Arabella McIntyre-Brown is the author of the book
She is a British writer, a former business journalist and non-fiction author who published over ten books before she left the UK. She now lives in the mountain village of Magura, near Brasov. Her house is exactly 1,000 metres altitude and sits amongst wildflower meadows. She has lived in Romania since 2010 and in 2016 published her first book here – Din Liverpool în Carpati – the story of life around her house, why she came here, and why she has stayed. In May 2017 she published a children’s novel, Dragoni pe cerul Londrei (Dragons over London) as a bilingual book in English and Romanian. Floss is her third book for children.
Thea asks Arabella some questions about her life:
Where do you write? I have a study with two windows facing south and west. So from one I see the Bucegi mountains, and from the other, Piatra Craiului. The views are very
distracting, especially when the sky is full of fascinating clouds. I am a member of the Cloud Appreciation Society and here, with the mountains, I see some corkers. You can see some of the best here. Other distractions include neighbours’ animals yelling their heads off, sheep occasionally getting into the garden (emergency demanding chasing them out with a pitchfork), and of course, the cats. They want something, from lunch to a cuddle, and won’t be denied. I have a long sofa in the study so if I need 40 winks, or need to contemplate my next chapter, I can put my feet up and watch the sky for a while. It’s also the warmest room in the house, with a brilliant wood stove which keeps me warm even when the winter temperature drops to -25C.
How do you write? I have a computer on my desk which has a big screen, so I can have my manuscript open on one side, and Google or a page of notes on the other side. It’s also great for editing photos and looking at maps in detail. I find it much harder to work on a laptop. I used to scribble notes on a pad, but these days I put things straight on to the computer. Saves me retyping everything.
Are you disciplined about work? I’m very ill-disciplined about writing time (and everything else). I always mean to get straight to work, but somehow by the time I’ve got up and fed the cats, made coffee, done last night’s washing up, contemplated the day, checked Facebook and dealt with emails, it’s about eleven o’clock. Then it’s time for breakfast – and then I can get down to work. If I’m in the writing groove, or have a pressing deadline, I’ll work till midnight or later. I like to get up early in the summer and wake with the sun, usually. So sometimes there’s a little spot in the afternoon, around half past three, when an hour is required to close my eyes and, er, meditate, often with a cat snuggled in to me on the sofa. Then a cup of tea, and I’m back at my desk. However… If I have an urgent deadline, such as for Dragoni or Floss, I can be writing by 7am, almost non-stop (apart from short breaks for essentials).
How do you start a new book? I’ve got so many ideas lurking around – some for years and years – that I’m not short of projects. But there’s always something new, too! Din Liverpool in Carpati was an obvious book to write, really, and I have lots of scribbled notes in little sketch pads and diaries and bits of old table napkin and backs of electricity bills… notes about things I knew I’d forget. Details, scraps of conversation, silly moments, odds and sods. The thing with this book was trying to find a structure and some means of pulling things together into chapters. My editor at ALL helped with that, and somehow it all came together. Luckily, readers seem to like the way it’s been done. I have five non-fiction books to be written – two about business, two for health, and my sister’s biography. there are lots of notes and plans and half-written chapters on the computer, waiting for someone to take interest and give me a deadline.
What about fiction? How did you come up with ideas for Floss, for instance? Floss is a true story – at least the puppy’s story is completely true. It happened to me in real life (it was my house the puppy came to), but I decided it would be far more interesting to give the story to a Romanian family, with Thea narrating.
The thing I love most about fiction is finding new characters and especially finding the right names for them. I spend ages on names, because they give me so much more – clues to the appearance and personality of the character, and their backgrounds and stories. Sometimes I find photos that inspire me, or a half-remembered picture from childhood, or a story in the newspapers – anything can inspire a character. Sometimes they just leap from my head fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. They’re often the best characters and the hardest to control.
What about the story itself? I usually have a germ of an idea, sparked by who-knows-what, and I soon need to start research. Sometimes the place inspires me. Floss’s story is set in a village rather like the one where I live, so I didn’t need to do much research for this story – not for the setting, anyway. In a novel, the main story (the plot) would be a bit boring without some other stories that weave through it (subplots). So I had to think up reasons why the Thimble family couldn’t keep Floss, and there were the relationships in the family and with neighbours, too.
