The Rumpus Interview with Nina Stibbe

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I doubt she did it just to endear herself to Americans later on, but Nina Stibbe was a high school dropout. She left home, a land I can romanticize and redact à la Jane Austen as ———shire, in her late teens. She circled back to school after stints as a junior nurse and later as a nanny under the employ of the literary editor of the London Review of Books, Mary-Kay Wilmers, whom I will refer to as Helena Bonham Carter. (Even Helena Bonham Carter admits the resemblance is striking. Plus, as Stibbe would shorthand it, HBC now plays MK on TV.)

At twenty, Stibbe wrote letters to her sister about looking after MK’s children, Sam and Will Frears. Thirty years later, Stibbe’s letters became an instant bestseller as Love, Nina, a book that inspired some serious fandom. Maria Semple was all, “Love, Nina might be the most charming book I’ve ever read.” It made Nick Hornby sound like me just before I recite Clueless verbatim, i.e. “I could quote from it forever.” Hornby has since adapted the book into a BBC miniseries starring HBC and Faye Marsay, which concluded in June.

Stibbe and I recently chatted over Skype about the sequel to her debut novel Man at the Helm, which was shortlisted for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction. Man at the Helm introduces Lizzie at age nine, a bright, stubborn girl who is determined to transform her depressive mother into the heroine of a romantic comedy. In Paradise Lodge, Stibbe widens the scope from Lizzie’s immediate family to include the seniors, carers, and drifters at a nearby nursing home. Lizzie, now fifteen, has taken on a part-time position as a junior nurse, a job that’s semi-legit, while halfheartedly continuing to semi-matriculate at school. Where Love, Nina covers Stibbe’s autobiographical accounts of nannying, Paradise Lodge recasts just as many cutting observations from her life as a young carer into fiction.

Our Skype call illuminated some very Stibbian themes that make this interview something of a CliffsNotes version of her books, namely that dogs feature prominently and unannounced visitors come round a lot. I’d no sooner met Nina than she’d introduced me to her dog Peggy, whom I greet with my signature indifference to pets.

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Nina Stibbe: Come say hello to Catherine. Say hello! Here she is.

The Rumpus: OH NO! Look at how cute you are! Who is this? Is this Peggy?

Stibbe: This is Peggy. Look, Peggy! Do you know, she’s very similar to Reagan Arthur’s dog, my US publisher. She’s like a little sister to her; I think Reagan’s dog is Rosie.

Rumpus: Do they Skype?

Stibbe: They haven’t yet, but maybe they should.

Rumpus: How’s the launch of Paradise Lodge been going over there?

Stibbe: It’s been wonderful. I had a launch in London and a little launch in my hometown, Leicester, where the book is set. The home that Paradise Lodge is based on is in the very next village. There were people there that had worked with me at that care home and remembered it. It was so nice.

Rumpus: Going on concurrently, I hear, with a whirlwind of publicity for your show!

Stibbe_ParadiseLodgeStibbe: The UK Penguin timed the launch especially. I think we had to rush a bit, partly because on the telly here the show is called Love, Nina, so there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s me. I think we did get lots of extra publicity because of that.

Rumpus: Zeroing in on Paradise Lodge, what brought you back to Lizzie?

Stibbe: I had written the first book, Man at the Helm, many, many years ago when I had done a college course about autobiography, the writing of it, the reading of it, the sort of mix of fiction and fact. It felt unfinished to me. It’s so autobiographical I couldn’t let go of it.

Rumpus: Does your country have the obsession with character likability that we do? Is that an ongoing conversation, about the need for readers to like a character?

Stibbe: Oh, yes. I was listening to an interview today with a writer called Jessie Burton, who wrote The Miniaturist. They were talking about likability, saying—and I really agree with this—how nice flawed characters can be, how satisfying when characters aren’t great, especially women. I love a meanie. I do love a bad character.

Rumpus: We often fixate on likability as a prerequisite for anyone ever caring about a character, though we also tend to get at it sideways, especially in popular television, with antiheros. Across all three books—Love, Nina, Man at the Helm, and Paradise Lodge—I feel this instant and enduring affection for the characters that you write. I wonder if you haven’t cracked the likability code, and whether you have thoughts on how you construct that affection scene to scene, if there’s a before and an after to that, a setup or payoff. Is it something to do with flaws?

Stibbe: I write likability because I’m a people-pleaser in real life. I don’t like to be controversial. I’m very keen to get on with people.

I remember in Man at the Helm, I’d written a scene where Lizzie is explaining to the reader that she and her sister and her mother are not very good at housework and domestic stuff. She says, “We’ve never had to do it. We’ve always had help.” She says her mother is temperamentally unsuitable to housework.

