Simonetta Agnello Hornby never dreamt of being a writer – of novels, that is. As a Sicilian-born lawyer living in England, she has spent much of her life writing about and fighting for her clients. But in 2000, while returning home from a holiday in Sicily, she envisioned a story. Compelled to share it with the world, she sat down to write it, bit by bit, eventually penning the best-selling novel The Almond PickerHere, Agnello Hornby speaks about becoming an author, the beauty of writing and why seeing The Almond Picker in bookshops around the world didn’t particularly thrill her.
When did you start to write professionally?
I started to write, but not professionally. I only started to write on the 2nd of September 2000. I never wanted to write. It’s like going to the moon or becoming a chemist; writing was not on my agenda.
Your first book, The Almond Picker, became a bestseller and was translated into a number of different languages. What is it like to see your work in bookshops around the world?
I had written a book before. Well, I had it commissioned. It was a book called Caribbean Children's Law Project. I sent members of my staff to four countries and they did research. But I followed it all the time; it was my baby. … Now that’s the book I’m proudest of because it has changed and improved legal understanding of other countries and therefore children’s lives. … So because I had written a book before – or I had commissioned a book – it wasn’t a new experience. Compared to that book, The Almond Picker wasn’t that big of a deal, was it? I wish I could say I was terribly excited, but it was too much.
In what way?
The huge publicity. For weeks it was in the top 10. It was so surreal. And I lived in England. There, I was writing as a lawyer; nobody cared. It was like having two personalities. To be in the bookshops didn’t excite me. It didn’t. What I think is wonderful is when I speak to somebody who has read the book and says, “It gave me pleasure” or “I don’t agree with that.” It’s the communication that matters to me. … It wasn’t so exciting because it wasn’t the first time, though it was the first time with such huge resonance. My editor was very disappointed. “Aren’t you pleased?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, “I’m pleased.” “What is your emotion looking at the cover?” I don’t like it very much, but I couldn’t tell them that.
Because you’re a lawyer at heart?
Yes, I am a lawyer. It [the publishing deal] was almost an interference in my life. I had to travel, I couldn’t see my grandchildren every week, my son was ill. So, I had problems in my life. But what is beautiful is writing. The act of writing is beautiful. … I would advise anybody to write and never to be upset if you’re not published because the beauty is writing, and with the Internet, we’re so lucky we can publish on the net.
You mentioned that originally, the experience of becoming a published author was like having two personalities.
I’m always me because I couldn’t be somebody else. So I don’t have two personalities, but I have two jobs. They’re different jobs, but life is made of different things. What I do have is two nationalities. I’m British and I’m Sicilian. …I’m used to living in different worlds and I was brought up to speak different languages – Sicilian and Italian – so the differences in the world are part of my upbringing.
You are bilingual and bicultural, but you’ve written your books in Italian. Why?
The Almond Picker came to me in Rome and it’s a Sicilian story. My fourth book is one which I wrote in English, because it was the story of one of my clients. I couldn’t write it in Italian.
Food is a major theme in your two most recently published books, Un Filo D'Olio and La cucina del buon gusto. Is that something that you’ve held on to from your Italian upbringing?
Yes. I come from a family where they always talked of food. Food is part of life. Mamma cooked every afternoon, cakes and this and that and the other. Life went around the question “What do we eat today?” I’ve never ever bought ready made things – not of choice, but because we didn’t. I have not changed from being a little Sicilian.