A British writer’s secret island in the Carpathian mountains

Arabella McIntyre-Brown, a British writer and publisher, moves to an isolated village in Transylvania, where she organizes workshops, writes non-fiction and crime novels and watches the world go by.

After I read an article about Arabella McIntyre-Brown, a British writer who lives up in the mountains of Transylvania, in the village of Magura, I decided to write her and ask her for an interview. I really wanted to meet this woman who seemed to descend from a fantasy novel, judging by her eccentric appearance and witty, melancholic smile. The article was saying that she wrote a book about Liverpool’s history and that she was an award-winning business journalist, but deep down I was certain that she is a person in love with fiction, maybe secretly drafting a new Harry Potter book.

Arabella agreed to meet, so on a Saturday morning, mid-June, I got off the train in Zarnesti, the nearest town to Magura and started to walk the way up to the village. People in the town said that there might be dogs on the road and that it will probably start raining, so I’d better take a cab. I decided, however, to walk. It was a narrow, rocky road, surrounded by forests, where a car would pass by once in a while. All the fears seemed unjustified, as there were no dogs and no heavy storm, but it was damn heavy going up that road. When I reached Magura, after an hour-long walk through, I was struck by the beauty and silence of it. It is a scattered village on several hills, surrounded by mountains, including the Piatra Craiului Mountains, and hills. The smell of wild flowers was sneaking from everywhere.

Arabella was expecting me in front of her timber house, and next to her there was a cat playing in the grass. “He’s Mouse,” Arabella introduced him. She is wearing a blue shirt, light cotton trousers and a golden necklace.

The walls of the entrance hall are painted in light blue, and it feels like a Mediterranean house, a sort of island lost in the middle of the mountains. Arabella tells me that she once found the neighbours’ sheep right there, “all five standing there on that rug”. They took advantage of her leaving the house for a few moments, and thought they might pay her a visit.

Arabella's cat

She bought the house ten years ago, while she was still living in Liverpool, but moved here for good five years ago. Magura reminded Arabella of the hamlet where she was born, in West Sussex, southern England. It was the same geology, same plants, same people working the land and living a simple life. “The hamlet was called River and now I live in Magura, which means hill in Romanian. I’ve come from river to hill, which I like,” she says.

After the deaths of her sister, mother and aunt, all within 14 months, Arabella decided to buy a house in the village which reminded her of her birthplace and childhood. She initially planned to spend the summers here, but in the end moved definitively.

She left her life in Liverpool and started anew in this timber house, which needed a lot of refurbishing. For Arabella, the house is an ongoing project. For an outsider like myself, it seems a miraculous place, filled with books, paintings that belonged to her grandparents, crystal chandeliers bought from the flea market. I take a sit on a sofa, which I share with Buster, a big cat, which purrs all the time, except for when he sees another cat. Through the big windows, framed by red curtains, there’s an elder tree, hills and mountains in the distance. As we talk, several butterflies pass by the window.

“I can just sit and stare at the window for hours, days, weeks go past. Just listening to the bird songs. The chickens make me laugh,” Arabella said. The winters go slowly, but even the winters are nice, if you like watching clouds, watching the light change on hills, and just watching the world go by. “In the morning, these hills are smooth green, but in the afternoon, when the sun hits that side, you see every shade, every bump, every lump.”

After she bought the house, Arabella spent a lot of time sitting on piles of bricks, and thinking how she could refurbish it. She improvised a lot. The beautiful velvet curtains, which frame one of her windows, are actually throws, meant for bed. But they work very well, and they are warm, she explained. One of the rugs is from her mother’s father, who travelled all over the world for a company. He was butcher, and he bought the big pink rug from India.

Her house often hosts volunteers, young people who travel through the HelpX program. They are from all over the world, Brazil, Taiwan, New Zealand, Canada, or Spain. A German guy named Moritz made her a big mirror from some wood around the house. Volunteers help her paint the house, dig the garden. They also share stories.

Arabella's other cat

Besides writing, Arabella organizes the Freemagination workshops, where she teaches people how to discover stories within their own heads. In England, you can’t move without falling into a writing tutor, she explained, and you learn how to pace your work, how to write dialogue, how to market it, but the problem is that you go home after you learned this stuff and you haven’t got any story idea. “Freemagination doesn’t teach people. All it does is to unlock their imagination- put a key in the lock and whoosh, their imagination is off.” She has worked with school kids, groups of adults in Brasov and in the UK.

