I’m so pleased to welcome Carla Caruso to Behind the Pen, chatting about family, food, and her gorgeous new novel, The Right Place.
What provided the main inspiration point for The Right Place?
Family! Even though the characters are fictional, the plot and setting draw a lot of inspiration from my family background and Italian ancestry.
The novel’s set on a market garden on Adelaide’s busy Marion Road, like where my ad grew up as one of 10 kids! The real-life property was actually sold decades ago, making way for a self-storage facility, but this is me imagining that it still exists.
The nonna character, though, is inspired by my grandma on my mum’s side, and the sandstone villa on the market garden is actually inspired by her place in the east. It’s a place I visited a lot in the school holidays or whenever there was a family occasion to celebrate or Nonna wanted me to take her food shopping!
Like the heroine’s mother, my mum is also a former fashion designer, but she’s a lot nicer in personality.😊 Mum provided me with many of the recipes too, which are weaved throughout the story.
How would you describe The Right Place if you could only use 5 words? Heartfelt, humorous, romantic, ultra-Italian, hunger-inducing!
Fabiana was a favourite character of mine from The Right Place, I simply adored her. Do you have a favourite that you particularly enjoyed writing?
Oh, thank you! I wasn’t sure how people might take Fabiana; if they’d think her a little OTT/cliché ‘Effie’ style! So I’m so glad that you liked her. She was definitely a lot of fun to write; she got all the best one-liners. I also liked playing around with her equally feisty grandma, Rossana, ha.
But I think I had the most fun writing the scenes in which the modern-day hero and heroine, Adrian and Nella, spar. That couple are a little too ‘real’ to me! I’d date Adrian in a heartbeat, if I wasn’t already married… 😉 Probably writing Nella came the most naturally, though—considering I’m also a ‘contemporary’ woman and Italian-Australian!
There was a lot of fascinating info about market gardens woven into the storyline of The Right Place, along with some incredible food aspects, including authentic Italian recipes. How much was research and how much was lived/family experience?
My background’s in print journalism, so I’m not afraid to interview people to capture a profession or life experience as best I can!
For The Right Place, this included interviewing both my parents—hello, Carmela and Rocco!—about their memories growing up. My dad has a lot of funny stories, being raised on a market garden as one of 10 kids, from stealing the keys to the tractor and rolling it in the lettuce crop to trying to build a raft to float down the property’s creek in and secretly tuning into movies at the drive-in theatre over the fence. His story’s probably worthy of a non-fiction book of its own!
For more up-to-date info on market gardening, I also interviewed Lobethal producer Tony Scarfo from Scarfo Organics. He was kind enough to let me visit his property, ask him a bunch of nosy questions, and even film him. He was a natural on camera—little wonder too as he’s previously appeared on the TV show, The Cook and The Chef, cooking fennel with Maggie Beer!
Most of the recipes scattered throughout the novel, as previously mentioned, are courtesy of my mum. My mother cooks by feel rather than by numbers. So, while testing out the dishes, I was always emailing and calling her to make sure the ingredients and methods she’d scribbled down were just right. I’m sure my mum got a little frustrated by the process in the end—I’m the ever-demanding ‘middle child’!—but seeing her recipes in print is the ultimate payoff, right? 😉
Have you ever had to deal with a situation where someone feels they recognise traits of themselves in one of your characters? Harking from an Italian heritage, I’m wondering just how many people you know who might have wandered onto the pages of The Right Place?
I swear the characters are fictional, but of course there are facets of their personalities which are inspired by real life, and sometimes even by my own traits and experiences!
For example, even though the nonna character’s life is inspired by that of my mum’s mother, I didn’t actually picture old ‘Esta’ as my nonna. I just pictured her as ‘Esta’, a fully fleshed-out woman of her own. The fictional characters come alive to me in their own way. They don’t look like any of the people in my life, past or present. It wouldn’t be as fun for me to get inside the head of a real person. I leave that to the non-fiction writers! But there is some ‘flavouring’ from real life in there.
Considering that blurring of fact and fiction, I’m a little worried how people might compare the mum character to my own!
