The Write Way Café welcomes J. Arlene Culiner, who discusses her very interesting road to publication and offers advice: Never. Ever. Throw away any writing.
Interview with J.Arlene Culiner
by Write Way Cafe
Where did the idea for your story come from?
Years ago, I worked for Radio France. Because I’m North American, my program consisted of presenting the history of country music and interviewing musicians who came to town. Only once, however, did country musicians show up — this was long before that music became popular in France. I was also in a very boring backwoods city situated in a boring backwoods part of the country, so no musician in his right mind ever wanted to come there
The country musicians who did show, were two brothers dressed in flashy cowboy regalia but, even so, they were unlikely candidates for a Texas ranch. Both rather rickety, even shop-worn, they were French but had been born in Poland. They were also dreadful musicians. However, they were kind, funny, had great stories, and loved beer. I stayed in the bar with them all evening, chewing the fat, drinking much beer, and learning about the music circuit. I even managed to tape an excellent interview.
The next day, back at the radio, I sat down to prepare the interview tape for my program… and discovered it was perfectly blank. In my soggy, beery, over-excited state, I’d obviously forgotten to push tab A, or button B, or plug in wire C, or even turn the infernal machine on. There was no way I could get another interview — the guys had left town and, anyway, I certainly wouldn’t have been brave enough to admit such total incompetence. But they had given me great material for a book — one I didn’t get around to completing.
I have, over the years, acquired many chaotic, torn, stained, utterly unpleasant pieces of paper — a sort of personal slush pile. In it are all the mysteries, romances, autobiographies, biographies and short stories I’ve worked on, then abandoned. Now and again, with a sort of frenzied hysteria, I actually shuffle through the pile. And, lo! One day, I discovered that old, half-begun country music story.
And so, thirteen years later, older and presumably wiser, I knuckled down, wrote about the music circuit, about Sherry Valentine, the country singer heroine of A Swan’s Sweet Song, and added all the information I have about the acting world (because, from time to time, I do actually work as an actress). I also used the information about country music (and truly awful musicians) in another romance, All About Charming Alice.
The moral of this story? As a writer, never throw anything out. Never. Ever. Even if you have to buy a castle to stock all those old papers in, even if you have to hire a very long freight train to get them there, keep all that stuff. You never know when you’ll have the urge or talent to turn rubbish into a great tale.
Why did you pick the setting you did?
As I mentioned, I was living in the backwoods back then. Today, I also live in a backwoods. Before I lived in this backwoods, I lived in another backwoods. I’ve pretty well always lived in some fairly dreary backwoods, so it’s normal for me to set my stories in such a place. However, there are many different settings in, A Swan’s Sweet Song. The book starts in a very dull backwoods town, moves to another, even duller, backwoods town, then jumps to Hollywood’s world of heart-shaped swimming pools and casting couches, then comes back to a teensy backwoods town again. Actually, the secret is, I hate big cities and prefer the backwoods with all its strange characters. In a big city, everyone remains anonymous.
Are your main characters completely imaginary or do they have some basis in real people? Do they reflect aspects of yourself?
Despite what some writers claim (or even seem to believe) no character in any book is ever imaginary. They are always composites of people we’ve known, people we’ve observed, heard or read about. Added to the mix, are the writer’s own traits, hopes, wishes, projections and fantasies.
Did you face any blocks while writing the book, and if so, how did you handle them? If not, what's your secret?
I always get to a point where I violently hate everything in the manuscript I’m working on. I hate the style, the story, the characters. I can’t find the slightest reason for continuing. So I don’t. I give up, and go do something else, work on another story, or book, or project, or go build a stone wall, or devote more time to playing music. Then, I come back to the manuscript I hated weeks, or months, or even years later.
What did you learn? For instance, what did you learn about yourself, your process, the writing world; about the difference between musicians and playwrights?
Did I learn anything? I wonder. Of course, it was a challenge to turn notes into a story, to rearrange events so that they’re funny and make a great tale. But the difference between playwrights and musicians? There isn’t one. Being creative, is being creative. Whether I’m practicing music and getting ready for a concert, or playing in a chamber music group with musician friends, or writing a story, I’m functioning on a more intense level than when I’m chopping onions.
