Nicky Pellegrino is a just a few weeks from the deadline for the first draft of her twelfth tome when we meet in a cosy Westmere cafe, the windows wet with condensation as a torrential downpour relentlessly assaults them from outside. It could quite easily be a scene lifted straight from the pages of one of her bestselling novels as we shoot the breeze over a couple of steaming drinks—Nicky, a flat white, and a breakfast tea for me.
One of the nation’s most loved novelists, Nicky’s works are known not only for their fill of ‘food, love and friendships’, but for their ever-evocative Italian settings (though, she does tease that her next offering will something of a creative curveball). The Liverpool-born, half-Italian scribe moved to Auckland in the mid-’90s having met her Kiwi husband-to-be, Carne, at the wedding of a mutual friend, following a brief long-distance romance (“I’m not usually the type to take such wild risks!”). Once here, Nicky rose to the position of editor of Woman’s Weekly, having previously written for similar London magazines. Between writing novels (and gardening and cooking and dog-walking and horse-riding) Nicky also contributes to magazines like The Listener, Canvas and Kia Ora, but Italy remains her most persuasive muse.
“My most vivid memories of childhood are from there because it was just so different,” says the writer. “My family are from Guigliano, just outside Naples—the Neapolitans are your typical shouts-a-lot, cries-a-lot, crazily animated Italians!”
Nicky recalls with a giggle how she and her brothers, all “really tall and pale, with bright red hair”, would attract many an inquisitive stare upon their Italian summer sojourns, “as if we were some strange alien invasion!”. The novelist was conceived in Italy, her English mother having met her Italian dad while he was doing military service in Rome. But her mum didn’t want to have Nicky there, so they headed back to Liverpool; her dad, she adds, missed his country “desperately”. Nicky still has an expansive network of Mediterranean cousins, many of whom, in true Italian style, “still live in close proximity to their mamas”. She visits regularly—often with the excuse of ‘research’.
“Some people tell you that you could write a book by just looking online,” she says, “but you don’t get that experience of the sights and the smells and the noises.”
Her books have now been translated into 12 languages, but, perversely, not Italian.
She admits to having been a shy child, and I wonder if that was what first drew her to writing. Nicky began by writing “really, really bad poetry”, but was later inspired by a teacher.“It was that properly formative thing having a school teacher that recognises that perhaps you possess a some flair at something, then encourages it,” she says. “It’s a good job, because, as it turn out, I’m hopeless at just about everything else. I was actually fired as a waitress for dropping a salad on someone’s head!”
Having completed her English degree, Nicky recalls an interview in pursuit of a career in journalism. It was the industrial north of England in the 1980s, her three middle-aged male interrogators all dressed in stuffy suits.
“I wore an electric blue coast with dangly yellow earrings and they just looked at me with this kind of horror,” she chuckles. “They asked what I wanted to do, and I told them that I wanted to go to London to work in magazines and they told me that talented graduates should stay on regional papers, that that’s where the future is.”
Nevertheless, she headed for the bright lights of the Big Smoke, taking “dogsbody jobs and manning the phones” to get her foot in the publishing world. Writing a book was something she’d always dreamt of, but never got around to doing until, having moved to New Zealand, tragedy forced her hand. Her friend and former broadcaster Angela D’Audney was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2001, aged only 50. Before she passed the following year, D’Audney asked Nicky to help write her autobiography, Angela—A Wonderful Life. It served as a wake-up call for Nicky to begin pursuing her real dream of penning that novel of her own.
“I just though at that point I should just do it, it probably won’t ever get published anyway,” she says. “But it did get picked up which is very unusual as most writers’ first manuscripts are rejected. I was very lucky.”
That debut novel was Delicious.
“I try to write books that are easy to read, but those books are not always the easiest to write,” says Nicky. “It’s a form of escapism. The power of the story is that you can see the world from someone else’s perspective, which is something that we are all struggling with in these times of social media. We’re becoming so much more entrenched, so much more judgemental.”
Her novels, she admits, often reflect her mood. While her previous offerings have been set to sunshine-laden Mediterranean backdrops “that take people on holiday and makes them feel good”, in these uncertain times of Trump and Brexit, her next may take on a darker tone.
Next year, she plans on hosting small group tours around some of her novels’ most iconic sites, “like stepping through the pages of one of my stories!”.
“My husband thinks it’s hilarious, the idea of me being nice to people for whole week,” laughs the author, “but I think that I can do it!”
What a treat it would be for her readers, too.
Nicky’s latest book, A Dream of Italy, published by Hachette, is out now.