Nicky Pellegrino: there's no way I could live off writing novels

Nicky Pellegrino has written nine best-sellers.
BEVAN READ/FAIRFAX NZ

Nicky Pellegrino has written nine best-sellers.

Ask any writer in New Zealand about how they make a living and they will tell you a dispiriting tale about picking up random bits of work from kind editors in the way you might collect bakelite bangles from junk shops; ever hopeful but not expecting much.

They do some freelance journalism here, a bit of book reviewing there, some teaching perhaps, might snag a fellowship or two if they are of a literary bent and very, very talented and — let's be honest — lucky.

It is bloody hard, even if you are the effervescent Nicky Pellegrino, who writes warm-hearted popular fiction that is published in the United Kingdom and in New Zealand and is available in Spain, Norway, Poland, Israel, Russia, Brazil and other far-flung places too.

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With nine bestsellers to her credit, the former magazine editor still can't rely on book sales to carry her comfortably into retirement, which means there is little hope for wannabe writers planning to ditch their unsatisfying jobs in IT and retail to stay home with the dog, conjuring other worlds from the comfort of their sofas.

The maths of publishing is grim. For each book Pellegrino sells, she gets seven-and-a-half percent of the cover price, or around $2.63, of which her agent collects 10 percent, and the taxman takes more. That leaves her with about $1.50 per book, not counting the advance she is paid upfront, which is nothing to jump up and down about.

"There's no way I could live off it," says Pellegrino, 52, who supplements her income by writing meaty features for the Listener and does the occasional book review (she was books editor for the Herald on Sunday for seven years).

"And then you only get paid twice a year. They send you a cheque by carrier pigeon or something because that's the way it's always been done. So New Zealand writers who are only published here are doing it out of passion and love."

If Pellegrino ever wins Lotto, she says she will set up a fund to support aspiring writers of popular fiction, who don't win grants or get invited to teach at universities, because she knows just how hard it is to get started, and to build up momentum.

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"I tried to write my second novel while editing the New Zealand Woman's Weekly and that was a really stupid idea. I don't think I did either thing well. It was really stressful and horrible. My husband got sick of me being stressed and said if you don't leave your job I'm going to divorce you. I think he meant it."

Pellegrino did give up the secure magazine editing job, but mindful of the mortgage and the fact that her husband, Carne, was self-employed, she immediately picked up a part-time gig editing a bridal magazine. 

She used her newfound intimate knowledge of wedding gowns and the flamboyant characters who design them to lend authenticity to her fourth novel, The Italian Wedding.

Her latest book, Under Italian Skies, draws together all the threads that have thus far defined her work. There is the sunny Italian setting, the preoccupation with good food, the strong sense of family and inter-generational tension, and always a dash of romance. 

Reviewing the book for Your Weekend, Paula Green wrote: "I love the way food — blistered peppers, thin ribbons of pasta, fried hyacinth bulbs, artichoke salads — make you salivate for Italy. I love the matrix of complicated women that interfere in each other's lives... Reading this felt like a welcome ticket to Southern Italy. I could smell the coast, hike down to the salty sea and savour the story in my mouth."

Pellegrino, who grew up in England, is half-Italian and she spent her summers in southern Italy as a child, visiting her father's family and absorbing its idiosyncrasies.

"We used to drive there — he was a terrible driver, it's a miracle I'm still here — and then we would stay, just with relatives, and they lived in quite simple places so it wasn't like having a big flash holiday, it was sleeping on people's floors.

"There was a lot of going to visit relatives, which when you're a child is boring, especially when you don't speak the language the other children speak. And my brother Vincenzo, he's an actor now, he had a very outgoing personality. I was a cripplingly shy child, so he would be able to communicate and I just sat back and observed."

This is where Pellegrino's books began to form, as she noted the raucous fun of family gatherings and the focus on the dinner table, but also the differences between her working class childhood in Merseyside, where it was assumed she would get an education and work outside the home, and that of her Italian relatives.

"I had a female cousin who left school at 11 to look after the other children and that was just normal for her, she never questioned it."

Pellegrino still returns to Italy as often as she can, eating her way through a cooking course prior to writing The Food of Love Cookery School and taking research trips when funds allow, which is indulgent and lucky, as she happily acknowledges. 

"I am pretending I am working, but I am having the best holiday ever."

Pellegrino says she has few "writing friends" other than those people she "crashes into" at events or those who share her agent. She mentions Sarah-Kate Lynch — writer of popular travel-lit books and another former editor of the New Zealand Woman's Weekly, whom she met in the UK 25 years ago — and Stacy Gregg, also a journalist, who has published 19 pony books for children. 

"Writing friends are good for having a moan with," she says. "Other people don't want to hear your sad stories. They're like, 'but you're a novelist, how great is that?'"

Given how small everything in New Zealand is, she can't help but be connected to those who are influential in writing circles, although she views herself as something of an outsider. She was invited to interview Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train, at the recent Auckland Writers Festival and she is a member of the newly-launched Academy of New Zealand Literature, one of just 100 writers to be chosen.

It can get awkward being part of such a tiny, clubby community, she says. 

"I didn't like Emily Perkins' The Forrests and I wrote a critical review of it, and then it occurred to me after it was published that she lived in pretty much the same suburb as me and I thought, 'oh my god, what if I bump into Emily Perkins and she's giving me a baleful look over her latte?' We are all rubbing shoulders with each other. But I genuinely thought the book had flaws.

"As it turned out, Ursula Le Guin gave her a much more more eviscerating review in The Guardian, so I'm sure Emily didn't mind my one."

Pellegrino has complicated feelings towards reviews, like most writers, probably. While she values a robust reviewing culture, she is always mindful of the fact that anyone who has written a book has thrown a part of themselves onto the page, and when you find fault with their work, it feels as though you are finding fault with them as people. 

And then there is the undeniable fact that "serious" reviewers tend to favour literary work, and devalue popular fiction, particularly that written by women.

"People get a bit snooty about books," says Pellegrino, cheerfully. "I think reviewers might be rather overstating their importance in the general scheme of things. They're not writing the actual books. I think the books speak for themselves and criticism is interesting and it should be interesting to read, but really? The books speak for themselves."

Under Italian Skies (Orion Books, $35) by Nicky Pellegrino is out now.

 - Stuff

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