Nicky Pellegrino’s readers tell her that if they can’t go to Italy on holiday, reading one of her eleven novels so full of friendship, laughter, beautiful Italian food and sunshine is the next best thing.
HI there I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and today Nicky talks about her affinity for all things Italian, the ‘Seize the Day’ experience that made her determined to write fiction, and the foodie tour she’s leading to Sicily in 2020.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- The ‘mistake’ that led to a winning formula
- Why beginning is harder than finishing
- Her passion for all things Italian
- The ‘Seize The Day’ experience that got her started
- Why shegave up a magazine editorship to write books
- The blossoming of popular NZ women’s fiction
Where to find Nicky Pellegrino:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
Jenny: But now, here’s Nicky. Hello there Nicky and welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us.
Was there a “Once Upon A Time’ moment when you decided you must write fiction or you would have somehow let yourself down, or not completed something you were meant to do? And if so what was the catalyst for it
Nicky: Well I’d always wanted to write. It was why I became a journalist, because I’d come from a very ordinary working class Northern English background and I didn’t know any writers. So that’s why I went into journalism, because I thought ‘one day I’ll write a book.’
I had lots of ideas – and ideas are the easy part. But I hadn’t sat down and done anything about it. And then one day I was at work – I was deputy editor of the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly – and I got an email from a friend who was in Television New Zealand at the time, to let me know that Angela d’Audney, who was a very well known New Zealander on television had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. She was terminally ill.
A ‘Seize the Day’ moment
I didn’t know her well, she wasn’t a personal friend. I had only interviewed her a couple of times, but it was one of those ‘Seize the Day’ moments. I knew she was only in her 50’s and it made me think that you just don’t know what’s around the corner. I realized if there is something you want to do, you should really get to it and do it. And the thing I wanted to do was write this novel that was in my head.
I went home and that night I started writing Delicious, my first novel. I just plunged into it. I didn’t have a plot, nor a character breakdown. I was working on an ancient computer that was made before email was invented, it was all very ill advised. But I just kept plugging away at nights, weekends and holidays – I did get a better computer – but I just kept going.
In between all this Angela d’Audney had asked me to write a book with her and that was an amazing gift she gave me because I didn’t know if I could write a book. And now she was running out of time and I had a publisher’s deadline so I really couldn’t waste time being insecure and worried about it. I just had to get on and do it.
Finishing the Book
So I finished that book, and then going back into my own book seemed incredible because it didn’t involve the sadness of seeing this friend who looked a little less well every time I visited her.
Back in my own imaginary world with these characters I’d invented suddenly it felt “This is great!” That was it really, I was incredibly lucky to get a publishing deal for that first book. I am not one of those writers who have half finished manuscripts or rejected manuscripts lying around, everything I have started I’ve finished and it’s been published which I think is a little unusual.
Jenny: I think it is, yes. You had a “winning formula” from that first book Delicious didn’t you …One reviewer said of it that it was as“Full-bodied as a rich Italian red, it’s a page turner combining the missed chances of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin with the foodie pleasures of Chocolat.” I just makes you want to go out and buy the book, doesn’t it? But you’d identified the themes of Italy, friendship, passion and food in that first book and and you’ve stayed true to that formula.
Winning formula a ‘mistake’
Nicky: I didn’t know I was going to stay true it then, though. That book came out of a lot of my childhood memories of Italy. My father is Italian and we spent a lot of time in Italy on holidays with his family. I didn’t realize that if you have a modicum of success, your publisher will want more in the same vein.
Lots of authors like Rose Tremain and Jane Smiley write lots of different kinds of fiction and I didn’t realize that wasn’t going to apply to me. They would want my books to continue to be set in Italy with the food, family friendship thing. It was a mistake and I just kind of fell into it.
Jenny: Yes it is true that these days perhaps more than ever before if you get a book that does well, publishers – and readers – want more in the series. That’s why I called this podcast the Joys of Binge Reading – because when readers find something they like they want more of it, don’t they?
Nicky: And yes that’s right. You know what you are going to get…With me they know they are going to get warm, maybe a little bit funny, uplifting, and to begin with I was a little bit like “Oh is that what I’m getting to do?” but now I feel as if I’m doing what I’m good at and what there is a need for in the world. . It’s what I like to read. I love a good rom com, or something that’s uplifting so it’s quite nice to write them too.
Jenny: Yes definitely. We’re talking the week that the terrible tragedy happened in Christchurch, and I think we need uplifting and the market research does show there’s a big increase in readers looking for uplifting books.
Nicky: Yes I had to take a break from the news cycle at the weekend and I stopped and watched Green Book, which is a great film to watch because it was about racism and people being different but learning to love one another. It’s a really good film to watch – that made me feel better, so I hope I am putting something into the world that makes others feel better.
