Earlene Fowler

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Benni Harper

Visit Mysteries Galore website for an interview of Earlene (posted August 2002). 

Visit Crescent Blues website for an interview of Earlene (posted January 2001).


Five Questions with Earlene Fowler
(from Berkley Prime Crime website)

Why did you decide to use arts and crafts, specifically quilts, as a theme for your series?

By acting on the old saying to write what you know. I attempted to write literary short fiction for ten years before I wrote my first novel--FOOL'S PUZZLE. During that ten years I quit writing many times in discouragement. During those "off" times I did crafts--leather tooling, quilting, needlepoint, counted cross-stitch, basketweaving--so when I decided to write a mystery I wanted to write about things I knew about and also things I loved. I've always been drawn to the folk arts (what is sometimes called outsider art) rather than the fine arts probably because of my parent's rural and working class background. It's the art that regular people make after the real work of making a living is done. It was at a quilt show that I got the idea to name my book after a quilt because it suddenly occurred to me how evocative the pattern names were, how much they sounded like stories. I gave Benni a job I would have liked, being a curator at a museum that honored this type of art. Also, my maternal grandmother, the one from Arkansas, made the most beautiful quilts and I own some of them. I've always admired that art form even though I'm not a very good quilt maker.

What is the most difficult part of writing for you?

I know some authors who really hate starting books, but that has never been hard for me. I love the feeling, the possibilities that are there at the start of a story. For me, it's always been ending the story. Not because of the technical part of figuring out the plot, but the emotional part of letting the characters go and also letting the book itself go. The day I drive to Federal Express to send the manuscript to my editor is the hardest part of writing. Once the clerk takes it from my hands, I feel utter desolation. It feels as if it is no longer entirely mine, and, truly, it isn't. But that's part of writing and publishing. I always wish I could keep the manuscript for a few months without someone reading it, savor the fact that I finished it and it's mine. Once it's gone, I start to let go a little. You have to if you want to survive emotionally. By the time my readers have it, it's gone through revisions, copy-editing and many readings so I'm not so attached.

What is it about Benni Harper that people relate to?

I think she's a pretty understanding person and is anxious to give others the benefit of the doubt. She believes in grace and tries to give it to others. She looks at more than just a person's outside appearance or actions and tries to figure out the person they are underneath. She can be stubborn, which I think a lot of people relate to. And she can also be a little spoiled, or maybe sheltered is a better word. She hasn't seen much of the world outside of the small town she grew up in so sometimes has an overly optimistic view of life that people from larger cities can find irritating. She has not seen the true evil that Gabe has and she is sometimes too naive. That's why she can't always understand Gabe's protective instincts toward her. Being married to Gabe has matured her. She's a much different person in the twelfth book than she was in the first, more mature, though she is still much more innocent than Gabe. Being married to her is a good thing for Gabe because I think he is too cynical, has seen too much of the harsh and ugly side of humans. They balance each other. Each has changed the other in a constructive and loving way.

What part of researching a book do you especially enjoy?

First, I only write about things I like so I enjoy all of it! That's something I make a point to tell new writers. This isn't school, writing a novel isn't a term paper. You get to write about whatever you want! So, first I read everything I can on a subject, which is not like work at all to me. For example, when I wrote KANSAS TROUBLES, my third book, part of the plot had to do with the Amish. I bought and read every book I could track down, but I only used about 1/20th of what I learned. I sure enjoyed the research though. I love the travel my writing allows me to do, as well as interesting experiences I would probably not have had other such as ride-alongs with police officers, riding fence lines with ranchers, going to a dude ranch, touring the stables at a horse racing track, even having a Catholic lay minister walk me through giving confession so I could write about Gabe's experience. For DELECTABLE MOUNTAINS, I watched a children's play being produced from tryouts through the final performance. I was only able to use a fraction of what I saw, but I was sure impressed with the director, as well as the kids. Writing has enlarged my life in so many ways, much in the same way reading always has.

What aspects of your personality are especially suited to being a writer?

Thought it's hard for people who meet me (or even some who know me well) I love being alone more than anything in the world. It was even hard for me to get a dog, as strange as that sounds. I've always been a bit of a loner, though I appear to be an outgoing person. I grew up in a big family so I've learned to be around people and I've worked at many jobs that dealt with the public, but being alone in my fictional worlds has always been how I preferred to spend my time. I actually start to get jittery and cranky if I don't have enough alone time. I need that time to write. To write, you really need to like being alone. Lucky for me, my husband understands because he's a bit of a loner too. We're perfectly matched.

 Publishers Weekly Talks With Earlene Fowler

April 3, 2006 by Dean James

The Importance of Family

Agatha Award-winner Earlene Fowler, author of Delectable Mountain and other titles in her Benni Harper Southern cozy series, tries her hand at a stand-alone mystery about Ruby Gavin, a young widow who discovers some unsettling secrets about her late husband.

You've taken a break from your Benni Harper series to pen a stand-alone, The Saddlemaker's Wife. Why now?

I wanted to write about someone who was entirely different from Benni Harper, but who faced the same tragic circumstance, becoming a widow early in her life. I often thought about how Benni had such a loving, supportive family surrounding her and what would it be like for someone to go through the same tragedy and be alone. As for why now, it just seemed like time for Ruby's story to be told.

Your mysteries are very character-driven. Did that make it easier to write a book that examines family relationships so compassionately?

People have always fascinated me. I just love hearing about people's lives. So it makes sense that my books and stories would be character-driven.

Setting is important also, and in particular, regional variations and how they inform character. For example, having Southern roots.

