Family love story sparks novel

Author Nicky Pellagrino (top) and her latest novel, <i>The Italian Wedding</i>.
Author Nicky Pellagrino (top) and her latest novel, <i>The Italian Wedding</i>.

Auckland author Nicky Pellegrino talks to KATE MONAHAN about the background to her third book, a fictional tale about love, food and family.

They say everyone has a novel in them, and New Zealand writer and editor Nicky Pellegrino has several stories to tell.

The former New Zealand Woman's Weekly editor and Herald on Sunday books page editor has just released her third fiction novel, The Italian Wedding, and it's a distinctly personal tale.

It's loosely based on the real-life story of her parents, her Italian father and English mother, who met in Rome and fell in love.

"In the late 1960s my mum and her two girlfriends chucked in their jobs (in England) and hitch-hiked to Rome and lived there," Pellegrino says.

The novel is centred on the character of Pieta Martinelli, a bridal designer living at home with her parents. As she makes her sister's wedding gown, Pieta is distracted by questions about her family, including her father Beppi's feud with another Italian man in the neighbourhood. And why her mother Caterina is so faded and sad. Pieta starts to unravel her parents' story, with much of it told in flashback through Caterina's eyes.

Pellegrino says her novel is an "immigrant story".

"You are half one thing and half the other, and never quite fit in," she says.

Food and feasting are also key to the Italian experience, and recipes pepper the book.

"All Italians are completely obsessed with food," Pellegrino says. "It's an Italian tradition to love food."

It's a tradition her father, from Guigliano in Campania, just outside Naples, passed down. "My father moved to the north of England at 25. He'd never cooked in his life."

Homesick for Italian food, he began cooking and sought out then "exotic" vegetables such as red pepper and eggplant.

"He started experimenting with recipes," Pellegrino says, who recalls her father's delicious pasta sauces. "He was `Mr Mum' when I was in my early teens. All of (character) Beppi's recipes in the book are from my dad."

Pellegrino loves to cook, and risotto and lasagne are favourites. She is also a fan of fresh buffalo mozzarella. "I'd love to be a size 10 but I love to eat and don't want to miss out," she says, laughing.

Like her parents and the characters in her book, Pellegrino is an immigrant.

Fourteen years ago, the English rose from Wallasey, Liverpool, moved to New Zealand.

She worked at the New Zealand Woman's Weekly as deputy editor under Sarah-Kate Lynch, who not only got her a job, but introduced Pellegrino to her future husband, a Kiwi.

After a 10-year stint at the magazine, including two years as editor, Pellegrino decided to write fiction. "Like many journalists, I always wanted to write a novel one day, but there was no time."

Then, in 2001, former television broadcaster Angela D'Audney was diagnosed with a brain tumour. A good friend and regular interview subject, D'Audney asked Pellegrino to help her write an autobiography, Angela A Wonderful Life.

It was a life-changing experience for Pellegrino. "I had an 'oh my God' moment. She was only 50 and had a terminal illness. I went to her and started writing. It was the hardest thing I'd ever done, and she was so ill. Every time I saw her she had lost another ability and I'd cry all the way home, sobbing in my car. By the time I got back to writing my own (fiction) book, it seemed so much easier."

Angela — A Wonderful Life was a best-seller, and D'Audney died in February 2002.

Pellegrino, motivated to seize the moment, started writing fiction, and has since published three books Delicious, The Gypsy Tearoom and The Italian Wedding.

Between them, the novels have been translated into eight languages.

"They are about universal themes, about trying to find a way to be happy," Pellegrino says. "I like a book that takes me completely away from my day. Everything now is about doom and gloom and it's nice to read a book and escape reality. We all need a little treat."

Some of her favourites include The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfiel, The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and books by Irish author Maeve Binchy.

Pellegrino says books can take a long time to write, but sets goals. "If you write 2000 words a week, and a novel is 100,000 words, then you can complete that in a year."

Pellegrino did three drafts of The Italian Wedding. "I don't take criticism well, but (editing) always helps."

The perfectionist wasn't completely happy with her first two novels, but loves her third. "It's quite a lovely book, and I think maybe it's because it's my parents' story I feel that way." — Fairfax

» The Italian Wedding by Nicky Pellegrino, RRP: $38.99. Published by Orion