Ep 65 Meet Nicky Pellegrino, author of ‘One Summer in Venice’


In Episode 65 of So you want to be a writer: Valerie and Allison congratulate AWC graduate Belinda Williams on her latest novel The Pitch published with Momentum, they discuss two new content marketing agencies launched in Australia, HarperCollins’ new Book Bliss, the 29 Minute Book service for those who want to be smart and fast, facts about the Magna Carta, the book Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, free to use images from Unsplash, interview Writer in Residence Nicky Pellegrino, give you the scoop on how you could win a copy of One Summer in Venice, treat you to their social media tips for writers who aren’t published (yet), and more!

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Show Notes

The Pitch: City Love 2 by Belinda Williams

Content marketing competition expands as Colloquial and Yaffa Custom Content launch


29 Minute Books

Magna Carta: nine facts you may not know

Still Writing by Dani Shapiro

Unsplash – free images

Writer in Residence
Close up of Nicky Pellegrino against a grey backgroundNicky 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), two dogs and two horses.

She works as a freelance journalist, has columns in the Herald on Sunday newspaper and the Listener 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.

Her latest book is One Summer in Venice.

Nicky Pellegrino's website

Nicky Pellegrino on Twitter

Hachette Australia on Twitter

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Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers' Centre

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Interview transcript 


Thanks for joining us today, Nicky.






Now for those who are not yet familiar with your book, your latest book,
One Summer in Venice, tell our listeners what the book is about.



It’s really a story about looking for happiness. It’s about when you know your life is perfectly good, you’ve got a good job, you’ve got a nice family, but you’re having a fit of the blahs and you want to feel more joy everyday.


The main character is a chef and she lives in London. Her restaurant has had a bit of a rubbish review, and that tips her over the edge. She runs away to Venice and she spends her time there trying to come up with a list of the ten things that really make her happy, not the sort of universal stuff that make all of us happy, not family or holidays, or sunny days, the things that lift all of our spirits, but her own personal recipe for happiness.



I understand that the book was born after you read The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin. Can you tell us how that fed into this?



Well, she did a slightly different thing. She had a fit of the blahs, she realized that she wasn’t feeling everyday joy, even though her life in New York was perfectly good. She set about trying to find more joy in everyday life and she talks about how it’s not the things that you do once in awhile that make you happy, it’s the things that you do everyday. But, she did it very much without leaving home.


I thought, “This is such an interesting idea, because it’s a first world problem, obviously. Most of us, we’re not living in war-torn places and we’ve got plenty to eat and we’ve got shelter, but you can still have those moments where you’re not exactly depressed, but you just realize that you should be enjoying your life more. I thought her book, Gretchen Rubin’s book was very interesting, and the way she kind of analyzed herself in a way and came up with lists and action plans and researched the whole concept of happiness.


That was sort of my jumping off point. I thought, “Well, we all feel like that sometimes.” It’s perfectly normal. It’s not something that you can medicate yourself for, it’s not really serious, but happiness — we all want to be happier, don’t we really?



You were born in England, but I’m talking to you in New Zealand, because that’s where you live. As many of your books, along with this one, are set in Italy. Tell us about your connection to Italy and then how you research your settings and bring them to life?



My father is Italian and he met my mother. In the late 1950s she hitchhiked to Rome with a bunch of her girlfriends across Europe. She was quite daring at the time. She met him there, he was doing his military service, he was this very handsome Italian man in an Air Force uniform. She ended up marrying him and taking him back to the north of England, to Liverpool, which is where she was from, and having children. They’re still there. They still live in Liverpool.


When I was a kid we used to go over there to see my dad’s family. He had three sisters and they all had lots of children. We could drive there, obviously, you get the ferry and off you go driving across France.


It wasn’t a big expensive trip, it was very doable and we stayed with family. They lived in quite a horrible place, really. It was this little town outside Naples, it’s not your picture postcard Italy. As kids, we didn’t speak very good Italian, the food was very foreign. You know how your memories from childhood are always those extraordinary things, often the slightly traumatic things. I think, for me, going to Italy was so strange.


