The Stuff of Life – Laughter, tears and good food

Graham Beattie spoke with Joanne Harris, Nicky Pellegrino and Felicity Price this afternoon at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival. It was a highly entertaining session about their work and ‘the magic and joy that can be hidden in the difficult, mundane stuff of everyday life.’

When Joanne Harris heard the topic, she thought the session was about food! She says that when she was eight or nine she decided she wanted to be a writer but her parents tried to dissuade her as their home library was full of works written by nineteenth century Romantic French Poets who had all ‘died penniless in the gutter from syphilis’. She didn’t let that put her off. She says, as a child of a French mother and an English father, she always felt different and her stories always seem to be about ‘someone who doesn’t fit in in one way or another’.

She wrote a ‘little book’ about life in a French village and her agent and publisher didn’t like it. Her publisher said it wouldn’t sell because it was full of old people and ‘no one in Europe really reads. It’s not a proper market.’ He suggested she set her novel in an American city and include lots of young people and sex. Of course, Chocolat went on to become a word-of-mouth bestseller then an Oscar-nominated movie. The experience taught her ‘no one actually knows anything at all’ and she’s continued to write her way. She is ‘fascinated with small communities and the volatile chemistry there’.

Nicky Pellegrino is also of mixed parentage. Her father is Italian and her mother English. Food has always been one of the things that crops up in her books. She believes ‘food is a way we show people we love them.’

In her most recent novel When in Rome, Nicky Pellegrino steps outside her usual approach to writing and bases the story around the life of tenor Mario Lanza. Although more famous that Frank Sinatra in his day, he’s been virtually forgotten. The author felt compelled to tell his story. She says, ‘the line between real life and your story becomes blurred’ which she sees as the most difficult part of historical writing.

Nicky Pellegrino says her work is often called an ‘easy read’ by critics but she says her whole aim is to ‘make the reader forget they’re reading’. She wants to give them a mini break, take them away from the problems in their lives. Nicky Pellegrino describes her work as ‘not chick lit but not hard work either’.

Felicity Price was adopted as a child. She says wine has more to do with her novels than food. She fell in love with writing when she was at school. ‘I would write poetry, bad poetry, during chemistry lessons,’ she says. When she left school, she went into journalism because it would enable her to write.

Her novels are written from the point of view of women – whether this is as wives of historical New Zealand figures or modern women juggling careers, children, husbands, and aging parents. Her Penny Rushmore novels are semi-autobiographical. They explore issues she was facing at the time such as breast cancer or a parent with Alzheimers. Her most recent book In her Mother’s Shoes looks at the issue of adoption and the impact it has on the birth mother, adoptive mother and child.

Felicity Price says she is ‘an advocate for good old fashioned realism in literature’.

These three authors have different approaches to writing but they all create worlds in which their characters play out our fears, hopes, disappointments and triumphs. They take us out of our own reality for a while. They give us a break, they revive and reassure us, so we can regain the strength to get on with the stuff of our lives.

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