Penelope Green: Freelance journalist and memoir author

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Penelope GreenPenelope Green is a freelance journalist and author. She has published three travel memoirs recounting her time in Italy – When In Rome, See Naples and Die, and the latest, Girl By Sea. It is the story of her life in Procida, an idyllic island looking over the Bay of Naples, and how she became part of the community through a common love of food.

She started her writing career as a cadet journalist with The Australian newspaper and now writes regularly for Australian Gourmet Traveller, Australian House & Garden, Madison, Marie Claire, The West Australian’s Weekend Magazine and Scoop. She has written for Who Weekly and worked in the fashion industry as a publicist.

In 2002 she packed her bags and headed to Italy, where she wrote for The International Herald Tribune, Marie Claire, and Madison writing on Italian current affairs, and food and wine, before publishing her first book When in Rome, which became the best-selling travel book in Australia for 2005.

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Girl by Sea

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

alerie
Thanks for joining us today, Penny.

Penelope
Thank you very much.

Valerie
Tell us when did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Penelope
I think I was always writing from a very early age. I was a huge Emma Blighton fan, and I had a very big imagination. I can’t really say that I set out to be a writer. I mean I naturally sort of veered towards writing and then I began a journalist. I guess my writing career started at little bit by chance when I went to Italy. Yeah, I don’t know whether it was definitely a conscience decision or not.

Valerie
Do you prefer journalism, or do you prefer the kind of writing that you do in your books?

Penelope
I must say that I’m likely to enjoy both. I mean as a journalist I really enjoyed the whole investigative process, and just the process of actually bringing together a story. Obviously writing gives you a different freedom and you get to elaborate on other things that might get cut out of a story in a newsroom, basically.

They’re both, as I said, two forms which I thoroughly enjoy, but can be very different.

Valerie
Why did you decide to go to Italy in the first place? Did you go there with the intention that you were going to write about it?

Penelope
I went to Italy, I was 28 at the time, basically seven years ago. I’d been working as a journalist for almost a decade and I just really felt like I needed a break. It was a bit of a life change really. I didn’t have any big plans to write a book by any means. I’m an avid note taker, so I guess when I did find myself in the position where I had been offered the opportunity to write a book I thankfully had a lot of notes.

But, I certainly didn’t intend to go there and write a tome. That said, I think at the time it was really at the start of the whole wave of travel memoirs coming out. Maybe it had something to do with timing as well. I guess I realized after I was offered the chance to do that there was a big market for it.

Valerie
Tell us about the process of going from taking those notes and turning them into a book because in the meantime… when did it dawn on you that it could turn into a book? Did someone put the idea in your head? Tell us about the whole process.

Penelope
Yeah, sure. I was actually very lucky in that I’d been asked to write a story for a magazine in Sydney just about what I’d done, changing countries when I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t have any contact or a hireman so it really was starting afresh in every sense.

I guess I wrote that story in a very self-deprecating manner. It was quite fun. Once that was published I just found myself in a really unique position of being contacted by a couple of publishers asking me whether I could turn that into a book.

Once I sort of knew that was going to happen I really had to go over all of my notes, all of my experiences up until that point. I guess it would have been… my memory fades, but I would have been living in Italy for two years at that stage.

Some things I had sort of …  my memory isn’t the best, but I had to sort of, I guess, think about all the things that had happened since I had been in Italy. Some things I had written a lot about, other things I hadn’t. I really had to sort of draw on memory, but also I had the benefit of being still being in the country and being able to sort of almost retrace my steps. That was also very helpful.

Valerie
Why did you pick Italy, especially as you say you had no real connection to it?

Penelope
Well, I traveled there when I was young. The first time I went there was when I was 16. I’d probably backpacked there about three times up until the age of 25, and anyone who loves Italy knows… it’s just, the instinct and the love for the food and that sort of community feeling that is quite inevitable.

Just many, and apart from the obvious culture and history, I just had in a way fallen in love with the lifestyle, the so-called Dolce Vitas. I had seen it and I, it was really the only place that I wanted to go. I had always wanted to learn a second language because I didn’t have one and so many Europeans speak about five languages. I thought, “Right. OK. I’m going to go.”

