In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Pip several times through the South Australia Writer’s Centre in Adelaide, where we both live. A few years ago, I heard Pip tell the story of her journey and her attempts to write about it. I couldn’t wait for it to be published, and to read it! Her story surpassed all my expectations. Read my review here, and enjoy this interview with Pip.

  1. How long did it take you to write this book, and what was your writing process?

I began to write One Italian Summer about six months after returning to Australia. I missed Italy, and I wanted to understand what the journey had meant for me, and for my family. It was not, in the end, just a unique travel experience requiring a bit of hard work and child management. We were disappointed, not by Italy, but by the promise of the good life; by the River Cottage and the Gourmet Farmer and the Saturday paper inserts. We’d had a life experience that tested our notions of how we wanted to live. It was unsettling.

My writing ‘process’ was a bit haphazard. Writing time had to compete with a part-time job, two children, a few farm animals and fruit from our small orchard, which was in constant need of preserving. Writing was allocated to school hours on the two days I wasn’t working. Throw in a load of washing, a trip to the shops and coffee with a friend and ‘writing time’ was an ever-shrinking commodity. It took me about eighteen months to write the first draft, another year to write a better draft with support from a writing mentor (an experience I highly recommend), and another year of tinkering and cutting and putting things back in, every time I sent it out to be rejected by a publisher. Then one day it wasn’t rejected.

Even then, the writing wasn’t done. I had a wonderful editor at Affirm Press, Ruby Ashby-orr, who made excellent suggestions that required weeks of work, but the end result is exactly what I was aiming for, and I feel very proud, and humbled, to stand beside it.

one italian summer cover

  1. Did you write from the notes you took while in Italy, or have another trick for remembering and using the details of your journey?

One Italian Summer started as a series of carefully crafted emails to friends and family. I wasn’t thinking of a book when I wrote them, but I wanted them to be more than an account of our travels. I wanted them to be evocative and thought provoking and, above all, enjoyable. Because I wrote these emails to a generic ‘reader’, I think they had a tone that translated quite well into a book. There are some sections in One Italian Summer that have barely changed from the original emails.

I also used photographs as a memory prompt, and they were invaluable when trying to capture the detail of a scene. And I referred to journal entries and random scribbles in the small notebook I carry wherever I go. Unlike my journal, in which I would diligently and neatly record the general shape of our days, the pages of this notebook were a mess of unrelated things: shopping lists; train times; descriptions of things that strike me as beautiful or odd; snippets of conversation that have amused or disturbed; the imagined lives of people I see on trains. These morsels invariably add depth and insight to the more organised thoughts of my journal because they have been captured in full flight, with all the emotion still intact.

  1. Why did you decide to write in the present tense?

It’s such a cliché, but writing this book felt like a journey. I wasn’t just remembering, I was travelling in real time – from Adelaide to Rome, from Tuscany to Calabria, from Lucca to Bologna. Of course, there was a familiarity whenever I arrived somewhere, but I saw it all from a slightly different perspective. I wrote it in the present tense because the emotional story was revealed, even to me, only as I wrote. It lay there, between the lines of my notebooks and beneath the gloss of all our photos. But it wasn’t until the darkness of return (a depression that dogs so many long-term travellers, I’m sure) that I had the acuity to see what the original journey had meant, and what I had learned. That all happened as I wrote, and so it made sense to write in the present tense.

I think writing in the present tense (and in first person) also creates more room for a reader to travel alongside the main character (even when that main character is the writer). The story is immediate and unfolding for both. They arrive at the emotional truth of the story together. Sometimes, if enough subconscious clues have been laid, the reader can anticipate what is yet to be revealed to the main character. As a reader, I find this enormously satisfying.

  1. Deciding to take your family WWOOFing was a big step, but you don’t spend a lot of time weighing the decision on the page, or your process of planning you and your family’s time in Italy. What was involved in that choice not to write extensively about the decision and the planning?

When I started to write this book I thought I was writing about WWOOFing, and I thought that if it got published my book would appeal to other people wanting a similar travel experience. My first draft goes into some detail about what WWOOFing is, why we wanted to do it, how we went about joining the WWOOF association and the process of contacting farmers and arranging our stays – these are not the elements of a story, they are headings on a website.

By the time I had finished the first draft of the book I finally understood that the story I wanted to tell didn’t live in the planning, and so I left most of it out. What was important, and far more interesting, was the dream that sent us on our journey – a dream of the good life – and the reality we arrived at.

The decision to quit our jobs and take the kids out of school to work on organic farms in Italy was indeed a big decision. But it came after many other decisions, big and small. While it was possible to write a chronology of what led to us becoming WWOOFers, it felt more comfortable to reflect on these details only when the story called for it. I think this mirrors the reality of life – we often only see the importance of an event in retrospect, when something calls it to mind and lends it significance.

