Karin Altenberg

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Sweden | 2012

Born and brought up in southern Sweden, Karin Altenberg moved to Britain to study in 1996. She holds a PhD in Archaeology from the University of Reading. Her thesis, which was published in 2001, won the Nordenstedska Foundation Award. She is currently senior advisor to the Swedish National Heritage Board and is a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London. Her ‘powerfully imagined debut’ novel (Independent),Island of Wings, is a rich and vivid account of the harsh realities of life on a remote Scottish Island in the 1830s.


Report 2012

I’m a writer with a day job, or, as my boss would see it, a civil servant with a hobby. In either case trying to write a novel at night after a long day in the office is not ideal. To be offered three and a half unbroken weeks of writing is possibly the greatest gift I could imagine. I left Stockholm in snow, and on that first night at Santa Maddalena I stepped into the courtyard and looked out across the wooded valley. The air was still warm and the wisteria scent hung in the air.

I soon fell into a new regime – waking early, writing through the morning and going for long walks in the afternoon. Once I fell into a ravine, but was rewarded by a glimpse of a porcupine. Every morning as I crossed the courtyard to the study I would hear a cuckoo singing with the rising sun. Where I come from, folklore says that a cuckoo singing in the east is a gift of consolation and solace. In Grisha’s study this balm worked wonders, and the disturbed matrix of my novel soon settled into place.

The natural world is so close here, and after the great rains of April the greenery started creeping closer during those first days of May. I thought my slight wooziness was just down to some pollen allergy but perhaps it was a case of Stendhal syndrome – too much Tuscan beauty – whether the perfection of the Romanesque churches, the stunning frescoes or the lovely forests where the owls hunted at night. To me all this is bliss. The only perceivable threat was the passing of time.

We may have committed a few faux-pas along the way, me, Andrew and Dany (and Alex) – such as returning late form the bar in Donnini, putting oil on the risotto or eating what could only be perceived as an unnatural number of pears – but we were a happy group with great warmth and affection for each other and our wonderful hostess, Beatrice.

So, I will return to that cold North with a warm heart – and the finished manuscript of my second novel. And a few other things too: some ideas for my next book, an eclectic, and quite possibly unwearable, wardrobe from the Formica, the Donnini village football shirt and an embarrassing number of photos of Miss Rosine, the baby pug.

Karin Altenberg
16 April – 10 May 2012