Nina Stibbe webchat – your questions answered on comedy, Alan Bennett and amateur dentistry

Last modified: 11: 36 AM GMT+0

The comic writer behind Love, Nina and novels including Reasons to be Cheerful joined us to answer your questions

And we're done!

Thank you to Nina, who has been so generous with her time today.

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Dear All. Thank you for excellent questions and for such generous feedback. I have enjoyed myself immensely. I'm now going to have a huge lunch then to get work plotting my novel, look up contemporary Russian novelists, read some poetry (Hardy and Milligan) and see if anyone fancies watching WALL-E with me later. Thank you all. Bye bye! xx

And thank you to you all for your great questions!

Our next book on the Reading group has been announced today: A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, which is available for free on Project Gutenberg if you want to take part and can’t make it to a bookshop or library. Do join us this month!


'Have I done any unofficial dentistry? Lots'

Jericho999 says:

I loved squirming at the dentistry in Reasons To Be Cheerful, and couldn’t help wondering how much *unofficial* dentistry you yourself might have carried out... Have you ever pulled a tooth?!

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

lots. I have cleaned teeth using an ultrasonic descaler. I have done fillings and re-cementing crowns but I haven't pulled a tooth out - except my own baby teeth.

captainlego asks:

Hi Nina! I adored Love, Nina and Man at the Helm. I wanted to ask, did your mother ever get to publish and/or stage one of her plays? Thanks!

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Thank You! No, sadly, she didn't get anything published but she is now practically a National Treasure!

laurasnapes says:

From the “local author!” stickers on your books in the lovely Falmouth Bookseller, I believe we share a hometown. What are your favourite haunts?

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Hi Laura! are you in Falmouth? If so I'm very close. One of my favourite things is breakfast at Gyllie beach cafe after a swim with my pal Cathy Rentzenbrink - also local. My problem recently is that my teenage kids hang out there and I don't want to embarrass them.

'I will begrudgingly admit that Thomas Hardy is not bad'

samjordison says:

Sorry for the flood of questions. But! Am also dying to know what you make of Thomas Hardy now. Have you revisited his poetry?

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

I'm more tolerant nowadays and will begrudgingly admit he's not bad.

KeavaM says:

It’s great to hear that you write in the notes app on your phone sometimes! I do that too - especially in the evening when I’m already in bed :) I was wondering whether you have a daily writing ‘routine’?

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Hi Keava. I have recently learned that the 'morning brain' is better and clearer and more creative than the afternoon or evening brain. It's awful news because I hate getting up early and starting work.. but I'm sorry to say that is just the way it is.


RoyWhojamaflip has asked:

Did Alan Bennett et al like Love, Nina? What did they think of how they were portrayed?

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Hi! I've answered a question here about how I had to BADGER MK to let me publish it. Alan Bennett was fine about it until after publication when people in the street kept bothering him about his DIY skills and asking him to fix a puncture!

@TSLizR over on Twitter asks:

The pony upstairs incident in Man at the Helm had me choking with laughter when I read it - and every time I thought about it for days afterwards. Was it based on a real experience?

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Yes! The pony upstairs was real. I think that’s why people like it so much. The pony was Maxwell, he really existed, and was always getting me into trouble. It’s great to look back on but quite terrifying at the time. So glad you enjoyed it!

ChrisTBaker says:

How has your writing changed since publishing Love, Nina? Did the TV dramatization of the book make you see - no pun intended - things differently, in other words, are you now writing “scenes” more?

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Ive been writing scripts a bit since then and have learned about 'story shape' but to no no avail really when it comes to my novel writing - i still just let the story meander.


samjordison has another:

In case there’s time, am also curious to know if you carried on writing to your sister after the Love, Nina letters. Are there more?!

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

yes, lots more more, but not so much Alan Bennett!

MachenBach asks:

Who cheers you up most: Beckett or Bernhard?

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Beckett. I once saw him in real life at a production of three of his own plays.

PaleFires says:

Are your books available in translation? If so, did you collaborate with your translators and how do you feel about the results?