For the Dragons I went to the Tower of London at New Year and that gave me so many ideas, like the White Tower Well which was there in the basement, dating back almost 1,000 years. My dragon’s perfect home! London (especially the Tower) is an amazing place to set stories, of course, because it’s ancient and complicated, and almost anything is possible. But there’s so much information! I can wander around the internet for days on end, finding amazing stuff, and some of it just leaps straight into my story. I like writing stories where the geography is real, and the background events are solid facts. So look up the dates and events of the story and you’ll be surprised what you find…
What’s your next book? There are two possible stories, depending on what the publisher wants. One is called The cat and the crow, and the other is called Mad Auntie Bat. Both are set in the same village as Floss; one is funny and a bit mad, like the central character, and the other is… well, it’s surprising, but sweet and funny, too.
When did you start writing? Ah… that’s a good question. I wrote silly stories when I was at school, like so many kids, but they were just for me. I didn’t have the confidence to show them to anyone, not even my English teachers, even though they were very encouraging. I even won the school’s English Prize in my last year, but still I didn’t write anything much as a young adult, or even an old adult – I didn’t have the confidence, like so many people (particularly girls). I became a journalist by accident in my thirties, and won a couple of awards, which boosted my confidence a bit. But I was 43, yes, forty-three, before I published my first book. After that, because people liked it, I had more belief in my abilities, and wrote more. So now I’m getting old, I’m writing furiously to try and catch up with all the years (decades) I should have been writing… If you want to write, don’t you wait so long!!
Every writer must be a reader too. What books do you like? Gosh – a huge question. I’ve got about 1,000 books in the house, and now I’m getting more disciplined about giving away books before I get new ones. Otherwise every room would be a library (not a bad fantasy, actually!). I’m not a fan of ebooks, partly because I love books as objects, and find them as fascinating for their design, feel, smell and sound as for their contents. Nearly half the books are fiction, some poetry and plays, mostly for adults but some favourite children’s books, too. More than half, though, are non-fiction, from books I’ve used for research, from family heirlooms, huge coffee-table books, philosophy and psychology, flora, fauna and the natural world, popular science, books about where I used to live, a small collection of Ronald Searle cartoon books, all of my brother-in-law’s books, alternative health and remedies, books about massage (I qualified nearly 20 years ago)… all sorts.
But you must have favourites? Argh! That word favourite… I don’t do favourites in anything. There are books, films, foods, clothes, colours, etc that I can enjoy time and time again, but there are dozens, not just one. And it depends on the day of the week, or the time of day. Ask me tomorrow and you’ll get a different answer… When I get time I’ll post a page about best-loved books and authors I can recommend.
About me, at home
Do you really live on your own? Usually, yes. At least I’m the only human living here. There are four cats who share the place and keep me entertained. You can see pictures of them here. They are village cats, but a complete family of mum (born in 2010) and three kittens (born in 2011) who are as much at home here as I am. Sometimes I have volunteers staying, who help me in the garden or around the house on projects such as painting a room, or building a wall. They are travellers from all over the world – I’ve had people here from South Korea, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Finland, Siberia and all over Europe and the USA. It’s an amazing way to meet new people and learn things about the world. They are always delighted by Romania and especially by Magura.
Do you like getting visitors to your house? I’m a very private person, and love solitude, so unlike my welcoming and hospitable neighbours, I’m not very keen on people turning up without warning. If I know someone is coming in plenty of time, I can be ready for the visit and enjoy it. But bear in mind that I work from home – thanks to the wonders of the internet – so it’s not as if I’m sitting around, bored and lonely, longing for someone to arrive and brighten up my day. I have lots of work to do and often work late at night. Not only is the next book always nagging, but I have freelance work to do as an editor, a journalist, and a tutor. So if someone turns up unexpectedly, I will probably be in the middle of writing an article, being interviewed myself over the phone, or trying to meet an urgent deadline for a client. I can’t just stop and take time off to enjoy a chat, sadly – it’s just like working in an office in the city although it doesn’t look like it.
