The one lesson I’ve learned from life: Author Nina Stibbe says it’s never too late to write a novel
- Nina Stibbe, 58, got her first book deal with Love, Nina, at the age of 50
- Nina lives in Cornwall with her partner. They have children Eva, 20, and Alfred, 18
- She wants people to know it is never too late and advises them to ‘keep a diary’
Nina Stibbe’s first book Love, Nina, about her time as a nanny, was made into a 2016 BBC TV series. She won the Comedy Women in Print prize for her third novel, Reasons To Be Cheerful (Penguin). Nina, 58, lives in Cornwall with her partner. They have two children, Eva, 20, and Alfred, 18.
It’s never too late to write a novel
When I speak at literary events, I know many of the audience are aspiring writers, so I really enjoy telling them I got my first book deal aged 50, even though I’d been writing stories and novels for 25 years.
People might ask: ‘What took you so long?’ But actually it only happened because a publisher accidentally saw a bunch of letters that I’d written to my sister 30 years before. She loved them and ended up publishing Love, Nina.
I wasn’t allowed to edit the letters and it taught me a lesson about learning to trust my own voice — in life and in writing. I realised that in the past I’d been trying too hard, using fancy vocabulary and mimicking other authors, thinking my own life was not interesting enough.
Nina Stibbe’s first book Love, Nina, about her time as a nanny, was made into a 2016 BBC TV series
My real voice came out of relaxing and writing letters that I didn’t think anyone but my sister would ever see. And, as it turned out, people liked it.
After Love, Nina was a success, I was able to go back to old work and rewrite it, and now I’ve published five books.
And, of course, I had great material. Mum was 25 with four kids when she and my dad divorced. She took us to live in a village in the countryside. It was the late 1960s and young, divorced women with four kids were viewed with hostility.
People didn’t understand how a woman survived without a husband — my mum even had to apply for special dispensation to have a cheque book — so one trusted us. Though Mum didn’t help matters — she’d walk around in her bikini and other people’s husbands were involved.
Thank goodness my stepfather came along when I was 13. He’s still there and he’s still who I ring for advice.
At first I thought I could never write about my family, that I needed to protect people, particularly my mum. But once I decided to do it, people loved her, warts and all. I realised the things we try to hide are often the very things people are merciful about and love us for.
Now I say at events: ‘Keep a diary.’ If you start now, in 20 years you’ll look back and be delighted to find things only you could have written. It’s comedy gold.