The Penguin Q&A

Nina Stibbe

The Man at the Helm author reveals her guilty pleasures and tells us about being censored by the school newspaper

Author Nina Stibbe

'I like bittersweet, life-like comedy' – author Nina Stibbe

Where did you grow up, and what was it like?

I grew up in two different Leicestershire villages. They were rural and small. Everyone knew everyone else’s business. I had three siblings and lots of animals – it was quite chaotic.
 

What was your childhood ambition?

One ambition was to live close to a swimming pool and café so I could go swimming whenever I wanted and have hot chocolate and buns afterwards – not from the vending machine. Another was to be a jockey.
 

What is your earliest reading memory?

We had a complete set of the Beatrix Potter books. I loved Peter Rabbit but was terrified of Samuel Whiskers. As an older child, I loved the Ruby Ferguson books (A Stable For Jill, Jill’s Gymkhana, etc).
 

When did you know you wanted to write?

I always wrote - all sorts of things from a young age, including an illustrated article about (the unmarried) Princess Anne being pregnant to an unknown man. My teacher disapproved of the tone and wouldn’t allow it in the class ‘newspaper’.
 

Where do you live now?

I live in Cornwall with my partner and our kids and dog. We moved here in 2002. It’s inconvenient in some ways and we considered moving back ‘up country’ a couple of years ago but decided in the end we’d miss the beach too much.
 

What kind of books do you write, and why?

I try to write comedy. I like bittersweet, life-like comedy.
 

What did you do before you were a writer?

Sadly I was never a jockey. I was a nanny for a while and then I went into book publishing. I have always written but I only started to consider myself a writer when I wrote a screenplay collaboratively with a writing partner. It was such fun and we were proud of it.
 

What are your inspirations?

Everything. People.
 

Books and authors you’ve loved include:

Sue Townsend for her skilful handling of difficult subjects (family breakdown, poverty, sexual politics, unemployment, growing up, relationships) and for making her characters so loveable in spite of their frailties, flaws and unglamorous settings.

J K Rowling for writing a rich and complex story that has captivated my children for almost their entire lives.

Writers like Caitlin Moran, Lena Dunham and Daisy Buchanan for making us laugh and feel better and stronger.

Sarah Waters, Edna O’Brien, Zoe Heller, Arnold Bennett, Hilary Mantel, Anne Enright, W Somerset Maugham, Colm Toibin and Tobias Wolff for precision and brilliance and divine storytelling.

John Lanchester, Anne Tyler, Barbara Pym, Nancy Mitford, Marian Keyes and PG Wodehouse for being clever, funny and human.
 

What are you reading (or re-reading) at the moment?

Spectacles by Sue Perkins. It’s marvellous, poignant and very funny. I have After Me Comes The Flood by Sarah Perry to take on holiday next week.
 

Who is your favourite fictional character (one you didn’t write) and why?

Mick Kelly in The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I just loved her and identified with her inquisitiveness and openness.
 

Which fictional character would you like to go out drinking with?

Francis Plug from Paul Ewen’s book Francis Plug – How To Be A Public Author.
 

Which fictional location would you most like to visit?

Blandings Castle in Market Blandings, Shropshire. Home of Lord Emsworth.
 

What would be your desert island…

Music: Talking Heads, David Bowie, Nanci Griffith, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder.

Books: the complete works of Barbara Pym.

Films: David Mamet’s Things Change.

Artwork: various by St Ives painter Alfred Wallis.

Food and drink: toast and marmalade.
 

Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party and what would you serve?

I would never have a dinner party.
 

Not many people know this, but I’m very good at…

Horse riding.
 

What is your guilty pleasure?

The Archers and Twix bars.
 

What do you always carry with you?

Phone, dog poo bags.
 

And whenever you travel?

Rich Tea biscuits.
 

How do you prefer to write?

I type, handwrite and use phone notes.
 

Can you tell us about a problem you hit with one of your works and how you got around it?

With Man At The Helm I worried about finding a satisfactory ending. I tried a number of different ways but finally just wrote what actually happened in real life.
 

Where do you write and how?

I’m good in a café or my kitchen. I like lots of tea and toast and, if possible, my dog (Peggy) nearby.
 

Do you ever re-read your earlier works?

Yes.
 

Do you have any writing rituals?

No.
 

What’s the most useful piece of advice about writing you’ve been given?

Read a lot.
 

How do you celebrate finishing a book?

By getting a dog!
 

And finally, what’s the question no one has ever asked you but you wish they would?

How good are you at horse riding?

Man at the Helm

Nina Stibbe

Man at the Helm, the debut novel from Nina Stibbe - the much-loved author of Love, Nina - is a wildly comic, brilliantly sharp-eyed novel about the horrors of being an attractive divorcée in an English village in the 1970s, and a family's fall from grace . . .

My sister and I and our little brother were born (in that order) into a very good situation and apart from the odd new thing life was humdrum and comfortable until an evening in 1970 when my mother listened in to my father's phone call and ended up blowing her nose on a tea towel - a thing she'd only have done in an absolute emergency.

Not long after her parents' separation, heralded by an awkward scene involving a wet Daily Telegraph and a pan of cold eggs, nine-year-old Lizzie Vogel, her sister and little brother and their now divorcée mother are packed off to a small, slightly hostile village in the English countryside. Their mother is all alone, only thirty-one years of age, with three young children and a Labrador. It is no wonder, when you put it like that, that she becomes a menace and a drunk. And a playwright.

Worried about the bad playwriting - though more about becoming wards of court and being sent to the infamous Crescent Home for Children - Lizzie and her sister decide to contact, by letter, suitable men in the area. In order to stave off the local social worker they urgently need to find a new Man at the Helm.

'All hail a book that's funny!' Barbara Trapido

'[A] joyous read, full of wit and charm . . . I am already longing for Nina Stibbe's next book' Observer

'Nine-year-old Lizzie (our narrator) is the perfect conduit for her creator, just the right mixture of childhood innocence and incredulity for the necessary deadpan delivery of Stibbe's particular brand of comedy. Read it and be charmed' Independent

'A beguilingly comic blend of naivety and precociousness' Sunday Times

Find out more about the author

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