Risky business

By Nicky Pellegrino

Nicky Pellegrino. Photo / Jackie Meiring
Nicky Pellegrino. Photo / Jackie Meiring

There are authors who believe it's lazy to base a work of fiction on their own experiences. They think of it as cheating. For them, hours of research is the path to literary excellence.

I am not one of those authors. Often I think of writing a novel as a little like quilting. I stitch together a couple of memories with a place I know well, a thing someone once said - and at the end of it I have a story.

Nothing and no one has been safe. I killed off my own husband (well, a version of him) in one novel, quoted my mother-in-law in another. I'm like a trawler, fishing around in everyday life for things to inspire me.

There are perils to this of course. The possibilities for offence and upset are legion. There are a couple of old friends I've returned to time and again for characteristics to colour my stories. One of them runs a drinking club in London's Soho that's frequented by literary types. When I confessed to having stolen a part of her life for my first novel, Delicious, she sighed and said, "Oh, not you as well."

The only thing she truly objected to was that her character likes to drink chocolate martinis, a cocktail she condemned as being "for silly girls".

Places are important to me: my Italian aunt's kitchen in the scrubby countryside of Campania features in more than one novel, as does the historic town of Maratea in Basilicata. For my last novel, The Italian Wedding, it was my parents' story I mined. My mother's memories of hitchhiking from Liverpool to Rome and coming back with a husband formed the soffritto of the book, the all-important base that gave it its flavour. But I shaped their story to suit myself, changing details and personalities.

"How's my character turning out?" my mother kept asking. How to tell her that I'd transformed her into a faded, sad, regretful sort of person? "It's not you really," I kept saying.

I received the finished version of that book on the eve of my parents' last visit to New Zealand. I couldn't decide whether to give it to them when they arrived or hide it in their suitcase just before they left hoping they wouldn't find it until they were miles away.

When US author Lionel Shriver based a book on her family - A Perfectly Good Family - her brother and parents were incandescent with rage and hurt and the book caused a bitter and long-lasting rift between them. "Anyone considering writing fiction or a memoir that brushes even slightly against real-life family should take heed: think twice," Shriver warned afterwards.

Thankfully, the Pellegrino family survived The Italian Wedding. It was an affectionate story after all and my parents were wise enough to see where the line was drawn between fiction and reality. You'd think I might have learned my lesson. But no, in my new novel, Recipe For Life (Orion, $38.99), I expose my private life. I didn't set out to do so. I'd wanted my story to be about a young woman - pushed off course by a single event - who ends up leading entirely the wrong life. Somehow I found myself writing about my own experience of more than 20 years ago, when I was raped at knife-point by a stranger who'd broken into the house. Only the first chapter is autobiographical. After that, the character Alice goes off and leads her own rich and varied life, absolutely different from mine. But that first chapter is word for word what happened to me. I've not spoken much about the experience to friends and family. I'd never told my parents because I couldn't bear to upset them. But now I've raked over my life for a novel, all that has had to change. I couldn't lie. People would ask if I'd done research with survivors of rape. I hadn't, of course. This was my experience, not a universal one. So I've had to talk about it and I'm finding that extremely uncomfortable. I've written articles for a UK magazine and for this week's New Zealand Woman's Weekly.

The feedback so far has been positive. One reader told me her mother had been attacked at a similar age and my story helped her understand things a little better. That was gratifying. But it's too early to know whether I'm going to regret quilting my own life into Recipe For Life. I've started another novel and, just as it will say on the flyleaf, all characters are fictitious and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Well, so far anyway ...

Nicky Pellegrino will tour New Zealand talking about her writing. For details go to www.hachette.co.nz

- Herald on Sunday

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