Twelve Questions: Nicky Pellegrino

Nicky Pellegrino is a novelist and former magazine editor who moved to New Zealand for love. Her books on Italy, friends, food and relationships have been translated into 12 languages.

Nicky Pellegrino says she was bullied because of her height but "you shouldn't pick on the tall girl, she'll give you a wallop''. Photo / Chris Gorman
Nicky Pellegrino says she was bullied because of her height but "you shouldn't pick on the tall girl, she'll give you a wallop''. Photo / Chris Gorman

1. Are Italians really different, and if so, how?

My father's family come from near Naples and yes, they're different. They're bigger, louder, more colourful. Their emotions are closer to the surface. I remember years ago being on a beach and one of my cousins grabbed a knife and went and waved it at the pedalo man who had said something to offend him. There was a bit of a fracas and lots of yelling then suddenly it was over and we were all back swimming and sunbathing as if nothing had happened. That was very Neapolitan.

2.Describe your childhood.

My two younger brothers and I grew up in a little bungalow on Merseyside in the northwest of England. My dad was a factory worker and those were the Thatcher years so tough times for manufacturing. He was made redundant several times and there wasn't a lot of money to spare. Nevertheless in the summers we'd pack the Morris 1100 and drive to Italy to stay with one of my aunts, sleeping on camp beds in her tiny apartment. A lot of my most vivid childhood memories are of those trips, particularly the food my Italian aunts made.

3.What were your first few months in New Zealand like?

Pretty lonely to begin with. I moved here to be with [husband] Carne [Bidwill] who I hadn't spent a lot of time with. I'd met him at a wedding, then come back to New Zealand for a week a year later and we'd also holidayed for about five weeks together. It was a long-distance romance without all the Facebook and texting you'd do now. We'd write and phone but in fact we barely knew each other. If someone told me now that's what they were planning to do I'd think they were mad. I did get off the plane and think 'oh no, what have I done'. I was practically begging the Customs officer to search my suitcases and delay the moment. But we're still together and I'm still here so I guess it worked out.

4.How has your height affected your personality?

I'm 6ft 1in (1.85 metres) and was a giantess right through my childhood. It marked me as being different which you don't want to be as a child. Kids can be very cruel and there was a lot of teasing and some bullying. But bullies are stupid - you shouldn't pick on the tall girl, she'll give you a wallop. I guess it turned me into a person who's prepared to fight her corner. These days I'm likely to forget my height. Until I see myself in photographs, or stand next to someone really tiny.

5.What does Chick Lit mean to you?

I hate the term. To me it denigrates fiction written by women for women. It makes it sound like fluffy sex and shopping novels.

6.Did you ever want to have children?

I had a couple of fleeting moments when I was holding someone else's newborn and got that huge hormonal rush. Aside from that it wasn't ever a driving force for me. My big thing was worrying that I might regret my choice but that's a bad reason to do something. Then there are the realities of having a child and still having to work. I would have struggled with that. And I don't think if I had I would have written the books.

7.You're a horse and dog lover: are animal people different to the rest of us?

When I was a little girl I dreamed I'd be a writer and I dreamed I'd have a horse. But I didn't know any writers and didn't know it could be a career choice so I became a journalist instead. The first poem I wrote was called I Wish I had a Pony but we lived in an urban environment and didn't have the money for that. I got my first horse when I came to New Zealand and it's been very character-building. Some people have a natural aptitude for it, but I don't and you can struggle for a long time to make only a very little progress. It's a bit like writing.

8.How have you dealt with trauma in your life?

I'm guessing you're referring to my having been raped when I was 21 by a man who broke into the student flat where I was living in the north of England. I spoke out about this a few years ago because I'd used the experience in the book, Recipe For Life, and I didn't want anyone to think I was treating the subject lightly. Recipe For Life isn't an in-depth book on the subject, like, say, Alice Sebold's Lucky. It's about the aftermath, how a life can be pushed off course and how it's possible to change and find your way back to where you want to be. How did I cope? Just like the character, Alice, I ran away to London, made a new life, met new people and tried to pretend it hadn't happened.

9.Does an experience like that shape the rest of your life?

No. I think it affects you but I believe we have the power to shape our own lives to a degree. You don't have to let something like that destroy you. The only way it shaped my life is I have never lived alone. For a long time I was quite scared at night. I didn't tell my family about it until I told everyone when the book came out. Their pain would have made it harder for me. I couldn't have coped with how upset they would be.

10.Have you ever doubted your abilities?

Hell yes, every day. I never embark on a novel feeling confident I'm going to be able to finish it, never mind make it good. I'm writing my eighth novel at the moment and find each one more difficult than the last. But self-doubt is an essential part of the process. It's not much fun but it keeps you sharp.

11.You write about love all the time: does your own life live up to the hype?

I hope I don't write about it as if it's some golden shining perfect thing. Life is complicated and messy, so is love. My husband and I have been together for 20 years. We fight, we misunderstand each other, he annoys me, I imagine I irritate him ... he's still the best person I know, though.

12.What really is the food of love?

Risotto, because it's creamy and delicious plus simple to eat. Noodle soups are not the food of love.

Nicky Pellegrino's A Tase Of Italy lunch at Toto Restaurant on May 16 is part of the Auckland Writers Festival.

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- NZ Herald

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