Nina Stibbe was recently announced as the winner of the 2019 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction for her novel Reasons To be Cheerful. You can see her in action at Hay Festival Wales 2019 at 9am on 26 May, where she will be in conversation with one of the prize’s judges, broadcaster Jim Naughtie. In the meantime, here she answers our 10 questions...
1. Tell us about writing Reasons to be Cheerful. Where did the idea come from?
The idea came from my own life. I remember being utterly bewildered by the way adults squandered their freedom and seemed happy to practically give up on life once they’d got a job. So I moved Lizzie out of the family home, into the city, to face the challenges of new adulthood alone and to witness this mystery for herself.
The thing that changed the most as I wrote the book, concerned characterisation. I’d wanted my “baddie” character, JP, to be more nuanced and rounded, and to have his beliefs and behaviour raise questions about the early 1980s - the ways in which we were beginning to be more selfish and materialistic, and happy to let kindness and empathy slip away - but for the sake of clarity I had to keep him fairly two-dimensional.
2. This is your third outing with protagonist Lizzie Vogel. What is it about Lizzie that keeps pulling you back for more and why do you think she has connected so well with readers?
Lizzie is the voice of my three novels. My readers love and identify with her. Writing the life of an established character, like Lizzie, can be truly exhilarating - I sometimes get butterflies writing her scrapes, and regularly laugh or cry. Readers connect with her I think because she’s not a pontificating type of narrator, she’s curious and courageous – like we all are at her age. She is a mix of Adrian Mole, Lisa Simpson, and Charles Pooter – some of my favourite fictional characters.
3. Like Lizzie you worked in dentistry. How much of that fed into the novel itself? Is the reality of the job as prone to comic moments as it would seem?
I put Lizzie in a dental surgery because I wanted her to be trapped in a small space, with assorted adults (as I was) so she can observe and narrate from there. Working that closely, Lizzie sees their behaviour at point blank. There was a slight risk that setting a comic novel in a dental surgery might be a turn-off - people might be squeamish about teeth or phobic about the dentistry - but I always trusted my readers to be tough enough.
4. The novel captures the difficulties of leaving home and finding your feet in way that all generations could relate to. What advice would you give to an 18-year-old today?
Any practical advice from me to an 18-year-old would be frighteningly out of date. But I guess what was crucial to me was leaving my home town and meeting new people. Even though university wasn’t an option (I left school at 15) I found a way to move on, see new things, and have adventures.
5. For readers who loved Reasons to be Cheerful, what other books would you recommend?
The previous two Vogel novels! Early novels of Barbara Pym and Muriel Spark. The Francis Plug novels by Paul Ewen. Anything by Jerome K Jerome, PG Wodehouse, Caitlin Moran, Sue Townsend, Marian Keyes, Jonathan Coe. And everything by the genius David Sedaris.
6. What, in your eyes, makes a novel funny?
More than plot, I’m interested in characters, situations, dilemmas, relationships, and sometimes the details of the everyday, which are so often comic and absurd without trying to be. Like real life, it just takes a little bit of plot to move people along. Setting is important to me, too. I love the Blanding novels by PG Wodehouse partly because of the strong sense of place evoked. I often use Leicester and the Leicestershire countryside as a setting. The very ordinariness is both soothing and funny.
I don’t need a novel to be “laugh out loud”. Novels like Where D’You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple and Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiney and novels by Magnus Mills are blissfully funny without making you guffaw.
7. What are the funniest novels you have ever read?
The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weeden Grossmith, The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend, Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym, Albert Angelo by B.S. Johnson...
8. What was the first book you loved?
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. Firstly because it was satisfyingly sad and moralistic but what affected me as a young reader was that it was narrated by Black Beauty himself - a HORSE. I was fascinated by Black Beauty's knowledge of issues (e.g. alcohol) that he couldn't possibly have understood (him being a horse). And I remember being irritated by his judgemental tone. Very influential to me as a writer!
9. What was the last book you enjoyed?
I adored Girl with Dove by Sally Bayley. Also Middle England by Jonathan Coe and The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Donnell.
10. What are you working on now?
I’m working on a diary of a contemporary woman, as well as various screenplays. Also, having said Reasons to be Cheerful is the final in my Vogels series, I’m tempted to write another and often find myself jotting down notes for further Lizzie adventures.
Nina Stibbe talks to Jim Naughtie at Hay Festival Wales 2019 on Sunday 26 May. Buy tickets here.