With Covid19 hastening the demise of print media (in this country but also across the world) as we know it, journalist Hilary Prendini Toffoli knew she had to reinvent herself – and she has, in most intriguing fashion. DIANE DE BEER chats to the veteran journalist about her first novel Loves & Miracles of Pistola (Penguin):
“I worked on Pistola on and off for several years when I was a journalist, but it was only when the media industry was really crumbling that I decided to reinvent myself and complete the novel,” explains Hilary Prendini Toffoli (Penguin).
Yet it is something that started even before her journalism career. She had her first short story published in what was then The Cape Argus when she was about 20, a BA student at UCT. Later she joined The Argus and became the company’s first female sub-editor.
Then she moved to Joburg and ran the Star Woman with Sue Grant Marshall (another journalist turned author) doing the Woman’s Page.
Where I became hooked on her writing was during her time as a journalist for Style (remember them?) from 1983 to 2006 covering everything “from social and political satire and profiles (21 eligible bachelors in one story), to features about high profile local murders and rapes, as well as writing edgy short stories.”
Then she went freelance doing features and columns for a wide variety of publications including Noseweek, Insig, Financial Mail, City Press, Business Day, House&Leisure etc.
For her the move from journalism wasn’t difficult. “Over the years I’d written a few terrible unpublished novels, both here and overseas in my twenties, living in Spain, France, England and Japan, trying to find myself, that old cliché enacted out by a lot of us those days.”
What also came into play were all these interesting characters she’s interviewed over the years which gave her a helluva lot of material. “I think much of it went into the subconscious, to come spilling out when I write. So the process of writing fiction is not for me a case of ‘Open a vein and bleed’ as someone once described it. My MO is more on the lines of what Stephen King says. ‘Put interesting characters in interesting situations and see what happens.’”
She does however make it sound easier than it is. Not all journalists have books in them even though it is also about writing, it is something completely different. Yet those familiar with her work will not be surprised. Hilary’s interviews were special. She had an acerbic eye but was never unkind – funny yes, and capturing the zeitgeist of her time, absolutely. And she never took life – or herself – too seriously.
She is right when she notes in our correspondence that Love & Miracles of Pistola came at the right time. “In these tricky Covid times the book’s nostalgic flavour has given a lift to readers. Plus they love the food angle because they’re all cooking more than ever before. And they love Pistola because he had his own battles and survived,” she reports.
The characters of Pistola and his grandfather Nonno Mario first popped into her mind during the long stretches of an Eastern Cape road trip. “I’d wanted to write about the life of my husband Emilio who grew up in a post-war Northern Italian village in the fertile Po Valley with pigs as big as small Fiats, and where people have survived in spite of the battles that have raged for centuries over these maize and rice fields. This was a way to do it.”
But for local readers especially, it’s more than just looking back. It’s also the diversity of our people – always a South African strength – that captures the reader’s imagination. We’re all lovers of Italian food (and that isn’t an exaggeration), and this is a story which gives us insight into some of the roots of all that glorious Italian food … today still.
Hilary explains: “At first the story revolved around food and its importance in this place where the daily greeting is “So have you had a good meal?” Then I remembered the piece I’d written for Style magazine on the young Italians brought to South Africa in the fifties as train stewards by the Nationalist Government. I’d got great anecdotes from several who were still here running restaurants.
“So I put Pistola into this story and it really worked. I could show that repressive political era through the eyes of these naive young foreigners, most of them in their teens, with Pistola going to places like Sophiatown and the Malay Quarter. For an Italian village boy, South Africa’s increasingly racist laws were a challenge, but also a journey of self-discovery – Pistola’s miracles.”
And she says it herself: “What makes the story particularly interesting for South Africans is the fact that many of those Italians then stayed on and opened restaurants all over the country, introducing Italian cuisine to people whose only knowledge of Italian food was Heinz spaghetti on toast. Places like La Perla in Sea Point gave South Africans not only great pastas and pizzas but also a taste of Italy’s extraordinary range of culinary masterpieces.”
We can all agree when she says that it was the beginning of a love affair with Italy.
What is also evident is that her husband, Emilio, being a great cook, played no small role. At one stage he had a deli in Oranjezicht, and he made most of the takeaway foods. Lasagne, ravioli, cannelloni, gnocchi, parmigiana di melanzane, minestrone, osso buco, chicken cacciatore, pesto Genovese, and tubs of sauce – arrabbiata, amatriciana, napolitana. “Clients loved to come and talk to him about their Italian holidays. It was then I began to realise how South Africans love Italy. Not only the food. Also the art, the music and the picturesque towns and villages with their fountains, piazzas and romantic Roman ruins.”
Personally, she has no Italian blood. “My first encounter with Italians and their culture was on the Lloyd Triestino ships that used to sail between Venice and Cape Town in the sixties. Far cheaper than airflight In those days. Those two-week trips were heaven. Great food and music, and good-looking officers!
“I’m a WASP, born and brought up in Cape Town. My mother Constance Young was a prolific journalist for the old Outspan magazine. She also wrote short stories that won prizes on the radio. So for me writing has been a lifelong obsession. Especially fiction.”
The book has also been a family affair in other ways. “I was lucky to have my daughter Caterina, a graphic designer with Yuppiechef, do the vibrant cover.
“Meanwhile I so enjoyed writing Pistola I’ve just finished the second in my Italian trilogy. Not a sequel to Pistola but the story of another young Italian migrant, Furio, an opera-singing romantic with a broken heart and a volcanic core, who finds himself working on the farm of a great white hunter in Kenya at the time of the Mau Mau. Challenging stuff he has to find ways to deal with.”
And that’s done in Hilary’s typical Sjournalist style! While still in the throes of doing publicity for her first, she has already completed the second – and I would not put it past her to be already working on the third.
So start where it matters, and get onto this first one. It’s a great read, informative, and captures a country and its people in a particular time.