Interview with J. Arlene Culiner
Today's guest is Arlene Culiner. She's here to tell us about her book, All About Charming Alice...
After abandoning a Hollywood life she hated, Alice Treemont retreated to a ramshackle house in the Nevada community of Blake's Folly, began studying and protecting snakes. Now a recognized herpetologist, she spends her days walking across the desert, running a shelter for abandoned dogs and cooking gourmet vegetarian meals. She's perfectly happy too (lonely sometimes) but she wouldn't trade this life for any other.
Jace Constant, well-known writer is out of his element in the desert. A stray dog on the highway brings him into contact with Alice Treemont and it's a meeting he can¹t seem to forget. Why? She's not his type at all. He's a Chicago man, loves sophisticated women, contemporary art, fine dining. And when he finds himself knocking on Alice¹s creaking door with the intention of renting a spare room, he wonders if dry desert air has addled his brain.
Put Alice and Jace near each other and the air crackles. Love at first sight? Impossible! Alice won't make life easy for a sweet-talking man of words who hates dusty shoes, dogs, desert bleakness and snakes. So what if he's intelligent, sexy and nice. So what if her fingers ache to reach out, caress. So what if Jace is just as clearly attracted by her own long lankiness, her braids and her odd lifestyle. She's not in the market for a short lusty fling with someone who¹ll be stepping out of the picture any day now, heading back to city lights.
Out on the sidelines, avidly watching the love play between Alice and Jace, are the other 52 residents of Blake's Folly. Without scruples or shame, they're happy to indulge in a heavy dose of interfering, theorizing and intensive match-making. Alice doesn't really stand a chance, does she?
Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself? When did you begin writing?
A: I was raised in a perfectly normal family in Toronto, but I was a restless dreamer and so, at 17, I headed out for bright lights and big cities. I lived in New York, San Francisco, London, Paris and Amsterdam before realizing I didn’t like cities. Since then, I’ve resided in small villages in Greece, Turkey, Germany, Hungary, France, and England. I haven’t seen much financial luxury: I eschew the consumer world as much as possible, am a proponent of the simple life. I’ve lived in cars, in an isolated moorland farmhouse, a mud house on a great plain, a mining-town row house, a condemned building, a closet and in a Bavarian castle. Frankly, my life has been so varied and so fantastic so far, I can hardly believe it’s happening to me.
I’m now owner of a 400-year-old former hotel and café in a tiny village in the west of France, and I live here for seven months of the year. The other five months I live near Paris. The reason? I hate the city: Bernard, my partner of eight years hates the country. So we compromise.
Because I’ve lived in odd places and had an unruly life, I’ve always kept notes and diaries and have written stories. How could I do anything else? Writing was stability.
Q: Can you tell us about your most recent release?
A: My recent release is a romance — a category romance — All About Charming Alice. I was in the mood to write a romance with a good, intense story, strong characters and a happy end. I wanted to write about Alice, an independent woman who is brave, who loves nature, her environment and all the unloved creatures of the world (she is a herpetologist, a woman who studies, loves and protects snakes.) I also wanted to write about the man who falls in love with her: Jace. He’s open, warm and determined — just the sort of partner an old toughie like Alice needs. And Jace is also a very committed, intellectually curious person.
I also wanted to write about a setting I love: the Nevada desert and a clapboard community of misfits, odd characters and (fairly loveable) cranks.
I admit this story is a bit more than a romance, though. I also wanted share my own love of landscape, of the other creatures inhabiting this earth (I really do appreciate the beauty of reptiles, and learning about them makes fear dissipate). I also wanted to pass along some old true tales of the far west, stories that few people know.
Q: If you could recommend just one of your books to my readers, which book would you choose?
A: This is a difficult question for me. I have three books available at the moment and they are all of different genres, so it really depends on what someone wants to read.
My recent release, All About Charming Alice, is pure category romance, and that means there’s all the intensity — and doubt — of first attraction and new love. So, if someone wants to live all those first intense moments, this is the book to go for. Of course, there’s also conflict in the story, and it does feel as though the relationship between Alice and Jace certainly can’t last. Luckily they do find a happy, loving, workable solution.
Another book I wrote, Slanderous Tongue, (a print edition although I’m hoping it will soon be an e-book) is a cozy mystery. Set in a small French village, there are nosy neighbors and the heroine is an amateur sleuth, but there is another aspect to the book: it is also a condemnation of industrial animal farms.
I also wrote, Finding Home in the Footsteps of the Jewish Fusgeyers, a travel/essay/history book tracing the 1899 immigrant trail from Romania to western Canada. For this, I crossed Romania on foot, took trains through Austria, Germany, Holland, England and Canada, spent five years researching in European and North American archives. It was a very exciting project. The book won a literary prize.
So you see what I mean about having to choose?