You love gardening. What plants do you grow? It’s going to be quite an English garden, although it’s in the middle of wildflower meadows in the Carpathians. I’ve fenced off the area around the house so that I can have flowers and shrubs without the sheep eating them all. Outside the fence, I still have an area of wildflowers so I can enjoy the exquisite beauty of native species from early violets to orchids, three colours of scabious, lady’s mantle, St John’s Wort and many, many more. There are hundreds of species right here on my land – further afield in the village I find a whole different set of plants, and on the road down to Zarnesti there are all the plants which grow at a slightly lower altitude. In my garden I also grow some vegetables – things I can’t find in the local markets, like mange touts and sugar peas, French beans and courgettes, pak choi, rainbow chard, mustard greens and mizuna. And I encourage wild salads like chickweed, Fat Hen and ribwort plantain, all delicious in salads or steamed gently for a few minutes. There’s nothing better than picking and eating fresh veg grown in your own garden…
What did you know about Romania before you first came here? Not much, if I’m honest. The news of the Ceausescus’ overthrow at Christmas 1989 was front page news in Britain. But before that Romania was a hidden country, not exactly behind the so-called Iron Curtain, but not part of mainstream Europe. Not somewhere that many people visited when I was young. Even now when friends visit me they are always surprised by what they find here. Perceptions are slow to change.
What do you find so exciting about Magura? Exciting? Just the opposite. I have found profound peace and a refuge from the ‘real’ world of concrete and consumerism. It’s like stepping back through time to my own childhood in rural England, with higher mountains and extra wildlife.
Do you have a favourite place in Romania? I have found my Ithaca in Magura. But if I’m forced to choose a city, then Brasov is excellent, and I like Sighisoara’s beautiful citadel, if I can be there without huge crowds and loud music. The fortified churches are fascinating, but I prefer the lesser-known ones such as Homorod and Vulcan, where I can look around in peace, and enjoy the solace of silence. I confess that I haven’t explored Romania very much because I have almost everything I want in Magura and don’t need to search any longer. There are lots of places I want to see if I can bear to leave the village, especially in rural areas.
What do you find most attractive about Romania? Apart from the natural beauty, the friendly and welcoming people, the traditions and the peace? One aspect of life here that appeals to me so much is the concept of being neighbours, vecini. The idea that you have an obligation to make sure your neighbours are okay, to help them with problems, to be concerned about their welfare. Of course it’s logical common sense – when you have a problem you know that your neighbours will help you, in their turn. But it’s a very good feeling to know that I can turn to my neighbours when things go wrong, and find a helping hand when I need it.
Tell us about your life in Britain
It seems both a long, long time ago, and like yesterday. It’s another world, but Britain was home till I was 50, so it will always be a big part of me.
I was born in a place called River, which isn’t even a village. It has no church, no pub, no shop – just a string of houses along a narrow, winding road through deepest rural West Sussex (between London and the Channel).
Here are some maps to show you. First, a map of England and Wales. In the top left bit you can see Liverpool, where I lived for 20 years before I came to Romania; and you can see London down in the south-east (bottom right) where I was for 11 years before I went to Liverpool. And below London, near the sea, you can see a green bit marked South Downs National Park. River (where I was born) is just about where the D of Downs is. It’s much too small to show up on here.
And here’s a map of River. Not the village to the left, but the string of houses in the middle. I could point out my actual house to you, but it’s still a bit small. You can see how green it is – woods and farmland on gentle rolling hills.
You can see that I’ve made a funny sort of circle: I was born in a National Park, and I’m back in a National Park – but this time in Transylvania, in the Piatra Craiului National Park. Both places are on the same sort of rock (chalk/limestone, or calcium carbonate) so they have the same flowers and trees and birds and animals. That’s part of the reason I feel so at home here in Magura.
I left Sussex when I was 19 and went to London (1977). The city was still a terrorist target for the IRA, and there were lots of terrible incidents, but I was unscathed. I worked in theatres with people who were then famous, and other, younger ones who are now famous. It was exciting, and fascinating, and a wild education. But life in London if you have no money is quite a challenge, and after 11 years I moved north to Liverpool.
In Liverpool I became a journalist, working on business magazines, and my first job was as a magazine editor. That was a steep learning curve… I did okay, and won some awards. Then I left magazines to write my first book, and then some more. With my business partner we published other people’s books, too, and then I left to move to Transylvania. I left a lot of friends behind in Liverpool but thanks to Facebook and Wizz Air, I keep in touch. The world is very small these days.