My mum is a former fashion designer, like Nella’s mother, and she is finnicky about her kitchen, ha. But, for example, she never encouraged me to move interstate like Nella’s mum (though I lived in Sydney for three years!), nor has she ever tried to persuade me in a particular career direction.
My mum’s a real giver. She’s the one I turn to whenever I’m in dire straits. Just this weekend gone past, we staged a disco-themed party at our house for my twin sons’ fifth birthday—with about 70 guests!—and Mum came over the week before to help clean my house, and then made some beautiful dishes for us to share at the event too.
So I think I’ll have to keep telling people in interviews that my mum’s much nicer than Nella’s, so readers don’t get the wrong idea, ha!
In the author notes of The Right Place, you mention briefly how you tapped into your family heritage as inspiration. Can you share with us a vivid childhood memory that may have influenced any part of the story?
Most school holidays as a kid, I’d spend some time staying over at my grandparents’ place (on my mum’s side) with my big sister, Natalie—like Nella used to do at her nonna’s in the book!
Recently, I found a diary I kept when I was nine years old, back in 1988 (feel free to do the maths!). Along with us seeming to have a family baptism/wedding/communion to attend every other weekend, there were a lot of diary entries about those holiday times at Nonna’s. The days would often revolve around helping her with household chores in the morning, then enjoying a big lunch and some down-time in the arvo (whether that was doing some cooking or sewing with her, watching the telly or just playing made-up games with my sister or whoever dropped around; often my cousins!) Here’s a diary entry from such a time:
“Today was another day at Nonna’s. While we were picking the almonds, we heard a car drive up the gravel. We were expecting my cousins, Dean and Mark, but it was my mum’s Auntie Mela.
She looked around the house and came in and had some cake and a cup of tea. About in the middle, Dean, Mark, Paul and Auntie Heather came in their red car. [My cousin] Paul was excited to see us again. When Paul and Auntie Heather went, we played ‘mystery games’ and ‘schools’ with Dean and Mark. Later on in the day, Matthew [a neighbour’s kid] came and he played hand tennis with Dean while Natalie watched, and Mark and I played ‘real estate agents’ and ‘Southern Blues bank’. Then we all watched Home and Away!”
How far has your writing career evolved from when you first began to write to what it is today? Is this in line with your initial expectations?
It would have been nice to have been a huge overnight success with my first book, like JK Rowling, ha! And sometimes I’ve been impatient about how long things have taken. But in hindsight, I think I’m exactly where I need to be.
Since first being published by Penguin with Cityglitter, back in 2012, I feel like I’ve done my fiction ‘apprenticeship’. I’ve made mistakes along the way and grown. There are some books I cringe a bit over, because I wrote them when I had ‘baby brain’ and was trying to rush the edits! And on occasion, I’ve also tried following trends, because I thought a certain genre might sell better rather than being true to what I actually like. But it seems to be my way in life—to learn through experiences, to make mistakes, in order to ‘grow’.
Really, I should be celebrating that I’m even published! When I was trying to break in, it felt near impossible. Being published is something I’ve dreamed about since I was about four, seriously! I was always, always writing stories.
Next year, I turn 40 (no need to do the maths now, ha), and it feels like the right time for my fiction career to really take off … now that I’ve got a busy media career, travel and raising babies out of the way!
Are you balancing a different career with your writing? How do you go about making time for your writing within limited hours?
I do a bit of freelance journalism from home, as well. But most of the ‘juggling’ is around looking after my five-year-old twin sons. My husband is a freelance photographer, so his work hours are all over the place and he can be called to a job at the last minute. So I have to try to make use of the time while my boys are at preschool (two-and-a-bit days a week) and daycare (one day). But the preschool days always feel so short, and there’s always some exercise and other ‘life admin’ that needs to be squeezed in too! And then, whenever I feel like I’m hitting my stride in writing, it’s time to pick up the boys again. It’s a constant juggle. But you have to live a life in order to write about one, right? 😊
Another distraction for me is making fashion jewellery. I sell some designs under the label of Carla C (www.instagram.com/carla_c_accessories/) at a few local stores.
Where do you normally write? Is it in the same place every day or are you an all over the place writer?