Q: Of all your characters, which one is your favorite? Why?
A: In, All About Charming Alice, I’ve written about the odd, cranky characters that crop up from time to time in life. These are people I adore simply because being confronted by their difference keeps us on our toes. Misfits, these folk don’t fit into neat houses and tidy gardens: they’re not rebels by choice, but by character; they’re the real thing. In my book, they form the population of Blake’s Folly, a dusty, run down Nevada community of trailers, shacks and old cars. Nosy, interfering and truculent, they observe Alice and Jace who are lost in that overwhelming haze of new love (that usually excludes all normal conversation and most civilized behavior) these community and provide us with their rather original opinions on the romance.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect of writing your book?
A: For me the most challenging aspect of any book, any article, any letter, any communication is not being boring. That means making sure there are no boring, oft repeated, silly conversations, no boring descriptions of the usual boring urban landscapes, no boring people, no boring rehashed conflicts. Far too often, we readers are just kicking our heels, waiting for characters to stop being boring so we can get on with the story. Sigh.
Q: What is your primary goal as an author?
A: Well I have several goals, not just a primary one. I want to entertain, to amuse and to stimulate. I want people to re-think some of their ideas (life is so much more interesting when we jostle our intellects). And, if possible, it would be wonderful if I could influence people to smile happily at perfect strangers.
Q: What projects are you currently working on?
A: A romantic suspense, a Canadian history, an autobiography written as a series of portraits, a history of eastern Hungary. That’s it for the moment. Again, sigh.
Q: What advice would you offer to new or aspiring authors?
A: Find those rare but wonderful books with words and sentences that sing. Read them over and over again until they become part of you. Buy and read as many grammar books as you can (read them when you’re in bed at night, just before falling asleep, and the rules will stick with you.) Write and re-write each sentence, each paragraph until it’s beautiful. Cut, cut again. Cut some more. And don’t talk or dream about writing: do it!
You can learn more about J. Arlene Culiner at the following links:
Web site: http://www.j-arleneculiner.com
Here’s an excerpt (the first chapter) from, All About Charming Alice, just to whet appetites.
The back seat of Jace’s car looked like it needed a shave. “Can’t you dogs keep your hair on?”
The huge black animal only wagged its tail, a look of simple adoration in its eyes. Jace sighed. His day was going all wrong. He didn’t like dogs, didn’t like dog hair, and didn’t like being late. Yet here he was, late for his appointment, busy driving a shedding mutt around the ramshackle, one-horse town of Blake’s Folly. Town? No one in his right mind would call this a town. Or a village. Or a community. It was simply a jumble. Of shacks, rundown wooden frame houses, beat up trailers, car wrecks, weeds and dust. Hard to imagine that a hundred years ago Blake’s Folly had been a wild community—a Gomorra—a name that brought terror into the hearts of honest men and women; but also a refuge in a harsh, hostile wasteland.
Times had changed, all right. Nowadays there was nothing appealing, nothing welcoming and nothing threatening about the place. It was definitely a has-been.
“Jeez!” muttered Jace. “Why would people want to live in a mess like this?” As if in response to the question which was of course, merely rhetorical, the dog sighed.
Jace threw the creature a sour look in the rear view mirror. “The last thing I need is a dog with all the answers.”
The dog was large—very large. Its bulbous head seemed to sway on a sagging neck. Its legs were long, knotted, spindly, and its ribs wanted to punch through a dull, ratty looking coat. Yet, ugly though it was, the damn thing still had appeal. But was that a reason to talk to it? Jace had never had a conversation with an animal in his life; folks who did were either nuts or absolute fools. “And there’s no way I’m sliding into one of those categories!” he stated with definite emphasis.
The animal’s tail thumped a mocking denial on the seat. Jace sighed. It was all the fault of the dry Nevada air. “Doing strange things to my brain,” he muttered. “I need the city, with big city dirt, pollution and noise. Spend a few more hours in the desert with this beast, and I’ll find myself explaining the theory of relativity to it.”
He turned, moaned. The amount of dog hair on the back seat had reached disaster proportions. He had to get rid of this animal, and fast.
Suddenly, the rutted track came to an abrupt end. Jace slammed his foot down on the brake and the car skidded to a dusty stop. Now what? Ahead of him, the countryside stretched out in beige desert monotony: endless, lifeless, treeless.
The man at the gas station had told him to take this dog to the last house in town: a yellow house. A house belonging to a woman called Alice Treemont—how was that for a moniker? Certainly seemed appropriate for a woman who lived in the desert and took in stray dogs. He could just picture her too: hair dyed ruby red, cigarette hanging out of a corner of her mouth, her body molded by leopard latex. Or else a mean-lipped witch, one who hated every male on earth.