Tell us about your writing space and how or why it works for you.
In the warm months, I live in a five hundred-year-old house. My office is huge, with ancient beams, rough stone walls, and an ancient quarry tile floor. It’s very beautiful. None of my good, very productive, writing sessions take place here.
In the winter, I live just outside Paris. Our apartment is minuscule: two rooms. In order to have space of my own, I moved all my papers, clothes, chairs and desk into a closet. This closet is now my office. It’s very, very cramped. There’s no window. I live by lamplight. I have no idea what time of day it is. I have no idea what the weather is like outside. All my animals — two dogs and two cats — think this the perfect nest to hang out in, so I can’t just get up and move without trampling some poor beast. But… this is the best writing space I’ve ever had. I enjoy myself enormously. I can withdraw into the world I’m writing about with no distractions. I can write whole books in here. In here, I’m happier than a pig in mud.
What are some of your favorite books and why?
This is a dangerous question to ask me, because my answer is radical. I’ve read so many books that I’ve loved, I can’t possibly pick a favorite or two, or three, or six, or twenty. What I do think is important, is to read in as many different genres as possible, and that includes serious literary criticism (not just in genre fiction), history (not just historical romances or historical fiction), literary fiction and serious travel literature written by informed writers who have analyzed how a country functions (not brochures or dreamy commercial books with totally fictitious quaint characters). Too many people read only romance, or science fiction, or mystery, or women’s fiction, and that’s just not good enough. Writers have a responsibility because we pass on information, style and language; to do this correctly, we must keep sharpening our mental tools.
Even those with no desire to write have to keep their minds finely honed. Why? Because we’re so very lucky to have been born with something quite wonderful: a brain. It’s our duty to feed that brain, keep it working at top level, and not dump it in front of a television set, pacify it with the stupidity of reality shows, video clips and chewed-out sitcoms. We should never, ever, forget what the main role of television is today: pacifying and brainwashing as many people as possible so they’ll go out, buy lots of products, and never question anything effectively.
Would you like to try your hand at writing a different genre? Which one and why? What are you working on now?
I’ve had three romances published and I’ve just completed writing a fourth, but I do write in other genres. I’ve had one literary mystery published, and I’m looking for a publisher for another. I’ve written a history of Romanian immigration to North America, which won a history prize, and I’m just completing the biography of a Ukrainian poet. I intend to start writing a series of portraits in the next few weeks — unless I have the courage to go back to a half-finished manuscript about Hungary.
Frankly, there’s nothing as stimulating as moving across the board, trying my hand at many things. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’ll be successful in all I’ve undertaken, but that’s just the way things go.
What aspect of writing gives you the most trouble?
The first draft. Getting it all down. This makes me suffer horribly. This is when I give up. But after — and if — I’ve managed an entire first draft, then life becomes wonderfully easy. Rewriting — I usually rewrite at least five times, perfecting each phrase, making each sentence sing — is pure pleasure. This is when I know I’ve made the right choice in life.
The air sizzles when a country music star and renowned playwright meet, but can opposites fall in love?
The instant Sherry Valentine and Carston Hewlett meet, there’s desire and fascination in the air…but they’re complete opposites.
Smart-talking Sherry fought her way up from poverty to stardom as a country music singer. Now, she’s ever in the limelight, ever surrounded by clamoring fans, male admirers and paparazzi, and her spangled cowboy boots carry her all across the country, from one brightly lit stage to the next.
A renowned but reclusive playwright, Carston cherishes his freedom, the silence of his home in the woods and his solitary country walks.
Any long-term commitment is obviously out of the question: how about a quick and passionate fling?
But when their names are linked in the scandal press, Sherry’s plans to become an actress are revealed. And the budding relationship seems doomed.
Can you ignore a passionate attraction? Of course you can't. Carston soon decides he'll do anything in his power to bring Sherry into his orbit again. And that also means letting go of a few well-kept secrets...
A Swan's Sweet Song
Great Romance and Engaging Stories!