Interview with J.Arlene Culiner

by Elizabeth Meyette



Mark Twain once said, “Truth is stranger than fiction but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” Today I welcome author J. Arlene Culiner whose life illustrates exactly what Twain meant.

First, let me thank you for letting me join you on your blog, Betty. It’s such a nice idea, inviting other authors to write in and learn about each other.r

IIt’s so great to have you as my guest today, J. Arlene. Please tell us a little about yourself.


Tell about myself? Where to begin? Well, I’ve been itinerant for most of my adult life, and that means I’ve lived in the oddest places: in a car in England, France and the Sahara, in a closet in Paris, in a mud house in Hungary, in a beautiful Bavarian castle, in a Turkish cave, on the top floor of a Spanish bordello, in an isolated farm out on the English moors, in tacky hotels and boarding houses and even — most boring of all — in the lap of luxury. Right now, I occupy a creaking 17th-18th century former inn in a dull village in the west of France. (

And what have I been doing for all these years to support myself? Well, I’ve always been a social-critical contemporary artist and photographer, but you can’t even pay for bubble gum doing that sort of thing. Therefore, I’ve also delivered newspapers in Germany, written and broadcast stories on Radio France, been a translator, a fashion model, a barmaid, an actress, a belly dancer in Turkey, a b-girl, a television presenter, a Greek landlady. Amongst other things. The end result of all this inconstancy is, I’ve met some wild characters and seen life’s different aspects.

I have thousands of questions circling in my brain right now.  I think we need a second interview just based on your life experiences! But today we will focus on your writing. Talk about the book(s) you’ve written. What was the first seed of an idea you had for your book? How did it develop?

I wrote ever so many bad, unpublished — thank goodness — books before getting it right. Finally, my first published book was a romance, Felicity’s Power, (Power of Love, Australia.) The publisher went out of business shortly after (not my fault, I swear.)

As Jill Culiner, I then went on to write, Finding Home, a travel/essay/history charting Romanian Jewish immigration to Canada in around 1900. This was a wonderful project because it demanded five years of research and required me to cross Romania on foot and sleep in fields, travel through Europe on trains, take the Canadian immigrant route through the former gold and silver mining towns. The book won the Canadian Tannenbaum Award and earned me the right to contribute to a new encyclopedia published in Germany.

After that, bored silly and greatly irritated by the mentality of the village I live in, I wrote my murder mystery, Slanderous Tongue. It isn’t a romance (although there is a romantic element: the main character is the mistress of the village veterinarian) but is a realistic portrait of a small French community.

Then, I was bitten by the romance bug again. I wanted a love story with two intelligent, passionate people who were over 40 years old, and I wanted them to meet in a community I’d passed through many years ago and have never found again. There’s a wonderful word in German, Fernweh, and it signals a sentimental, nostalgic feeling about some distant place. So, in a wave of Fernweh, I conjured up that once-glimpsed Nevada community, named it Blake’s Folly, and there I was: set to go.

What a fascinating writing history. Is there an aspect of writing that you favor over others, e.g. dialogue, exposition, description of a scene, setting, or character, etc.? Is there one that is more difficult for you?

I adore writing dialogue. I adore creating and describing a particular landscape, a village, a house, an atmosphere. But my all-time favorite is writing about cranky, original characters. In my romance, All About Charming Alice, I had to conjure up the sort of people who’d live in a small, disintegrating Nevada community. Who would they be? Gossips and busybodies, of course. And misfits, oddballs, folks who would be total losers if you stuck them in a city. And people like my heroine, Alice, who ran away from a flashy Hollywood life and came out to the desert to live in an ancient wreck of a house, to rescue and protect snakes.

You never seem at a loss for ideas. What are you currently working on?

I’m working on several things. One is a romantic suspense that takes place in Turkey and is based on a series of archaeological thefts I heard about when I lived there. I also have two romances I’ve finished writing, and they’ll now be floating around, looking for a good home. But I’m also working on a book comprised of portraits of people I’ve known, and descriptions of our society: I suppose it’s a way of writing an autobiography (of sorts) without ever having to talk about myself.

Do you work with a conference partner, writer’s group or other organization? Where do you get support?

 I’m forever living in places where no one I know reads (or even speaks) English, therefore support is out of the question. Writing is, for me, a lonely but blissful experience. I can, of course, tell people what I’m working on, describe the various scenes (and watch everyone’s eyes glaze over with boredom) but, in the end, what I’ve written has to pass muster with me. I have to be my severest judge … and my own best friend.

In all of your travels, you must have had some interesting encounters. Tell us about the funniest/craziest/most interesting thing that has happened to you as a writer.

 Well, this experience wasn’t particularly funny at the time, but now I enjoy it. I think it’s the sort of thing that happens to quite a few writers — at least once.

 About seven years ago, I was invited to some place (in Washington? Oregon?) to give a talk and present my newly-published book, Finding Home. Of course, I didn’t know the city at all. No surprise: my book tour took me all across the States and Canada, so I often felt lost (you know the scene: if this is Tuesday, it must be Michigan.) Just to make sure I didn’t miss my talk that evening, I found the cultural center where I was to appear, then stuck around the area — and it was, I must add, a very boring area: no cafés, no snack bars, no bars, and you can stare at look-alike housing and industrial architecture for just so long. When I arrived back at the cultural center that evening, I discovered that the person responsible for the talk hadn’t bothered showing up. An ominous sign. Had she even publicized it?

 I waited for quite a while in the auditorium where I was to speak. Eventually one sulky-looking elderly couple creaked in and sat down. No one else arrived. What to do in a situation like that? Well, the show must go on. So I gave the best performance I could and I must say I was witty, enthusiastic and charming — perhaps even desperately so, because I was trying to get some sort of reaction from that sour old couple. Finally, when I finished, both husband and wife stood, and husband said:

 “I guess we got the wrong room. We’re here for a talk on Brazil. Your book doesn’t interest us at all.”

 And they both shuffled out.

That is a classic! Do you keep a notebook in your pocket, briefcase, purse or on your bedside table to write down ideas that come to you right away so you don’t forget them? Have any of these ideas developed into a successful piece?

I’ve sat in bars, cafés, restaurants, train stations, bus stations and fields, writing in little notebooks, on odd and dirty scraps of paper, on the backs of receipts, table napkins, beer mats, for most of my life. These notes (and sketches) were, most often, descriptions of the places I found myself in, of the people around me. I also noted down stories I was told and the many ridiculous conversations I either overheard or participated in. The impulse to jot things down has somewhat passed, now. These days, I enjoy opening all those old diaries and using the material I find inside them.

You are an intriguing woman, J. Arlene. Based on your life experiences, I don’t think you will ever run out of grist for the writing mill.  What a pleasure to find out more about you.  I wish you great success with your writing.

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