Jenny Wheeler: Nicky Pellegrino’s last book was called A Dream of Italy and it was one of the hottest sellers of 2019. Now she’s back with a new heart wrencher, Tiny Pieces of Us, combining her familiar themes of friendship, food, and romance, but this time underlined with a gritty story.
Hi there, I’m your host, Jenny Wheeler, and in today’s binge reading episode, Nicky talks about the new book, her new podcast and the big life changes she’s facing that are creating new opportunities.
To celebrate the launch of Tiny Pieces of Us, we’ve got three digital copies to give away to three lucky readers. Enter the draw on our website, thejoysofbingereading.com or on our Binge Reading Facebook page. The website also has links to Nicky’s other books and the podcast, if you want to catch up with that. While you’re there, leave us a comment. We love to hear from you.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- The real story about organ transplants
- ‘Winning formula” with a gritty edge
- On not living a safe small life
- Mourning the loss of a slew of magazines
- An exciting new book podcast
- Learning new things under challenging circumstances
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 Wheeler: But now, here’s Nicky. Hello there, Nicky, and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Nicky Pellegrino: Thanks for having me on.
Introducing Nicky Pellegrino
Jenny Wheeler: You’re very, very welcome. We’re coming back for a second time but that’s fully justified because there’s been a heap happening in your life. You’ve got another new book out, you’ve started a podcast and there are also lots of other life changes going on. It seemed like a very good time to revisit what you’re up to.
Nicky Pellegrino: It does feel like a lot has happened. I think many people feel like that with the COVID-19 outbreak and the way it changed all our lives. So yes, it feels like there have been a lot of changes and there are probably quite a lot more ahead for me too.
Jenny Wheeler: Your latest book, we’ll get to that first. It’s your twelfth, Tiny Pieces of Us, and its launch was somewhat disrupted by this pandemic, wasn’t it? Tell us what happened.
Nicky Pellegrino: It was meant to come out right in the middle of level four on March 30th. We were going to have a big, fancy launch and I was going to go to lots of book festivals and I was very excited and of course, my diary is a mass of crossings out.
None of that happened and the launch was postponed. It’s moved around a bit, but we’ve now settled on June 30th, the end of this month. Obviously there won’t be the same big, fancy launch and masses of festivals, but I am hoping that we’ll be back to normal by then and all the shops will be back to normal and people will be able to go and at least buy the book.
A deeply emotional gritty story
Jenny Wheeler: Perhaps I ought to interject here for those who aren’t familiar with your work or haven’t heard the first interview we did, because a lot of our listeners are in the States. You’re one of New Zealand’s most popular romance and women’s fiction authors, a name in this country. Everybody’s heard of Nicky, but this one, Tiny Pieces of Us, is deeply emotional. It’s a slightly darker theme than some of your previous books, isn’t it?
Nicky Pellegrino: Yes. I think all my books have got the theme of friendship and food and Italy, but with each one I have tried to do something a little bit different with the structure. For instance, A Year at Hotel Gondola was a book within a book.
It might not have been visible to the naked eye, but with each one I was trying to do something a little bit different and push myself on as a writer. With Tiny Pieces of Us it’s a grittier story. It’s about people who’ve had organ donations.
The truth behind transplant stories
There are a lot of the same elements of my previous work there, but I think it’s certainly a much more emotional read and more happens. It was a much bigger research job for me, so it was a very difficult book to write.
You think, it’s your twelfth book, you should be able to do it by now. With each book I find you are learning new things and taking on new challenges and with this one there were definitely moments when I thought perhaps I’ve bitten off a little bit more than I can chew here.
Jenny Wheeler: What drew you? It is quite a heart-wrenching topic. We’re not going to give away any plot spoilers, but it is a heart-wrenching book. What drew you to even tempt it?
Nicky Pellegrino: I was talking to a friend and she happened to mention that she had a nephew who had had a transplant and he was friends with all the people who had had organs from the same donor, and so it was a deceased donor.
They had become incredibly important to each other and I felt that’s so interesting, because these people would be all very different. They’ve had this one thing in common, which is a very serious illness, but they probably come from very different walks of life and everything about them would be different but you’d have this one thing that would bond you together.