Jace stared at the structure on his right. It was a building of sorts. High, rickety- looking, made out of wood, it looked like the typical haunted house found in amusement parks when he was a kid. Could this be what he was looking for? Impossible. He peered out at the landscape: left, right, behind, ahead. Nothing else. Just this place. “A yellow house,” he groaned. “This is what locals call yellow?” Sure, it must have been yellow once. Probably around eighteen seventy-five.
Opening the car door, he stepped out onto the soft, brown dust that, to his great disgust, instantly covered the fine Italian leather of his boot.
Hell on earth, that’s what this part of the world was. He was really looking forward to getting out of here, going back to crowded Chicago, to art galleries, concerts, the theater— all of those places— and being in the company of one of the beautiful, sophisticated women he knew.
“Seems to me every female needs a male around the house,” Pa Handy declared in his usual know-it-all tone of voice.
Know-it-alls drove Alice to distraction. She might be a tall, deceptively fragile- looking woman, but she was rarely cowed. She glared belligerently at the potbellied man in front of her. “Seems to me we have differing opinions on that subject.” Her voice was dangerously low.
Not in the least threatened, Pa stared right back with complacency. “Seems to me one of us is sure to be wrong. Take this broken down water heater, for example. Now if…
“Male or no male, appliances wear out,” Alice interrupted, hoping to bring this utterly worn out subject to a definite end, although trying to stop Pa from giving unwanted advice was harder than blocking a flash flood. He was nosy and interfering. Just like everyone else here in Blake’s Folly.
Shaking his head dolefully, Pa scrutinized the scramble of nuts, bolts, and rusty screws curled into the palm of his gnarled left hand. “Sure they do but it’s mighty nice having someone around to put things back together again. I bet Brad Mace would’ve fixed this water heater up in no time. If you’d just let him in through your front door, that is. Got all sorts of odds and ends out on that ranch of his, Brad does.”
“I have no intention of asking Brad for anything,” Alice countered tersely. The very last thing on earth she could do was ask Brad for help. He’d interpret the request as a mating call. He would read deep, dark, hidden meaning into it. Seduction. Invitation. As far as Alice could judge, Brad had been alone out on that ranch of his for too long now.
“Seems a shame to me, Brad out on that ranch,” Pa pursued, as if reading her thoughts. “You here in town. Both of you on your own. Both of you lonely and single… ”
“Brad is definitely not the man for me.”
“He’s a good man, Brad.” Pa nodded in stubborn confirmation of his own opinion. “Nice place he’s got out there too. All he needs is a good woman to take care of it for him.”
Was she really going to let herself be dragged into this conversation? Obviously she was. If only to put all thoughts of a burning romance between herself and Brad Mace out of Pa’s mind for once and for all. If only to click off the matchmaker’s gleam in his little half-moon eyes.
“Pa, I really hope with all my heart Brad finds the good woman he needs. But that woman doesn’t happen to be me. I didn’t come to Blake’s Folly to get married. I came here to be alone. I also came here because I love snakes, I love writing about them, photographing and protecting them. It’s my profession. I’m a herpetologist. And you know Brad Mace hates snakes. Brad Mace kills snakes. Brad Mace is too damn stubborn to accept that snakes have a necessary role in our ecological system.”
Even she noted how her voice had risen. Snakes: the most unloved creatures on earth. And she felt it was her duty to save them all; to educate others to appreciate them as much as she did.
Pa shook his head. “Snakes. Not a fit thing for a woman to be interested in, you ask me.”
“Okay, Pa. Subject closed.”
So what if she sometimes felt lonely? So what if it would be nice to share life, hopes and ideas with someone she loved, someone who loved her? There was no way on earth she’d admit that to Pa Handy. Or anyone.
What was the point? What were the chances of finding a man who shared her interests out here? Zero. That’s the way life went. She’d taken the risk when she’d decided to come to Blake’s Folly, flee her disastrous marriage to a successful Hollywood film director and inveterate womanizer, abandon her own career as an actress, step out of a lifestyle that had been making her miserable for years.
She’d come to live in this ramshackle Nevada home built by her great-grandfather in the eighteen hundreds, and had found the peace she’d craved. For the last ten years, she’d been trudging over the desert’s barren beauty with the stray dogs she rescued, and she’d never felt healthier or stronger. But that didn’t stop her from—sometimes—dreaming about love. On the other hand, she refused to give up the things she believed in, her principles, just so she wouldn’t be alone anymore. “Pa? Can you fix the water heater or not?”
Pa shook his grizzled head, waved the heavy wrench in his right hand. “Dunno. Gotta fuss around with it a bit before I decide. Tricky things, these old heaters.”
Well, it didn’t sound that hopeless did it? There was a chance he could do something. Buying a new heater would cost her good money, and in Blake’s Folly, money was a commodity scarcer than rainfall.
Although not quite as difficult as finding the right man to love.