When my friend read that in the first draft, she said, “You know what? It’s the first time I haven’t liked Lizzie. I just don’t like that snobbish attitude.” And you know, I changed it. Even though to me it was important that Lizzie said these things, I tempered it. I want Lizzie to be Lisa Simpson. I want her to be right. Everything around her is crazy, but she has to be right. So I think you’re onto something, Catherine. I did change it.

Rumpus: Lizzie’s through-line in Paradise Lodge circles around the pointlessness of school, how little she believes it will prepare her for life or the reality of work as it is in the nursing home. Can you talk a little bit about how you pit school versus work versus home care, having also been ambivalent about schooling earlier in life and gravitating towards care-taking professions?

Stibbe: I have a daughter and a son about the same age as Lizzie in Paradise Lodge. We’re just going through this thing where we’re pushing the kids to, you know, do their utmost and to reach their potential.

The world has changed so much. Back in the seventies, you could sort of go off the rails a bit and go into The School of Life. The alternatives to school could give you an incredible education. A different one, but nevertheless meaningful and rewarding. In the UK, that’s not the case now. A teenager wouldn’t be able to work in a care home and do the things I did and that Lizzie did. A child, a teenager, dropping out of school like I did wouldn’t be able to fold back in again. I dropped out at fifteen but I went back at age twenty, got a good degree, and was able to go on and get a “good job,” in inverted commas. I think now that would be much harder.

So it’s a horrible thing to have to face up to, that I am now saying things to my daughter—and I will, to my son—that my mum said to me. I won’t let them get away with it. I won’t let them find their own way and have these adventures. I think it’s right; I don’t think I should. On the other hand, it’s really sad and disappointing that the world has become so rigid.

Rumpus: Lizzie’s mother is a fascinating counterpoint to that, with her strong opinions on what Lizzie should and should not be doing. There was a great phrase that you coined about washing line syndrome.

Stibbe: Oh gosh yes, it’s so true!

Rumpus: Lizzie’s mother is disappointed with her, warning that she’s getting caught up in “‘washing line syndrome,’ a thing where a woman’s immense pleasure from seeing her family’s sheets and shirts pegged up on the line and billowing in the breeze blots out proper ambition or desire for equality.”

Stibbe: My mother always struggled with laundry. We all do, don’t we? If she didn’t do it, it didn’t get done. If she did do it, she felt she was going against her feminist principles. She had become a feminist in the early seventies with Germaine Greer.

I remember we made some curtains. We had big windows and we made some lovely curtains. Do you call them curtains or do you call them drapes?

Rumpus: We call them curtains!

Stibbe: Curtains, okay. So we made these curtains. We got fabric and we sewed them and we put the rings on. My sister and I were thrilled. My mother felt that we should have been doing something more meaningful and that actually, we shouldn’t be too proud of them. Yes, they’re there, and that’s good that nobody can see in and we can block the dark out and whatever, but we shouldn’t get too carried away. Because why should we do that? We should be writing a play.

Even to this day, I do love hanging the washing out on the line. I stand and gaze at it. I think, “Oh, how lovely,” and I say to the kids, “Oh, lovely, fresh bedsheets!” and I’m a bit obsessed about it. Do men do that? No! They don’t.

Stibbe_ManattheHelmRumpus: How do you mine feminist truisms for comedy?

Stibbe: I’ve had very nice reviews in the UK, but there was one snippy line where somebody—I can’t remember how she put it—she said, you know, “Nina Stibbe slightly flirts with feminism.”

The thing is, showing women struggling with living their lives and fulfilling the things that they need to do but also having their intellectual lives stimulated is very important to me. I want to be funny first of all, but there is seriousness in there, I hope. I really aim to say quite cutting things. I want people’s attention. I want them to read the lines and I want them to imagine. Simone de Beauvoir said we’re all sick of writing about women’s problems, especially women. But we do have to keep on at it.

Rumpus: When Lizzie’s mother dramatizes whatever scene is currently happening in her life through writing, everyone suffers. In Love, Nina, too, there are a number of references to living with writers being generally insufferable. What side of that do you identify with now, or had you then?

Stibbe: Growing up, I found my mother’s compulsion to write quite agonizing. She also played the piano and that was a bit dreadful as well. As an adult, I look back and think how lovely that there’d be a Chopin nocturne being played in the background, but at the time it was really boring. It usually meant that she was in a bad mood.

