Kiwi author Nicky Pellegrino on her latest book A Dream Of Italy – and why she loves writing ‘up-lit’

The writer shares her novel secret to staying positive.
Author Nicky Pellegrino

When the Weekly’s books editor Nicky Pellegrino started writing her 11th novel, A Dream of Italy, she wanted it to be upbeat and happy – an antidote to the grim things in life.

“I wanted to write something I wanted to read, something that’s not negative and dark. There’s enough of that in the world and when I need to be cheered up or just escape for a while, I like to read something that’s uplifting.”

Of course, the UK-born, Auckland-based author had no idea when she was plotting A Dream of Italy two years ago that it would be released just days after New Zealand suffered one of the most tragic events in its history – the Christchurch mosque terror attacks.

“It really has been our darkest day, and I feel like in the aftermath of what’s happened, we all need to read books or watch TV shows and movies that are positive and build our spirits up because we need to stay strong and we need to stay sane,” says Nicky (54), who, like the rest of the nation, was deeply shocked at the horrific March 15 attack on innocent people.

“It’s not about running away from what is happening or denying what is going on in the world, but it is giving us a break for a short time, which helps us to keep on going.”

Despite her busy writer’s life, Nicky knows the importance of time to relax at home.

While she was writing the novel, the world was upended by the election of Donald Trump as the US president and by the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.

“There was lots of panic going on and I wanted to write a novel that would take people away from it. I get a lot of emails from readers, and the ones I appreciate getting the most are where someone will say, ‘I’ve been having a really bad time at work,’ or, ‘I’ve been convalescing from a horrible illness and your book took me away from what was happening.’

“I think, ‘Okay, that’s my job, to give people a break from the nasty stuff.’ I’m happy if I can counter that with a bit of positivity and remind them that there are good things in this world.”

Nicky’s books – which are mostly set in Italy and often have food as a theme – tend to be heart-warming and upbeat, so when it comes to the supposed new trend for “up-lit” (uplifting literature), she raises her eyebrows.

“What do they mean, ‘the latest thing’? I’ve been doing it all the time! But publishers have apparently identified that people want more uplifting fiction because life seems grimmer. I don’t know if things really are that much grimmer now – when you look back, there are generations that had two world wars to cope with.

“But I wonder if technology and the fact that we can find out so much more detail about what is going on makes a difference,” continues the former Weekly editor, who works as a freelance magazine journalist as well as a novelist.

“It is so quick and easy to access information with social media. And unlike back in the day when you only got your news from newspapers and had editors deciding what was and wasn’t suitable, these days anything can end up online, and that is not always a good thing.”

There are, of course, many good things about the internet, including the fact that it’s invaluable when it comes to researching her books.

While she does frequently travel to Italy – the home country of her father, Dino (81) – she also goes online to dig up facts and to pick brains via Skype.

In fact, she used Skype to chat to people about their experiences of renovating derelict Italian homes, which is the premise of A Dream of Italy.

“I came up with the idea after having dinner with friends – one of them was talking about a little mountain town in Italy where they were selling off houses for one euro each because they were empty and the people didn’t want it to become a ghost town,” explains Nicky.

“So we did that thing where we sat around and said, ‘Let’s do it, let’s buy one together and do it up and go on holiday there.’ Of course none of us meant it.

“But the next morning I thought, ‘Why don’t I do it with my husband?’ Then it occurred to me that I am incapable of maintaining the house I actually live in, never mind buying a dilapidated house in Italy and committing to doing it up. So I decided to put the idea into a book instead and live vicariously through my characters.”

Nicky is a regular visitor to her father’s home country, Italy, which provides inspiration and settings for her novels.

Those characters include a gay couple, a millennial couple and a middle-aged woman, who take on the challenge of renovating the run-down houses in a fictional village.

A contact in Italy put Nicky in touch with people who’d done just that and their anecdotes proved to be very useful.

“One couple told me about the trouble they’d had with tradespeople in the south of Italy and how they just couldn’t get their house finished because the builders were never there.

“Eventually, someone told them that the way to get something done was to tell everyone you were throwing a party, set a date and invite everyone in town. Sure enough, on the morning of the party, the architect was there tiling the house so it’d be finished in time.”

Nicky’s not into renovating herself, so A Dream of Italy is not a book from which readers will get DIY tips or inspiration about colour schemes.

“It’s a love story and it’s about diverse people and how they intermingle, and hopefully it will make people laugh.”

She never struggles to come up with ideas for books – there are still plenty on her to-do list, including a historical novel set in New Zealand. It’s getting the words down that is the tricky bit.

“I delete a lot,” admits Nicky. “I write 500 words, then probably delete 250 of them. The delete key on my last laptop fell off.”

Nicky was delighted to find a familiar name along a street in Rome.

She’s not a big planner – she comes up with a few ideas, starts writing, and sees where the characters take her.

“Sometimes something will happen and I’ll think, ‘Oh, where did that come from?’ It’s like getting to know someone in real life who surprises you with what they do.

“I get quite obsessed with my characters and I spend a lot of time thinking about them. I do a lot of thinking about my books when I am driving, which is not a good thing for other road users!”

There are times when she gets stuck and thinks, “I’m doomed; I’m never going to finish this book.” But perseverance is one of her strengths, and she will plough on, writing, deleting and re-writing until she gets there.

She did get stuck partway through her sixth book, The Food of Love Cookery School.

“Then I was having a root canal and it was really painful, and I thought, ‘I need to think about something hard that will take my mind off the pain.’ So I thought about my book and the dentist kept saying, ‘Are you all right?’ and I was going, ‘Shut up, I’m concentrating!’ And I did leave with all the characters sorted out in my head.”

Her head is often full of excess information because, despite the international success of her novels, she still supplements that income with journalism.

She enjoys the work, including writing book reviews for the Weekly, and health columns and feature articles for New Zealand Listener, because it keeps her brain sharp and it can be good to record real-life stories and not have to dream them up.

She also welcomes interacting with a lot of different people, as life as a novelist can be isolating. Sometimes the people she interviews for magazines inspire characters.

“But then sometimes I write about gut health and it’s difficult to get that into a book.”

Fitting it all in while still finding time for her husband, Carne Bidwill (58), her friends, and her horses and dogs is a juggle.

“You just have to make time. But I do have to say, I don’t have a very clean house. Your Home and Garden won’t be coming around to photograph my house any time soon!”

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