I'm really thankful for having a Southern mother, a Western father and growing up in Southern California. I think it gives me a perspective that enables me to see things from more than one point of view. I love the straightforwardness of Westerners, their toughness, their bravery, their stoicism. But I think my spiritual self resides in the South. I love the wit of Southerners, their humor, their love of language. When I'm with Southerners, I never have to apologize for talking too long or asking too many questions about their family.

The importance of family is a consistent theme in all your books.

I do think about the whole concept of family a lot, about who is our family, what defines a family.  Since my husband, Allen, and I don't have children, we've never been what is considered the traditional family unit. I understand what it feels like to be different because you aren't exactly like the norm. Thank goodness, that's changing.  With so many blended families now, the word family means something entirely different than what it did 30 years ago. Family, I think, are people we love. Maybe it's as simple as that.

Earlene Fowler - Our Gift From Orange County

by AnnE Lorenzen

(from San Luis Obispo County Journal - September 2002)

"If it shall please God that I write more books, blessed be He.  If it shall not please Him, again, blessed be He.  Perhaps it will be the most wholesome thing for my soul that I lose both fame and skill lest I were to fall into that evil disease, vain-glory."  C.S. Lewis

Her pairs of cowboy boots outnumber most folks' mineral supplements and she drives a purple Ford pickup.  She collects antique quilts, reads voraciously and eclectically, and has been with her husband since she was 15.  She is so loyal to her past and those who people it, that she has coined the term "Pink Collar Ghetto" to symbolize the women who "hold together our country and no one notices."

Meet Earlene Fowler, award-winning author and keeper-of-the-flame for our town.

A southern California native, Earlene has written ten books about one Benni Harper, a rancher's daughter who lives in San Celina, a fictional counterpart to San Luis Obispo.  A quilter and an inquisitive sort, Benni is forever embroiled in one murder mystery after another.  All the book titles are the names of quilt patterns and provide a unique lens through which to consider each storyline.

Nominated six times for the prestigious Agatha Christie Award for Crime Writing, Earlene won with the fifth nomination for Mariner's Compass (set in Morro Bay).  "I'm telling you, I felt like the 'Susan Lucci' of the Agathas," she recounts.  Two years later she was nominated again for Arkansas Traveler.

The Agatha is awarded for work that is affectionately called a 'Cozy Mystery'--no graphic violence and no graphic sex.  In spite of the 'cozy' label, her ninth book, Steps to the Altar, made number 29 on the New York Times bestseller list.

As far as Earlene is concerned, such success is "a miracle! Honestly, there is no way that all of this could have happened if God were not in control and my fans were not so extraordinary.  In ten years, my books have been so rarely reviewed in newspapers that my agent and editor were blown away when Steps to the Altar appeared on the New York Times list, let alone above number 50!"  (A significant feat in the publishing world)

Earlene's first novel, Fool's Puzzle, was set in 1992. "There is a bizarre time lapse thing that happens with book publishing," she offers.  "Although written, sold, and set in 1992, the book did not come out until 1994.  By then I had written the next two books but inside the series, time had stalled for Benni and San Celina.  In other words, the ten books, published between 1994 and 2002, encompass only the years 1992-1995. So, it is like time has stood still in the community of San Celina-San Luis.  I find this comforting because so much of what made San Luis charming to me in the late 80's and early 90's has changed or all-but-disappeared."

"When I first found San Luis I was charmed right off by the eclectic mix of people--farmers, students, laborers, farm workers, cowboys, teachers, ranchers, a vibrant Portuguese community--and it worked.  I have always loved hearty foods, especially big breakfasts, so in Benni's world there is Liddie's Cafe--based on the Farm Boy Cafe that used to sit on the corner of Santa Rosa and Marsh.  The Folk Art Museum is inspired by the Rios-Caledonia Adobe near San Miguel, and the Carnegie Library is inspired by the Carnegie Library downtown.  I used to shop at Williams' Brothers markets and the old Copeland's shoe store.  So much has changed in the past 10 years in San Luis--but not in San Celina."

Not surprisingly, many local individuals have found their names in Earlene's acknowledgements through the series; some have even found themselves as supporting characters.

For Earlene, the granddaughter of Kansas field workers and southern sharecroppers, it is a signature of her work that she honors those upon whose shoulders communities are built--those she calls, "silent subjects" like waitresses, insurance claims clerks, ticket takers, library clerks.  Her Pink Collar Ghetto consists of all "those ordinary folks" who serve us and whom we rarely recognize.  They are characters in the writings of her two favorite authors, southerners Bobbie Ann Mason and Lee Smith.  When asked about her heroes or heroines she responds, "The women who read my books--I see them at booksignings with their mothers, in wheelchairs; they buy my books for their friends.  They carry on without fanfare.  I feel like I have accomplished something when a reader will write or come up to me at a signing and say, 'Wow! I didn't realize that all these ordinary people could have such lives.'"

Earlene and her husband, Allen, live in Orange County.  She jokes that if it weren't for Allen she couldn't afford to write.  But their big dream is to move up here--to Morro Bay.  ("Why do you think that was the setting for Mariner's Compass?  I was hoping someone would really leave me a house in Morro Bay!")  All the men in her books represent some facet of Allen at some point in their years together and are also the men in her life who never were: a grandfather, a brother, a cousin.  When asked to comment on Allen's role in life, Earlene cites the dedication to him in her latest book (Sunshine and Shadow, due out May 2003), "What a mighty, mighty good man you are."

A great part of Earlene's success derives from the luminous ordinariness in which she writes about what she knows and loves.  And she simply loves San Luis Obispo and its "regular folks."  It is a special gift to our county, and not without irony, that Orange County Earlene is one of our community preservationists.  We can check in with our past and perhaps glimpse our future by seeing ourselves through Earlene's eyes and heart.

copyright/September 2002 by AnnE Lorenzen


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