Me and my brothers are all really, really tall, ginger, and quite pale-skinned. In this small Italian town we just literally stuck out, to the extent that little old ladies in black would come out of their houses and sort of hiss and cross themselves and run back in. Back then people did have television, but there wasn’t obviously internet, people were not as global and exposed to things, and it was quite a backwater.


That was such a huge memory for me from my childhood. When I started writing all of those summers in Italy were what kind of, I guess, flavored my books. There’s always a lot of food in my books and my aunts were all amazing cooks, my father cooked so, we would go home and he would recreate the things that we had eaten when we were in Italy.


All of those layers of memories kind of came into my books, I think.



That’s your childhood memories and connections, now you live in New Zealand, what do you do to research your books and bring these settings to life in current day kind of thing?



When I can I go to Italy. For One Summer in Venice I went and spent a couple of weeks there on my own, because that’s what my character does, Addolorata goes on her own. I thought it was really, really important to do that.


I also have set a lot of my novels in a house called Villa Rosa, which is in the south of Italy, and that’s based on one of my father’s cousin’s places, we’ve been to stay there quite a lot.


Actually, the book I’m writing now, that’s where that’s set. Sometimes you get to go over there, but when you live on the opposite of the world sometimes you don’t.



Why do you live in New Zealand?



Why? I met a man — I met a man. I went on this big trip when I was in my late 20s. I went to Australia, Sydney to see a friend there, and then came to Auckland to a friend’s wedding and met the man that I’m now married to.



There you go.



Yeah, I know. Holiday romances, they do work.



Yes. You obviously also have a love affair with food, apart from your connection to Italy, food just infuses many of your novels and features prominently. Your main character is a chef in this one. Have you always been a foodie?



I think so. When I grew up in the north of England, food there was not very nice. You had to go to a chemist shop, a pharmacy, to buy olive oil, and it was pretty backward. My father really was dedicated to creating these lovely recipes and he got his sisters to send him instructions. Sometimes we would bring stuff back with us in the car when we drove home from trips there. So, I grew up really appreciating the difference between good and bad food. Now I’m a little bit obsessed with it, I’m quite greedy, really, to be honest.


I think for Italians food is enormously important to them. In the south of Italy, where my father’s family are from, and lots of my books are set, people often don’t have a lot of money, but they would be growing vegetables and they’ll have some chickens. They might have a pig that they kill and turn into ham, that’s still goes on down there.


I don’t think you could write a novel about Italy without having lots of food in it.


The Venice one was nice, because Venetian food is quite different. Food is still very regional in Italy, so I got to try all of these new dishes and write about those. That’s, for me, one of the most fun parts of going to research a book.



All in the name of research, of course.



Oh yes.



Your main character, Addolorata, or Dolly —






— was actually born out of another one of your novels, right? She didn’t start off here?



She’s been in two of my novels. She’s been in one called the Italian Wedding, which is really the story of her sisters and her parents, and another one called The Villa Girls, which is a story of four friends who go on holiday every year to somewhere different.


She never really had a starring role in any of the books, she’s quite a big character, quite spiky and quite a lot of fun. I always thought that one day I was going to give her a book of her own. One Summer in Venice isn’t a sequel at all, the idea is if you’ve read the other books you might pick this one and start to recognize people in it, but if you haven’t ever read any of the other books it doesn’t matter, this one stands on its own.


I just like the idea, Maeve Binchy used to do it, do you remember her books set in Dublin? You would sometimes come across a character and think, “Well, hang on a minute, she’s in the other book.” It’s like meeting an old friend, I think.



Did you always have this planned for Dolly, was her back story always in your head? Or did you decide to create it?



This isn’t her back story, her back story are the other two books, really.



Yes, but did you always plan to do this when you were writing those other two books?



I barely have anything in life planned. No, I didn’t.


I did always think I would like to put her in a book. Then one day I was doing a book event and a woman actually said to me, “I think you should give Dolly her own book.” I thought, “Wow, you’ve got to give the readers what they want.”


