Interview: Nicky Pellegrino

JJ McConnachie

JJ McConnachie is a writer, book and movie lover, and a technology geek.

Nicky Pellegrino, author of When in Rome – a captivating tale of love and music, food and passion - chats to Chelsey about her novel, food, and Italy. She is currently touring to promote When in Rome.

You have a new book coming out called When in Rome. Can you tell us what the novel is about?

It’s set in 1950s Rome, which was the glamorous la dolce vita era, and it’s about quite a naive young girl [called Sarafina] who’s growing up in the poor part of the city, and she’s obsessed with Mario Lanza, the Italian-American Hollywood star and opera singer. Mario was a real person, so I fictionalised him for the novel.

When Mario Lanza comes to Rome to make a movie, Sarafina ends up getting a job as a member of his household. When in Rome is really about what happens to Serafina when she comes into contact with this world of fame. The most interesting thing about that was that fame just hasn’t changed! Even though today’s famous people are more exposed, fame was just as destructive and difficult in the 1950s as it is today.

Food plays a huge part in the novel, to the point where readers actually feel hungry while reading the book!

Yes and it’s a real problem when writing, because I often I write out in the shed in my garden and I know there’s no food in the house and I’m starving and I don’t just want a bit of feta cheese on toast, I want really beautiful Italian food. It’s quite torturous!

I bet it is! Does it make the writing process easier or harder to be deprived of the beautiful food you’re writing about?

Probably easier, because not having the food while I’m writing sharpens the imagination a little bit, whereas if I had the food I’d want to have a nap!

Are you a foodie yourself?

I’m obsessed with food! I could never do Master Chef – I’m not that kind of cook –I do love to cook but I more like to eat it, and not just Italian food. I really love Asian food, and I love going to little odd food stalls.

What’s your favourite meal to cook?

I used to love to cook risotto, but then my husband decided that he couldn’t eat dairy which really ruined it because you need to use loads of butter! Now I like to make curries, and make the pastes up with all those really fresh Asian flavours.

I understand that you were born in Liverpool. When did you move to New Zealand?

My Dad’s Italian and my Mum’s from Liverpool, so I grew up in Liverpool. When I was in my late twenties I met my husband here in New Zealand at a wedding. After a bit of a long distance love affair, in the days before the internet where we had to write letters – very romantic! – I moved over here. And I’ve now been here for seventeen years.

How often do you visit Italy?

Quite often, I was just over there in June. My family are over there so I do try to go back every couple of years.

Did you go back to Rome when writing When in Rome?

I’ve been to Rome a lot and the thing with Rome is that a lot of it just hasn’t changed that much. And I grew up looking at pictures, because my parents met in Rome in the late 1950s. So I didn’t go back to research it but I did watch a lot of movies, especially Roman Holiday.

But when I did go back in June, even though I’d finished the book, I did a Mario Lanza pilgrimage. I went to the hotel that he’d stayed at, and I stood outside the house that they’d lived in which is now the Chinese Embassy! I was waiting for the gates to open and peering in and taking photos so I’m probably on some sort of watch list now!

All of your novels are set primarily in Italy. Would you ever set one somewhere else?

I would but for me I need to set a book in a place that I don’t live. There’s a perspective that distance gives. I do like to se them where I have been however, and other than Italy, lots of my books are set partially in the UK because place is really important to me

Even though the protagonist, Serafina, is fictional, much of your story was taken from fact – it contains real details about Mario Lanza’s life. How did you go about researching him?

I read lots of books and I spent a lot of time watching clips of him on YouTube because he had the most amazing voice. I got quite obsessed and I listened to him in my car, much to my husband’s horror.  The real breakthrough for me was when I managed to track down his only surviving child, Elisa who lives in Los Angeles. She was brilliant and shared quite a lot of information and just talked about what he was like as a father. Obviously Mario had his difficulties – he was very up and down and he used alcohol and food as a crutch, but Elisa also saw him as this adoring father. I was nice to get that balance.

Obviously much of the book is fictionalised – Mario and his family might have been real, but Serafina is a fictional character. How much of the book's events were fictionalised?

Serafina and the chef were fictional, but the nanny’s names were real. I did play with time a little bit – they probably didn’t move into their house as early as I wrote in the novel. Of course there were also things that I didn’t know. I didn’t know what happened on certain days, or what conversations took place.  I think of it as colouring it in, putting the colour between the lines. But I’ve tried to stick as close to the lines as possible.

I tied myself in absolute knots over it trying to get it perfect. I know there are still people out there he still love him and I felt like I owed it to them to get it right. I don’t want to get angry emails from Mario Lanza fans!

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