As I said, it really was a life change because I’d reached a point where I just felt a bit burnt out. After I guess working straight from school, sort of throwing myself into journalism almost for ten years, and it was just time for a break. Italy had just always been put on the backburner and I suddenly sort of found myself in a position where I couldn’t put it off anymore.

Valerie
And how did you fund La Dolce Vita for a couple of years?

Penelope
Well, I worked very hard I should say. I mean I decided to have a career change and at first I couldn’t work as a journalist anyway because I couldn’t speak the language so I just decided simply to take all the pressure off myself and do whatever it took to just get by until I learnt the language and then I’d see what sort of course I wanted to take. I worked variously as a receptionist in a hotel. I waitressed. I worked in a wine bar.

To be honest I was so busy, I mean I probably at one point had three different part time jobs, but I was pretty happy because I was just at every point learning different things about the new country that I had adopted. It was all very challenging.

Valerie
Yeah. Did you find the transition easy or difficult when you went from journalism to writing much, much longer memoir-style pieces? What was that like?

Penelope
Yeah, it was an usual experience. I think that being a journalist helped in a sense that as far as you’re so used to having to write to size, to trim down your copy to make everything fit into 30 centimeters, 35 centimeters, or whatever on the news page. So, that sort of helped in some senses to, in the editing process. But that said, obviously you can write so much more when you’re writing a book. It was actually a really nice luxury to have to be able to elaborate, but still within reason.

You can’t, you’ve got to edit obviously whatever happens. There’s a fine balance between that. I mean that’s also what a good editor is for. I was fortunate to work with some fantastic ones who basically helped me when I was struggling to cut something down, or explain why it should be cut, or… so there was very much a big collaborative process in that editing process as well.

Valerie
And, did you ever get that feeling… because with journalism it’s extremely objective. It’s very third-party. It’s very independent. You’re not in it, as the writer. Did you ever get that feeling of, “God, who’s going to be interested in what I had for breakfast?”

Penelope
Oh, gee. Yeah. I tried not to write about what I had for breakfast, although there is a lot of information about coffee, and food, and all those things that people who are foodies love. Yeah, I mean you do have those moments of absolute almost paranoia just thinking, “Who cares.” But, then as soon as I’d speak to somebody at home telling them about something, which I’d probably become used to, they’d be, “Ah, how fantastic,” “Don’t leave,” kind of thing. “You’re not missing out on anything here.” It’s just basically, there’s always that element of interest for a foreign lifestyle. Yeah.

Valerie
Did you plan to write a three book memoir?

Penelope
No, I actually, I certainly didn’t have any deal to do that. From the start it was a very organic process. After basically writing When in Rome I found myself moving to Naples, which is obviously a pretty amazing city. It’s very complex with the Camorra there, which is the local mafia. That’s probably the most journalistic of the three books because I would just sort of set about interviewing everyone I could in the city, the locals themselves, to sort of throw hopefully a new light on the city itself. That sort of came just because I was so fascinated by the machinations of Naples.

Then Procida, the third book, Girl by Sea was very much writing about an island lifestyle in a very particular community and bringing in a very heavy food slant into that, so it was very different again, but I just always found Italy itself and every part of it very inspiring. I was always sort of thinking about, “Hmm, has this got the bones of a book,” sort of thing.

Valerie
Tell us more about Girl by Sea and how that came about because there’s much more of a foodie element to it.

Penelope
It was very much by chance that I found myself there. I actually met my partner in Naples and we were looking to rent a house and couldn’t find anything we really liked that much in Naples. He had suggested Procida, and I hadn’t been there. We went up there. On the boat it’s basically an hour from Naples, and we just fell in love with an apartment there. It was just really the challenge of… I’ve never lived on a small island before. It was a total… a new set of circumstances in that it’s a very particular community, again, with a different dialect.