Bigger story than imagined
I thought it was a fantastic idea for a novel, to bring desperate people together and create a story around them. I started to do a little bit of research into organ transplants and when you read stories in newspapers about people who’ve had a heart or a lung transplant, they’re quite one dimensional.
They will say, it’s been a miracle, life is marvelous, and you assume these people go on to have normal lives. But in fact, it is a lifelong journey. It completely changes the way they live. They don’t have the same life expectancy. Lung transplant people in particular might last for 5 to 10 years.
It’s a much bigger journey than I had imagined, and I could see so much scope for a story. Certainly once I started to talk to people who’d had transplants, I felt like there was a lot that most of us who have not been in that position have no idea about, that could all bundle up into a super interesting piece of fiction.
Jenny Wheeler: It’s remarkable that it was based on a real group like that. Did you get a chance to talk to those particular people?
Different rules in different places
Nicky Pellegrino: I wanted to, but then I didn’t pursue it very hard because I think as a novelist, your job is to make stuff up. I’m also a journalist and I didn’t want to end up using too much of real life in my story.
I felt that it would be a mistake to tell their story, and also they were New Zealanders and the situation here around organ donation is a little bit different. I’ve set my book in the UK, so it wasn’t fully applicable. So I didn’t, I just held it in my head and thought what an interesting situation.
Jenny Wheeler: Having read your book and not being familiar with the New Zealand situation, in your book in the UK I gather if there’s a multiple number of recipients, they’re not necessarily encouraged at all to be able to talk to one another, are they? Is that different here?
Nicky Pellegrino: Here we have fewer transplant centers so quite often if you have a transplant, you will be in the same place as everybody else having the transplant.
The role of social media
But in the UK, there are many more transplants done and they’ve got centers around the country and there are very strict rules about contact. But it’s becoming harder and harder for those to be managed because of social media and everything being online these days, so people do meet.
There are good reasons for them not to meet. It’s an odd relationship. It can create all sorts of problems, but often when they do, there’s massive support around it. There’s this amazing bond that people can have. It’s such an interesting subject. I was incredibly lucky.
When I started doing the research, I contacted and talked to lots of doctors and transplant coordinators but the people that were amazing to talk to were the transplant recipients.
There were three main ones: a lung transplant recipient, a kidney transplant, and a heart transplant recipient in Christchurch called Heidi. My main character in Tiny Pieces of Us, Vivi, is a heart transplant recipient so Heidi became my go to, and I would email her all the time.
The real life person who helped
She has to come up to Greenlane Hospital where her transplant was done in Auckland quite often for checkups, so I got to meet her. She’s an incredibly strong person. The first time I met her, I had just started the book and there were parallels between the character I had created and her – not in their situation at all but in their determination to get on with life and not let anything hold them back. She was fantastic.
I am about to send her a copy of the book and I’m nervous because, obviously it’s not her story, but I’d hate her to read it and think, how could I have told her all that stuff and she’s got this wrong and that wrong.
So fingers crossed that Heidi likes it. I couldn’t have written that book without her. I’m completely walking in other people’s shoes here. I have not had any massive bouts of ill health in my own life so far, thank goodness, so those people and their stories and their generosity in sharing them were utterly vital to me. I could never have even begun to tell this story without their help.
The most surprising thing
Jenny Wheeler: I wondered if there was something that surprised you, that you discovered during the research? What would be the most surprising thing that you learned during that research? Is there one thing that stands out?
Nicky Pellegrino: I think how careful they have to be, because you can go into organ rejection at any time and you have to take all these drugs that suppress your immune system.
Right now, for instance, with COVID-19, anybody that’s had an organ transplant would have had to have been super careful and isolated themselves because they have got much, much lower immunity than the rest of us. They can’t eat a whole bunch of things.
There’s no sushi, well you’re not supposed to, you’re not supposed to eat pre-prepared salads and things in cafés because there could be a food poisoning risk. It impacts on their lives in lots of really small ways. My books always have a lot of food in them so I had to be a bit careful. At one point, my heart transplant recipient gets tempted to eat mozzarella and she probably shouldn’t.
