This Romania Journal interview of 1 august 2019 is the most comprehensive to date.
The Story Of Arabella McIntyre-Brown, The British Author Who Fell In Love With Magura Following A “Căruță Ride”
By Alina Grigoras Last updated Aug 1, 2019
You are briefly describing yourself on our website as a writer, editor, tutor, cloudwatcher, resident of Transylvania. But, who actually is Arabella McIntyre-Brown? Tell us about your personal history, where you were born, childhood memories that impacted on your life, what is your basic training, some info about your educational and professional background?
– I was born in rural West Sussex, south-eastern England, in 1958. (The people, the geology and the lifestyle was similar enough to rural Transylvania in 2004 that I felt at home immediately.) I was born to an affluent family with two brothers and a sister, all much older than me. My father ran his family’s business producing lime [var] for construction, which had been successful for over 100 years; the business failed in the building crash of 1968, and my family split up, leaving my mother and I homeless for a while.
– I left education at 17 after failing to live up to academic potential; I had a successful interview at King’s College Cambridge when I was 15, but did badly in final exams and didn’t go to university. It hasn’t stopped me having an interesting if eccentric career, and possibly saved my life: I was so unhappy when I was 17 that going to university so young might have ended very badly.
Tell us a little bit of your journalistic career and how you became a writer?
My career as a journalist was random; I was persuaded to apply for a job as editor of a business magazine in 1993, having no training or experience except for decent English and the ability to type. Got the job, did unexpectedly well, and went on to be editor of two more business magazines (with a couple of awards) before quitting to write a book in 2001 (Liverpool: the first 1,000 years). That was a local bestseller and the first of a dozen or so published in the UK.
How come Romania? When did you first discovered Romania and why did you take the decision to relocate here, precisely in Magura, Transylvania?
I came to Romania for a week’s holiday in Zarnesti, in August 2003. One day we were taken for a căruță ride up to Magura, and I was immediately enchanted. As soon as we entered the Piatra Craiului national park I felt strangely at home, as though I were back in Sussex. The following year my sister died and left me a bit of money which meant I could buy a small place here; that’s how I got my Magura house. But it wasn’t until 2010 that I moved out here for good, leaving the UK behind me.
Transylvania seems to have lured a lot of foreigners over the years. Not only for visiting, but also for relocation. How did a city dweller like you manage to embrace the village life? Were there any shocks or did it just come naturally, like some kind of missing puzzles in your life?
Although I lived in cities (London and Liverpool) for 30 years, I was a country girl for the first 10 years of my life, so going back to my childhood lifestyle was a relief from urban life. Yes, some things were a shock, like the first long harsh winter, but I have often moved house and changed jobs, so change itself was a challenge, but not too hard.
How would you spend a normal day in Magura? How are the locals? How have they integrated you in the local community? What is your favorite season there, which would mostly describe the very heart of Transylvania?
– A normal day in Magura… First task of the every day is to feed my four cats, then I can make my coffee and begin to wake up. After that, there’s no real routine. I work from home, editing and writing, so much of the day is spent at the computer unless there’s nothing urgent, when I do other things like clean, tidy and work on my house or garden. It’s all a big work-in-progress. Occasionally if there’s time or I have no energy for housework, I’ll pick up a book and lie on the sofa to read for a couple of hours. Mostly, though, I’m at the computer.
– My neighbours have been kind and welcoming, and they have learned that I like my solitude, and am fiercely private. I’m something of a hermit, so I don’t socialise locally, and don’t take much part in village life. I did the same in Liverpool and London, so it’s nothing to do with Romania – just my way.
– Spring is what I most look forward to, since I hate the long cold winter. So the coming of spring, with a carpet of dandelions [papadie] and clouds of white blossom, is heaven. This year it was a wet, cold, windy spring, and we have only had a few days of hot sunny summer so far. But after several long droughts, I would always choose a cool wet summer over too much heat. I have learned not to complain about rain…
Getting back to your books, what is the latest one released and what’s in store for this year and the years to come? Any new projects in the pipeline?
The next book is the third in the ‘Floss’ series, which comes out in the autumn; I hope there will be a new Floss book every year. As for new projects, I am longing to settle down to writing the first crime novel, set in Sussex and Transylvania – I hope that might happen next year.