It certainly wasn’t something that I had planned. I don’t really plan very far ahead and my ideas are often very unformed until they actually start being put down on paper. I’m not a big plotter. I do think it goes back to what you’re like as a person.


I’m really not a very planny person. I could possible tell you what I’m going to do next week, but if anyone tries to make me plan any further I get a panic attack. I think that’s what I’m like with my books, whereas other people I know who are very organised and they run very, very efficient diaries, they would be plotters, that would be the way that they would be comfortable working. I don’t think one is right or one is wrong. I just think it comes down to your personality.



Let’s talk about not plotting then, when you write your novels, and maybe use this one as an example, what drives the journey of the character or where the book is going? What seed of the idea did you start with? You must have started somewhere, and how does emerge, the rest of it?



With this one I had the character and I knew her, and I had the place. I knew I wanted to set a book in Venice. And I had happiness and the fact that I knew it was going to be a first-person novel, completely told by Dolly. It was going to have this list of the ten things that made her happy going through, as she discovered them the readers would discover them.


I sort of had the structure. I knew more or less how it was going to end, but not completely. I changed my mind about that as I was writing.


The things that I didn’t realize were… I knew I wanted to have an older woman character who was fun and a little bit naughty. I was quite inspired by Ari Seth Cohen’s book Advanced Style, which is full of pictures of these incredibly glamorous women in Manhattan. I wanted this glam older woman.


I didn’t know she was going to forge in and become such an important character in the book, and in some ways probably the most likeable character and the one whose story is most important. She slightly pushed her way in. She is a very big personality and she wasn’t going to take a backseat in the book. That was something that took me by surprise.


The other thing with not having a complete plot is sometimes you really get stuck. With the book before that, which is called The Food Of Love Cookery School. I got my characters stuck having coffee in a piazza for what appeared to be weeks. I just couldn’t them get them to leave, it was because I sort of knew where I wanted to go, but I didn’t know how to get there.


I saw quote once from a writer and he described it like driving in the dark with your lights on high beam, I feel that’s a little bit what my writing is like. I sort of know where my destination is, but I can only ever see a little way ahead as I’m going along, which — it can be a bit scary, because you know you sort of think it would be nice to have it all plotted out and know where you were going next. But, at the same time it makes room for the characters to surprise you and for good ideas to come along, I guess for the story to stay fresh, because I’m telling it to myself as well as to the reader.



This is your eighth novel?






Goodness me. Congratulations, that’s fantastic.



I know.




Can you take us back then to when you first started writing fiction and why you decided, “Oh, I might try writing fiction now.”?



It was always something I wanted to do. As a kid it was the only thing I was any good at. At school I used to write these terrible three-verse poems that were just shuttering bad, but I had lovely teachers who encouraged me. I always kind of had this idea that I wanted to be a writer.


My dad was a factory worker and we didn’t know people who were writers. I didn’t really think that it was something that a person like me could do. The only way into it that I could see was journalism, so that’s what I went off and did. I worked on magazines in London and then I moved to New Zealand when I was 30 and worked on a weekly magazine here. I still always thought, “Someday I’m going to write a novel,” because it never happened. You never get home from work and think, “I know, I’ll sit down in front of my computer now and write.” You think, “I know, I’ll pour myself a glass of chardonnay and I’ll watch TV.”


I just kept saying, “Someday… someday…” And then one day I was at work and I got an email from someone I knew, to say that a woman who I had interviewed several times, she was a New Zealand broadcaster, had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and it really wasn’t good. She was only in her late 50s, this woman. I think, for me, it was just one of those seize the day moments where I thought, I mean I was still only in my 30s at that stage, my late 30s, but I suddenly thought, “Really, you just don’t know what’s around the corner. I saw this woman a few weeks ago, and she seemed completely fine and now, you know, bam, she isn’t.”


Actually, that night I went home from work and I started my first novel, Delicious, that very night. I kind of said to myself, “OK, I’m going write this, I’m going to complete it, and I will try to get it published, but if it doesn’t work then I will just say, ‘Well, OK, I did it.’” You know? I’ll put it under my bed in a shoebox and I’ll forget about it.