I think she wrote the plays to explain to herself what she thought was going on, so they were sometimes quite illuminating, but it turned out that she was sort of weirdly plagiarizing the poems. I remember I’d said to her once, “Mum, that’s really lovely about the apple tree.” And she said, “Oh yes, I copied that. Somebody’d written it about a black currant bush.” I thought, god, what a cheat! Then I tried to do it. I thought actually it might be quite difficult to do. And it is difficult to do! She was always keen to explore different ways of expressing herself.

I just said to my daughter yesterday, “Oh you must download the audiobook of Paradise Lodge because it’s being read by Helen Baxendale and you’d love it.” And she went, “Yeah, later.” I said to my son the other day, “Have you read Man at the Helm?” And he said, “I’ve heard the audiobooks; it’s fine.”

So I’ve turned into that woman.

Rumpus: There was a brilliant bit about lying that I loved in Paradise Lodge. Lizzie describes how no one liked Matron much, that “her lying was the main problem,” which has a great payoff for Matron’s through-line. It reads:

To be absolutely fair, telling lies in those days was more common. People lied more than they do today. I lied. It was before people really believed that honesty was a good thing in a relationship. No one said to a newlywed woman, “Tell him you don’t like the necklace, be honest, tell him you’d like to change it for something else” and “Build the relationship on a solid foundation of trust and truth.” No one said that. It was thought better to smooth things over with a layer of fibs and just wear a necklace you hated.

Stibbe: But Catherine, it’s true! Maybe it wasn’t like that in the States, but honest to god, everybody just lied all the time. Maybe it was the seventies. Maybe everyone was very honest and then suddenly the seventies came and things went a bit wrong.

Rumpus: I’m in the camp with the fibbers! My mother was, too. She still is. Which camp have you spent the most time in?

Stibbe: Well, I was very much a liar. My partner, though, is a full-on truth-teller. Sometimes he’ll say something to somebody and I’m just flabbergasted. I’ll say to him afterwards, “Why did you say that?” And he says, “Well, it’s the truth!” To me, the truth can be hard and harsh and unwelcome.

My sister got married a couple of years ago and her husband gave her some earrings. I didn’t like them. I said, “Do you really like those earrings?” And she went, “Oh yeah, I really love them.” And I said, “Do you, though?” She never admitted she was lying. Maybe I’m thinking that because I’d lie. Anyway, I’m a liar.

I think you in the States are much more truthful than us. There are lots of things about my books I worry about you lot, like the lying. There’s a line in Paradise Lodge about Matron, “You realize by now nobody liked Matron very much because she was a fat, ugly, spiteful bitch.”

Rumpus: Don’t worry; Americans will love that.

Stibbe: Will they? I don’t know! There are some huge differences between the attitude of the British general reading public in the UK and my perception of the reading public in the States. I think it’s just my perception. Much of the comedy I really love is American and it’s pretty harsh.

Rumpus: There’s a great moment in Paradise Lodge about eccentrics, the epiphany Lizzie’s older sister has after going on a camping trip with her boyfriend’s family:

The camping trip with the Carters had made my sister realize how abnormal she was (we were) and made her terrified of a future in which she’d have to try to exist outside of our mad, smoky little family and get to grips with the greatest thinkers in the world and at the same time be normal and cook roasts. She suddenly felt blind panic about interacting with normal, sensible people, and she worried that people like her, who couldn’t cope in the real world, often ended up reclusive and institutionalized.

But there could be one takeaway from Paradise Lodge that, even at fifteen, you might as well just skip to the Lodge part. Being institutionalized for several years doesn’t seem all that bad. By the end, Lizzie is concluding, “I didn’t want the peace that comes with acceptance, I wanted the ongoing chronic joy that came with ignorance and fantasy.” I have to say that I identify with her there.

Stibbe: Me too. When you’re watching a movie and somebody goes to the loft or the cellar to see what the noise is, I think, “Why would you? Just ignore it!”

But you’re very clever because I’ve never made that link before, not as straightforwardly as that, that actually—in real life at the nursing home and in the booknobody sort of wanted to leave there. Not only did we want to be there even if we weren’t on duty, but my mum used to come up and all of our friends would come in. We all wanted to exist in this institution. We didn’t want to go home when we had this five-hour break or go to the pub. We wanted to be sitting there, chatting to the patients and putting nail varnish on them.

Rumpus: It’s fascinating that the characters are really attracted to the nursing home like moths to a flame, when really, especially in America, we’re terrified of going there. It’s the last place we want to be, living in a home with a tagline like, “Come here to live!”

Stibbe: “Even though,” as Lizzie says, “you will probably die!”

