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Nina Stibbe interview: My wild childhood made me a writer

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Ahead of her conversation with Helen Lederer at the Cambridge Literary Festival in November, the author of Reasons to be Cheerful talks to Alex Spencer about winning this year's Comedy Women in Print Prize and a childhood that gave her plenty of material.

Nina Stibbe. Pic by Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi (42741287)
Nina Stibbe. Pic by Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi (42741287)

How does a writer end up as effortlessly funny as Nina Stibbe? Apparently an “unorthodox” childhood is a good start, according to the winner of this year’s Comedy Women in Print Prize.

Her latest book, Reasons to be Cheerful, is a coming of age story about teenager Lizzie. She works for an utterly vile dentist in Leicester and learns everything she knows about how to be a woman from her alcoholic mum, who gives the kids sweets for tea but takes them to see Hamlet, and the advice pages of Woman’s Own.

And apparently most of it is at least based in truth, with events only lightly fictionalised from the author’s life.

Nina says: “I don't think you need to have an unorthodox upbringing to be creative but certainly it has helped me. Goodness, I have written three books about my own life, no four, five. The one thing I would take away from my childhood that was extraordinary is just being surrounded by books, fiction and drama - and learning to love words and poetry and film and television as well.

“My mum is the person I talk to about books more than anyone else. And I trust her judgment. She is amazing. She was bolstered by drink and drugs a lot of the time. Her behaviour was fuelled by stimulants. When she stopped taking them properly, when I was an undergraduate in my early 20s after I had been a nanny, she did become quite ordinary and that was huge achievement for her. Being ordinary, going to the gym and for a swim... she loved it.

“My mum is much more normal now. She is 81 and sings in the church choir and has settled down, but she was a very unusual woman. She had five kids, not four as I outlined in the book, but she was very unorthodox. Very often there would be nothing to eat in the house - but we would go and see Hamlet.

Nina Stibbe. Pic by Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi (42741285)
Nina Stibbe. Pic by Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi (42741285)

“We would go to the theatre and get Maltesers for dinner. I have met other people my age who said they had a similar experience. Their mothers were very cultured women who weren't allowed a career and got lumbered with childcare or ended up as a single parent and they just didn't take to it. My mother just did not take to being a domestic person. She hated cooking. She was borderline anorexic. She got heavily hooked on booze and prescription drugs from the doctor and she wasn't a typically good mother. But while that was quite tricky at the time, in some ways because there were lots of us kids it wasn't tragic.

“I didn't know I could write about her. I didn't know whether revealing this stuff about her would be difficult for her, but it hasn't been. If anything, it's vindication in a way, because she was tough and interesting and it would have been easy to give up and just become a machine or a Stepford wife.

“I regularly got picked up by the truant officer and got taken back to school. Then I would wait around the corner until they had gone and go back to work, because I had a job in a nursing home, My mum needed some help at the time because she had a baby.

“But because we presented as quite middle class and my mum was from a posh family - we had even been quite wealthy at the beginning - I don't think we were in danger of being picked up by social services.

“We were a bit hungry and my mum was a bit of a risk taker, but everyone lived much riskier lives back then. If we were in the house at age 10 on a Saturday my mother would say 'What are you doing here?’ Go out and play.

“Wherever you went there would be kids playing. Now if you saw kids in that context playing on a swing with a penknife you might think ‘Are they all right?’ but that was then. It seemed as if we were in jeopardy, but it was just a different time.”

Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe (42741315)
Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe (42741315)

Reasons to be Cheerful is the third book about her alter ego Lizzie Vogel, after Man at the Helm and Paradise Lodge. Lizzie is now 18 and leaving her alcoholic, novel-writing mother to head to Leicester to work for a racist, barely competent dentist obsessed with joining the freemasons.

Soon Lizzie is dating her first boyfriend, who prefers birdwatching to sex, and discovers independence for a teenage girl might just be another word for loneliness.

After the strangeness of her upbringing, she tries to navigate the world with the help of women’s weeklies that have advice on everything from recipes - a spaghetti hoop flan - to fashion.

Nina says: “I love my mum dearly. She is wonderful and very like my fictional mum. She is actually quite snobbish about literature so I grew up having read Tolkien and Edna O'Brien but I had never seen a woman’s magazine, apart from at a friend’s house and I wouldn’t have dreamt of picking it up. So when I started working in the dentist’s I would see all these lovely magazines and I became addicted to them. I literally used to long for Wednesday when we would get Woman and Woman’s Own delivered to the surgery. I took them up to my little flat to read them and they wouldn’t make it down to the waiting room for a couple of days

“I really felt I had learnt how to be a woman from them. My mum’s bookishness and culture were an extraordinarily lucky star for me, but what I wanted to know was how to make a spaghetti hoop flan. So I loved women’s magazines. When I read them now, I think, ‘Oh, they are trying to make us spend money’, but I found it troubling growing up that women had to spend so much money on crap while boys got to save up for a car. There’s something not right about that

“Women’s magazines in those days helped you to save money. Instead of trying to get you to buy stuff, they would have little ideas on how to make things like napkins and curtains and also how to buy fewer clothes. People didn't have as much money then.”

When she became a parent herself, Nina admits she rebelled against her childhood and decided to become the perfect parent.