That book was probably the most fun to write, because ignorance is bliss, and plus I didn’t have a deadline. I just puttered away, evenings, weekends, holidays, a little bit here, a little bit there. That’s what I always say to people when they say, “I don’t have time to write.” I say, “Really? You know, you only have to write 500 words a week. You might not have a novel very quickly, but you will have novel eventually, if that’s what you want to do.”


I was incredibly lucky with that book. I did manage to get it — I got it published in New Zealand to begin with and then I found an agent in the UK who took me on. But, between the book appearing in the UK and me having finished it, there was an enormous amount of rewriting. I had an incredibly good editor, I thought my book was good, but as it turns out it was completely rubbish. There was a lot of rewriting and a small amount of sobbing over the keyboard before my editor was happy with it and felt it could be published in the UK.


I look back at that now and I realize that she taught me to write, because I never had any creative writing classes, I just always was a reader. I had lots and lots of books, she taught me how to write, basically.



You’re used to being a journalist, which is much shorter form and it’s much more instant gratification in a sense, you can write a story and it’s such a quick turnaround if you need to. Was it hard to sustain the interest and to keep yourself going on such a long project?



I think what’s hard about it is the amount of time it takes and that you can’t just go home for a week and write a book, that you do have to make time. I also still work as a journalist, so, for me, time is the big issue. Just dairying days and saying, “No, I can’t go and have a coffee with you…” “No, I can’t do this other story, I’m having a writing day.” Sometimes you’ll do that and you’ll only write 500 words, when you really needed to write 2,000. For me, that’s really knowing that deadline is coming and it might seem quite a long way away, but it really isn’t.


I’ve got a quite pared down writing style, no one has ever said to me, “You need to cut 2,000 words from this book.” They always want more. I think that goes back to the journalism, the fact that I am just good at writing taut sentences.



When you are writing a novel and you’re in the throws of it, do you take time out of your journalism? What kind of writing routine do you have? If you can talk us through how that novel gets down on the page and how that fits around the rest of your life?



I juggle a bit because I’ve got some regular things that I do and I can’t just stop doing them. Fiction writing is not the most lucrative of pursuits, I think it’s quite important to do other things. But, also for me, writing is very solitary and journalism is quite nice because it takes you out into the world and you tell other people’s stories and sometimes you’ll do things that will inspire what you’re writing. I like doing the two things, but it does mean I don’t really have a routine.


My ideal day is get up early, get into it, and work and work and work and then have some sort of a break where I do perhaps move, walk my dogs or go out to see my horses. I’ve got horses that live about half an hour away. And that time is really brilliant for thinking.


Often you’ll write bits of the book in your head, it’s quite important to have access to somewhere to write it down. There’s nothing worse than being out on a hike on horse half an hour up a hill, you think, “Oh no, that’s exactly what this character needs to do,” and so desperate not to forget it.


That thinking part is really, really important. I think often when you’re just sitting staring at your laptop it kills the ideas and it kills the creativity, whereas even if you go and, I don’t know, sometimes I’ll just go and put a load of washing on, which isn’t very glamorous. But, just breaking that connection with my desk for a moment and doing something a little bit routine and humdrum frees the mind up. Often then I’ll come up with a whole plan of what I want to write the next time that I get to sit down and do it. Then I will jot it down, and even just a few words, jot it down will bring it all back. That’s always good.


Another tip someone gave me actually, Ian Rankin, the crime writer, who has got the same publishers as me, he told me never finish a day’s writing completing a sentence, finish halfway through the sentence. He said you’ll know how you were going to end it and you can just pick the thread up straightaway instead of fluffing around.

And do you do that?



Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes I do, because it’s really easy to… you’ll fluff, you’ll think, “I’ll just look at some pictures for inspiration… oh, and I’ll light a scented candle, because that will make me feel good.” None of those things really get the book written.



I know! I have so many scented candles as a result.



The scented candle theory is not a good one.


Apart from the time-consuming nature of writing a novel, what else is the most challenging part of the writing process for you?



