How did you get a job as an agony aunt?
I was already writing a column for The Guardian and one of my editors said “you’re good at giving advice” and suggested I do it. But I said I would only do it if I could make it different to other problem columns and mine is nearly always a collaborative effort; I involve specialists in my answer. It appears in The Guardian Family section every Saturday, but comes out online the day before.
Do you think you have any special qualities that make you a good choice for advice?
I had quite a complicated and at times, troubled, adolescence. I also have a really good memory so remember what it was like to feel depressed, or unhappy, as well as what it takes to feel better and how good life can be when you get there.
Do you believe agony aunts should be qualified in any specific way?
They should be kind and empathetic, offer realistic, not facile advice and make it about the person writing in, not them. And be able to communicate all this in a way that makes people receptive and not defensive. I take my responsibilities as a agony aunt really seriously because it’s someone’s life you’re talking about.
What else do you do?
I work full-time as a journalist, away from the agony aunting. I avoid writing by baking, ironing and spending unfeasible amounts of time on social media talking to other journalists who are avoiding deadlines. I live a very ordinary life in the country with my partner and two children. On Friday mornings I go into the local primary school and read with the little ones and teach a writing workshop to the older ones. I love this so much, it totally takes me out of myself and makes me forget everything else.
Are there any problems that come up more often?
Well I write for the Family section so it’s all about families. Adult children writing in about their parents - especially mothers - is a big issue. It really shocked me, because although these people are articulate, inside they’re still children wanting their parents to love/understand/accept them. Almost every problem I get could be sorted by the family sitting round and talking. Communication is everything.
Is therapy or counselling something often suggested?
Yes. I’m a big fan of therapy; it changed my life. But it’s not for everyone and lots of people are scared by it.
Do you ever suggest using apps?
No. I often refer to outside websites, however, specialising in certain things. I may think about recommending apps in the future but the problems I get are usually fairly serious and beyond the scope of an app I think.
What about self-help books? Which ones?
If the specialists I refer to recommend a book I might put it in, but generally not. I’m not a great fan of self help books because - typical journalist - I have a very short attention span and most books can be reduced in size by at least half. Sometimes an article in a newspaper or journal can be just as thought-provoking or helpful.
Do you think women are more likely than men to turn to an agony aunt for advice?
In my experience, yes. About 80 per cent of my correspondents are women.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I was 26 and my boyfriend of the time had left me, really suddenly (he had previously proposed) and all my lovely well-meaning girlfriends were saying things like “he doesn’t know what he’s lost, he’ll come back”, this just kept me hanging on in hope. I told my male editor on the Observer magazine (Simon Kelner) what had happened; he said something lovely about me and then said “Move on, it’s obvious he’s met someone else”. It was like a kick in the stomach but it started me getting over him. I learned then the value of telling people what they need to hear not what they want to hear; and how important it is to discuss things with male, as well as female, friends. He did me a huge favour, I’ve never forgotten it. I’m also hugely lucky because one of my best friends, Alex, has always looked at problems completely laterally and she always comes up with a viewpoint I’ve never thought of which is surely the point of advice otherwise you learn nothing new. Almost every piece of advice she’s given me has been massively helpful; so I try to emulate that.
Do you think advice can be generation-neutral?
Of course. I think most problems boil down to perceived misunderstandings and I think any generation can identify with that.
Does any time of year bring more letters or emails?
My January mailbag was pretty full.
In the time you have been an agony aunt, do you think readers’ problems have changed?
In the eight years I’ve done it, the problems haven’t changed, but as the Guardian has gone global I get more letters from around the world than I used to. My big ‘growth market’ is from Asian families.