Tuesday, 4 February 2014

"Fiction gave me the freedom to use my imagination!" - the interview with Juliet Grey

Karolina Małkiewicz – the author of the Polish literary blog called I Visit the Universe – talks to Juliet Grey – the author of the trilogy about Marie Antoinette.

Karolina Małkiewicz: You are the author of the book about an unusual woman called Marie Antoinette. Why did you choose just her? What inspired you to write the novel just about her?

Juliet Grey: In the course of researching the royal marriage of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI for a chapter in my nonfiction book Notorious Royal Marriages, written under my real name, Leslie Carroll, I discovered how maligned the pair of them have been and that a lot of what I had originally thought about them was wrong, or skewed by the propaganda that found its way into the history books, repeated over the past two centuries as fact. Marie Antoinette in particular remains condemned as one of history’s most frivolous villainesses, tone-deaf to the plight of her subjects; and for the most part that wasn’t true at all. I felt that her story had to be told; and the best way to do it was in the form of a novel (or three – because the events of her life are too complex to shoehorn into just one novel: one book would barely skim them, covering only “the greatest hits.” So much would have had to be omitted and there would have been scant page time for character development, which was imperative, because Marie Antoinette’s journey was so spectacular. Many of the events of her life were so colorful and incredible that they seem invented by a novelist, which is one reason her story makes such an interesting novel. I have written scenes that sound incredible – but they are totally grounded in fact and based entirely on the historical record!

Fiction also gave me the freedom to use my imagination to fill in the gaps where the historical record closes the door, and to bring emotion to the story, allowing readers to connect to it in a more meaningful way. Yes, Marie Antoinette and Louis were historical figures. But they were not made of stone, clay, or wax. They were living, breathing humans with the same hopes and fears and high-stakes issues (if not higher, given their place in the social hierarchy of France) that everyone faces.

Karolina Małkiewicz: What has caused you the most difficulty in writing the trilogy?

Juliet Grey: In the past, the most difficult part has been to sustain the readers’ excitement from book to book, because readers would finish one book and then want to read the next one right away. But of course, the next one had not been published yet; I was still writing it! In America, the first book was published in August 2011, the second novel in May 2012, and the last novel in the trilogy was just published on September 24, 2013. So now that all three books are published in America, readers can go right from one book to the next. But before that, I was afraid that people who had been excited by Marie Antoinette’s story would forget about her while they were waiting for the next book to come out and the narrative would lose momentum.

Karolina Małkiewicz: Marie Antoinette was – and still is – loved or hated, she is extremely popular all the time. Was it a great challenge to measure up to the legend?

Juliet Grey: Most of what people believe about Marie Antoinette and what they read in history books and textbooks about her is based on the propaganda written during her lifetime and during the French Revolution that was intended to discredit her and destroy her reputation. There is an expression that “history is written by the winners,” and she was one of the 18th century’s biggest losers. But the more I researched her life, the more I discovered the true Marie Antoinette. She was a very good person and very deserving of our sympathy. She had a tremendous number of obstacles to overcome. And she was so young (14!) when she left her homeland forever to become a bride, that it’s hard not to feel sorry for her. Certainly, she does deserve to be popular as a glamorous icon because she set the trends for decades. Her purchases were not of course responsible for bankrupting France! That was pure propaganda. I chose to humanize the legend. She was a flesh-and-blood woman who more than anything wanted to be a mother. She had loves and hopes and fears just like everyone else. It was important for me to present her as a real person and I felt very much the same way about her husband, who history has painted as a clown. Louis XVI was basically a decent man who cared very much for his people.

Karolina Małkiewicz: Do you have some intriguing historical figures? Which ones?

Juliet Grey: Under the pen name Amanda Elyot I wrote about Helen of Troy (although she is largely believed to be mythological, I wrote her “memoirs” as if she were a real person.) And I wrote about two famous Englishwomen of the 18th century: Emma Hamilton, who was the lover of the great naval hero Lord Nelson; and Mary Robinson, an actress who was the first of many mistresses of the Prince of Wales (long before he became King George IV). Mary went on to become a novelist, poet, courtesan, editor, and an early feminist!

Karolina Małkiewicz: If you could go back in time and become any of historical figures, who would it be?

Juliet Grey: I’ve often thought it might be fun to be Nell Gwyn, the fun-loving actress who was the mistress of King Charles II of England. She was a spirited redhead with a big laugh and a wild sense of humor, like me. Plus, the clothing was so gorgeous during the English Restoration. And she had a fulfilling professional career and was a king’s mistress, even though she had to share him with a bunch of other women. But if you asked me the same question next week, I might give you a different answer: I am fascinated by so many different people.

