Interview: J. Arlene Culiner

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Sep 142016

Jen: Today we welcome J. Arlene Culiner to Romancing the Book. J. Arlene, will you share a short bio with us?
J. Arlene: Born in New York, raised in Toronto, I’ve spent most of my life in England, France, Germany, Turkey, Greece, Hungary, the Sahara, and have crossed much of Europe on foot. I now reside in a 400-year-old former inn in a French village of absolutely no interest and, much to public dismay, protect all creatures, especially spiders and snakes. I work as an actress, a photographer, a contemporary artist, a musician; I write mysteries, history books, and perfectly believable romances. My heroines are gutsy; my heroes, dashingly lovable; and all are (proudly) over the age of forty.

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Jen: Please tell us about your newest release and where the idea came from.
J. Arlene: My newest release is The Turkish Affair. It’s a contemporary romance and a suspense. I know many readers expect a romantic suspense to resemble what they see on television: danger, stalkers, a serial killer or two, car chases, shoot-outs, terror, gun-packing super heroes and heroines. But I dislike television, and I’ve always preferred realistic stories, even in the romance genre. It seems to me that if I were being threatened by a madman, I’d be so wrought up, I wouldn’t have time to fall in love — and, for me, falling in love means getting to know the other person, finding common interests, feeling the first soft magic. None of that would be possible in dangerous situations. Besides, in real life, there’s very rarely, a gorgeous, sexy interested secret agent on hand ready to rescue you.

I decided, therefore, to write a suspense/mystery where there is certainly menace, but it’s psychological. Yes, there has been a murder, but it’s off stage: no graphic description, no chases, no screaming sirens. My setting is exotic — the archaeological site of Karakuyu in central Turkey, once home to the long-vanished Hittites. My heroine, Anne, is strong-willed but warm and brave. She’s running from a scandal in her past, but her attraction to my hero, Renaud Townsend, threatens her peace of mind, her way of life, and her secrecy. Renaud is intelligent and tender, but has no wish to settle anywhere: his passion is archaeology “discovering the world from the ground down.” However, when important artifacts are stolen, both Anne and Renaud are drawn, although unwillingly, into the mystery.

And here’s how The Turkish Affair started: Like my heroine, Anne, I spoke decent Turkish, was living in central Turkey and working as a translator. When there was no work, I’d head out for other parts of the country. Once, the bus I was traveling on pulled off the main road, drove down a rutted lane and into an archaeological site — we were to deliver a package of some sort. While we waited, I stared idly out of the bus window and caught sight of a man ambling in the direction of a tumble of pillars and ruins. He was lean, supple, and the bright sun caught the golden blaze of his hair. Who was he? An archaeologist? I never found out. With a puff of noxious smoke, the bus sprang to life, turned, roared back toward the main road. Where was that site? I did go that way again, but never found it. And the blond man’s image remained with me over all these years; he was slated to become my hero, archaeologist Renaud Townsend.

Excerpt from The Turkish Affair

Suddenly, she felt his presence without seeing him. Call it telepathy, or sexual energy, or a strange magic. She looked up, hardly daring to do so, and saw Renaud Townsend enter the restaurant in that elegant, sure way of his. He hesitated in the doorway, then looked her way. Their eyes locked.

Her heart slammed wildly against her ribs in an elemental gut reaction, the call of female to male. Easier to stop grass growing than to stop this feeling. Like last night, here he was. Seeking her out. Heeding an unspoken call.

Silly fool. He hadn’t come to see her. Why would he? At a table somewhere behind her, she’d seen members of Karakuyu’s archaeological staff dining with a few of the volunteers.

But Renaud, although he now acknowledged their presence with a wave, didn’t go to their table. Instead, he moved in her direction. Time stretched out, elastic, limitless. The noise of voices, of clacking cutlery, receded into some faraway hinterland. She could only watch him, register the play of muscle against the fabric of his clothes, the puissant, broad shoulders suggested by his white shirt, the manly smooth elegance that came with healthy self-confidence. And, again, her fingertips buzzed with want, longed to reach out, touch, stroke. Her skin seemed to soften in the anticipation of caresses.

He smiled at her, and his vivid blue eyes, so sparklingly alive, crinkled at the corners. He looked … what? Relieved to see her? He stopped beside her chair and beamed down at her with something very much like triumph. Triumph? She was no trophy to be won by harm. She’d force herself to be cool, even condescending. Under no circumstances would he guess her reaction to him.

“Why are you here?” The words were harsh and her voice sounded defensive.

Renaud only seemed amused. “Am I in forbidden territory?”

“Of course not.” She felt herself flush and hated it. “It’s just, I didn’t expect to see you here …” Now she was really putting her foot in it. Under his clear gaze, her thoughts tangled uselessly.