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Hello! Yes, most of my books have been translated into a different languages. I have collaborated with translators – especially for the Italian and French. It’s a fascinating experience. I mostly had to clarify English idioms and slang and turns of phrase. I love having the translated editions but don’t know how I’d assess the result.

RinTimTim says:

I have long thought that Spike Milligan’s Puckoon is the greatest comic novel in the English language. Do you agree? If not can you suggest a better one?

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

I adore Spike Milligan. I’m especially fond of his poetry. (The Wind Blew in on Poor Old ‘Granny’). I love ‘Puckoon’. But not as much as I love ‘Diary of a Nobody’ by George & Weedon Grossmith or ‘Some Tame Gazelle’ by Barbara Pym.

DWFan1 gets in the question asked in every Guardian webchat:

What’s your favourite Pixar film?

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Notmytype asks:

Do you live in Gloucester Crescent? Is William Miller a neighbour? Have you read his excellent book? I wonder if he’s read yours.

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Hello! I no longer live in Gloucester Cres. William Miller was a neighbour in the 1980s. I rarely saw him, perhaps he was away at school/college. I did know his brother Tom (the photographer), who was v nice and occasionally came in to have a game of cricket with the boys. I have read Wm Miller’s book and of course found it fascinating. I expect he’s dipped into mine (his late father and brother having featured in it!).

'I assume my readers are like me; female, clever, fluctuating self-esteem, fed up with the patriarchy but deeply embedded'

theupsetappletart has three questions:

1. Do you set out primarily to make people laugh or to tell a good story?

2. Is comic writing a risky undertaking, in your opinion? What assumptions, if any, do you have about your readers before you write?

3. Is being labeled a comic writer a blessing or a curse? Your comedy goes into some pretty dark and sad places. If the comic label didn’t apply, would a novelist be more inclined to go even more deeply into those places?

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Hello, thanks for these great questions. 1)I set out to tell a good story first. Aiming for laughs is not my way as previously said. If something ends up funny, then all to the good. I had no idea my first novel would be received as funny. I thought people might think it terribly sad. Some people did.
2) I must confess I assume my readers are like me. That is; female, clever, fluctuating self-esteem, fed up with the patriarchy but deeply embedded.
3) Not sure. I think being labelled a comedy writer can mean important points you make in your work can go undetected or uncommented on as readers look for the LOLs. That can be disappointing. For instance the issue of whether women are complete (or not) if they remain child-free, the way single parents are regarded, the ways in which women are sidelined/silenced etc.

philipphilip99 asks:

Do you have a love-hate relationship with a book as you write it? If so, how do you get love to gain the upper hand?

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Hi. Great question. I haven’t yet experienced hate. Doubt, yes! I have on occasions suddenly stopped believing that the story is going to work, or i've lost my way, or something seems implausible or I just can't imagine that anyone will want to read such drivel. That mostly happens if/when I’m forcing the plot and not letting the story unfold in its own time. Good luck with your writing.

LLCoolJ_ says:

I imagine Sam and Will have children of their own now. Have they enjoyed the attention they’ve received after Love, Nina as much as we the readers have?

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Hi! Thank you! Yes, Sam and Will enjoyed the book and the TV series. Sam actually had a part in the TV series - though not playing himself - obviously. He loved being part of the production.

bookbird23 says:

Adele Vogel is a wonderful character - a funny, bohemian, creative mother with a mix of fragility and strong will. Was creating this character fun and does it draw from your own experiences?

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

hello. Love this question. Lizzie’s mother, Mrs Vogel, is based closely on my real mother. I love writing her because she is so funny and outrageous, and because it' not difficult! and because people love her so much. The real Mrs Vogel will be celebrating her 81st birthday tomorrow, in lockdown (which she is hating). She will be reading this conversation, so thank you for bringing her up and saying such lovely things. Happy Birthday Mum! xx


CugelTheStupid says:

It’s often stated that tyrants hate being laughed at and fear it. I do not especially agree as, as far as I know, their response is often simply to kill you and/or those you love. As a nanny, you were not in quite such peril but were kind of ‘hitting up’. The funny quip can lead to ... all sorts of outcomes when one’s job is at stake, potentially.