I mean I have never learnt the Neapolitan dialect, and my partner who’s Neapolitan could never understand all of the island dialect, if that sort of makes it any clearer of the language issues again. It was just fitting into the community… it’s an economy based on the sea. All of the men are generally sailors and fisherman. The women, not all of them, but a lot of them stay at home and raise children in a very domestic role. Initially it seemed a little bit hard to sort of break into what was a very small community, everyone knows everyone.

The roles in society are very different to what I’m accustom to, but once we basically did become part of the community it was very hard to leave. It’s a place where you kind of walk out the door without being sort of stopped by somebody who wants to give you a lift down to the port, offer you a coffee, or you know it’s just that community that is quite beautiful.

That said, obviously it sounds very idyllic being on an island, and it was, but it does bring about its own set of difficulties where basically you’re very isolated. We were cut off often from the mainland during rough seas. For all of the fact that I love that community it could drive you nuts because you really couldn’t do anything without anyone knowing, you know? It was very incestuous at times.

So, all of this, basically, I found pretty interesting and also the food aspect, I mean Italians are obviously famous for their cuisine, but I guess when you’re living in a small community you notice that even more when you sort of… you have a lot to do with… and we’d walk down to go grocery shopping and we’d be told by our local that this was seasonal, and how we should cook it.

It was all just very much, it was just something that I thought adding food into the writing was obvious to me and also because I guess when I read books and there’s reference to a gorgeous dish of something I think, “Oh, how would you make that?” And then I get online and look for it in there, and there are 5,000 versions and then I kind of lose, I give up.

Valerie
Yes.

Penelope
I just thought I would sort of include that as well. Again it’s very different flavor, if you like, from the other books.

Valerie
Did you start writing Girl by Sea when you were there, or after you left?

Penelope
No, when I was still there. Not initially because I didn’t sort of go there with the intention of writing a book, but sort of after three months I was already thinking, “Oh, there’s so much here I find fascinating,” so from there it was very much… I probably wrote more of this book basically as I was going along and that was probably the same with Naples as well. Rome was the only one where I really did have that time lapse of about two years where I sort of had to go back and think about what I wanted to write.

Valerie
You’re now living in Perth?

Penelope
Yep.

Valerie
Why did you come back to Australia?

Penelope
I think, I’ve spoken to a lot of foreigners who have lived overseas and sort of speak about the seven year itch as it were. I sort of got the point where I really was missing my family quite a bit. I mean you have obviously nostalgia when you’re away and homesickness, but I’d sort of been back home and all of a sudden I just said, “Oh, I wouldn’t really mind staying.”

That said, I really do miss Italy now. You take everything for granted. I really miss in particular Procida where we were living the last time. I guess I feel lucky to feel like I do really do have a foot in each country. My partner being Italian means that we’ll go back as often as we can. But, Italy is so based on the, you know I learned a lot about the values of family when I was living there, even more so than I’d imagined and how I suddenly felt a bit hypocritical to be so far away from my own.

Valerie
Right.

Penelope
It was just time to come home.

Valerie
When you actually sat down to do the actual writing did you have some kind of writing routine? Or a daily ritual? Take us through your typical writing day?

Penelope
No, I think when I was writing Rome it was very much I was panicked, I was just so excited and so revved up that I almost couldn’t sleep for the excitement of it all. I’d be writing at all crazy hours. When I was writing Naples it was very different because I was working as a journalist for an Italian New Agency, so I had a full time job.

I was literally rushing from my job, leaving working the afternoon and then maybe traveling out into Mafia heartland to do an interview with somebody for the book, so it was very much, I had to be very disciplined to fit in time to do interviews and do all the research for what I was writing. Strangely, I mean it’s the busier I am the more I seem to get done, so that sort of worked very well.

On Procida I had a little bit more time at the end to finish the book because my… I’d worked for this Italian news agency for three years and then they shifted the office to Rome so I found myself out of a job right at the end, but I actually needed the time to basically finish the draft, the first draft of the book. It was very much, I had the luxury of time to sort of go and seek out people, and explore different angles of issues that I wanted to talk about and then get home.