Karolina Małkiewicz: What are your favourite novels and authors?

Juliet Grey: I like authors who have a distinct “voice” to their novels: when you pick them up, you can tell right away that no one else could have written them. I am a big fan of Jane Austen and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. I could read Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, and The Sun Also Rises every year. Some more contemporary authors who are favourites are Hilary Mantel and Sarah Dunant.

Karolina Małkiewicz: Are you working on another novel now?

Juliet Grey: I have a few ideas I am working on right now. I can’t talk about them yet, though.

Karolina Małkiewicz: Have you ever been to Poland? What do you associate with Poland?

Juliet Grey: I have never been in Poland, although (under the name Leslie Carroll) I wrote about Napoleon’s love affair with the great Polish beauty, Countess Marie Walewska, for my nonfiction book Royal Romances. My former in-laws were Polish and they came to the U.S. after WWII. My former mother-in-law was the only one of her family to survive and she spent part of the war being sheltered by an amazing Polish Christian family who took her in, asked no questions, and raised her with their own daughters. I get tears in my eyes thinking how kind and incredibly brave they were. So that is how I associate Poland.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Writing is really the only thing I’m any good at!

The interview with Nicky Pellegrino 
by Agnes A. Rose

Nicky Pellegrino was born in Liverpool. She spent her childhood summers staying with her family in the south of Italy. Now she lives in Auckland (New Zealand) with her husband, two dogs and two horses. She works as a freelance journalist. Her novels are distributed in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. They have been translated into twelve languages. Nicky Pellegrino loves cooking for her friends, drinking red wine, walking on New Zealand’s amazing beaches, riding her horses through the forest and lying in bed reading other writers’ novels.

Agnes A. Rose: In 2013 you published two books called “Caffè Amore” and “The Food of Love Cookery School”. Could you tell me what exactly the novels are about?

Nicky Pellegrino:  In 2013 I published “The Food of Love Cookery School” which is set over eight days on a cooking holiday in Sicily and is about four women from different parts of the world who all find themselves in some way changed by their experiences there. It’s about food, love, friendship and accepting our limits but not being trapped by them.

“Caffè Amore” is actually my first ever novel, originally published under the title “Delicious” and it’s about a young Italian woman who finds herself disgraced and runs away from home; and the way that affects her daughter.

Nicky Pellegrino in Modica (Sicily) where she went to research The Food of Cookery School 

Agnes A. Rose: Italy is a very beautiful country. In your books you describe Italy very precisely. Why do you write about this country only? Do you miss it?

Nicky Pellegrino: I think it’s easier to write about a place you don’t live and work in. It’s as if you can distill the essence of it more easily. I started out writing about my childhood memories of Italy and now I go back there to research the books. I had such a good time in Sicily for “The Food of Love Cookery School” and for my next novel I spent some time in Venice which is an amazing place.

Agnes A. Rose: Most of the authors asked about their writing admit that they wanted to create their fictional histories when they were a child. What about you? Did you dream about writing books when you were a little girl?

Nicky Pellegrino: Writing is really the only thing I’m any good at. When I was a child I loved to read books but I didn’t think people like me became novelists – I’m the daughter of a factory worker. So I became a journalist instead. It was only when I reached my thirties that I realised if you work hard enough the things that seem impossible can sometimes happen.

Agnes A. Rose: Do you remember what you were feeling when your first novel was published?

Nicky Pellegrino: Relief mostly. I had written it in the evenings and on weekends in between my job on a woman’s magazine without knowing if it was any good or if it would ever be published. I imagined I’d feel excited to hold the finished book in my hands but actually I mostly felt grateful, a little bit nervous about what people would think and very relieved that I had managed to achieve my goal.

Agnes A. Rose: You are also a journalist. What makes you more pleasure: writing articles or creating fictional histories and why?

Nicky Pellegrino: I like both. While it’s lovely to disappear into the story I’m creating, interviewing other people and telling their stories can be inspiring and really interesting. Also articles are shorter and much quicker to write so you feel as if you have completed something – a novel takes at least a year.

Agnes A. Rose: I must admit that I associate your books with food. Why does food play a huge part in your novels?

Nicky Pellegrino: To me food is about more than flavour or recipes – it’s a way to show people you love them, bring comfort, celebrate, commiserate and simply be together. I’m not a chef but in my spare time I love trying new dishes and playing with new ingredients and that tends to find its way into the books. Having said that the character I’m writing about at the moment has fallen out of love with food so maybe this novel will be a little different….

