The easiest thing in the world is not to write a novel. There are so many reasons to procrastinate, so many perfectly valid excuses. I’m busy with my day job, I’m stressed, I’m tired, some day I’ll get round to it, but not today.
Some day, some day…I said those words to myself for years. My big idea involved travelling to Campania from my home in New Zealand and spending a couple of months in my Italian aunt’s kitchen learning the local dishes she’d cooked for me when I was a child. The plan was to weave a story round these recipes but without the luxury of time or the necessary budget, I didn’t see how some day could ever happen.
Then one afternoon I was busy working at the woman’s magazine I used to edit when an email pinged in my inbox. It carried the awful news that a friend had been diagnosed with a brain tumour. Her name was Angela, she was 56 years old and she’d be lucky to make 57. And that was my “seize-the-day” moment, when I realised if I didn’t get moving then some day might never come.
I went home that night and made a start on my first novel Delicious. Memories of my childhood holidays in Italy came back to me and laced their way through it – my aunt’s strong hands kneading bread on the kitchen table as chickens ran beneath it, the town of Giugliano where my father grew up, the sights, the smells, the attitudes and most of all the food. I had a modest goal with that book – all I wanted was to complete it. Even if it never left the shoebox beneath my bed I’d consider it a success.
I was lucky. Delicious went on to be published in several countries and I was signed up to write another novel. But what would it be about? I’d only ever had one idea.
This time I managed to come up with the airfare to Italy. I travelled to Maratea in Basilicata and stayed in a little pink house with terraced gardens that fell towards the sea. Maratea is a special place – a historic village with a bustling port below it and, high on a peak above, a spectacular white statue of Christ the Redeemer, rather like the one in Rio. How did it get there I wondered. Who thought it was a good idea? Who paid for it? Who made it happen?
A historian would have found out the facts, a novelist prefers to make things up. And so for my second novel Summer At the Villa Rosa I invented the town of Triento and imagined its inhabitants and the story of the statue they built. I would be happy to return to southern Italy every year. I love the way life is lived on the streets, strolling with a gelato in hand for the Sunday passeggiata or sipping an Aperol spritzer at a pavement café. I love Italy’s history, its people, its food – even its chaos. But I’ve made my home on the other side of the world in a big, beautiful, empty country. And, most years, Italy is out of my reach.
Yet somehow I had written two novels set there while working fulltime as a journalist. No wonder I was feeling low on energy. I needed fresh ideas and new memories.
Instead of racking my brain for plot number three I decided to get my English mother to write down the story of how she met my father back in 1959. It’s the romantic and daring tale of how she hitched from Liverpool to Rome and ended up coming home with a husband. I envisaged her providing 30,000 words or so that I could flesh out into a fabulous novel. Cheating a bit yes, but still a genius plan.
Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out like that. My mother’s reminiscences filled only a couple of pages - barely enough for a short story. It was a long time ago, she insisted, and that was all she could remember. But by then I was obsessed with the idea of writing a novel about discovering who your parents really are – not just the people who nurtured and raised you but had crazy adventures, wild passions and deep disappointments.In the end my parent’s history only provided the soffritto for my third book The Italian Wedding, the base that gave it its flavour. The story stretched way beyond that and became something else altogether.
I’ve been back to that pink house by the sea in Maratea three times since my first visit. It’s a place that never fails to inspire me and as a result it’s formed the backdrop for two more novels: Recipe For Life, a story about how it’s never to late to change your life, and The Villa Girls which is about love and extra virgin olive oil.
Writing a novel is a bit like cooking something special. Ideas have to marinate for a while and then you layer flavours until the balance is right. Family, friends, food, romance…those are my basic ingredients but the result is always different. So what makes a good book? Well in my opinion it shouldn’t be difficult to read. Instead it should lose you in its story, enchant and move you. It should take you away from your everyday life to some other place entirely…and I’d like to take you to Italy…..
*The Villa Girls by Nicky Pellegrino (Orion) is now out in paperback and her new novel When In Rome (Orion) is published in early September.
Nicky Pellegrino was born in Liverpool but spent childhood summers staying with her family in southern Italy. A shy, tall, gingery child she never really fitted in with her exuberant Italian cousins and had a tendency to stay quiet and observe things.
When Nicky started writing fiction it was her memories of those summers in Italy that came flooding back and flavoured her stories: the passions, the feuds but most of all the food.
Nicky now lives in Auckland, New Zealand with her husband Carne (and yes she does find it slightly odd being married to a man whose name means “meat” in Italian), her large poodles and her even larger chestnut horse.
She works as a freelance journalist, has weekly columns in the Herald on Sunday newspaper and the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly and her novels are distributed in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, and have been translated into 12 languages.
She loves cooking for friends, drinking red wine, walking on New Zealand’s amazing beaches, riding her horse through the forest and lying in bed reading other people’s novels..
For more info check out her website www.nickypellegrino.com