Jenny: You’re about to publish your eleventh novel – A Dream Of Italy in a few weeks. Your tenth – A Year At the Hotel Gondola – was at the top of local best seller lists for 13 weeks. Quite a wonderful record to have and I’m confident A Dream of Italy will do just as well. Do you feel as if you’ve nailed it – that you’ve somehow reached the top of the mountain?
Nicky: No! I don’t feel at all successful. I would like to be more successful internationally, I would like to write different things, like a movie script, or a TV script, or different kinds of fiction. . . I’ve got so much that I still want to achieve, so I have achieved some things that I set off to do but I certainly not sitting here thinking “Go Me.” There’s so much I still want to do. And I look at someone like Anthony McCarten, the NZ novelist who se also written some wonderful screen plays – The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, Bohemian Rhapsody.
That’s my definition of a successful writer and I am a very long way from achieving that!
Jenny: Yes you could be Lianne Moriarty and have everything your write snapped up by Nicole Kidman, couldn’t you?
Nicky: That’s success isn’t it? No, Nicole Kidman hasn’t phoned me, and neither has Reese Witherspoon.
Next best thing to Italian holiday
Jenny: A lot of your reviewers say that if they can’t go to Italy on holiday reading one of your books is the next best thing – and I’d have to agree. Have you got a “typical reader’ in mind when you write?
Nicky: Not really. I think when I started writing I wanted to write books that I enjoyed myself. Books that offer a bit of an escape from everyday life. That take you to a place, make you feel as if you are there, with characters you feel you know.
I often have men who say to me “I really liked your book, I know I’m not supposed to, and it’s not really meant for me . . ” and I say well ‘why aren’t you supposed to?’ Surely you are interested in human relationships and food and travel and family too. I think we really can get too rigid about these things. And I also enjoy it when I do an event and a mother and daughter say that they shared my book and one passed it on . That it appealed to people of different ages.
The last book, A Year in the Hotel Gondola, was very much a book about middle age, and I was quite surprised when I met younger women who’d read it and enjoyed it. So no, I don’t really have a typical reader in mind, I just feel that I write books hopefully for quite wide appeal. Certainly if you are looking for a murder or something gruesome you are going to come away sadly disappointed.
Jenny: A Year at the Hotel Gondola tackled the sensitive subject of woman‘s aging – and a central character called Kat Black who is determined life is going to get more interesting rather than less so as she ages. The big success of this book indicates you struck a chord with a lot of people. Tell us a bit about that – writing the book itself, and the response to it. . .
Tackling sensitive subjects
Nicole: Well it came about because of what was going on in my head when I turned 50. I had read a couple of books where the characters were 50 and they dealt with the whole sweep of their lives, and the beginning – their youth – was always about dreams and hope and adventure and the end was always about regret.
And I thought ‘Does that really have to be like that?’ Does one end up in older age feeling envious of the person one used to be or is it possible to have adventures, maybe different kinds of adventures, but keep having hopes and dreams and not be wallowing in regret.
Kat Black was me exploring that within the confines of a novel, because she is horrified at the idea of not having any more adventures, and she’d determined to reject the idea that she has to slow down. She goes off to Italy to join this man that she barely knows… and maybe it did strike a chord with women, because even younger women know they are going to age one day. There has been this idea that you just shuffle off post- menopause and not expect to demand any attention or be relevant. Maybe we are starting to kick against that. I hope so because we can be relevant at any age, can’t we?
I mean my knees are a bit big “gippy” and I don’t think my adventures are going to involved skiing down mountain tops, so maybe that struck a chord with readers. Although I think – well look when I told my mother – who is 82 – that the character in my new book was 50 she said “Oh No, make her 49” and I said “Mum how can you say that, you’re 82” and so maybe some people were put off by the age.. I don’t know.
Jenny: You’ve got a real affinity for Italy because your Dad was Italian and you spent many childhood holidays there . . . you confessed in a Listener article a few years back you that when you were a kid you found it boring . . . so when did the magic kick in?
Discovering the magic
Nicky: My Dad comes from a place in Campania near Naples and where is family lives, it’s not very pretty, it’s not the beautiful Italy. We’d drive there and sometimes we’d crash into people on the way because my Dad is an Italian driver, and we’d stay with family , we’d sleep on the floors or little trestle beds.
They spoke a Neopolitan dialect and my Italian isn’t very good, but my Neopolitan is non- existent so it was difficult communicating with my aunts and cousins and there was just a lot of sitting around . . My brother Vincenzo, he’s an actor now, and he ‘s a lot more outgoing than me. He didn’t really need language to communicate, whereas I was a bit timid, so I just sat back and observed. Probably not a bad thing for a writer I guess….