My question is “Is humour a good strategy of resistance? Or does it just get your ticket marked quicker?”

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Lol! People often don’t like being laughed at unless they’re deliberately telling a joke. It’s definitely risky. Also tyrants don’t like NOT being laughed at if they trying to be amusing. Take care!

'I have a very good, clear memory of the behaviour, attitudes, fashion, TV of the 1970s and early 80s'

MythicalMagpie saysL

I’ve read in a few places that people find Reasons to Be Cheerful warm, funny but not altogether believable. However, having been a teenager in the early eighties myself I find it absolutely convincing. I think you have captured the atmosphere of that era; post hippy, pre digital, post feminist absolutely bang on. It’s like a nostalgia trip where I recognise things in the relationships between people that hadn’t even realised had evolved to be subtly different today.

How did you manage to remember and evoke the feeling of those times so clearly? Surely you must have written a journal and used it for reference?

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Hi, thank you. This is such an interesting question. I have a very good, clear memory of childhood and young adulthood – the behaviour, attitudes, fashion, tv, etc of the 1970s and early 80s. I was curious and observant - my siblings were too. For one reason or another we were outsiders in many situations and so we paid close attention. Partly trying to join in and imitate. Also, I have some letters and notes and I was a keen photographer.

questionsfromalexok has a simple one:

E-book or paper book? Thanks.

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

I love browsing bookshops, and at the moment my first choice is proper old-fashioned books. Thought I read an E-book this weekend – on my phone – and it was fine (and searchable!). And I LOVE audiobooks.

Magrat123 says:

Reading Reasons to Be Cheerful I was irresistibly reminded of the TV series Detectorists and also - this will sound a bit weird - of Killing Eve. I feel there is something quintessentially English about stories where things are not what they seem at first sight, events do not proceed quite as expected and people are not what the reader initially assumes. This is not comic in the vein of Sharpe or Wodehouse, but it is very amusing. Would you agree?

I should also congratulate you on the frock consciousness quotient. Did you do much research, or was it largely from memory?

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Yes, re the different types of humour. My style is not slapstick (usually) and deos employ set-up/pay-off jokes in the Wodehouse (genius) vein. I think perhaps it’s more about recognising yourself in universal situations. And not so much about LOLing as smiling, tutting and maybe sighing. Thank you for noticing my frock-consciousness! I have a very good memory of young adulthood and we were acutely aware/ in awe of the well-dressed trendy people of the time (including my own mother) - in real life and on television. I was on a low income, shapeless and had athlete’s foot - this made buying new clothes fraught and stressful.

juliewhitney says:

I loved Reasons to be Cheerful. I agree with others that it is very English and of its time which made me hesitate to recommend it to my daughter (she’s 27). But when she texted me ‘thigh vagina!’ I knew she was enjoying it as much as I did.

My question is around one of my favourite characters, Mrs. Woodward, whose sleepy driving lessons were a hoot and whose one liners ‘is it autobiographical?’ and ‘is it Dadaism?’ left me in stitches. I notice driving lessons are also a feature in Love, Nina where you advise Vic against certain instructors. Did you have a Mrs Woodward experience when you learned to drive?

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Julie, I love this question. I love Mrs Woodward. Yes, my granny agreed to pay for my driving lessons BUT in return I had to attend confirmation lessons at her village church. It’s all true. But though I dreaded the confirmation classes, the vicar was marvellous and it was a wonderful experience overall. Mrs Woodward, the driving instructor (the real Mrs W) was a patient at the dental practice but NOT the vicar’s wife, I’m afraid. I made that up so that I’d have an excuse to show more of her. She was fab. I passed on my test on my 4th attempt! and never quite became a Christian. Love your daughter's text message!

