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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
Copyright © 2009
All rights reserved. Problems or comments? E-mail Webmaster.