“We’re told not to day-dream. ‘Stop that’, ‘concentrate on your proper job’, and we are disconnected in all sorts of ways from our head.” The fun of having a workshop like this, especially for people who have to be very precise and fact-based at their jobs, is that their imagination can go wild. “They can go and take over other planets, they can create entirely new worlds, they can become a unicorn, they can braze the government and start World War 5, they can do anything in their heads, which I think would be rather a nice holiday from their day to day work,” Arabella says.

The view from Magura

Arabella is also working on a crime novel, she tells me. “Imagine a beautiful village, where it’s all quiet and you hear the birds and crickets- it seems paradise; but you’ve got no idea what’s going on down there in the valley; no idea what’s happening behind closed doors. Who knows?”

“I like stuff coming out of the blue clear sky. You can be walking and whistling a nice happy tune and suddenly whooooosh. It’s much more dramatic.” In real life, she hates danger. “If anybody threatens me, I’d be like my cat George, running for the hills, terrified. But fiction is in your head. That’s the nice thing about it. You can create these whole worlds in your head.”

She likes the psychology of crime novels: ordinary, decent, nice-ish people getting caught up in crazy situations; watching the progress of somebody who starts off sweet and decent and how they are pushed to the edge.

Crime genre is hugely popular in Britain, Arabella explains, probably because it’s a very safe society. It doesn’t have a gun culture like the US, it’s not like South America where life is dangerous, where people die for whatever reason. But people can’t bear it to be too peaceful for too long. They need drama.

It’s the same in Magura, the village where she lives. It’s peaceful, there’s enough space and nobody threatens you. “There’s no need for any strife. But humans need drama. If there isn’t conflict, they’ll make one, they’ll find something to argue about and they’ll blow tiny little argument into this huge row.”

When she moved to the village, people kept asking her how come she’s not married, how come she’s a woman living alone. “They just couldn’t understand why I wasn’t married. But when I said I was a writer…’well…in that case…it explains everything’. So I can get away with murder because I’m a writer. I’m just an odd English woman writer,” she said laughing.

She became a business journalist, without planning it. “It was just one of those happy accidents, like being thrown into a swimming pool and discovering I could swim.” She was writing the newsletter for a company, and somebody told her to apply for a job as business magazine editor in Liverpool. She did get the job and discovered she could actually do it. She eventually won several awards.

She has always been living in a sort of fantasyland, she says, so I ask her how did that go with business journalism. “I was always living in my head, especially as a business journalist,” she answered.

She had to write about business and tax, “mind-numbingly boring staff, but important. People need to pay attention to this stuff. The only way I could think of doing it was to use imagery, use stories, so that people would read it, and remember it. And understand it, because it’s important.”

She understood that people plus money is drama. She also realized that business journalism seemed to be missing a trick. Why not make it funny? “The more serious and boring it is, the more you’d have to make it entertaining and funny. Otherwise why would people read this?”

Her first fiction was a six-episode story about a family business.

Every morning starts for Arabella by listening to BBC Radio 4’s Today Program. “I hate politics, but it’s sort of amusing and gives me a start to the day.” She sometimes turns on Radio Romania Muzical, and she’ll just be sitting in her kitchen in Transylvania, listening to the Beatles. The Beatles are, of course, from Liverpool, where Arabella lived for many years and co-founded the publishing house Capsica. She chose this name, which derives from capsicum, commonly known as peppers, because her father was called Pepper.

She grew up with The Beatles songs, singing “She loves me” when she was four. Later on, her book on Liverpool came out the day George Harrison died, on November 29, 2001. He was her favourite Beatle. At the end of 2000, a photographer asked her if she’s be interested to write a book about Liverpool. She quit her job as business editor, and spent most of the following year working on Liverpool: The First 1,000 Years. The book was a best-seller, it hit no.2 around Christmas.

“I miss England, but I don’t miss it enough,” she said.  “I miss cheese, bacon, fish & chips, the British tv, the BBC, whatever, but not enough.”

Arabella is now writing a nonfiction book about her time in Magura. “It’s not really about me. It’s not even about Romania, not even about Transylvania, and not even about the village. It’s about my bit of the village, what I see around me. It’s about the iarba and the pasare and the gaina, caine…just life going on. It’s more about the natural life.”

We talk for several hours, until the sun set. Later, I took my rucksack and headed to the village, while Arabella returned to her writing. She had to finish a project that weekend. As for the following days, she said she’ll be soon making elderflower cordial, a soft drink made from the flowers of the elder tree, which was already in bloom. She also planned to paint the house in a different colour.

“Getting bored? Noooo, I don’t get time for that,” Arabella said. “There’s always stuff to do, let alone write my books and do work for clients, cats to play with, things to wash. And if there’s nothing else to do, I’ll just sit listening to the birds and watch the life going on.”

By Diana Mesesan, features writer, [email protected]

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