Monday, March 29, 2010

Drawing on your own experiences for a novel can be a perilous affair finds Nicky Pellegrino
First published Herald on Sunday, 28 March, 2010

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 in libraries and on the Internet is the path to literary excellence.

I am definitely 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 person who’s irritated me, 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.” In the end though 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 which I’ve visited several times over the years. I did a little town planning to suit my needs and rechristened the place Triento but it remains instantly recognisable to anyone who’s been there. 

For my last novel, The Italian Wedding, it was my parents’ story I mined. I was completely upfront about it, even asking my English mother to write down the story of how she met my Italian father back in 1959. Her 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 with gay abandon.

“How’s my character turning out?” my mother kept asking me. How to tell her that I’d transformed her into a faded, sad, regretful sort of person. “It’s not you really,” I kept reminding her and she’d laugh as though she didn’t believe me at all.

I received the finished version of that book on the eve of my parent’s 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 in the hope they wouldn’t find it until they were safely several thousand miles away.

I knew I was on shaky ground, that other writers had run into serious trouble doing the same sort of thing. When US author Lionel Shriver based a book on her family all hell broke loose. Her brother and parents were incandescent with rage and hurt when they read A Perfectly Good Family and it 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 wise enough to see where the line was drawn between fiction and reality.

 You’d think I might have learnt my lesson after that. But no, in my new novel Recipe For Life I expose my own 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 over 20 years ago, when I was raped at knife-point by a stranger who’d broken into the house. It’s only the first chapter that’s autobiographical really. After that the character of Alice goes off and leads her own rich and varied life, absolutely different to mine. But that very first chapter is word for word what happened to me.

It;s not an experience I’ve spoken about much to friends and family. I’d never even told my parents because I couldn’t bear to upset them. But now I’ve raked over my own life for a novel, all that has had to change.

Very quickly I realized 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 I’ve received 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 as yet it’s too early to know whether I’m going to regret quilting my own life into Recipe For Life.

Recently I’ve started writing 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 they are anyway….

*Nicky Pellegrino will be touring New Zealand talking about her writing. For details of events go to

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