A lifelong commitment
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, that was news to me as well. And that is a lifelong thing, is it?
Nicky Pellegrino: Yes, absolutely. They always have to take these drugs and not anyone can get an organ transplant. You have to be proven to be psychologically capable of dealing with it and also they want to know that you’re going to look after your organs.
If you’re going to smoke and drink and not exercise, then you’re probably not going to get a donor organ. There are big waiting lists. All of that was a surprise to me. I had imagined people would have their transplant, get better and carry on living exactly as I do. It couldn’t be further from the truth.
Jenny Wheeler: Certainly, I agree. I think that’s the impression we get from general daily journalism, that that’s exactly what does happen. Life’s just gone back to normal.
Learning to fully live again
Nicky Pellegrino: Yes, it’s like a happy ever after story. For my character, Vivi, she has had it drilled into her that she has to be careful. She’s in her late twenties but she’s living life of a bit of a Nana because she’s so scared to take risks and to push herself. She’s particularly scared to take risks with relationships.
It is the story of how she learns that, even for her, life sometimes involves putting yourself out there. It’s a love story but it’s also a story about friendship and its importance. I do take the readers to Italy because as you say, I didn’t want to write a book that was going to be so completely different to every novel I have written so far, that readers would be disappointed.
You know how that happens sometimes. You’ll read a book by an author and you’ll be like, oh, this isn’t what I wanted. It’s not what I bought into. My last book, A Dream of Italy, was a very happy book. It was my book that I wrote when I was depressed about Donald Trump and I wanted to write a book to cheer myself up, so it was utter escapism, and this is quite different to that. So, I am a little bit nervous about it going out into the world.
Winning food, friendship formula
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, but as you say, you kept your so-called winning formula of Italy and friendship and food as well. It is all there. Probably that’s a good point to introduce – when I spoke to you last time you were taking a food tour to Italy, and of course that’s been very badly crashed by what’s happening internationally.
It was something that I was tempted to try and join, I must say. How far were your plans advanced and are you still hoping you might be able to do that sometime?
Nicky Pellegrino: We’ve postponed it to October 2021 so next year. We’re hoping that we’ll be able to go to Sicily then. All the people who have paid their deposits have transferred through to next year. Everybody seems keen to go back to Italy.
At the moment, there is no real knowing what’s going to happen with the international travel situation, but I would like to think that by Spring next year, the end of next year, we’ll be able to travel again and do it.
A food tour in Sicily next year
I know that Italy was one of the first countries to be affected and I’ve got family and friends there, so it was really emotional for me.
I feel very sad at the thought that I might not be able to go back there and see everyone for a long time. I’ve got my fingers crossed that they’re going to find effective treatments and vaccines, and the world will open up to us again and we’ll be able to travel.
Jenny Wheeler: Have you still got spare places on that tour if people were interested?
Nicky Pellegrino: We do, yes. If people want to go to my website, which is www.nickypellgrino.com, there’s a page there where they can read about it and get in touch with me.
Jenny Wheeler: Great. We’ll make sure those links are all in the show notes for this episode. Turning away from your books and talking about your next new project, which is a podcast with your good friend and very well-known New Zealand author and journalist, Stacy Gregg. You’ve got a podcast going, Book Bubble. Tell us about that.
Nicky’s new book podcast
Nicky Pellegrino: It was during lockdown. I listened to quite a lot of podcasts because two weeks out from lockout lockdown, I broke my leg quite badly and I needed surgery and I couldn’t move very far. I was pretty much locked down to the sofa for four to five, or six weeks really. I did lots of reading obviously, but you don’t always want to be reading so I found myself getting into podcasts.
At the same time, I was thinking about all the other authors like me whose launches had been disrupted. Some people’s books had come out and were in the shops, but in New Zealand books were considered nonessential so no one could access them.
I feel like it has been a golden period for popular fiction in New Zealand. There have been a couple of fantastic books that I read just before lockdown so I started to think, is this something I could do to help fill the gap with no magazines and no festivals and so little coverage available for these people, particularly popular fiction, which struggles to get coverage.