By the final draft, it was clear that WWOOFing was the vehicle for our journey, but the real story lay in what happened between dream and reality – between beginning and end – and how we reacted to it.

  1. How did you decide upon the structure of your book? I’m mainly thinking about the inclusion of not only your WWOOFing experiences, but also your interludes between WWOOFing stints as a tourist in various locations in Italy. What made you decide to include these shorter chapters (which I loved), even though they weren’t about the central experience the book is premised on?

In many ways, the structure of the book was determined for me – I simply followed our itinerary! But of course, it wasn’t quite that simple.

At its heart, One Italian Summer is about a journey from dream to reality, and the compromises that need to be made along the way. Italy isn’t the reason for the story, but it is the canvas on which the story is written. In this sense, Italy gives the story a particular flavour and casts it in a certain light.

When this book was accepted for publication there was the inevitable discussion of word count – it was a bit too long. This led to a discussion about structure, which led to a suggestion that perhaps I could cut some of the ‘tourist’ chapters. No, I thought. The Amalfi Coast, Matera, Lucca, Venice – these places allowed us to rest between farms, and I was sure the rhythm of work and play would be welcomed by a reader as much as it was welcomed by my family.

But how do they contribute to the story? My editor asked.

A good question. Better writers than me have described the beauty of Venice. What could possibly justify its inclusion in my book? Answering this question was the hardest and most rewarding part of the editing process. It encouraged me to look beyond the familiar sights and seek out what only I could see. These chapters became mirrors to my soul. The story I was telling washed up in fragments on the shore of a Calabrian beach, I heard it whispered in the hush of an ancient church in Lucca, and saw its shadow as I looked into a Venetian canal. Our experiences in these places had always been important to the story, but until I’d been asked to justify them, I hadn’t fully realised their potential.

  1. We so often read travel memoirs about a single woman or man encountering a new culture and discovering something about themselves. In your memoir, you are obviously not alone, but have three others with you, who depend on you and who you depend upon. What were the challenges and advantages of writing about a family trip as opposed to the more familiar singular journey?

One of my favourite travel writers is Pico Iyer. According to him, ‘We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.’ I have been travelling since I was seventeen. In my experience, it is much easier to lose yourself (and subsequently find yourself) if you are alone. When we travel alone, we are unencumbered by others’ expectations. We can go where we please, eat what we like, make friends with the unlikeliest people and be whoever we want to be. We are set adrift and it can be exhilarating or terrifying, but when we come to shore it is under our own steam and into a harbour of our choosing.

Losing yourself is difficult when you travel with people you love. You are tethered to them; to their expectations of you, to their idea of you. You have to find yourself in the strangeness of everything else around you, in the rare moments you are alone, and in your imagination. But more importantly, you have to find yourself in relation to them. That is the challenge and the advantage. If it can’t be done, your travels and your story may not end happily.

  1. You often wrote about your fantasies of being alone on your Italian adventure, and how the trip would be different, and often better, if that were the case, as well as your very fleeting attractions to other men while travelling. These are all thoughts I can totally relate to! But I wonder how you felt about adding these sincere but potentially fraught thoughts and feelings? Did you worry about your partner’s or children’s reactions? 

I’m so glad you can relate to it! Italy is a beautiful and romantic place, I can’t imagine how anyone could travel through it without falling in love once or twice. But since the book came out this question has come up quite a bit. For a while I thought my mind must stray more than most. But I don’t think it does. It’s just that our inner thoughts usually stay put. Because I was writing memoir, and because that memoir explored my own emotional journey, I had to be honest in how I wrote or it would come out censored and bland. I couldn’t turn that honesty on and off, and so the frivolous fantasy found room on the page with the more serious contemplation. I think it is just a measure of my relationship with Shannon that I felt completely comfortable writing it, and he felt completely comfortable reading it.

The boys, on the other hand, might not be so comfortable, but as they’ve only read the sections they appear in (they had the final say on what was included) I am yet to see their blushing faces.

  1. Can you describe your publishing journey?

I’m going to start at the end because it still gives me goosebumps to recall it. My manuscript was picked up off the slush pile at Affirm press! It was like winning the lottery, especially since I had decided I would stop trying traditional publishers and think about self-publishing, or maybe just printing a few copies for posterity.

I’m not sure how many publishers I sent my manuscript too. Because I don’t have an agent, I was limited to publishers who accepted unsolicited manuscripts. Many never replied, a couple sent rejection emails with no comment, two asked to read a couple of chapters, and although they liked it they didn’t think it would fit their list. Then three publishers asked to read the full manuscript within a week of each other. It was dizzying, and two weeks later I had signed a contract with Affirm Press.

My experience at Affirm has been wonderful. The editorial support has been superb and I know the book that is in bookshops is far better than the manuscript they accepted. In every aspect of the publishing process, from cover design to marketing and promotion, they have been respectful and supportive – I have loved every minute of the whole process, and I hope I get to do it all over again.

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