnant, I had to find some other thing to write about (as a friend said when I announced it, "nobody's going to be cheering from the sidelines while a pregnant woman sinks her fifth glass of merlot"). Sorry, this sort of answers your next question, but I promise not to repeat myself.
Why did you write What Not to Expect When You're Expecting?
Well, good question, at the time that I wrote it, having been effectively pregnant for four years (give or take the months of breastfeeding in between), having put on and lost eight stone in four years (that's a totally irrelevant point, I just want people to stand back and go "wow. Eight stone. That's another whole adult"), I was totally assured of certain things: I thought there was a serious problem with the way pregnant women were addressed, the combination of incredible schmaltz (which I found alienating... I diidn't really feel anything for my children until they were out), paternalistic misinformation, a sort of nauseating maternal essentialism (where this moment of childbearing is taken as the true realisation of your femininity... which is a little reductive. And also patronising. And also not very sexy). Anyway, it seemed vital to me that I should rant about it at what I realise now is enormous length. In hindsight, I probably could have chilled out a bit.
What was the trickiest element to achieve?
I wanted it to be very conversational, memoirey, even - and it's not hard at all, creating something conversational, you just imagine yourself talking to a specific person, one who gets things but doesn't necessarily know everything you're about to say. But what was tricky, and what I think I ultimately failed at, was the gear change between the chattiness and the attempt at something more polemical, because I did, ahem, feel pretty polemical about a lot of things. But you know, you live and learn.
Of everything you've done what have you been most pleased with?
I ripped this idea off someone once... no, wait, she wasn't a journalist, she was an academic, who said "wouldn't it be interesting to...." and I thought, yes. It would. It's not like she would have done it herself if I hadn't. So anyway, the idea was to follow up people who'd been on the Jeremy Kyle show, and just see what had happened afterwards. How they felt they'd been treated by the show's producers, and how it had affected their lives. And I got some of the astonishing stories, both about what wankers these TV people are, how subtle but precise is the exploitation, and how it's generally not a great idea to open yourself up to public scrutiny, and what the ramifications might be. But also. the people I interviewed were, in the main, pretty upbeat about it, and all said things like, "well, yes, it was a bit cataclysmic and my family stopped talking to me/ I got arrested/ I got fired/ I got divorced/ my neighbours started crossing the road to avoid me, but I think it actually did me good in the end, for x reason..." I learnt a hell of a lot about human resilience, and heard five amazing stories.
You used to write a column for The Guardian called "Words that should be banned". Are there are new words you think should be banned? Why?
Almost everything the coalition government ever says, from "hard-working families" to "GP-led commissioning consortia" makes my blood boil. Seriously, every scrap of jargon has an agenda behind it, whether it's old-school Victorian moralising or just fogging public debate so that nobody knows what's going on.
Who’s your favourite columnist?
At the moment, I'm a huge fan of Aditya Chakraborty. Peter Oborne is great when he thunders, but can be contradictory, so you have to read him sporadically, not once a week, so that you can't remember what he said about the issue last time. Janice Turner has a really human voice, you can hear it in your ear almost. I always look forward to Caitlin Moran and Deborah Orr. John Crace is great. I like loads of columnists, actually. I like the first-person, I-just-trod-in-a-turd ones and I like the long-pedigree, Addison & Steele modelled political lambasters.
What stops you from feeling listless?
Triple espressos. The other day I drank so much coffee that my top lip went numb.
What Not To Expect When You're Expecting by Zoe Williams is out now from Guardian Books.