All About Charming J. Arlene Culiner

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.
 It’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. (www.jillculiner.com)

    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I wrote ever so many bad, unpublished — thank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.

Contact J. Arlene Culiner at:

Buy J. Arlene’s books at

9 thoughts on “All About Charming J. Arlene Culiner

  1. I am commenting about the interview with the amazing J. Arlene Culiner.
    Where do we meet people who have lived lives like she describes? Imagine the people she has met. No wonder her writing is full of wonder and her content is so strong. I have had the privilege of reading several of Culiner's books and I am telling you to go out like I am and find everything she has written and going to write and read it all. Think of the perspectives we will gain from a well-rounded person who has dug in and lived life. Looks like she is still digging in and living to the fullest. I know those who are around her are charmed and enjoy being in her presence. Wouldn't you like to find Culiner's diaries and read, read, read.

    • Dear Sheila,
      Thank you so much for your support and your enthusiasm. It's so nice to hear that my work has touched you. However, those diaries are really boring things, believe me. Once (this is a true story, as wild as it sounds) I was – briefly – arrested on a (false) charge of espionage in Turkey. While I was being interrogated, a man was called in to translate my diary, find confirmation of my involvement in the assassination of a general. I often think of that translator: he spent endless hours deciphering my miniscule handwriting (two handwritten lines between each printed line on the page) reading many recipes, and details of dull conversations, and banal descriptions of domestic interiors. Poor man.

  2. Pat Rieffanaugh says:

    My dear friend prompted me to read your interview, and I must say that I was not disappointed. It was utterly fascinating! As your story unfolded, I was mesmerized by your extensive travels and broad experiences, and I look forward to delving into some of your writings. You have truly lived a life of adventure; one so full of life experiences that I can't wait to venture into your world and view it from your perspective. If your books are half as interesting as your interview, then you will have captured my heart.

    • Thanks for your letter, Pat, and I am pleased you found my descriptions intriguing: isn’t that the intent of every writer? However, living a “life of adventure” is pretty well the same as living a commonplace one. It’s only in the re-telling that things start to become exotic. Many years ago, I read the following in Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow, and his words have always remained with me:
      Adventures and romance only take on their adventurous and romantic qualities at second-hand. Live them, and they are just a slice of life like the rest.

  3. Judy Greenfield says:

    I enjoyed your interview immensely. I have traveled extensively, and to most of the places you mentioned but I must say I thought I was being adventurous but I can't hold a candle to you. Wow. How brave you are not only to have traveled the way you did but to have worked temporarily in these countries. Unfortunately my foreign travels have come to a end due to a very bad accident in Prague. I slipped on a dirt road returning from a castle and shattered my ankle. Thankfully now I can revisit some of those places through your books. Delighted to meet you through this interview.

    • Hello Judy,
      Sorry to hear about your ankle but, still, shattering it on a dirt road beside a castle gives the tale a rather fine, romantic edge. And perhaps you've also discovered that journeys are often sweeter when they're long over and we're remembering them (and forgetting the hassles, the bad weather, the missed plane, the nasty waiter and the lost suitcase.)
      Thanks for your letter.
      J. Arlene

  4. You sound like a person who could keep up with J. Arlene, Judy! I admire and envy both of you for your extensive travels. I hope you are able to resume your travels in the future when your ankle heals. Thank you for visiting with us.

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