‘It’s much harder to make friends in the north’

Italy's rich history inspired Hillary Corby to tap into her writing skills. Now a crime novellist, she is living in in the northern Italian coastal town of Imperia, Liguria. She talks to The Local about the differences between northern and southern Italy and how the country's cities and coastline help her to write books.

'It's much harder to make friends in the north'
Photo: Hillary Corby

Where are you from originally?

I was born in London, England.

So what brought you to Italy? Has it always been a dream destination?

After visiting Rome for my birthday, I decided I wanted to move here from Spain and I accepted an English teaching contract which landed me in Trapani, Sicily. It has not always been a dream destination, but it had always been a dream to visit. My first stop was the Colosseum.

You seem to have lived in a lot of places, in the south and north. Italy's often described as a place of "two halves", so how would you sum it up? 

In general, people are friendlier, more open and hospitable in the south. There is a very different mentality there and they do whatever they like with little regard to the rules. Sicily is a wonderful island with a diverse history but I do not really recommend life in Palermo. I have found it much harder to make friends in the north. They will be polite and friendly, but they will not open their doors to you as easily.

You're a crime novelist and have written When Angel Falls. Did you write before you came to Italy?

No, I didn't write before I came to Italy. I was inspired during my year in Florence. Being addicted to crime novels and writers such as Agatha Christie and a lover of Sherlock Holmes stories along with a passion for the Renaissance, I married them together to come up with my first historical crime fiction set in Renaissance Florence, When Angels Fall A Benedetti Renaissance Mystery. I'm working on my second crime fiction, which is set in Naples and has just been adapted to a screenplay. I won't tell you the name yet – still a secret.

What is it about Italy that inspires your books? Imperia in itself must be very inspirational.

The wonderful history. Living in Palermo, Florence and Rome, I could close my eyes and travel back in time and breathe the history. I enjoyed a pit stop in Tellaro and the Golfo dei Poeti where I visited the most beautiful cove and saw the houses that D.H. Lawrence and Lord Byron stayed in. Staring out of a large glass window at the sea was very inspiring. I experienced things that really stirred my imagination and have come to life in my books. There is nothing quite so inspiring and beautiful as Italy's coastline and its islands.

You seem very happy to live here, but Italy is not without its problems. So is there anything that frustrates you about Italy?

Yes, the bureaucracy and, at times, the poor work ethic are quite frustrating.

What would your survival tips be for anyone looking to come here and make a living?

I honestly can say, I do not recommend coming here to make living that is dependent upon the Italian economy, such as teaching English.

Go out, meet the locals, shop at the same places and they will get to know you. Smile, be friendly and life will be easier. Enjoy the cafes, the great pizza, pasta and fish. See the country, explore all the historical wonders!

Just remember, things move far more slowly here and are extremely complicated.

As with any country, there are the unscrupulous but in general, I found Italians to be sociable, warm, friendly, helpful and kind people and they love anglophiles! I have met some real angels that helped me in my time of need.

Hillary can be found bloggin at

When Angels Fall A Benedetti Renaissance Mystery is available here: 

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How I ditched London and became a writer in Berlin

Former Berlin resident Sarah Kisielowski tells of how a move to the German capital provided the inspiration she needed to write her first novel.

How I ditched London and became a writer in Berlin
File photo: DPA.

“I’m going to become a writer,” I told my boss in London. I’m moving to Berlin to write a book.

A month later at my farewell party, he gave me a bunch of flowers, along with a pat on the back for being 20-something and following my dreams. Ten years later, my dream has come true, and looking back, moving to Berlin had everything to do with it.

A lot of people come to Berlin in search of creative input, hungry for the history and artistic freedom that the city has to offer. They hang out in cafes and bars and explore the romantic urbanism that makes Berlin so addictive: the tree-filled neighbourhoods of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, the industrial wastelands, and canal-side haunts.

All these people from different countries and backgrounds come together, bound by the city as it perpetually writes its story on the lives of its residents.

“Berlin was different when I moved here,” many people say, and yes, in 2006 when I turned up with a backpack and a job as an English teacher, the city was different: the Communist Palast der Republik still stood on Museum Island, more people seemed to speak German, and there were a lot more outdoor parties. But I was different back then too and to me, everything in Berlin was new.

I picked up my first bike for €10 off an elderly lady in my Altbau and, by the end of my first week living in Kreuzberg, I was cycling around the streets of my Kiez like a pro, and falling in love with the city.

There was so much to write about: the smells and sounds of the streets, Kofte from the Turkish market and fresh rolls from the bakeries. Characters popped out of every kiosk, they slept on the stones of war memorials. Stolpersteine before many houses marked the homes of former Jewish residents, and the dates they were terrorized by the Nazis.

Street names like Grimmstrasse were an ode to the fairy tales of the German storytellers the Brothers Grimm, who lived in the city for two decades. And U-Bahn station names like Frankfurter Tor marked an old route out of the city towards the provinces of the East.

With so much for my imagination, I spent my first year simply living and experiencing my new environment. I connected with most of the people I met through a shared love of music and literature. Their book recommendations still remind me of the places where we first discussed them over a Milchkaffee and cigarettes, warming up from the cold. Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler is a café on Kottbusserdamm. Talk Talk by T. C. Boyle is a tram ride half-way-down Petersbergerstrasse. And then my favourite: Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut: a bitter night walking along Eberswalderstrasse.

Photo: David Benham/Private.

Being half-German myself, there were some things about the city that seemed familiar from my childhood trips to see my grandparents: pumpkin seed bread and poppy seeds – favourites of my mother; then there was the chocolate bars we’d been sent as children; and the sound of the language itself.

But so many things were different from home: the apartments in Berlin were enormous and full of the smell of coal. When winter came the canals froze in Kreuzberg, and I felt for the first time that I really knew what winter was.

Lost in a dark and snowy world, I began to write vignettes of the characters and places I came across: the abandoned factories and buildings, inside which I would sit for hours, scribbling away on scraps of paper.

I read Döblin and Isherwood, and went to flea markets to buy a fur coat. I watched films by German directors like Wenders and Herzog, and spent afternoons on the S-Bahn observing life. A homeless man sat on the stairs at Treptower Park, begging each day for breakfast. The sound of a violinist filled the vaulted ceiling of a station as the horsehair of his bow glided across the strings.

The people and cold of the city breathed humanity into my everyday life in a way I’d never seen before.

And I too had to survive, in a flat with no real heating. I didn’t make a lot of money from my teaching job, but it was reliable, and enough to pay the rent. Looking back, I hardly had anything, but in other ways I had so much. I was rich in only a way that living in Berlin can teach you. On my days off I explored the city, then went home and wrote all night. And gradually I became a Berliner with a common sense of belonging running through my blood.

Four years later, I returned to London and began to write. I wrote eight hours a day for three months. The story started from a photograph, a vision, and ended in a book. It took four more years of research and return trips to Berlin to finish my debut novel. But now that it’s done it, it feels like only last week that I first cycled down Wrangelstrasse with the leaves of the linden trees crunching under my wheels.

Fulfilling a dream takes hard work and perseverance. The people of Berlin gave me the inspiration to do that. Of course, every city has its stories, but none more so for me than Berlin, where every doorstep holds a secret, every face is lined by the past.

The Last Tenant by Sarah Kisielowski tells the story of Daniel, a young man who travels to Berlin in search of family. But when his grandfather disappears, Daniel must dig through remnants of the past to find out the truth about his family's history. Find out more at