It was in my 20s that I went to Venice, Sienna, Florence, and Rome and spent time there, and that’s when I started to appreciate it . . And also, the Neopolitans can be a bit crazy, there’s a lot of shouting and everything, but there is also a lot of family, and food, and loving and people are constantly coming together and I have an Aunt Pepina who it wouldn’t matter five or 50 people turned up at her house she would rush around feeding them all, in her 70s.
In fact she has just opened a restaurant in her home so now she is feeding all the neighbours. They are eccentric, colourful, lively people, and I think I even realized that as a kid, but as I’ve grown older I’ve come to appreciate that more – there are infuriating things about them as well. There’s a lot of corruption there, Italians are really resistant to change, they are always right . . . but also a lot of corruption, Italians hate change, and they are always right!
Sicilian cooking school
Jenny: I sometimes ask people where they’d take their readers if they were organising a “magical mystery literary tour” for their books. But in fact you are doing that exact thing for real next year – taking a foodie tour to Italy, there are details on your website for those who might be interested. . . . . Is this the first time you have done this and what are you planning for it?
Nicky: Well it is the first time. I kept getting emails from readers saying they’d loved my books so much they’d gone to Italy and they’d gone to some of the places I’d mentioned. And I must have felt a bit sorry for myself because I was stuck at home writing and I thought “Why aren’t I going with them?” Then Peta Mathias is a friend of mine and she is very successful. She runs tours all over the place, so I had a chat with her to get some tips and ideas. I am just trying to put a tour in place to Sicily, which is where one of my books The Food of Love Cookery School is set.
For that book I went to a cookery school called Love Sicily. And Katia Amore, the woman who runs it, told me that she was still getting people to her cooking classes who have read the book, so I thought why not go to some of the places mentioned in the book, plus some new places as well.
I’m just allowing myself plenty of time to organise it, I am a pretty organised person, but because I’ve never done anything like this I want to make sure I do it right. This is something news. It will be exciting if it all comes off..
Jenny: How many people are you hoping to take?
Nicky: Oh about 12 people – just small. I want it to be a a culinary adventure, and some history . . Sicily does the best desserts.. They do the cannoli the pastries stuff with ricotta and pistachio . . . They do some of the best food in Italy.
Jenny: Is there one thing have you done perhaps more than any other, that is the secret of your success?
Nicky: As I said I don’t feel very successful but I think its my doggedness. Self doubt is a major thing. So I never embark on a new book without the doubts of whether I can do this – but what I am good is finishing things. sometimes people say to me that they have three unfinished novels and I want to finish them for them because I can’t stand the thought of all that potential going to waste.
Just show up and do the work
Elizabeth Gilbert the Eat Pray Love writer did a book on creativity (Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear) which I am always quoting because she says some incredibly practical things and one of them is “Just show up” and do the work. And I think that’s so important. Getting the ideas is the easy bit. Getting them down there are always going to be moments when you get stuck.
And I don’t call that writer’s block, I call that a creativity hiccup, you just have to keep going and get through it. It’s just like having a relationship, Sometimes it goes well, sometimes you just have to stick with it. That’s all there is to it really! There’s a lot of great story tellers out there and I don’t think I’m special.
Jenny: Generally you do one a year?
Nicky: Yes generally it takes me a year, Hotel Gondola took me a bit longer because I was processing stuff that was happening in my own life. A Dream of Italy was entirely about other people – A gay couple, a millenial couple, and older women who’d had a divorce – and I haven’t had a divorce – so that was more “walking in someone else’s shoes” didn’t take quite so much thinking.
Jenny: You were and still are a journalist and your career includes being editor of the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly – which is quite a big deal in New Zealand – it’s been one of the foremost women’s magazines for many years. What made you decide to leave to write fulltime?
Something had to give
Nicky: My husband said he’d divorce me I didn’t. I was so stressed editing the magazine and working on my second book. I had a deadline for that second book and I was a nightmare to live with.
He said “You have to choose one or the other.” So I thought OK I’d had this career in journalism, I really want to explore the writing. So I gave up the job and went freelance. It was a hard thing though, to give up the salary, and the holidays and other perks. However, I probably thought I could get a job in journalism somewhere if it didn’t work out.
I still do a lot of freelancing for all sorts of magazines. It is still the way I support myself as a writer, because it is quite hard to make a fulltime living as a writer. It’s a great mix I enjoy the opportunity to tell other people’s stories . . Sometimes I will do something that really inspires me … I did a couple of stories for the Listener for example about aging and people who age well, and that came into Hotel Gondala and One Summer in Venice in the character of the older Coco who is quite feisty and flamboyant. So sometimes it does feed in and inspire me.
