NOTina Stibbe’s Love, Nina (2013) was a disarming, intelligent and hugely entertaining memoir based on being a nanny for the children of Mary-Kay Wilmers, the former editor of the London Review of Books, and records encounters with Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, Karel Reisz and assorted literary others. Stibbe followed this with three buoyantly comic and successful novels based on his own life, and is about to publish a delightful fourth, One Day I Shall Astonish the World, her first attempt at fiction with no autobiographical strings attached, about a bumpy friendship between dissimilar women. She is 60 and lives in Cornwall with her husband and two grown-up children.
Your new novel made me laugh out loud. Are you good at cheering yourself up?
I’m not bad at laughing at awful things. I grew up with four close siblings and we laughed at everything. Once, when Mum had gone off for a day to have an operation, we brought the horse inside and it made a mess and broke some furniture – and Mum was furious with us, so furious she burst into tears which just made us howl laughing and then made her laugh. Dad died recently and I accidentally played his funeral music in hospital while he was dying. We were talking about what music he might like and I went on Spotify and started playing his death music – and then I thought: poor man, he’ll think he’s already dead. It was Schubert’s moving String Quintet in C major.
In what way has becoming a successful writer changed your life?
I grew up in a booky household. My parents, who were divorced, were both book lovers. And for many of my formative years I was living quite nonchalantly among the high-achieving people who featured in my first book. Being successful hasn’t been a shock – because I’ve seen it – even though I’ve always been very ordinary. Love, Nina was discovered by accident, and because Alan Bennett was a central figure it got published, adored and noted. Without him I don’t think we’d be having this conversation.
What reaction have you had from Mary-Kay Wilmers and other friends to your success? Was there a surprise retrospective about having housed a real writer disguised as a nanny?
When I look back, I think they were far more interested in me than I was in them. They liked the real world. They still do. They know they live in this slightly removed world, so when the plumber or nanny turns up, they’re genuinely fascinated. I’d no interest in Alan Bennett writing cutting-edge television or Mary-Kay being this extraordinary editor, I was only interested in me – and so were they. So it was rather good. Mary-Kay would say: “I hope you’re going to write a novel.” I’d read a few good novels. Edna O’Brien was a favourite. I remember thinking: “God, she’s just written about ordinary people … I could do that.” But I’d say to Mary-Kay: “I never will, I’ve not got a big enough vocabulary.” She was always encouraging, whereas Alan Bennett has been a bit … he was a bit grumpy that he wasn’t sexier in the book instead of constantly talking about rice pudding.
In between being a nanny and a novelist, what other jobs have you had?
I left school at 15. I’ve been a dental nurse, a book sales rep for the Open University, I’ve worked in marketing for Harcourt Brace and was a commissioning editor at Routledge. In Cornwall I became a primary school teaching assistant. I did that for two years thinking I might become a teacher – but realized I never could: nothing is as hard as teaching.
What sort of an observer are you?
I write everything down, all the time. I’m working on my next novel and it’s like making a soup – you make the stock tastier and tastier…
Your novel dwells on the ticklish nature of female friendship. Growing up, did you have a best friend?
I had a bunch of really awful friends. I loved them but they were awful. And I wasn’t very nice to them. I used to think it was because I had loads of siblings so it didn’t matter if I didn’t respect my friends. In fiction, female friendships are either ridiculously holy or psychopathic … In real life they are neither. Women hang on to friends and don’t just have a friend for ping pong. They have friendships that are embedded and meshed.
I loved your account of Roy, the narrator’s husband, as a health bore. How healthy are you?
I’ve recently become a pilates bore … I’m healthy in that I live in Cornwall and am constantly hiking up mountains and down cliffs, walking my dog and swimming in cold water, but I don’t bore on about cold water swimming because people hate that … We are all jealous, aren’t we? I’m always jealous of people going to the theater or ballet or doing other lovely things.
I noticed, in your acknowledgments, that you thank your husband for letting you have another dog?
I’m a dog lover but he’s not. I did sneakily get a dog nine years ago. I’ve always wanted to get another, so for the last two books I’ve thanked him for the second dog he hasn’t as yet agreed to. Our dog, Peggy, is a cockapoo. I always pretend she is a rescue dog and say we found her running in a blizzard on the A30 in Devon but people say: “There wasn’t a blizzard …” Actually, we bought her for £650 from a woman in Barnstable (not a puppy farm). I will rescue the next one.
Why did you move to Cornwall?
We moved here when we had a two-year-old and a baby. We’d been living in a tiny flat in Crouch End and thought: why are we living in London? We came to Cornwall because my husband loves surfing so much. By the time we were ready to come back to London we couldn’t afford it.
You’ve grownup children now. What is your top parenting tip?
Not to make everything a learning experience.
How freaked out were you by the pandemic?
I drove to get my daughter from Central Saint Martins in London and she cried all the way home. My son was in his first year doing politics and economics at Queen Mary [University of London]. He is not a rule breaker and would be in the halls of residence kitchen making a lentil dal, on the phone to me, night after night. He was so lonely. And I was in the middle of this novel, which I’d decided to write over an academic year. When Covid happened I thought: I didn’t design these characters to cope with a global pandemic, but then realized: they’ve got to go through it…
How do you feel about having turned 60?
Mentally, I’m 12. I really want to grow up and be more mature in my outlook. I’ve never been the adult in the room – I just haven’t.
If you had a magic wand, what would you do with it?
I’d give everyone a magic wand but they’d have to check in with me before they magicked anything. But world peace is the only true answer to that question.