I find when I do have more time on my hands that I am, I find it much harder to get motivated to do things. That was even probably harder finishing that off just because I keep on thinking, “I’ve got tomorrow.” I really do need to get into my head to sit down and do it.

Valerie
You’ve worked as a journalist in both Italy and Australia, is it very similar, what are the key differences between working as a journalist there and here?

Penelope
I don’t think there is a fundamental change, really. Although, obviously with the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi owning so much of the media I guess some media there obviously would talk about conflicts of interest and the difficulty of freedom of press, if you like.

I was working for an agency, which was very much… an agency called Answer, which is basically like Reuters and it’s like the biggest news agency there. I was actually editing information on all stories I should say, coming from correspondence in the Mediterranean, as well as sort of translating. It was very much a vibrant newsroom.

I mean I felt very much like I was at home anyway. A newspaper newsroom, there aren’t many differences, for me obviously it was slightly harder to follow issues because of the language issue, even though I obviously, I’m fluent in Italian, but I think that Italian journalists, there’s a lot of presumed knowledge in writing an story, for example, if there’s a crime story apart from the first day or two where all of the facts are reported, after about a week that’s basically not the case. Whereas, I guess, I think here we tend to give a little bit of background even if it’s a couple of lines for those you haven’t read but there it’s sort of assume that everyone reads the papers everyday.

Valerie
Right.

Penelope
And, knows every case intimately.

Valerie
That’s interesting.

Penelope
Yeah, it was interesting. I don’t agree with it, I should say. It was a very, slight differences as I said on both sides, but the fundamentals of, the guts of journalism are there obviously.

Valerie
The travel memoir genre has been very, very successful. What do you think is the appeal of travel memoirs for readers?

Penelope
I just honestly think pure escapism, particularly for those who aren’t fortunate enough to take off when they like whether they’re people who are elderly, or people with kids, or just there’s some reason, or financial, there’s so many reasons that prevent people from going.

If somebody wants to Turkey and sees a new book out about somebody who has been there, done that, why wouldn’t you wonder and pick that up. I really do think, as well as, apart from that just genuine curiosity to read about a new country that maybe you hope to visit one day. Really a combination. I don’t think it’s some rocket science.

Valerie
Are you planning on writing more travel books? What’s next for you?

Penelope
I’m actually trying to, at the moment I’ve got a couple of ideas for a fiction and I’m just really battling to kind of put those down, basically, and work out whether I can write fiction. That’s the new challenge.

I’d be really thrilled if I could. I certainly know what I like and don’t like, and so now I’m just in that process of trying to nut something out.

Valerie
That’s exciting.

Penelope
Yeah, it is exciting. It’s also, I mean it’s difficult I think to sort of switch into another genre, but I’m enjoying it as well. I’m just not sure how successful I’m going to be. I’ve got no deadlines sort of hanging over me. But, I’m trying to sort of self-enforce one because otherwise I may not put anything onto the screen.

Valerie
Finally, what’s your advice to people who are listening to this podcast, and who are aspiring writers and would like to have their book published one day?

Penelope
I don’t know, I just think that like anything you really have to persist. I know that sounds obvious, but I’m the first to procrastinate, as I said earlier. But, I think if you can really discipline yourself to sit down and write the idea that you have, that’s obviously really important even if you’re only sneaking in half an hour a day, but as long as you can sort of see things take shape.

I guess the other thing I would say is to not be afraid to bounce ideas of people because you may not be saying something very obvious and just sort of talking to somebody who obviously you trust and you respect their opinion. I think it can really help.

I mean yesterday I was sort of struggling with an idea and I talked to my partner about it, he’s an avid reader. He said, “Oh, yeah, but why don’t sort of think about it from this angle?” Suddenly, sort of one piece fell into shape for me. I think that you shouldn’t be so hell-bent on it being your project, and sort of thinking that you can work everything out because obviously a little bit of feedback can work wonders at the right time. Yeah.

Valerie
Great advice. On that note, thank you very much for your time today, Penny.

Penelope
Absolute pleasure.


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