Author Nicky Pellegrino laughs when she is asked about her successful writing career.
"The first book (Delicious) only sold about four copies," she says.
"They're re-releasing it because it didn't do very well. But each new book has done a little bit better, which is quite nice, really.
"There are so many writers who have very successful first novels and they must be paralysed by fear in case they can't do it again."
Pellegrino's most recent novel, Recipe For Life, has featured on the New Zealand Bookscan listings every week since its release last year, so Delicious has a way to catch up – but with so many readers having been converted to the cult of Pellegrino, there's every chance it will. The good news for devotees is that she has a new novel out – The Villa Girls – and resumes work on her next book after the promotional tour she is on.
In The Villa Girls, Pellegrino – Auckland-based, English-born, of Italian parentage – returns readers to familiar places, Italy and England, and people.
The Martinelli family took centre stage in Pellegrino's earlier book The Italian Wedding, and forced their way back into the writer's consciousness as supporting characters in The Villa Girls.
"I always knew that I wanted to put Addolorata in it because in The Italian Wedding, even though it was her wedding, she was kind of a side character.
"I liked her and knew I wanted to bring her back, but the rest of the family just sort of muscled their way in, particularly [her father] Beppi. They were irresistible.
"Beppi is based on my father, who is a very typical southern Italian man, very irrepressible, quite controlling but in a loving way, and totally obsessed with food. It's always fun writing about him because it's kind of like writing about my dad."
The Villa Girls is billed as the story of four schoolgirl friends and their pact to vacation together regularly.
However, it quickly becomes the story of the insular, tragedy-haunted Rosie and her nascent relationship with Italian olive oil estate heir Enzo – with the ever-evolving friendship between Rosie and the Martinellis being a strong second suit.
The way The Villa Girls is structured – alternating chapters between Enzo and Rosie – means the reader has a strong signal from the start that their stories will remain entwined until the final page, no matter how far apart they have grown.
Maintaining the reader's attention despite easing on the suspense, set Pellegrino a nice test of her writing skills, one she was always confident of matching.
"To be honest, I never really knew whether they were going to end up together or not.
"I never know completely how a book is going to end: I know how I'm going to structure it, the characters and the places – place is very important to me – but I never 100 per cent know whether people are going to end up together. I write, and the characters find their resolution from there."
It sounds like a romance novel to me.
Pellegrino cavils slightly at the description, and laughs as she tries her best to reclaim the high ground.
"My books in the past have been categorised as romances and I never really thought that they were.
"I thought they were about food and family and friendship and all sorts of other things, as well as love. But I thought no, I'm going to write a love story this time.
"Then I went back through the chapters and thought, `No, this isn't a love story, all that other stuff has wheedled its way in'."
Well, if it is a romance novel, at least it's a romance novel blokes can enjoy as well.
"My husband is my testing ground, because his favourite book is the highway code," Pellegrino smiles.
"I figure if he can keep reading something I've written right to the end then it must be a pretty reasonable page-turner – and he liked it."
The Villa Girls is published by Orion.
The Marlborough Express