Agnes A. Rose: Have you ever thought about writing a cookery book?

Nicky Pellegrino:  Yes, I’d love to. It’s just a matter of having enough time to do something really good. There are lots of cookbooks out there so I don’t see the point of adding another one unless it’s special in some way

Agnes A. Rose: Do you have your favourite meal to cook? If yes, could you give the recipe to your Polish readers?

Nicky Pellegrino:  I think Katia Amore’s chicken with chocolate recipe that is in “The Food of Love Cookery School” because it sounds awful but is completely delicious.

Chicken with chocolate


6 chicken thighs
500 ml Prosecco or white wine
1-2 medium onions
1 tbsp sugar
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
30g grated dark chocolate
2 cloves
3 tsp fennel seeds
4 tbsp white wine vinegar
Chilli (as much as or little as you like)

Preparation: Marinate the chicken in Prosecco overnight. Grind the fennel seeds and the cloves together with the chocolate using a pestle and mortar and set aside. Chop the onion and soften in a large pan with olive oil, then turn the heat up and add the chicken. Keep turning as it fries until evenly golden brown.

Add the mixture of chocolate, fennel seeds and cloves, the sugar, the chilli and stir in with the spoons of vinegar. Lower the heat, cover the pan and let it simmer for 30-40 minutes. If it gets too dry add a splash more Prosecco.

Agnes A. Rose: Are all your characters fictional? Or maybe some of them are real?

Nicky Pellegrino: It’s a bit like making a patchwork quilt – little bits and pieces of people I meet and things they tell me get worked in to the characters but no one is based on any one individual.

Agnes A. Rose: Could you tell me a little bit about doing your research? For example, “When in Rome” is set in the 1950s. Did you go back to Italy while writing this novel?

Nicky Pellegrino: For that one I read a lot about the period and the real person – singer Mario Lanza - who features in the novel. Also I did several interviews and talked to my parents who met in Rome and lived there in the 1950s. I’ve visited the city many times in the past so know the centre fairly well.

For other books I’ve gone and spent time in the place but there’s still lots of reading required to find out everything I need to know. Thank goodness for the Internet. I’m not sure how writers managed without it.

Agnes A. Rose: I am very interested in your average writing day. Do you have your favourite place to write? Do you write every day? Or maybe you create your fictional histories a few days a week?

Nicky Pellegrino: I don't have a routine really as I juggle writing fiction with journalism and it depends on my deadlines. But I write in a studio in my garden which overlooks the neighbour’s swimming pool. This can be torture on a hot summer day! And I try to blank out days for it in my diary as I find I need plenty of uncluttered time to get myself into the story. Often the thinking is just as important as the writing and I do that while I’m walking the dogs, riding, driving, loading the washing machine, sweeping the floor et cetera.

Agnes A. Rose: Is there anyone you most admire in the realm of writing and why?

Nicky Pellegrino: I admire writers like Rose Tremain and Jane Smiley who never repeat themselves – each novel is quite different to the one that went before. I also really like the writing of Kate Atkinson, Audrey Niffenegger and Diane Setterfield. And I’m hugely proud of Eleanor Catton the New Zealand novelist who just won the Man Booker Prize for her epic The Luminaries.

Agnes A. Rose: On your web site I read that you are one of the authors of “The Coffee Shop Book Club”. Could you tell anything about this new collection?

Nicky Pellegrino: It’s to raise funds for Breast Cancer Care and it was very exciting for me to have a story in there alongside work by authors like Ian Rankin, Kate Mosse, JoJo Moyes and Val McDermid.

Agnes A. Rose: What are your working plans for the nearest future? Are you working on your next novel?

Nicky Pellegrino: Yes, I’m writing a novel about happiness and the redemptive powers of tango that’s set in Venice and features a character called Addolorata Martinelli who has appeared in a couple of my other books and I thought deserved one of her own.

Agnes A. Rose: Finally, I would like to ask you for a few words addressed to your Polish readers.

Nicky Pellegrino: I hope my books take you away from the hassle of your everyday lives and make you feel as if you’re in Italy sitting in the middle of a beautiful piazza, tasting the flavours, hearing the sounds and watching all the action going on around you.

Agnes A. Rose: Thank you so much for this interview. On behalf of myself and all the other Polish readers of your novels, I wish you all the best, further success and many more great books in the future. 

If you want to read this interview in Polish, please click here