Nina Stibbe at Stylist Live

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Sunday 1st November 2015

Nina StibbeNina Stibbe is the writer who made her name with the hilarious Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life. If you haven’t read it yet you’re missing out. It’s a collection of letters Nina sent home while working as a nanny for the children of London Review of Books editor Mary-Kay Wilmers and it’s laugh-out-loud funny. Alan Bennett lived across the road and often popped in for supper while other neighbours included the likes of Jonathan Miller, Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn.

Love, Nina was an instant hit and Nick Hornby has now adapted it for the BBC (the dramatised version stars Helena Bonham Carter and will be on our screens next year).

Nina followed her first book with Man at the Helm, her debut novel – or to quote the blurb, “a wildly comic, brilliantly sharp-eyed novel about the horrors of being an attractive divorcee in an English village in the 1970s and a family’s fall from grace.”

When I spotted that Nina Stibbe was speaking at Stylist Live, a four-day festival held by Stylist magazine, I booked a ticket immediately. And it turned out that she is just as funny in real life as she is on the page.

Man at the Helm is very autobiographical, based on Stibbe’s own childhood and upbringing. The story is seen through the eyes of nine-year-old Lizzie and thanks to Nina’s “freakily good memory” she captures the unique blend of childhood innocence and precociousness wonderfully.

“Were you nervous about how your family would react?” asked interviewer Francesca Brown. Nina explained that one she had finished her novel she invited her mother to stay so she could read it.

“I was astonished about what she minded and what she didn’t,” said Nina. “She’d say: ‘God, Neen, I never burned the rice.’ When she’d finished it she said she was fine with it. If she’d had any objections I wouldn’t have done it.”

Nina grew up in the 1970s, a decade she described as “hideous – in spite of all the affection about them.”

Even so, she had “a really fun childhood with a very unorthodox family – but we had people who weren’t allowed to play with us because our mother was divorced. It was really shocking how people viewed divorce – or women bringing up children without the ‘guidance’ of a man.”

Nina was 50 by the time her first book was published and the audience quizzed her about her route to publication.

“I have always written,” she said. “It’s a bit like doing your laundry. It’s just something you do. Over the years I sent things to agents and editors and it was always negative.”

Her advice to writers who worry that they have missed the boat was: “Read lots. If you are a reader you have a much better chance of producing something. I don’t know many writers who stop reading. But also trust your own voice. If you are really labouring find your own voice.”

She reckons children should follow this advice too. “I go into schools and tell kids to write about themselves, write the real things that happen to them, not about riding an elephant in Sri Lanka.”

Asked about her own reading tastes, she didn’t hesitate, reeling off the likes of Dickens (“David Copperfield is the best”), Anne Tyler and Sarah Waters.

And what is she working on now? Fans will be thrilled to hear that she’s writing the further adventures of Lizzie from Man at the Helm. We’ve got another treat in store.

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