Sometimes I just don’t feel like I can write, which possibly sounds a bit insane, but sometimes I’ll think I’ll don’t even know how to construct a sentence. I guess the doubt, you know, that you do have moments of doubt. And I suspect a writer who didn’t have moments of thinking, “I can’t do this, I’m no good,” would in fact not be a very good writer. I think doubt is an important and comfortable part of the writing process.



What do you do to get over that doubt?



Sometimes I run to my friends who say, “You said that last time.” Sometimes I would just pick up a book that I know is brilliant and just read a little bit of it. I won’t be able to write like that writer. For instance, Kate Atkinson I think is just a brilliant writer, all of her prose are wonderful.


Sometimes I will just read a couple of paragraphs of Kate Atkinson and I’ll go, “Oh, that’s right, that’s what good writing is.” Obviously, I can’t write like her, sadly, but it just reminds me of what it is, of how a sentence should be constructed.


I know it sounds mad coming from someone who has spent her entire life writing, but I think the doubt thing is just a crisis of confidence. It’s sort of a ‘does my bum look big in this’ moment in my writing process.




You said you’re not much of a planner, but when it comes to creating your characters do they live in your head as they’re being formed? Or do you write down aspects of their history or certain elements of their likes and dislikes, just to get to know the character at all?



I used to do that, actually, then I found that I never referred to them. They do live very much in my head. They’re very real to me. Sometimes I’ll go somewhere — I think if I went back to Venice I would be looking for Dolly and Coco, the fabulous older woman, I would be imagining them being in places, because they just become quite weirdly real. I’m talking to my imaginary friends here, and I think about them a lot. Sometimes I might write things down, but, yeah, not very often to be honest.



Can you give us an idea from the decision, “I’m going to write this novel,” to the end of your first draft, can you give us some idea of the time frame or the gestation period of that?



Well, I went through a phase of writing a book a year, so it was probably 6-8 months between the first idea. One Summer in Venice I took a bit longer over, actually. I think I just got a bit tired and also I didn’t want to repeat myself. I mean obviously everybody is going to have some themes that run through their novels, but I wanted to kind of feel that there was fresh stuff in there too.


That was more of an 18-month project. I enjoyed that more than I do when I’ve got a really tight deadline.



What are you working on now?



I’m working on a book, it’s set in Italy.






This one is actually set back at Villa Rosa, the house where lots of — it’s one of these houses that people pass through, and it’s really, really beautiful. I’ve set it back there, but it’s completely contemporary and it’s about a character who hasn’t appeared in any of the books.


She is middle-aged. She has had a job that she absolutely loves that ends through none of her fault and she is sort of a bit stuck. She decides to take an adult gap year. She has a home exchange, these things are quite big now. She swaps her London apartment with Villa Rosa and she decides that she is going to spend a few months just kind of getting to know a place and the culture and the people and sort of have a little bit of time out from her life before she decides where she is going next.


It’s a little bit same and a little bit different.



When can we expect it?



Well, I hope sort of about this time next year. I’ve been working pretty hard on it, but you never know. That’s the thing, you work on something for a year by yourself and then you send it off to your editor and you never quite know whether if you’ve produced a work of genius or the worst novel ever written in the history of the world.



Finally, for listeners who are hearing this story and they’re thinking, “Oh my goodness, I want to be there one day, I want to get to my eighth published novel…” maybe they want to get to their first published novel, what is your advice to them?



Have a comfortable chair, because you will be spending a lot of time sitting in it.


But, also sort of what I said before, it’s really easy to procrastinate. I completely get that. I’m the world’s biggest procrastinator. At the end of the day the difference between writing a novel and not writing one is sitting down and actually doing it.


I think it’s really important to write the kind of book that you like to read. I’ve heard people say, “I’m going to write Mills and Boon,” or, “I’m going to write chick lit,” but, if that’s not what you actually enjoy, it’s not going to seem very genuine and the readers just will know that.


I keep wanting to write a crime novel, because I think it would be great to have action and blood. But, I actually don’t really read those books, so…



All right, so get a comfortable chair and write what you want to read.


Definitely pick up One Summer in Venice by Nicky Pellegrino. Thank you so much for your time today, Nicky.



Thank you.

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