J Arlene Culiner reminds me of Indiana Jones, or maybe Lara Croft. Her wealth of exotic life experiences is rich soil to draw on for her books. I am so pleased to welcome you back to my blog, J Arlene.
First, thank you so much, Elizabeth, for letting me come back to your blog.
Please tell us a little about yourself.
I’ve always been restless. I left home at seventeen, headed for New York and San Francisco, then abandoned the North American continent altogether. I’ve since lived on the English moors, in a 15th century Bavarian castle, a backwoods Turkish village, on a Greek island, in a traditional adobe house in Hungary. At the moment, I live in a small French village for half the year, and in Paris for the other half.
I’ve been a contemporary social critical artist for most of my life, and a photographer, but to keep body and soul together, I’ve delivered newspapers, been a barmaid, b-girl, fashion model, translator, belly dancer, tour guide, radio announcer, film extra and actress. I started having my work published in 2001, and since then writing has become my main activity although I still act, still show my work as an artist and photographer, and play the oboe and baroque oboe in several orchestras and chamber groups. I write both fiction and non-fiction, and I love how non-fiction takes me into Eastern Europe’s forgotten corners. I’ve also just discovered podcasting, and I’ve started a series: Life in a Small French Village. It’s great fun! (https://soundcloud.com/j-arlene-culiner)
I’ve listened to your podcast. It is delightful! Talk about the books you’ve written.
Like you, Elizabeth, I also write mysteries although without the paranormal slant. And today, I’d like to talk about two recent releases: The Turkish Affair, and Death by Slanderous Tongue.
The Turkish Affair is a romantic suspense. I wanted to write about a lovely, sometimes difficult, romance, but also to take my readers on an exotic journey to a little known part of the world — an archaeological site in backwoods Turkey.
The setting is one I’m familiar with: Like my heroine, I once worked as a translator in central Turkey, and I know how untrustworthy the police can be, how dangerous life is. I wanted to incorporate my experiences into the story: going to the coast with several archaeologists to authenticate ancient coins; putting myself in a very dangerous situation on a back road. I also wanted to include the characters I’d met: the nasty guard; Asim, the tour guide; slothful Apo; corrupt Komiser Bulduk. I also had all the elements for a crime story. And my hero is the wonderful-looking blond man I saw crossing an archaeological site one sunny morning.
My other mystery (a recent re-release), Death by Slanderous Tongue, is certainly not a romance. Perhaps it’s even an anti-romance: the heroine, a foreigner living in a small French village, is having an affair with the local veterinarian, a married man, and it’s certainly not a satisfying relationship.
For those who are interested in knowing what life in France is really like (not the glossy pretty picture portrayed in most books written by foreigners) this is the book to read. The story takes place in my own village in western France, and the murder really did take place, although in another village, further north. The characters are all based on local people, and the terrible farming practices brought to light are really what farming is like all over the world today… unfortunately.
Have you ever had to do major rewrites? What was your approach?
I once had an editor who handed me back my manuscript, and I discovered that she had changed every single sentence. It was no longer my manuscript. It was hers. I called her up, asked her to meet me for breakfast the next day. She agreed. When we met, I told her that I refused to make the changes; that it was my book; that I preferred breaking my contract with the publisher; that I wouldn’t publish something that wasn’t mine. She immediately backed down. I made changes that I thought necessary, but refused to change the stories, the style, the sentences and the vocabulary. The book went on to win a prize for literature.
A few years later, I was giving a book talk in Winnipeg, and a woman came up to me. She was also a writer and had published her first book with the same publisher. She had been assigned the same editor I had, and the editor had changed every sentence of her manuscript. She had agreed to do it – through lack of experience, she said — and had been regretting it ever since. I have heard similar stories several times since then, and I pass this on as a warning to other writers. Some editors are good; others can be toxic.
A valuable lesson for all writers. How did you celebrate the publication of your first book?
I don’t remember how I celebrated the publication of my first book. I probably didn’t do much. But I do remember one heady experience: the time I found out I had won the Tanenbaum Award for Canadian History for my non-fiction book, Finding Home in the Footsteps of the Jewish Fusgeyers.