I write in my home office. I would love to be one of those organised writers who takes their laptop to a café or the library. But then, I also like being able to work in comfy trackies at home, with the fridge nearby, and to be able to go for a jog around the streets in my writing ‘break’.
Not long ago, we changed some of the rooms in our house around, and I had to bid goodbye to my old ‘white and bright’ light-filled office. I now share a space with my (messy) husband, which I don’t like as much, even though it’s bigger. Once I get through a few deadlines, I plan to spruce up the room so it’s more to my liking! Failing that, my library down the road is currently being redeveloped, so when the new glassy space opens next year, I’m sure I’ll be tempted to take my laptop down there! I’ll just have to take my earphones with me if I want to use Word’s ‘Read Aloud’ function during edits…
What book is currently on your bedside table?
The Upside of Over by Aussie screenwriter-turned-author JD Barrett—about a newsreader who winds up becoming the news when a personal video of hers goes viral! It feels like the return of the chick-lit I love. When I was first trying to get published, ‘chick-lit’ was on the out. You couldn’t sell it if you tried, the bubble had burst. I love that it’s now back with a vengeance.
Are you more of a print, e-book, or audio book fan?
I’m old-school. I still prefer print. I’m also always picking up books on reserve at the library. (I reckon libraries are a great way to discover new authors, who you’ll often go on to buy the works of!)
I can totally get lost in an ebook too, though, and forget that I’m reading on a device.
One thing I’m yet to try is audiobooks. I’m not sure my concentration skills are up to it, though I’m a big podcast listener, from the Mamamia ones to true crime.
Where do you draw your inspiration from? How do you fill up that creativity well?
Life! I have so many stories fighting for attention in my head. I’m continually jotting down notes for different stories on my phone (via OneNote) or in a mini notebook, in my handbag, whenever real-life inspiration strikes (or my brain comes up with plot tweaks!).
As a writer, you can feel like a bit of a vulture, frequently stealing inspo from the world around you. But in a recent article, Queensland romance author Barbara Hannay made me feel better when she wrote that: “We writers shamelessly pounce on all sorts of real-life events in search of inspiration, from snippets of conversation at a party to entire news stories. [But] I also know that we writers produce our best, most successful works when we tap into universal emotions.”
Is there any one particular season of the year that you find more creatively inspirational than the others?
My birthday’s in January, so I’ve always been a summer lover! But winter can also be a moody, atmospheric time to set a story in—especially if you’re spinning a tale with a bit of a mystery or need to throw a pair together romantically! Think stranding them in a small hotel on a work trip, when the power’s been cut off amid wild storms…
As an author, it’s probably easiest to write about the season you’re currently experiencing. Describing a 40C heatwave, for instance—while in real life, you’re freezing through winter—requires a lot more imagination. But things can’t always be timed this way; certain stories lend themselves to certain seasons. Which can be when you need to look up YouTube clips for inspo…
The Right Place
Can the past show you the way home? Charming and memorable, The Right Place is an Australian novel, combining warm romance with family drama and the longing to fit in. Perfect for readers who love The Missing Pieces of Us by Fleur McDonald and Josephine Moon.
With her dreams of dominating Melbourne’s fashion scene in tatters, Nella Martini as returned to the last place she wants to be – Torrente Blu, the market garden inherited from her late nonna. She just needs to clean up the property, sell it quickly, and avoid run–ins with her neighbour: surly Adrian Tomaso.
But when Nella comes across her nonna’s cookbook things start to change. The place, with its endless tomato plants and gallons of olive oil in storage, gets under her skin, as does Adrian with his passion for this life. But her dreams have always meant being anywhere but here – haven’t they? Or has the right place been here all this time?
For Esta Feliciano in the 1950s, the right place was her Italian village. But in search of a better life than war–torn Italy has to offer, her husband has moved Esta and their daughter to this alien country, settling on a small, flat piece of land that he calls Torrente Blu. Can Esta come to grips with the harsh Australian sun and strange culture?
Woven with traditional Italian recipes, The Right Place is the heartfelt story of two women’s journeys, as they discover how the right place to call home can be where you make it…
Published by HarperCollins Publishers Australia (HQ Fiction-AU)
Released 20th August 2018