Book Bubble ‘a whole lot of fun’
Then I started talking to Stacy Gregg who’s a children’s author and a good friend. I said, I’d love to do a podcast. I call her Hurricane Stacy now because if it had been up to me, it would have been a bit of a dream, but Stacy made it happen.
I think we’ve done five episodes now. We’re finally up on Apple as well as Stitcher and Podbean and we get hosted by a website called Newsroom every week, which is great because, as you will know, building an audience is the big task. Making a podcast has been a whole lot of fun but getting it out there and getting it listened to is the challenge.
I’ve loved talking to other authors and it’s always fascinating to talk about the writing process a little bit and where ideas come from and where they are in their lives. We wanted to take people into the world of a bunch of writers and so far, it’s been a great experience.
A wide range of talent showcased
Jenny Wheeler: You’re focusing on New Zealand writers, aren’t you, and you’ve got quite a range. You don’t just do popular fiction. I see you’re planning to do a poet sometime in the future. How have you selected the people that you’re talking to?
Nicky Pellegrino: It was partly people that I felt had had a bit of a raw deal with book launches over COVID. Charity Norman who wrote a book called The Secrets of Strangers and Olivia Hayfield who wrote this fantastic book called Wife After Wife, which I call a bonkbuster.
It’s like Jilly Cooper for the modern era. Stacy has probably got more literary tastes than me so she’s talking to Christine Leunens who wrote the book Caging Skies that Jojo Rabbit was based on. Tayi Tibble who’s a young New Zealand poet and Victor Rodger who is a screenwriter. There is a good mix.
We wanted to focus on New Zealanders because I think it would be great to get some international attention for some of our New Zealand writers. I feel they don’t get anywhere near enough attention and Elizabeth Knox, who I spoke to, had a new novel, The Absolute Book, which is an epic fantasy. That is coming out in the US and the UK. I feel I’ve reached a point in my career where I want to help support other writers.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s lovely. You’ve got Nalini as well, haven’t you?
From poetry to paranormal
Nicky Pellegrino: Nalini Singh, yes. She writes paranormal romances, which I have to admit are not my thing as a reader, but she’s written her first crime book called A Madness of Sunshine, and it’s great. It’s set in the South Island, on the West Coast and it’s a brooding crime drama with a slight love story. She was interesting because she went off and wrote that in secret, and because there are quite a lot of changes in my life at the moment, I’m interested in other people who are pivoting and doing new things.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s right. You mentioned this being part compensation for “no magazines” and that refers to a wasteland that’s happened in New Zealand in association with COVID. You were also doing a lot of freelance journalism and that world has been hit by the disaster of many of the foremost magazines in New Zealand being closed by one international publishing house.
We’re still mourning and we’re still hoping that some of these may come back in another form, but how are you coping with this? Have you recovered your equilibrium yet?
Nicky Pellegrino: I was so sad. I was sad and angry. I think I’m grieving the magazines because it was such a sudden thing. The doors shut, a lot of people I like and admire lost their jobs. I have lost the lion’s share of my income because books are not a great way to make a living, so I supported my writing by doing journalism, which I really enjoyed. I was in a terrible fury and then very, very sad.
Fortunately, I have just signed a new book deal with my publishers in the UK, so I did have a book to write and I put a lot of energy into that.
The end of a magazine era
I am also thinking this is an opportunity to do some stuff that I never had time for, because writing a novel a year and being a journalist was very demanding. There are all these ideas I’ve had in my head, the stuff that I would really like to do, but it’s been impossible.
I’ve got an idea about turning one of my books into a TV series that will be set in New Zealand, but I’ve never done any screenwriting so I’m about to start an online screenwriting course, which I’m excited about. I’ve not done any formal study since I left university in the 1980’s. It will be challenging, but a good challenge.
I’m also thinking I might write some children’s fiction. I’ve got some other ideas for novels that are completely different to the sort of thing I’m currently writing. I’m trying to be excited. Some of those magazines, in particular The Listener and the New Zealand Women’s Weekly, are iconic magazines, they’ve both been around for a long, long time and have been part of people’s lives.
