‘My biggest fear is running out of time’: 21 Questions with Yrsa Daley-Ward

The actor, model, Beyoncé collaborator and author of artistic self-expression handbook The How opens up about her childhood love of Roald Dahl, the importance of nature, and the best writing advice she’s ever received.

Photo: Matt Colombo

Artistically speaking, Yrsa Daley-Ward is a true triple threat, combining acting, modelling and writing in various permutations: she fuses writing and acting in her spoken word work, and combined her poetic flair with her musical side in collaborating with Beyoncé on Black Is King, the visual companion to the 2019 album The Lion King: The Gift.

Daley-Ward has released a book of short stories, a poetry collection, 2018 memoir The Terrible, and The How: Notes on the Great Work of Meeting Yourself, a written guide to unlocking your creative potential, to “see and feel more of who we really are behind the preconceived notions of propriety and manners we've accumulated.”

To mark its release, we reached out to Daley-Ward to ask her our 21 Questions about life and literature, and she opened up about the “joy and strange, strange things” of Roald Dahl, drinking wine with Jeanette Winterson, and the superpower she wishes she had.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

There are too many to list here, but the first person that springs to mind is Alice Walker. She was such an important influence on my early writing because she touched topics I had never seen explored before. She spoke of things I wanted to hear about but had no reference for. I was so inspired by the frankness and beauty of her work.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

'Alice Walker spoke of things I wanted to hear about but had no reference for'

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. I loved the mix of absurdity and poetry and deep, dark meaning. I was not raised with my parents, so I felt a kind of kinship with James.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

The Color Purple by Alice Walker. The story was so full and charged with difficulty and cruelty, but also so much beauty and joy.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

Any book by Roald Dahl as a child; he made me want to write and write (and infuse poetry with fiction). His books were full of joy and strange, strange things. Funny, sad and downright frightening.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

Too many to mention. Too strange for this form. You might have to read my books!

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Sit there and do it; it’s not gonna write itself. Show up for it each day, and give only what you have, but give it each day.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

'Roald Dahl made me want to write and write'

Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson. I LOVE this story! And the stories within the story! It is interesting, fantastical and beautifully written. Now I’m thinking of it, of course I love it: it reminds me of the books I read as a child (if you remove the very adult themes!).

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

None. If I want to read it, I’ll read it, at the cost of doing something else.

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

Quite unfulfilled.

What makes you happiest?

New and exciting projects to jump into. I love a new venture. Tea, books, long mornings. Nature!

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

Identifying trees and flowers, but if you know me, that isn’t surprising! Taking pictures of said trees and flowers. Touching the leaves.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

A country house with lots of grounds. An early start, loads of ideas, delicious, never-ending tea. The workday ends at 2 p.m. and then it’s time to explore the sunny city.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

Nothing has happened yet – I think I have it to look forward to!

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

Not dinner, drinks. Jeanette Winterson. Red wine for her (if she’s into it), pink tea for me.

What’s your biggest fear?

Running out of time. In general. For everything.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

'I’d love to translate my own work and the work of others'

Being fluent in every language. I’d love to translate my own work and the work of others.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, again. For like the fourth time. But also Outline by Rachel Cusk.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

Of course! That’s what they’re for!

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

Tea every time.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

Nope. I love books too much to name just one.

What inspired you to write your book?

Lockdown and (to be honest) a looming deadline!


Image design at top: Alexandra Francis for Penguin

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