Nina Stibbe: 'I read a few pages of Moby-Dick and switched to Jaws'

The author on being inspired by Sue Townsend, frightened by Beatrix Potter – and the monologue she wishes she’d written

The book I am currently reading
Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books by Cathy Rentzenbrink, a glorious part-memoir, part-love letter to books.

The book that changed my life
I studied humanities at Thames Polytechnic (now the University of Greenwich); we read James Baldwin, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Salman Rushdie, Cyprian Ekwensi,Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing and lumped Charles Dickens in with Carla Lane and Phil Redmond. It was a good start. I owe a lot to my tutors.

The book I wish I’d written
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann. An internal monologue of thoughts, ideas and realisations about family, political divisions in the US, global climate crisis and tarte tatin. Free from obvious structural or plot concerns, it ebbs and flows like your own crazy mind – furious, frightened and so, so funny. I wish I had Ellmann’s ear and brain and half her guts.

The book that influenced on my writing
I’d just begun experimenting with writing styles (who is telling the story and why?) when my former boss Mary-Kay Wilmers thrust a copy of Sue Townsend’s newly published The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ into my hands. I saw that contemporary characters living ordinary, neurotic lives could be funny and compelling.

My earliest reading memory
The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or the Roly-Poly Pudding. I was frightened and appalled by the tales of Beatrix Potter – mostly the constant threat of violent death. Children of my generation had little choice but to endure them.

The book I think is most underrated
The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories by Joy Williams. It surprises me that I rarely hear mention of this extraordinary American novelist, short-story writer and essayist. Not exactly a comedy writer, nor horror – with Williams the two somehow coexist.

The last book that made me cry
The audiobook of So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. Before that I cried at Derek Owusu’s That Reminds Me – a beautiful coming of age story about a young Ghanaian man.

The last books that made me laugh
Angela Makholwa’s outrageous, laugh-out-loud The Blessed Girl and Abbi Waxman’s charming, Austenesque The Bookish Life of Nina Hill.

The book I’m most ashamed not to have read
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. I read a few pages and switched to Jaws by Peter Benchley thinking that it would do instead.

The book I’d most like to be remembered for
Reasons to Be Cheerful. It features the dawn of the McCain oven chip, a prolapsed uterus, xenophobic dentistry and an unwieldy wraparound dress.

My comfort reads
Early Barbara Pym for times of trouble. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalets for sad times. Wodehouse or Samuel Pepys for a grim journey. Maya Angelou to bolster. Nancy Mitford for heartbreak. Mapp & Lucia for loneliness. David Sedaris at anytime.

Nina Stibbe’s Reasons to Be Cheerful (Penguin) has won the 2020 Comedy Women in Print prize.


Nina Stibbe

The GuardianTramp

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