There are people who’ve bought those magazines who are now in their eighties and they’ve been buying them since they got their first job. I’m hoping some of them will come back. In the meantime, none of us can afford to just sit around and hope that life’s going to go back to the way it used to be. We’ve got to adjust and I’m doing my best to do some adjusting.
Jenny Wheeler: It sounds Pollyanna-ish, but seeing a problem as a challenge or opportunity, isn’t it? It certainly sounds like you’re doing that.
Change as opportunity to learn
Nicky Pellegrino: I feel one of the things in life that’s important is to keep learning. I have been doing the things I do for quite a long time and I feel it’s a positive thing that I’m going to go and do this course. Potentially I will be terrible at it, Jenny, because it is a totally different skill, it involves a lot more structure than I probably work with.
I’m a real sit down and I’ve got an idea of what my book’s going to be but I let the story happen a little bit as I write. You can’t afford to do that with a screenplay. You’ve got to be quite structured and quite disciplined. I think it’s going to present me with some new challenges, and it may be good for my novel writing as well. Who knows?
Jenny Wheeler: That’s exactly the thing I was thinking of. As a personal aside, I did a course with John Truby. I don’t know if you know his work, he gives advice to novelists online, but he is basically a screenwriter. The advice he gives, a lot of it is very heavily influenced by screenwriting. It does help with thinking about various plot points, et cetera, in the novel that you might otherwise skim over, so it probably will be quite interesting for you.
The pandemic was blamed for this closure, but it was probably only part of the reason why the magazine’s closed. Has COVID changed your way of thinking in any significant way? Have there been life lessons learned?
You can’t live safe, small lives
Nicky Pellegrino: In a weird sort of way, I think I’ve learned the lesson that my character in Tiny Pieces of Us learns, that you can’t live a safe, small life without any risks because the outside world is going to come in and change things for you.
You might as well take those risks that you really want to take. I’m risking failure, which you never want to do. No one likes the idea of not being good at something, but you’ve might as well do that because life is going to come along and change stuff for you anyway.
I never, ever in my life expected something like the COVID lockdown to happen. I thought there might be wars, I thought there might be disasters, but this was something I never considered. Now I feel anything could happen. I found level four very difficult, partly because of the broken leg and having elderly, frail parents in the UK.
I don’t know when I’ll be able to see them again or that they’re going to be okay because things in England are still very seriously wrong. To try and create some positives and take charge of my life and make some changes became important to me, because I feel like we’re being buffeted by things we can’t control and we all need a little bit of control in our lives.
Jenny Wheeler: Pausing on that broken leg for a moment, I know you’re a keen rider. It wasn’t anything to do wi h horses that caused your broken leg was it?
Nicky Pellegrino: No, that’s the really hard thing, because I have fallen off a lot of horses and been completely fine, but I just fell off my own feet. I just slipped going down the slope and fell and my ankle went under me.
Broken leg in lockdown
I didn’t even realize I’d broken it until the next day when I noticed I had elephant-itis. It was very swollen. That has been another thing – thinking, wow, does this mean that I can no longer leave the house? I can’t be trusted not to fall over and break myself.
That was quite hard. I’m in my late fifties, I hadn’t thought I was going to start having falls and becoming incapacitated quite this early. I’m certainly making an effort on the fitness front now. I’m building up my strength and doing a lot of standing on one leg to build up my balance because I do not want to slip over and break anything else. It’s no fun.
Jenny Wheeler: I don’t think you need to see it as a general trend. Hopefully, it is an isolated incident.
Nicky Pellegrino: I hope so.
Jenny Wheeler: Turning to Nicky as reader, because this is the joys of binge reading and we do like to recommend books that people won’t want to put down. You’ve been doing some reading for this podcast. What have you got on your bedside table at the moment, and what would you recommend in the area of popular commercial fiction for people listening?
Nicky Pellegrino: I read a book in lockdown which is coming out in July – it’s not so much popular commercial fiction but it’s a great read, and it’s called Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell. It’s a big book and it’s about a rock band. It starts out in the 70’s and he is such a brilliant writer. I was just blown away by him. He makes these leaps and links that are incredible.