It’s very interesting, that. I think now in the UK it’s the same as you’ve just described. People fight tooth and nail not to go into a home. People will often say with terror, “Well, we had to let her go into a home,” or “She’s gone into care.” But back in the seventies, it was still very much that you would reach a certain age and you might even go into a hotel. Really quite young people, not much older than me, and you might be checking into a hotel and going semi-institutional. There are novels about it. There’s a novel called Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. There was an acceptance of going into these places. And they weren’t terribly medical.

Rumpus: It seems that there was a different take on care, and what care would be like in a home like this. We don’t anticipate that there will be care there, not the kind that we assume happens in our family if we were to stay home.

Stibbe: When I went back to Leicester recently to meet some of the nurses that I’d worked with, one of them took me to see Paradise Lodge as it is now. I asked, “Can we go in?” And she said, “Well you can, but you won’t be able to speak to anybody because none of them will be well enough.” To be there, they’d have to be really ill. There’s no sitting there, painting their nails and doing Bingo. Very much has changed.

Rumpus: I loved the entrance of Sister Saleem, the imposition of order, and how suddenly, actually, everybody really loves that.

Stibbe: Sister Saleem was real. I disguised her because I couldn’t find the real woman. All I knew about the real Sister Saleem was that she’d gone on to rise up through our health system here, under a different name. I was very concerned that I didn’t want to identify her because the book is a comedy. It’s very autobiographical, but it’s not entirely true. There are some things that didn’t happen, and there are some things that did happen that she might not want to be associated with, so I hid her. In real life she was from Malaysia. I had her vaguely from Uganda in the book.

But I finally tracked her down. I said, “You’ve got to read the book. I cannot acknowledge you in the back of the book and I want to, but I can’t until you’ve read it.” She loved it. She came to the book launches. It was one of the most wonderful things that’s ever happened to me, that I could acknowledge this amazing woman. She had no idea she’d had such an impact on us young nurses.

Rumpus: What makes the authority figures different from each other? We’ve got Miss Pitt, who’s the villain, but Sister Saleem is a savior. Like with Mr. Holt, there’s an imposition of order in a chaotic environment that really improves things dramatically, versus an imposition of order that they’re all bucking against by virtue of being eccentric.

Stibbe: I really wanted that parallel of Mr. Holt and Sister Saleem. There is something wonderful when a savior comes in. We need people like that in the world.

Rumpus: Who make order out of chaos.

Stibbe: My partner’s like that with me.

Rumpus: He provides that?

Stibbe: Yeah, he does. I’m the sort of creative one. I’m not methodical. He’ll say, “I wouldn’t have done it like that.” And I’ll go, “Oh god, leave me alone!” Then two weeks later I’ll think, “Oh, I should’ve done it the way he said.”

Rumpus: Is the attraction that really, he’s right?

Stibbe: He does make life easier in the long run. He’s just come in, actually.

Rumpus: Hi!

Stibbe: He’s been on a big bike ride. I’ll make him come on the camera.

Rumpus: Oh good! This is Nunney!

Stibbe: It’s Nunney, yeah!

Rumpus: I’m torn about whether to include that because it’s a huge shock, if you’ve not read Love, Nina!

Stibbe: Spoiler! You can see what he was like in Love, Nina. That wasn’t at all fictionalized! You can see him already, even as a twenty-year-old, shining through as a person of great, you know, dignity and conscientiousness.

Rumpus: Integrity.

Stibbe: Yes, integrity!

Rumpus: We’ll see if he can do a quick cameo and display all of those in one or two clever lines.

Stibbe: I’ve just signaled to him. Anyhow! Let’s carry on.

Rumpus: Meanwhile! Do you have conscious opinions about how to write comedy? Or do you think it’s more that you just see joke after joke after joke play out in the world and you just write down what you’re seeing?

Stibbe: The second thing. I love that sort of plotted, clever comedy. I love Wodehouse. Oh, here. Come!

Nunney: I’ve come!

Stibbe: I’m having a Skype!

Nunney: I’ve just come in from a ride.

Stibbe: He’s just come in from a ride.

Rumpus: Thank you for visiting! Hello!

Nunney: It’s lovely that someone in America is interviewing Nina.

Rumpus: It’s nice to meet you!

Nunney: It’s nice to meet you!

Rumpus: I’ve read so much about you!

Stibbe: He’s going away now. Go on, go away. So yes, comedy! For me, the funny lines just come. And that’s it! There’s nothing I can say about it other than that.

Rumpus: They just come.

