Webchat with Fiona Neill


Fiona Neill writes the Times Magazine Slummy Mummy column and is author of international bestseller The Secret Life of a Slummy Mummy, which was voted Mumsnet Best Light Read in 2011.

She joined us at MNHQ for a live webchat on 18 August 2011 to celebrate the release of her latest book, What the Nanny Saw, the story of penniless student Ali Sparrow, whose life changes overnight after answering an ad for a nanny. 

Nannies | Characters | Plot and themes | Writing | Parenting | Miscellany

FionaNeill: Hello. Just arrived in Kentish Town. Spent the last couple of weeks in Colombia, escaping the mean streets of London. Good to be back.


Letter QRockStockAndTwoOpenBottles: Have you ever worked as a nanny, or is the book based on things you have heard over the years?

Fiona NeillLetter AFionaNeill: I haven't ever worked as a nanny. I interviewed quite a few nannies before I started writing. Their stories were often really interesting, particularly women who had come from Eastern Europe. One woman I spoke to had come illegally from the Ukraine and spent almost seven months trying to get to the UK on a false Czech passport.

Quite a few came from the Philippines and I was struck by the irony that they had come to the UK to look after other people's children, often leaving their own behind. For research purposes, the most interesting were obviously those who had worked in the kind of super-rich household depicted in their book. I used quite a few of their anecdotes.

Letter QLindsayWagner: Is the relationship between nanny and mother pretty much designed to be tortured? Apart from the odd exception, I don't know anyone on either side who finds it particularly easy.

Letter AFionaNeill: I tried to depict the awkwardness of the relationship but tried to avoid making it too torturous (I hope). It can sometimes be an awkward relationship, particularly I think if the nanny lives in with a family. Interviewing nannies before writing the book I was struck by the difficulties inherent in being at the heart of the family one moment and then expected to slip back into the shadows the next. It is a psychologically complex role.

Letter Qstrangerwithmyface: Do you use a nanny with your kids? How do you balance work and parenting?

Letter AFionaNeill: When I went back to work after the birth of my first child I did employ a nanny but she didn't turn up the first day I was due back in the office. So I ended up using a nursery and my mother-in-law. Later, I had a German au pair (who lasted six weeks) and then a lovely Slovakian au pair.

I now have help in the afternoons during term time and sometimes an 18-year-old student helps me in the holidays. In short, it's a patchwork of muddle and juggle. I often get up really early in the morning because I love that feeling of being ahead before the day starts. If I worked in an office full time I'd definitely employ a nanny.


Letter Qpinkthechaffinch: Was Foy meant to be a lovable old rogue or an appalling harrasser of young women? He gave me the willies either way!

"Just because Foy has been a feckless philanderer during his marriage, doesn't mean that he is necessarily a bad person. I think this is true of life. People's motivations are always complex."

Letter AFionaNeill: The character of Foy is deliberately ambiguous. He can't accept that he is growing old and tries to boost his ego by flirting with younger women. But just because he has been a feckless philanderer during his marriage, doesn't mean that he is necessarily a bad person. I think this is true of life. People's motivations are always complex.

Letter QBlatherskite: I like Ali as a character. Is she based one someone you know in real life? And so, do they know?

Letter AFionaNeill: Ali is completely fictional. I needed to create a down-to-earth, intelligent and un-judgmental character who could observe the Skinner family fairly dispassionately. I was brought up in Norfolk and can identify with her need to escape and then the pull back home. There is something about the Norfolk landscape that means you never really leave and I still love swimming in the sea whenever I can. I grew up very near to Cromer, which is a town I still love for its utter authenticity.


Plot and themes

Letter QSeniorWrangler: I thought it was particularly interesting when you wrote about the way the bankers' families apparently commoditised everything, including relationships. I was wondering whether you had experienced seeing this sort of thing up close in real life and whether writing the book was a way of being able to make comments about certain behaviours that would be socially unacceptable face to face.

Letter AFionaNeill: It took a lot of research and a lot of time. I interviewed a lot of bankers to write the book, as well as nannies who had worked for super-wealthy families. The bankers mostly helped me out on the finer points of derivatives trading, but the nannies were a rich resource in terms of the often hilarious accounts they gave of life in fully staffed households in central London.

I think that there are now quite a lot of very wealthy families based in London, who have the financial capacity to buy their way out of many of the more unpalatable aspects of parenting and domestic life.

Letter Qjustagirlfromedgware: I'm wondering if this is really how the other half live. Also, I just looked at the entry for What The Nanny Saw on a popular online bookshop, I wish books about women's lives today weren't all reduced to being defined as 'chick lit'. Patronising or what?