Tell us a few words about “Din Liverpool in Carpati”/ A Stake in Transylvania”. How’s the feedback so far, both from your expat acquaintances, and also from Romanians?
Din Liverpool in Carpati/A Stake in Transylvania has had some fabulous feedback from readers. As a generalisation, Romanian men enjoy seeing their country through foreign eyes, and like the humour. Romanian women often comment on the candour and intimacy of what I write about my own journey, especially the inner journey from mental illness and bereavement to recovery and a new start. It’s not common to read about this, they say, and they find it a great relief to read about something similar to their own experiences. That was a surprise, but a very welcome one that has touched me deeply. American and British readers are more used to intimate personal stories, but they like reading about a radical change in life by a post-menopausal woman, rather than a younger person’s story. They also love reading about modern-day rural Transylvania, and real Romanians. The UK and US media aren’t always kind or fair to the Romanian diaspora.
As for the children’s book, Floss has become quite a character. The Romanian book market for kids is on the rise, how has been the feedback on your bilingual books, Dahlia’s Pet Detectives, the Floss series or Dragons over London?
Pita, who became Floss
Floss has become popular here in Romania, which is a lovely surprise. Kids love animals, and the story appeals to children’s soft hearts. What makes it special is that the first story, Floss the Lost Puppy (Floss catelusul pierdut) was completely true. Well – the dog’s story is 100% true. The humans are all invented. Dalia’s pet detectives hasn’t been so popular – possibly because it stars a black cat and a crow – and so many people are superstitious about these animals. That’s partly why I wrote the story, to show that black cats and crows are beautiful, clever, funny and lovable. I’d like to write more about Dalia and Chip, Onyx and Gossip, but we’ll see. Dragons over London is much darker and longer than the village stories, but kids who like dragons love the beautiful Chinese dragon and his faithful London mouse. What makes this book a bit different is that everything that happens in the book really happened in history. Just not for the same reason as the history books claim…
I noticed on your website, you refer to an article on the marketing myths for new authors, so, some tips for new comers adapted to the present day. I would like ask you if online marketing tools crucial are now for the book market to enable an editorial success? Is the ‘talent scout’ concept obsolete and ‘bragging’ and ‘advertising’ all that matters’? Can’t a book sell itself anymore?
There is so much confusing information about writing, publishing and selling books these days… it’s hard to know what’s true and what isn’t. I detest the marketing process and the social media thing, so I don’t do enough. I only have about 2,000 ‘friends’ on Facebook, I don’t do Twitter, don’t have a very active website, and can’t do Instagram because I don’t have a smartphone. So I don’t meet the demands of big western publishers who want a million followers and a lot of media coverage. But the Romanian success of Floss shows that the very best way to sell books is to have a story that touches readers’ hearts.
If you were to name some of Romania’s pros and cons, what would they be?
Many pros, and a few cons.
– Where I live there is such peace and natural beauty that it’s very easy for time to slip away and for the busy world to vanish as though it were on another planet.
– Something trivial on the con-side, when I first arrived, was the lack of choice in terms of everyday shopping, especially food. Two kinds of cabbage, potatoes and onions (red or white), one kind of lettuce, no French or British cheeses, no exotic spices or cooking ingredients, etc. Now, of course, this has all changed, and there is a world of choice.
– Slow trains, and bad roads. The roads are improving, but not much, and not everywhere. However, the road up to my village varies from tolerable to atrocious; over my nine years here my poor car has been shaken to pieces and has died years before its time…
– What is it about steps? There seems to be a law that steps in Romania have to be of varying height so that an unwary foreign woman trips and staggers from one step to the next, cursing as I clutch a handrail (if there is one).
Among some of the promotional slogans of Romanian tourism (the few existing ones), there are of course local traditions, customs, the return to nature and to the ancestral spirit, is Romania more famous for these than for other, let’s say, more modern touristic spots? Is that what defines Romanian tourism the most or does it have more potential in other ways, too?