“Archaeologists should stay put on archaeological sites?” He was laughing at her.

She shook her head, feeling foolish. If only she could think of some clever, devastating retort. Something that allowed her to scrape together some dignity. Damn the man. His very presence changed the atmosphere. Pulled in a bright sparkle of enticement and the hint of emotional danger.

“I was told at the Tourist Board I’d probably find you here.”

“The Tourist Board?” she asked, surprised.

“I need your help.”

“My help?” No, she certainly wasn’t doing brilliantly in repartee.

“I’ll desperately need a translator.” The gleam in his eye suggested he just might be stretching the truth to suit his needs. “I’d like you to take the job.”

She shook her head in refusal. “There are other translators in the area, and they’re at least as competent as I am. You’ll have to hire one of them. I have too much guiding work with Asim.”

He couldn’t fight that argument. She’d never take him up on an offer that would put them together. Not when she’d already made the decision to avoid him. But he hadn’t paid the slightest attention to her answer. He wasn’t looking at her at all but grinning ruefully at the too-interested faces of the tourists in her group.

“I hope you’ll excuse me,” he said. He even managed to look apologetic. “I know this is the wrong time and place to discuss work. And I’m being rude, interrupting your dinner.”

“You aren’t interrupting anything,” Mrs. Bland shouted happily. “Sit down. Join us.”

No. Please no. Anne threw Mrs. Bland a look of entreaty, but the older woman wasn’t paying attention to her either. Instead, she was beaming at Renaud. Those outstanding good looks of his, that easy charm, had made another conquest.

Jen: What kind of research did you do for this book?
J. Arlene: Some of the information came from pure experience: I’ve been on archaeological digs, briefly worked in an archaeological museum — an ancient crusader castle with the turquoise sea lapping at its foundations. I’ve also spent a reasonable amount of time at other sites — in France, Italy, Israel, Tunisia, Algeria, England, Turkey, and Greece — and the stories of theft and smuggling in The Turkish Affair really did happen. I also grilled my cousin Anna, who lives in Israel. She does archaeological illustration and reconstruction, is also a site surveyor and a specialist reading rocks and the interiors of wells (yes, really).

Jen: What’s the most challenging aspect of writing? Easiest? Most rewarding?
J. Arlene: The first draft is a killer. I hate writing it. I have most of the storyline, the main characters, the excitement, but getting everything down is absolute torture. I quit a thousand times. I’m disgusted with everything I’ve written, am convinced it’s just awful stuff and that it’s useless to finish the lousy thing. The second draft is easier: I don’t love the work, but I see the shape of the story, can change the order of events, add characters, twists, turns, and some of the fun. The third draft is actually exciting. The following drafts are pure ecstasy.

Jen: Do you have a favorite character or one you most identify with?
J. Arlene: I’m an (albeit cynical) idealist, so I have to create warm, intelligent heroines with humor, flexibility and honor. I love them and I identify with them. I couldn’t write about a heroine I didn’t like, or didn’t want to be, or didn’t share values with, or didn’t envy. And, of course, I fall madly in love with all my intelligent and manly heroes. I also like to add cranky secondary characters, and they are exactly the kind of people I’ll love to be chewing the fat with over a glass of beer.

Jen: What’s the most interesting comment you’ve received about your books?
J. Arlene: I know I’ve done a good job when people take pleasure in my writing. One critic praised my “innate skill as a storyteller, seeker of truth, and photographer of life.” I don’t think I could better than that.

Jen: What’s been the highlight of you career to this point?
J. Arlene: Having my books accepted by publishers has certainly been wonderful and satisfying. And there has been one particular highlight: I was on an island on the Nile with eight French artists. It was very hot, and we sat at a café table under a few thirsty trees waiting out the hours before lunch. Just across the 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 Tanenbaum Award for Canadian Jewish History for my non-fiction book, Finding Home. I went outside, told everyone. They all cheered; then someone flagged down a donkey cart, pushed me into it. And there I was, bumping through the dusty, shabby town, my friends following and laughing.

Jen: What do you do in your free time?
J. Arlene: When I’m not poking around in some strange country doing research, I’m a classical musician. I play the oboe, the oboe d’amour, and the English horn in one symphonic orchestra; the baroque oboe, oboe d’amour, and oboe da caccia in two baroque formations and chamber groups.

Jen: What’s next for you?
J. Arlene: I’m presently working on 1) a creative non-fiction work about a small village in eastern Hungary, 2) a contemporary romance that takes place in Blake’s Folly, the same Nevada community I used in my previous romance, All About Charming Alice, and 3) a series of portraits. All three projects are so different from each other, I’ll have to wait and see which pulls the strongest. They’ll all get finished eventually, I think, but none will be completed in the coming months. I need years to write a book, to perfect the story and refine the language.

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