I am very pleased to welcome Clare Pedrick on the blog today to talk about her writing process and her autobiography, Chickens Eat Pasta.
Clare Pedrick is a British journalist who studied Italian at Cambridge University before becoming a reporter. She went on to work as the Rome correspondent for the Washington Post and as European Editor of an international features agency. She lives in Italy with her husband and children, and she still has the old house in the Umbrian hills where her adventure began.
Can you tell me a little bit about you?
Well the short answer to that request would be that I am an English journalist, living in Italy, in a very pretty hilltown called Spoleto, which is a bit like a mini Florence and is about an hour and a half’s drive north of Rome. But I suppose the interesting thing is how I came to be here in the first place, and that’s what forms the core of my book Chickens Eat Pasta. None of this was planned. It all happened on a whim really, though that makes me sound rather spoilt and capricious, which is certainly not the case. On the contrary, my adventure was rather a gruelling one and was the result of quite a few knocks I’d taken earlier in my life. My parents had died quite young, I had been badly affected by a broken love affair, and I felt very miserable and alone. And at the time all this started, it was sheeting with rain in Brighton where I lived, with day after day of torrential downpours, just to make matters even more bleak. Then one Sunday morning I saw a newspaper advertisement for an old house in Umbria, and a video of chickens eating spaghetti in a tiny mediaeval village. I was intrigued. Three days later I was on a plane to Rome. And I bought what was in effect a tumbledown old ruin in the Umbrian hills, right there on the spot. I was only 26 and all by myself, so it was rather a crazy thing to do and if could have all gone horribly wrong. But although it certainly wasn’t easy, getting the house restored and finding my way in a very remote part of rural Italy, somehow my rash decision paid off. The book is the story of how I came to buy the old house, and all that it led to. And without giving the game away and spoiling the story, it did lead to some really massive changes – and not just to my own life.
What made you decide to write an autobiography?
That was partly because the story was just crying out to be written. It’s far more than just a foreigner-buys-house-in-southern-Europe kind of book, of the style that’s already been done to death – although I can quite see that at first glance, that’s what it might seem. As we all know, the publishing world has this rather infuriating habit of pigeon-holing books, so you have to choose a category – or they’ll do it for you – and my book is usually classified as an autobiography or memoir. To be honest, I don’t think either of those really reflects what this book is all about. Autobiography sounds so pompous, as though you’re a head of state of an Olympic sportswoman. And memoir sounds like someone rambling on about their own experiences, to the exclusion of everyone else. Chickens Eat Pasta actually reads far more like a novel, and that was a deliberate choice on my part. I’m not saying it’s a page turner, but as many readers have told me, you do definitely find yourself caught up in the story, and there is quite an element of suspense throughout. A recent American reviewer described how she was slightly reluctant to read the book, but was drawn in by the title. “I knew it was a memoir and, despite memoirs not really being my thing, I had to read this one,” she said. I think she hit the nail on the head when she added: “I’d personally label it autobiography, memoir, and travel journal.” In my opinion, she could have added romance or love story. Because that soon becomes a very important, and I think compelling part of the book.
Writing a love story is an unusual take on an autobiography.
That’s really because things just happened that way. When I first started writing the book, soon after I bought the old house, it was more or less a straightforward account of all my trials and tribulations moving to a different country and culture, together with a portrait of some of the quite extraordinary characters who I met along the way, a number of whom have become lifelong friends. Having any kind of romantic relationship was the very last thing on my mind. Remember I was still feeling very bruised from a broken love affair back in England. But then, as often happens in life, events took over, and the tale did indeed turn into a love story. Not an easy one, I might add, but an all-consuming love affair, that was definitely going to be life-changing, whichever way it worked out. As I said, I don’t want to give any spoilers, but there’s a strong element of will-they-won’t they throughout much of the book. And that’s not just being artful on my part. It really was like that in real life, and I know that many readers have very much enjoyed living through the saga, and finding out what happens.
Where and when do you write?
I write every day of my life, as I’m a journalist, although of course that’s a very different style of writing. I work from home – though I also travel quite a bit – so much of my writing is done in my study in the lovely 16th century palazzo where we live most of the year, right in the heart of Spoleto. It’s just around the corner from the Duomo, a very beautiful cathedral which I can almost see from my window. Going in the other direction, our apartment is a stone’s throw from the old Roman forum, which is now called Piazza del Mercato – Market Square – and is a very lively hub, full of bars, trattorias and delicatessens, selling olive oil and truffles and all the other things that make living in Italy such a very great pleasure. The book itself was written in various places – some of it here in Spoleto, and quite a bit of it in the old house in the hills that forms the backdrop to the story. The house has of course been renovated, so it is far more civilised these days, with a roof and running water and central heating, which you certainly need in the winter as it can get very cold here. It’s only a twenty-minute drive from Spoleto to the little village where my house is, so I go there very often, and we spend a couple of months there in the summer to get away from the heat. It’s the most extraordinarily beautiful place, in the foothills of the Apennine mountains with hills and valleys rolling in every direction. And the house itself still has a very powerful hold on me. The minute I step over the threshold I feel better and happier in every way, just as I did that very first time I saw it.
Do you read biographies / autobiographies yourself?
To be honest, I don’t read that many biographies or autobiographies. Like that American reviewer, it’s a genre that has never really attracted me, though I do love travelogues that conjure up a picture of a place or a journey, and the scenes, people and cultures along the way.
What’s your favourite genre?
I very much enjoy books that are set against a historical background, but which tell the story through a fictional, or fictionalised account, or at least integrate historical characters into a story. Robert Harris is a master at this skill, and I hugely enjoyed Pompei, which really brings to life the events of AD 79 and the terrible day that Vesuvius erupted. Simon Sebag Montefiore is also very good at this. For example, I loved his One Night in Winter, which is set it in the last decade of Stalin’s rule, and another great book by him was the wonderful Sashenka, which is a totally gripping story, again with the backdrop of Stalin’s reign of terror.
Who are your author heroes?
As I said, I very much enjoy travelogues, and I suppose it’s no coincidence that one of my very favourite authors in the genre has written extensively about Italy. That’s H.V. Morton, and although his style might be old-fashioned to some, I love his careful, clever and often humorous observations as he travels throughout Italy and encounters the people who live there. He may have been writing in what now seems like a different age – in the 1950s and 1960s – but his observations are still spot on. Look at this description of the Tuscan countryside, which has to be the most perfectly manicured landscape anywhere in the world. Tuscany, he says: “is embroidered everywhere by human living, and there is scarcely a hill, a stream, a grove of trees, without its story of God, of love or death.” Isn’t that just wonderful?
Thank you, Clare, for joining us today.
Chickens Eat Pasta is available to buy here.
Chickens Eat Pasta
Clare Pedrick was just 26 years old when she decided to buy a beautiful old ruin in Umbria on a whim after spotting a newspaper advert one rainy Sunday morning. She was entirely alone when she embarked on her adventure, which eventually led to a love affair with a man who is now her husband.
Unlike some other recent bestsellers, this is not simply an account of a foreigner’s move to Italy, but a love story written from the unusual perspective of both within and outside of the story. As events unfold, the strong storyline carries with it a rich portrayal of Italian life from the inside, with a supporting cast of memorable characters. Along the way, the book explores and captures the warmth and colour of Italy, as well as some of the cultural differences – between England and Italy, but also between regional Italian lifestyles and behaviour. It is a story with a happy ending. The author and her husband are still married, with three children, who love the old house on the hill (now much restored) almost as much as she does.