Tourism… of course Transylvania’s reputation for over 150 years rested mostly on one famous, fictional name. The lure of the Gothic is still strong, but Romania and Transylvania are getting known for tradition, natural beauty, and so on. All my visitors have been surprised and delighted at the beauty of the landscapes, but saddened by attitudes which ruin the priceless assets of the country. Ignoring local building laws to throw up hideous houses in beautiful places; dumping rubbish in the streams and the meadows and forests; destroying the organic treasure of the wildflower meadows with polluting chemicals and industrial farming… Not to mention the raping of Romania’s forests by thieves and their corporate masters. But tthere are amazing people doing admirable work to restore, conserve, innovate and educate, to stop the destruction of Romania’s world-class assets.
Have you managed to learn some Romanian? What are your favorite words in Romanian?
Vorbesc putin pe romaneste… My brain is old and overstuffed, and at 61 I find that I can’t retain new information. So while I can cope with day-to-day needs such as shopping, finding my way, etc, and know lots of words for birds and animals, flowers and trees, and construction, I find grammar slides out of my brain as fast as I can stuff it in… I love the way that Romanians swear – it’s so poetic, and often surreal. One of my favourite words, because it can be said with such vitriol, is ‘Boule!’ I’ve only had one opportunity to use it, but it was intensely satisfying to yell the word at this stupid ox who had just damaged my poor car…
If you were to define the most common traits of Romanians, what would they be? What do you like most about them, and what do you dislike?
Buried deep in the DNA of my neighbours and everyone in the countryside is this amazing obligation of villagers to look after each other, to make sure their neighbours are okay. If anything goes wrong, one of my neighbours (or a group, if necessary) will find a solution.
– Villagers in Magura – and I’m sure elsewhere in Romania – work very hard, and they party hard, too. Any excuse to play some music, drink some tuica and dance! I was astonished by the wedding tradition that takes three or four days, and the stamina of people to eat, drink and dance with barely time to breathe…
– There is a polarity between country folk and city dwellers when it comes to courtesy. Here in the village people treat one another with the courtesy of princes. In the city, people – especially men – can be breathtakingly rude.
– Two things that really frustrate me are the attitude to diversity, and the attitude to animals. I’m not speaking about city people, where things are more cosmopolitan and sophisticated. But the way many people in the country treat animals as if they were unfeeling tools … it drives me crazy. The other thing is the lack of understanding about diversity – be it race, religion or sexuality. It is, I suppose, mostly fear of the unknown, since many country people haven’t had the chance to travel and see how people live elsewhere; but I hope the rapid social changes include letting go of outdated and blinkered views. I can say the same for parts of the UK, France, the US and other countries – it’s not unique to Romania.
There is a lot of fuss about Romania these days from both political and social perspectives. We have had two hard hot years with headlines focusing on politics, corruption, controversial bills on justice or business that might affect the already frail investors community and the rule of law. What do you think about that? Any predictions, advice? What would be the right steps for Romania to finally head to a more stable outlook?
When it comes to politics… I certainly wouldn’t presume to give advice! The last two years have been very frustrating after a year of progress. But as with Britain and America, it was the apathy of the younger generations which allowed in the current governments. Romania has become used to corruption in public life, but in Britain and the US at least it was more subtle. Not now – everywhere we see the rise of the extreme Right, with greed, corruption, personal ambition and disregard for human, animal and environmental rights threatening to undermine the progress of the last 50 years or more. Romania is suddenly looking quite amateur in the corruption stakes! The EU elections in May were very exciting, with the young proving how things can change if they only cast their vote. There is much to change and improve, of course, but let’s help the young to understand the importance of democracy and take responsibility for their future.
Anyway, things are pretty messed up across all Europe and beyond. How do you think Brexit will evolve and what might the impact be on British citizens living in other EU countries? You are one of those citizens after all….
Brexit? Your guess is as good as mine. The prospect of Johnson’s dangerous plans for a no-deal Brexit is terrifying. I was very reassured by the Romanian government’s generous moves to help the British immigrants here if a no-deal Brexit happens in October. And if it does, I’d far rather be in Romania than in Britain for the next years – I don’t like to think about how things will go with the nightmarish combination of Trump, Johnson and their extremist friends. Breathing the clean air and magical peace of Magura, looking at the ancient rocks of Piatra Craiului, helps me remember that the world is beautiful, and humans haven’t destroyed it all. Yet.
Arabella McIntyre-Brown, 27 july 2019