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Broken Family Needs To Have A 'Man At The Helm'


Lizzie's father has had an affair. He's abandoned the family. And now Lizzie, her mother, her older sister, and her younger brother have to start over in a rural village outside London. But before they can really get back on their feet, they need a man at the Helm. That's the premise of Nina Stibbe's new novel, titled "Man At The Helm." She joins us now from our studios in London. Welcome to the program.


MARTIN: So let's just a little more of the contours of this story and this family. Can you give us a fuller picture of Lizzie and how she and her siblings have ended up in this place?

STIBBE: Yeah. Well, they've experienced living in a town and every thing's short of chugged along fine, and then they - the family gets divorced, and they have this lovely opportunity of going to live in the countryside. And they think it's going to be wonderful and animals and fresh air. But in actual fact, they don't find themselves terribly welcome there. And the small community they move to rather closes ranks and is very suspicious about particularly their mother, who of course is attractive young and rather experienced and single. And I guess they think she's after a man.

MARTIN: But she kind of is after man, or at least her children are after a man for her. How do they identify the men who they put on a list - they have a list of men they want to set their mom up with?

STIBBE: Yeah. They make a man list. I think really they just put anybody, any available man on the list. They didn't care whether they were married or not. In fact, they rather thought married men might have, you know, more to offer. So it's very sort of amoral, and I don't think they really cared very much, did they?

MARTIN: (Laughter).

STIBBE: Anyone would do.

MARTIN: But it's sadly endearing though because you can imagine this situation - kids who just want the best for their mom and are willing to do anything to try to fix her.

STIBBE: Yes. And in fact, it's very much something that I experienced when I was younger, that suddenly after, you know, everything being fine, suddenly everybody didn't like my mom anymore.

MARTIN: So she'd gotten divorced?

STIBBE: Yes, in very similar circumstances. And, yeah, we did make that move to that village, and we did feel very unwanted. And we rather simplistically thought, OK, well, we just need to get a new dad. But we didn't make a list. And we didn't invite them all in to have sex with her.

MARTIN: (Laughter). Which these kids do, yeah.

STIBBE: Yeah. But we did very much know that without a man - and I did feel in those days that there was this, I mean, even as a 10-year-old, I thought, gosh, nobody is going to accept us with a woman in charge, nobody can conceive of a woman being the head of a family.

MARTIN: The voice of Lizzie is plucky and determined and sassy. What freedom did you get, I wonder, just from writing through the voice of a 9-year-old? You have written a memoir. This is not technically a memoir, but, as you say, it is semi-autobiographical. So why choose this voice to use?

STIBBE: I don't know. I started writing a long time ago and it just seemed the obvious thing to do. And I think - I've said this before - and I think in a certain way I probably peaked intellectually at the age of 10.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

STIBBE: Because, well, I think you're so free then, aren't you? You're not so self-conscious, and you can explain things quite scientifically. And I've got kids. My kids are little bit older than that now, but when I started seriously writing "Man At The Helm," I had a 10-year-old son. And just when I thought - I was writing something Lizzie was saying and I thought, you know, would she actually say that? My son or daughter would wander into the room and say a similar sort of thing. And I think, well, actually, yes, children do think and say things in a very clear and simple way. And it tells a story so beautifully and you do get a lovely freedom

MARTIN: Is your mom still around?

STIBBE: Yes, she is. And she's loving all this.


STIBBE: Yes, she is.

MARTIN: She's read the book?

STIBBE: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, well, she had to. I had to let her read it before I let anybody else see it. And she was a little bit kind of, oh, my goodness, really are we going to do this? But I think it shows an incredibly imaginative and wonderful person who hit some really rough times. And I think it describes loneliness and what can happen when people are lonely. I think it's a horrible, horrible thing and we don't attach enough significance to it, I think sometimes. And I think she comes over as a hero in the end, to me she does anyway. And I think when I've done events in the U.K., talking about the book, she's often come along. And when we launched it, she was dragged up onto the stage in Edinburgh and she got a standing ovation, people were very loving about her, very warm.

MARTIN: Did she end up with a "Man At The Helm" in real life?

STIBBE: In real life yes, she did. She did end up with a "Man At The Helm." She probably would've got through fine and not even needed a "Man At The Helm." But in actual fact, she found a "Man At The Helm" and he in turn found a woman for his helm. So - and they're still together to this day and they're fantastic.

MARTIN: The new book is called "Man At The Helm." It is a novel written by Nina Stibbe, who joined us from our studios in London. Nina, thank you so much for talking with us.

STIBBE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.