"'Chick lit' is so reductive and encompasses so many female writers that it isn't really helpful because it doesn't describe the range of writing. Also, it's inevitably a perjorative term. But people love labels."

Letter AFionaNeill: I did enough research around the streets of Holland Park and enough interviews to know that this is really how the other half live. (Although this group of people is much less than a half, a tiny but significant and powerful minority perhaps.) Agree totally with the chick lit label. It's so reductive and encompasses so many female writers that it isn't really helpful because it doesn't describe the range of writing. Also, it's inevitably a pejorative term. But people love labels and it probably isn't going to disappear.

Letter QPurplebuns: I have just finished it, I found the beginning a little difficult to get into.what-nanny-saw-jacket However, I was soon ploughing through. It was an easy read and provided good escapism, I also enjoyed how chunky it was a a volume. However, I would have changed the ending slightly, if I could, as I found the focus was more on the family, when I would have preferred it to be on Ali. Still, a good read.

Letter AFionaNeill: Not sure what to say about the beginning, difficult to analyse your own book. But I can say about the ending that I wanted to underline the way that at the end of the day, Ali was someone that the family dispensed with as soon as she ceased to be useful to them. She was an adjunct to the Skinners' life, whereas she felt totally absorbed by their family.

I also wanted to look at the way she was living her life through the family and how she fell foul of them as soon as she made the transition from observer to participant. 

Letter QKathleen: The book's loose ends tied up nicely and not in a predictable way either. Would love a sequel as some of the characters were so appealing (and so well written) that I want to know how things turn out for them, especially the adorable little twins.

Letter AFionaNeill: I don't have any intention of writing a sequel because when you finish writing a book you want to take a break from the characters you have spent the past couple of years writing. But I do miss Ali and Foy! A friend of mine with identical twins really helped me to understand how they interact and I found it really fascinating. Hope they feel real to mums with twins! There is some interest in creating a four-part TV series so I'll keep Mumset posted if that happens.


Letter Qmessybear: How do you find the best approach to capturing your ideas? do you have a set time each day, keep notes etc?

"I carry notebooks with me all the time and jot down notes. I have lots of ideas on the go at once. When I am ready to write, I am very disciplined because I know that I only have six hours while the children are at school."

Letter AFionaNeill: It happens in different ways. Sometimes a character comes to you (in this novel Foy existed in my head many years ago after a conversation I overheard on an airplane) and sometimes different scenes write themselves. The kernel of the idea for this novel came from a news story I read in the New York Times. It was about a woman who worked for a financial PR company in New York who discovered that her banker husband was spying on her to do insider trading. I carry notebooks with me all the time and jot down notes. I have lots of ideas on the go at once. When I am ready to write, I am very disciplined because I know that I only have six hours while the children are at school. At the beginning I try to write 1,500 words a day. But I don't beat myself up if I miss the target. I would recommend doing a thorough plot outline and character profiles. That way you can avoid wasting valuable time.


Letter QBonzoDooDah: Once you published Slummy Mummy did you feel that your parenting skills were more open to criticism? (Did you find yourself behaving different in public to show that your witty asides were just that, or felt like you had to play to the crowd?)

Letter AFionaNeill: I wasn't aware of anyone questioning my parenting skills after Slummy Mummy, although they would probably be too polite to say anything to my face. Most people who know me, realise that Lucy Sweeney and her band of friends are fictional characters. Unfortunately, I'm far more anxious about things. I agree with her 'good enough parenting' approach and actually that doesn't really leave you open to too much criticism.


Letter QBonzoDooDah: How was Columbia and was it a gritty research trip or an escape-it-all-and-chill? And did you come across anything to do with the (innovative) Crossed Legs Strike?

Letter AFionaNeill:  Colombia was great, I've been there quite a lot before because I used to live and work in Latin America. We were visiting my husband's family in Bogota and then went north to the coast to Cartagena. Have had lots of emails from them worrying about how dangerous it is living in the mean streets of London.

Letter QRockStockAndTwoOpenBottles: My daughter has flown off on holiday this morning taking your book with her. She wanted me to thank you for "the most unputdownable book I have read all summer". Given that she is not quite 17 and is generally more interested in what the Z-listers are up to, I can promise you that this is a huge amount of praise!

Letter AFionaNeill: I'm so thrilled your 17-year-old enjoyed the book. It's great to know it appeals to a wide age range. You don't write with anyone in mind so it's always gratifying to know who enjoys it.

Letter QMrsPlugThePlumber 
: Are you an MN regular, Fiona?


Letter AFionaNeill: Yes, I am a Mumsnet 'lurker' (correct terminology?) Thanks for having me.

Last updated: 9 months ago