She says: “I remember as a teenager driving my dad’s Volvo to France when I was 18. I drove with his children, who were 12, 10 and nine years younger than me. We slept in the car for two weeks and the kids busked on the street with their violin. We didn’t have a credit card or mobile phone and it was completely normal to do that. People regularly just jumped in their parents’ car and drove to Europe. But when my son went to France this summer I had to get car insurance, medical insurance, he took a friend who could drive in case they got tired and my husband shadowed them on the journey in our campervan.

Nina Stibbe accepting her CWIP award. Pic by Anya Ostwald. (42741291)
Nina Stibbe accepting her CWIP award. Pic by Anya Ostwald. (42741291)

“I’m a complete catastrophist. I thought I’m not going to be like mum. They are going to have broccoli every meal time. They will be really well looked after. I’m going to be the best mum in the school and I really went for it. I wanted to be this amazing perfect mother.

“We have lived in Cornwall ever since my eldest was three and my mum would ask, ‘Why are you doing all this?’ And I would go, ‘No, we have to go back to the Eden Project to get photographs of the class teddy bear there’. My mum said ‘Take it to Tesco - no one will care and the other mothers won’t like you when they read your entry that you went to the Eden Project’. Then she looked in the teddy bear’s diary and he had been to the Eden Project about 20 times...

“The best thing about my mum and dad is that they weren’t very good parents. I owe them nothing. I am literally free of any idea that I have to live up to them or they will disapprove or be disappointed. On the contrary they have just been thrilled. My dad died a couple of years ago, but he had been thrilled to be a friend in adulthood. The nearest I’ve got to a parent is my stepdad, who I am a bit careful around because he is a bit of a stickler. I remember turning up with a car tax disc out of date and he lost his rag: ‘You’ve run out of car tax! And you've got two children in the car!’ That was quite refreshing. I thought: That’s what it’s like having parents.”

Her wry observations and brilliant dialogue have just won Nina the Comedy Women in Print Award, launched by Helen Lederer in 2018.

Nina will be in conversation with Helen at the Cambridge Literary Festival.

Helen launched the prize after being outraged by the lack of women writers being chosen for literary comedy prizes, especially the Wodehouse prize, which in 2018 did not give the prize to anyone, claiming none were funny enough.

Nina says: “Helen became very interested in the gender bias in the shortlisting of the women on that prize and she became angry. It spurred her on to launch this prize. If women can’t win a comedy prize because they are women, she thought let’s have a women’s comedy prize.

“What has been interesting to me is the amount of interest in the Comedy Women in Print prize. When I finally won the Wodehouse prize last year, no one really wanted to interview me about it. It didn’t make the papers much. I thought, maybe I’m not famous enough. But CWIP is the opposite. It has been exhausting and I’m congratulating them when I say that. It has struck a chord.

“I remember a book by Marian Keyes, Rachel’s Holiday, which was her first book, and it was described by a male reviewer as so much froth. I’ve had a review like that. I’ve had a couple where because it’s not about war or a densely-plotted adventure it is slightly dismissed.

Nina Stibbe. Pic by Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi (42741289)
Nina Stibbe. Pic by Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi (42741289)

“I had a review in the Observer that literally took my breath away. The reviewer not only said that my winning the Wodehouse prize was a mistake, they said it was an indictment to the prize itself and a cause for concern for comedy in general. It was a really personal attack. He called my latest book ‘slight’. I thought you might call it rubbish and you might not enjoy it, but it isn’t slight. Any female and many men would tell you the things in that book are not slight.

“It’s about a lot of important topics, such as contraception and whether you should have to fulfil what they called your biological potential, and about the start of IVF. These are very important compelling concerns of women’s lives.

“Lots of my fans have been men. It’s just this very powerful vocal band of dinosaurs that keeps on going. They say women can’t be funny. My friend works in a library and sees quite a lot of older men and she says most of them don’t read women. And because most of them are lovely in other ways and they are her clients, she won’t wag her finger. But she says that’s an interesting prejudice - you are missing out on so much. I would be furious.

“Middle-aged men have to be very special to stop and think about it. They were brought up to think their voice counted more. We talk about mansplaining but to be fair they were trained to do that. They should have the intelligence to back off, but most of them don’t.

“There’s a very beautifully put argument from Marian Keyes. She and I were on Woman’s Hour. She explained very succinctly about men and humour and that women have been conditioned to laugh at men’s jokes and men have been conditioned to be attracted to women that laugh at their jokes. And actually women who say funny things might that be uncomfortable for older men.

“I meet men and women at literary events and on the whole they are lovely and have read my books. Women tend to come up and say lovely things and ask my opinion. I love giving advice because it is always that I got my first book deal when I was 50, so keep going. You can do it - I did it. I never thought I would. I had been writing for years and was always getting rejected by agents and publishers but I didn’t mind

“But when men come up to speak to me, they are not in any way being aggressive or unpleasant. They just generally think want to impart their knowledge, tell me things, give me advice and give me their stories. It’s a very interesting comparison between what men and women of my age do.

“They will come up to me and say ‘have you ever thought of doing this’? And, ‘it reminded me of my old uncle,’ and then will tell me an anecdote they think is much funnier than what I have written. The important thing is these are just lovely men who have been trained and conditioned to think that PG Wodehouse is hilarious and Sue Townsend is not really for them. At the end of the day they are missing out.”

Nine Stibbe is appearing at the Cambridge Literary Festival next month. Visit https://cambridgeliteraryfestival.com.

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