'My covers do seem to say 'womens' book' which is both 'true' and yet a shame because so many men like them'

MachenBach says:

Elsewhere in this paper Hadley Freeman had a pop at the execrably inappropriate book covers routinely and unthinkingly doled out to so many female authors. Any thoughts on this? Have you been ill-served in this regard?

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Hello! Yes, good question. My first ever book cover featured an apple pie on a table cloth and was criticised so publicly and precisely at proof stage (by another writer… ‘i looked at the cover and almost threw the book straight into the recycling!’) that it was changed to something less domestic. I am fascinated by the whole subject. Shld the cover refer to something in the story? If so, how can it appeal to a new reader? Etc. My covers do seem to say 'womens' book' which is both 'true' and yet a shame because so many men like them. Would a different/wider readership pick them up if they didn't have a laundry basket on the front, or a dress? I don't know. Difficult/interesting

'Mary-Kay Wilmers had serious misgivings about Love, Nina to begin with'

RoyWhojamaflip asks:

Are you still in touch with Mary-Kay Wilmers? What did she make of Love, Nina?

(Wilmers is the editor of the London Review of Books; Stibbe worked as her nanny, a time that was covered in her book Love, Nina.)

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Yes, Mary-Kay Wilmers is a good friend. She had serious misgivings about the project to begin with and said a flat 'NO' – she felt it was too revealing of her and others. But I BADGERED and BADGERED and said that I’d never make it as a writer etc. And pointed out that she comes over as an extraordinary, fantastic, funny person and that it could only BOOST her reputation… and eventually she relented. and was rewarded by being played by Helena Bonham Carter in the TV adaptation!

'I never ever work on jokes or look for them or force them'

Gremly asks:

Do jokes or comedic moments occur to you spontaneously or do you have to work hard to polish and perfect them? What comes first, the scene or the jokes in it?

And, prior to finding your comedic voice, what kind of writing did you see yourself doing?

(Loved Paradise Lodge by the way).

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Hi! 1) the scene comes first and if there's a 'joke' it will emerge naturally.. that is it. I never ever work on jokes or look for them or force them. I leave that kind of hard work to Wodehouse* and co who do it brilliantly. 2) I thought I'd write bittersweet novels about being an outsider, which I sort of have done, but people find them funny as well! I'm happy. So glad you liked PL! * I adored and revere Wodehouse

Nina Stibbe's favourite women writers

MadamLazunga asks:

Who are the women writers who have made you laugh? What is it about their writing that you enjoy?

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Oh, gosh, so many. Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark, Maria Semple, Marian Keyes, Katherine Heiney (sp?) Lucy Ellmann, Meera Syal, Candice Carty-Williams, Nora Ephron, Helen Fielding, Daisy Buchanan, Nancy mitford...and so many more. There are many women writers who aren't described as funny writers who make me laugh; e.g. Anne Enright, Elizabeth Strout. What do I like?: character, detail, dialogue.

Gookov asks:

Do you like Russian literature?

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Hi. I love Gogol - and read a bit of Dostoevsky (sp?) at polytechnic. In fact, my reading C&P is mentioned in my first book. I haven't read anything contemporary... any recommendations?

JakiJaki says:

One of my favourite things in Reasons to be Cheerful is how the dentist smokes his cigarettes while at work. Did you create this as an amusing detail for the novel, or is it based on someone’s actual experience. It was a great idea if made up!

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Oh JakiJaki, I love it too. I didn't invent it, I saw a chef outside a posh restaurant smoking like that - being fed (eww) and thought simultaneously how wonderful / how hideous. Also, as teens we used to give someone a drag on our cigarette like that. You'd never let go or they'd run off with it!

'I will not be able to resist the Vogels for long'

NoLifeButThis says:

Nina, I love everything you have written. You have made me laugh more than any other writer or comedian. Are you planning to continue the adventures of Lizzie Vogel and her wonderful family?

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

thank you, this is solovely to hear. I'm writing somehting different right now - a contemporary novel with a whole new set of characters. But I will not be able to resist the Vogels for long. partly because I love them and partly becasue readers (like you) ask for them.