I was on an island on the Nile with eight French artists. It was very hot, and we were sitting at a café table under a few thirsty trees waiting out the hours before lunch. Just across the dirt lane was a shop offering an Internet connection, so I sauntered over to check my mail. And there, waiting for me, was a letter from my publisher informing me I had just won the award. Astounded, I went outside, told everyone. They all cheered; then someone flagged down a donkey cart, pushed me into it. And there I went, bumping through the dusty, shabby town, my friends following and laughing.
Okay, that is the best “how did you celebrate” story I’ve ever heard. What kind of response do you get when you tell people you are an author?
Some people look at you with awe, of course. But there are those bores who say: “Oh, I’ve had a fascinating life. You should be writing about me.” And then they roll out a story that’s as banal as dirty dishwater.
Tell us about the funniest/craziest/most interesting thing that has happened to you as a writer.
One incident I’ll never forget. I was crossing the country giving book talks, and one talk was at a cultural center in Oregon. The woman who gave me the talk came to greet me, and then announced she wouldn’t be staying. She was very unpleasant — perhaps she was having some problems with the center? I’ll never know. I’m pretty certain she did no publicity for the talk.
I went to the assigned room, and everything was all set up. The coffee was ready, the table, the microphone, but no one was there. I waited for a long time. Finally one sour-looking old couple showed up. Well, sour-looking or not, they were still an audience, and the show must go on! I gave my talk, was as chirpy and interesting as possible, told the anecdotes that usually get people laughing, but from those two sour pusses, there was no response.
Finally, the talk was over. I asked the two of them if they had enjoyed it and if they’d like to buy a copy of my book. They stood. The man said, “Oh, we didn’t come for the talk. We came for the movie about South America. We’re in the wrong room.” And they left.
What is the best piece of advice about writing that you have ever heard or read? What would you tell aspiring writers today?
Read. Never stop reading. Read outside your genre; read books that challenge you, your ideas, your lifestyle: literary fiction, history books, experimental novels, intelligent travel accounts. Also read non-mainstream works published by small publishers: they aren’t money-makers, but they do have fine writing. Also, expand your vocabulary and devour grammar books. And, if you really want to succeed, never give up.
Your life experiences and writerly wisdom are inspiring, J Arlene. Thank you so much for joining me today.
The Turkish Affair (Crimson Romance)
A top notch Washington journalist before a liaison with the wrong man implicated her in scandal, Anne Pierson has been hiding in backwoods Turkey and working as a translator. She’s determined to keep her past a secret, to avoid personal relationships. But after meeting Renaud Townsend, her discrete little world is turned upside down.
Archaeologist Renaud Townsend is troubled by Anne Pierson’s refusal to talk about her past, but instinct tells him he can rely on her. Or is it only desire speaking? A lusty love affair for the duration of the summer dig is a very appealing idea.
When Anne’s bad reputation links her to stolen artefacts and murder, the budding romance with Renaud comes to a halt. If they learn to trust one another, her name can be cleared. But is there still enough
intensity to give love a second chance?
Barnes & Noble http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/J.+Arlene+Culiner
Death by Slanderous Tongue (Club Lighthouse Publishing)
Welcome to Épineux-le-Rainsouin, a typical French village of yellow cement houses with PVC windows and roll-down PVC shutters. Here, village gossips observe all from behind their factory-made, crocheted curtains; intensive chicken farms produce record numbers of broilers; and culture is defined by television game shows.
When Didier, village employee, suddenly disappears, tongues wag: everyone knows he’s a lady’s man, too handsome, too charming for his own good. And after his body is discovered in his bath, more than one cuckolded husband sighs with relief. Equally relieved, are all the wives who knew Didier as a lover — and blackmailer.
But blackmail continues, and as village secrets are exposed, it seems unlikely that Didier’s death was accidental. Before Épineux-le-Rainsouin can again settle down to its usual torpor, corruption, illegal building schemes and farming abuses, a murderer must be found.