Jenny: You’ve been invited to take part in Auckland Writer’s Festival in May, quite a coup for a “popular” writer because it’s an event which leans towards the literary end of the publishing spectrum. Do you see this as some kind of “acceptance” for “women’s fiction.” And is that how you’d describe your niche? Women’s fiction? Chick lit?
‘Popular’ fiction coming of age
Nicky: I don’t like the phrase chick lit because I’m really not a chick at this stage, I am more of an old hen. And I think it’s a really patronising way to talk about books written by women. You know I’ve seen a Jodi Picoult novel written about a Nazi war criminal called chick lit. Well if you thought you were going to get sex and shopping when you picked that up, you would have got quite a shock ! Recently there is a new phrase that has come into use “uplit” as in uplifting – I quite like Uplit. I have done the Auckland Writer’s Festival before and and it does feel as if it is leaning particualry towards the ‘literary’ this year. I do feel a little bit like “Oh and then there’s me and my rom com.”
But then I don’t know that we need to be accepted by the writers of literary world, because we are accepted by the hundred of thousands of people who choose popular fiction! But I think there could be more acceptance of the idea that writing a book that is easy to read is difficult. You know a book that is unputdownable, flowy, Take someone like Marian Keyes. Her books are described as chick lit. They are brilliantly constructed, brilliantly written, her characters are great. That is not easy. If I tried to write a Marian Keyes book I think i would find it very difficult.
Maybe there needs to be an acceptance that what we are doing isn’t inferior, it is just different. And New Zealand has a very strong tradition of literary fiction but we are now developing much more strongly in the area of commercial fiction as well. Particularly in crime fiction thanks largely to the efforts of Craig Sisterson, who started with a Kiwi crime blog and set up the Ngaio Marsh Awards so he has really backed Kiwi crime writers.
There is also a fantastic group of women writers coming through in the area of commercial fiction, people like Catherine Robertson, Danielle Hawkins and Catherine Bennetto I’ve just read a fantastic new one, Not Bad People by Brandy Scott and also Nikki Crutchley
I think New Zealanders have tended to read international authors before locally published ones and I hope that’s changing. There are some great new writers coming through and it would be a shame to miss out.
Jenny: That moves us quite nicely to the last section of the show. The series is called “The Joys of Binge Reading” because I see it as providing inspiration for people who like to read series . So turning to your taste in fiction who do you “binge read” ? Any recommendations for listeners?
What Nicky is reading now
Nicky: So when I was a kid books were my friend because I am quite tall and I’ve been tall all my life. So I didn’t like going to parties and I was crippled by shyness so I binge read like a crazy thing. All of those childhood books. I still read a novel a week.
There is a British author called Diane Setterfield, she wrote a book called The Thirteenth Tale a few years ago and she has just released one called Once Upon a River. I love her work, it’s quite Gothic and whimsical . . .also Rose Tremain who writes quite diverse fiction – from historicals to more contemporary books.
I read quite widely but the one thing I can’t stand is when awful things happen to women. I just can’t stand a lot of bleakness and murder at the moment, so I tend to set those aside. Plus I hate flowery writing. I like the pared down style without too much purple prose.C
Jenny: At this stage in your career, if you were doing it all again, what would you change – if anything?
Nicky: I don’t know. I think I might break out and try something different more quickly. The book I am working on at the moment – which I can’t talk about – it has a different feel, a different tone. I feel oh I have left it to my mid fifties to do something different, maybe I should have done it sooner. I might maybe take a bit more time, if you are doing a book a year you are always writing. I’ve been extraordinarily difficult, got a great agent and publishers and it is hard.
Jenny: this intriguing new book – is it in a different genre?
Nicky: I think all the things people like from my books will be in there, but there is an additional element.
Jenny: And are you continuing with the others as well?
Nicky: A Dream of Italy – potentially there may be a sequel to that. I have never done a proper sequel before, I’ve fallen in love with the mountain town of Montenello I’ve made up…and also I’d like to try a NZ historical and also I’ve love to write a really funny rom com… I’m not sure if I’m capable of that. . .
Jenny: Where can readers find you on line?
Nicky: I’ve just got a new website. I am extremely contactable… and sometimes when I am just feeling like I can’t do this I get an email from a reader which is so encouraging that it gets me started inspired all over again and I feel “Oh that’s right, this is what I do, it’s my job.”
- If you enjoy Nicky Pellegrini’s escapist Italian stories why not try Nell Goddin’s murder mysteries set in a small French village similar to Montenello.
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