LoveNinaStibbe: They just come! And they never did! I wrote and wrote and wrote and I never wrote anything that was even remotely amusing. Then we found the Love, Nina letters and people just liked them. I realized that if I just wrote in my own voice instead of trying very hard, I might have a better result. And that’s exactly what I did. I wrote everything as me, with my voice, and just let it happen naturally.

I’m fifty-four now. I do a lot of literary events around the UK, and there are always questions and answers at the end. People ask about writing, my methods, my techniques, my journey. I love to tell them this. People try too hard and they get blinkered. They think they’ve got to plot things out really carefully and say these amusing things, but actually, if you just chill out, it can just happen. For that to happen to me at this age is really lovely for people. To say, “I tried to write, I’ve been writing things all my life, and then suddenly, age fifty, bang.” I see people thrilled to hear it, because I’m not saying, “If you didn’t do it by the time you’re twenty-one, you’ve blown it all. You’ve got to go on a really expensive writing course.” What I’m saying is, no, just try not trying and see what happens.

Rumpus: It’s fascinating that part of that was just looking back at what you would say to your sister. How you just talk to someone that you like.

Stibbe: Not expecting anyone to read it! Not even imagining that she’d read it. We’d just glance at these letters. I’d put them in the bin. She kept mine, thank goodness, but she didn’t remember any of them. I didn’t remember most of them. I knew I’d written. I’d moved to France just before then and it was very expensive to phone. Also, I was quite lonely. Getting a letter was so lovely, and in order to get a letter, you had to write a letter. But I was writing more for me, really. I certainly wasn’t expecting anyone to ever read those letters. So yes, I was absolutely natural. We’re back to this truth and lies thing, aren’t we? Where one thing is authentic and the other is forced or faked or stylized.

Rumpus: Speaking of clever plotting, do you have any cardinal rules of fiction? You have little moments of recapping in both books, which actually were great either way. I read Man at the Helm in bursts and Paradise Lodge in one go, and in both cases I really appreciated the recaps because so much had happened.

Stibbe: I quite often recap because I would like it, me, as a reader. I have this thing when I’m reading or watching drama on television or in film, I need telling a thing a couple of times. If a character says, “Oh, you know, we really need to go to Minnesota,” if suddenly they’re in the car, I’m saying, “What? Where are they going?” I need the exposition. Being a person that needs it, I then supply it.

In terms of literary rules, I don’t have any. I’m telling myself that I’m going to try a bit harder with the next. I’ve contracted with Penguin, my British publisher, to write a third in the trilogy. Having just said, “Oh, it’s just writing, don’t worry, write in your own voice,” I am actually going to step back a bit with this one and try to make it an advance. I know that I break all the rules, but I’m not sure what those rules are. People are always saying, “It’s great you break all the rules!” And I go, “Yes it’s great! What rules?”

Rumpus: It’s fascinating, because your books read to me as intricately plotted.

Stibbe: No! They’re not!

Rumpus: Have you read Backwards and Forwards? It’s about dramatic writing.

Stibbe: Right! I’m writing this down.

Rumpus: It’s about the idea of trigger and heap.

Stibbe: Yes. I mean, I’ve heard these terms.

Rumpus: Backwards and Forwards, David W. Ball. I had to read it for school and I wasn’t paying any attention at all. I returned to it a couple of years ago and was like, “Man, this is really brilliant.” It’s fascinating to me how you’re saying that you’ve no knowledge of it and have never read it, yet I would say that the books you’ve written really follow that structure. Just accidentally.

Stibbe: I’m fascinated by this, because we’re writing the screenplay for Man at the Helm at the moment and I haven’t written scripts before. I started on it about two years ago. But the bloke I’m writing with, he’s like Nunney but in my writing life. He’s very organized, very clever, very methodical. He said the same thing to me. He said, “It’s great that you’ve got the three-point structure.” I had no idea about that.

Rumpus: I wonder all the time about whether it’s helpful to know what those things are while you’re doing them, or whether it’s just a sense of knowing that you have to keep a reader wanting to turn the page.

Stibbe: I tried a little bit harder in Paradise Lodge in that there’s more made-up stuff. Man at the Helm is very much the pattern of my childhood and what happened. It happened the way I’ve written. With Paradise Lodge I thought, well, I can’t just have another this then this then this then this. So I did try a little bit harder, but not this sort of intricate plotting and rule-abiding that you’re talking about now.

Rumpus: With each book, you’re making up just a little bit more.

Stibbe: I might end up quite good!

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Author photograph © Rebecca Dawe.


Catherine Cusick is a writer, producer, and standing advocate for independent bookstores. She lives in Harlem and tweets @CusickCatherine More from this author →