What Nicky’s reading now
For popular fiction – because at the moment we’re all interested in Black Lives Matter, for very good reasons – when I was in the UK I said to my agent, what’s selling at the moment? What’s the popular book? She said there’s a book called Queenie by a writer called Candice Carty-Williams and that’s what everyone’s buying in the UK this summer.
I was back there in February seeing my parents and I picked it up at a railway station. It’s completely not aimed at someone my age, it’s chick lit from the perspective of a young black girl in London. I loved it, I thought it was brilliant. It’s fun and sad. Candice Carty-Williams has got this talent for writing a sentence that makes you laugh and feel unbearably sad all at the same time.
It’s about a young woman in London, dating and having disasters, kind of like Bridget Jones’s Diary except she has got being black thrown into the mix and the difficulties that creates in her life in the way she gets treated. It opened up my eyes to how life for someone like Candice Carty-Williams would be quite different than it would be for a young white woman growing up.
I feel like that kind of book – it’s not wordy, it’s not dull, it’s a fantastic read, but it’s also an eye-opening read – I definitely recommend that if people can get their hands on it.
Jenny Wheeler: Thank you. That’s wonderful. You mentioned that there’d been a lot of changes and perhaps other things still to come. What’s next for Nicky, the writer? How is the rest of this year and possibly rolling over into 2021 shaping up for you?
What is next for Nicky the writer?
Nicky Pellegrino: As well as doing the Book Bubble podcast in lockdown, I got about a quarter of the way through the first draft of a new book, which hopefully will come out next year. Because world events were so grim, I wanted to write a safe, small, happy book this time round.
So not quite so gritty. I’m hopefully going to do the TV script, potentially a children’s book. That’s given me a fantastic excuse to go and read lots of children’s books for research, which I’m enjoying. Longer term at some point I’m going to have to do something about an income so I might have to get a job and try and juggle writing around a full-time job, which I did do.
I edited the New Zealand Women’s Weekly and wrote a novel, but it’s a challenge. It’s not a lot of fun to work full-time and try to wedge your writing into the evenings and the weekends and your holidays.
It’s a bit uncertain at the moment. I think a lot of people are in a similar situation of not having any idea how their businesses or their jobs are going to work out long term. I’m operating a policy of not looking too far into the future at the moment, Jenny, and I’m just going to focus on learning to be a screenwriter and writing this book. Probably mid-year, once I finish the book, I will think about what I’m going to do next.
Jenny Wheeler: Has that new book, the one that will come out next year, got a title yet?
To Italy With Love
Nicky Pellegrino: At the moment it’s called To Italy With Love. I am returning to the town I set A Dream of Italy in. That was the book that was out last year, and it was the best-selling New Zealand fiction book of 2019, so obviously found lots of readers and they enjoyed it. I’m returning to the same town. It’s not a sequel. I’m going to write it about different characters and it’s a little bit based on something a friend of mine did.
I’ve got this friend, she has appeared in several guises in different novels because she lives a much more interesting life than I do. I rang her during lockdown and said, can I steal a bit more of your life for a novel? She has kindly agreed to let me, but I can’t tell you anymore because it’s too soon.
Jenny Wheeler: I’d like to add, that was the book that we talked about last year. I loved that book, it left a really warm feeling. It’ll be fun to know there is a sequel.
Nicky Pellegrino: I’m enjoying writing it because, as I said, when times are tough you need to write escapist fiction. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of escapism and that’s what I want to create. I’ve had a lot of feedback during lockdown on social media from people saying, I read six of your books, one after the other, because I just needed to go to Italy and sit in the sunshine and eat nice food and escape from what’s going on. I feel like I’ve provided an essential service.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. Nicky, so that people can find you, where are you found online? Where can they make contact with you?
Where to find Nicky online
Nicky Pellegrino: I’m on all the things, Jenny. I’m on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and my website. You can email me from that if you wish, so I am very easy to find.
Jenny Wheeler: Fantastic. We will put all of those links in the show notes so that everything we’ve talked about here today, people will be able to find easily online. Thanks so much. Sounds to me like you are having a very interesting life, Nicky. I don’t think you need to be worried about that.
Nicky Pellegrino: Thanks, Jenny. It’s been good fun talking to you.
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