AliBradfield1 says:

My mother and I discovered your books a year ago, and have since been big fans!

I’m actually writing my own novel and am curious about your process:

1) Do you prefer your first draft long hand or typed?

2) How do you come up with your ideas? Do you have a whole plot outlined in your head and begin writing from there, or do you start with a person and a place?

Thanks so much for this web chat :-)

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Hi Ali. Thanks! 1) Nowadays I type, so it's done, and can be moved about. I often use the 'notes' on my iphone to jot down thoughts and ideas. 2) I start with an idea, usually a great chunk of my own life and then I let it meander and see how it develops. I'm not a great plotter!

ShirouEmiya asks:

What is your favorite kind of humour, either in a literary or visual format?

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

I love funny books, and the thing I particularly like in film and TV is funny dialogue. So, I guess literary!

Paperbookworm asks:

Hi Nina. Love your books and loved your window onto life with the Frears, Alan Bennett, etc. Are you still in touch with them all ?

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Hi.. thanks. I live in Cornwall now, so I don't see as much of them. Ive been zooming Sam Frears during lockdown. he's Godfather to my two kids.

'If I could have changed Love, Nina, I wouldn't have slagged off Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy so much'

siancain asks:

I was listening to your episode on the Adam Buxton podcast where you said you really wanted to change some of the details of your letters in Love, Nina but that your publisher stopped you. What would you have changed if you could?

You also mention that you once saw Ken Loach in a Pizza Express - have you had a better celeb spot since then?

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Hi Sian! I felt I came over as a bit opinionated and not very nurturing. Also I wouldn't have slagged off Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy so much.
I saw Melvin Bragg at a book festival but that doesn't count, it has to be in the wild!

samjordison kicks us off:

Thanks so much for doing this Nina. I’m really looking forward to it.

The first question I want to ask is about your current attitude to shoes. Do you still prefer to go barefoot?!

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor

Hello! thanks for inviting me. No, my barefoot days are over I'm afraid, unless i'm on warm sand.

Nina Stibbe is with us now!

We’ve been reading Reasons to be Cheerful on the Reading group this month - but Nina is very kindly here to answer your questions on anything you’d like to ask.

User avatar for NinaStibbe Guardian contributor
This comment has been chosen by Guardian staff because it contributes to the debate

Morning all!

Join us for a webchat with Nina Stibbe on 28 April at 11am BST

Nina Stibbe will be fielding our questions and if you’ve read any of her books, you’ll know that this is excellent news.

Stibbe rose to fame with Love, Nina, a collection of letters she’d written to her sister Vic in the early 1980s when she was working as a nanny for the London Review of Books editor Mary-Kay Wilmers. Those letters describe suppers where Alan Bennett tries to work out the German for “motherfucker”, borrowing a saw from Jonathan Miller (and failing to return it), and many more encounters with other famous neighbours such as Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn. That’s not to mention the acid wit of Wilmers herself and the charm of Stibbe’s own voice. The book was a hit: “Charming, but only in the best ways,” according to the New York Times. “I could quote from it forever. It’s real, odd, life-affirming, sharp, loving,” said Nick Hornby, who would go on to adapt Love, Nina for a successful TV series.

How to recreate the easy charm and hilarity of that youthful voice three decades later? The run of novels Stibbe has published since provide the answer. Man at the Helm, Paradise Lodge, An Almost Perfect Christmas and Reasons to Be Cheerful have all also won acclaim, with the latter also scooping the Bollinger Wodehouse prize for comic fiction. It’s been a fantastic series of books and Stibbe has established her place as one of the finest writers of comic fiction in English today. Which should provide plenty to ask about, even before we get to whether she made Alan Bennett funny enough (she doesn’t think so), “inappropriate” male behaviour in the 1970s, self-inflicted dental wounds and all the other things Stibbe is so good at talking about.

Stibbe will be answering questions live from 11am next Tuesday – please get a question in early below the line.


The GuardianTramp

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