Earlene Fowler e-interviewed by Pat Elliott (April, 2009)
Earlene Fowler was raised in La Puente, California, by a Southern mother and a Western father. She wrote literary and commercial short fiction for ten years before she decided to write a mystery novel. Fool's Puzzle and two sequels were sold to Putnam-Berkley as one of three lead titles for their Prime Crime Line. Earlene won the Agatha Award for her sixth book Mariner's Compass. In 2006 her first mainstream novel, The Saddlemaker's Wife, was published to enthusiastic reviews, and in 2007 she published her 13th Benni Harper mystery, Tumbling Blocks.
The Benni Harper mystery series is set on the Central Coast of California in a town remarkably similar to San Luis Obispo. Earlene has just released another mainstream book, Love Mercy, in which Benni and family are minor characters. Love Mercy, the first of a trilogy, is also set on California's central coast in the town of Morro Bay. Earlene is an avid lover of quilts, folk art, horses, oral history, cowboy boots, the Central California Coast and country/western music. She lives in Orange County, California, with her husband Allen and Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Boo.
Q: I've enjoyed your Bennie Harper mystery series. Why did you decide to change genres this time?
A: Actually, this is my second non-mystery book. My first, The Saddlemaker's Wife, came out a few years ago. I love my Benni Harper characters, but writing a mystery series can put an author creatively in a box. There are certain unspoken (and sometimes spoken) requirements for mysteries. That was always the hardest part for me, staying within those boundaries. I wanted to expand my storytelling options, spend more of my time writing about something other than homicide.
Q: In reading Love Mercy, it seems that ranching and horses must be somewhere in your background. Is that the case?
A: I actually grew up in La Puente, a suburb of Los Angeles County. Back in the 50's and 60's, though, Southern California was much more rural than it is now. Orange County actually had some orange groves! Like many of the kids in my neighborhood and church, I came from farm people. Both my grandmothers, my mother, my mother-in-law, my father-in-law and most of the adults in the Baptist church where I went as a child, grew up on farms. So, most of my background comes from there. As for the technical part, I have a lot of friends who are ranchers in Central California. They help me with all the ranch stuff. And I read a lot.
Q: I also wondered about the music in Love Mercy. Rett plays banjo and guitar, sings country and gospel music. Is that your music of choice?
A: When you grow up going to a Baptist church, gospel music is going to be in your DNA. Country music, gospel and the blues were what was play on my family's radio and record player. The first two songs I remember memorizing all the lines to were "Jesus Loves Me" and "I Never Felt More Like Singing the Blues" by Marty Robbins. I took banjo lessons while writing Love Mercy so I could get a feel for Rett's character (and pick my banjo teacher's brain - no pun intended!) I'm not very good, but it was fun.
Q: Your names fascinate me. In both the Bennie Harper mystery series and in Love Mercy, the names are unusual. How do you come up with them?
A: Well, my name actually is Earlene, so there you go. Odd or unusual names do interest me, especially ones that are specifically regional as mine is (my mother was from Arkansas ... my dad's and grandpa's names were Earl ...) My sisters are named Mary, Carol and Debra. I'm the only one with the unusual name. I do collect names. I've kept a file of them for years. When I travel I look through phone books and newspapers, especially the obituaries. I keep them somewhat organized by state or country or nationality. Naming my characters is one of the most fun parts of writing a book.
Q: The dialect of your Southern characters is right on. Have you spent time in Kentucky and/or Tennessee?
A: As I said, my mother and her family were from Arkansas. And the Southern Baptist church I grew up in had people in it from all over the South. I love the South and all its myriad accents (which, of course, to all the people who live there aren't accents!) I am fascinated by how people say things. My family, like most Southern families, loves to talk. Dialog is the easiest part of writing for me.
Q: Is there someone in your life like Love or Dove or Grandma Johnson? A great cook who nurtures the family with food?
A: All those characters are a combination of both my grandmothers, my mother, my mother-in-law, all my aunts and my imagination. All my female relatives were farm women who cooked and baked out of necessity. Some loved cooking like my grandmas and my aunt Florene (mother's sister). My mother didn't like to cook. All the Southern women in my life were strong women with backbones of steel. They were cotton sharecroppers and migrant workers, really led hard lives. Becoming blue collar after WWII (when the men in the family got mining or welding jobs in the city) was a step up for them. These women nurtured me in their strict way, but more importantly, they taught me how to survive. Any time I start feeling sorry for myself, when I think my life is hard, I remember my Grandma Worley telling me how she hoed lettuce during the Depression, how she often thought she just could hoe one more row. But she did, because she had to feed my father. That is humbling and I quit whining real quick.
Q: Is Love Mercy the beginning of a series in which we'll see more of these delightful characters in Morro Bay?
A: The plan is that is will be the first of a trilogy. I'm not certain that it'll be a long running series like the Benni Harper books, but I have a story arc in my mind for at least three books. After that, I guess we'll see!
Q: I've noticed that each of your books has some focus on Christian behavior. Is it hard to get that balance of being squeaky clean without being preachy?
A: Yes, it is hard, but I do the best I can not to sound preachy, yet stay true to my beliefs. It would be impossible for me to write a book without my faith in Jesus Christ being a part of the story. Flannery O'Connor, one of the most famous and talented writers who also was a believer in Christ, said we should write about the "country we know." That is, the world with which we are familiar. I can see both the good and the bad in Christians because I've been one since I was eleven. I'll be the first to say that sometimes we are often hypocritical and even a little bit nuts! But there's also a wonderful, compassionate side to many Christians that often isn't shown in modern literature. Some of my books are more spiritual than others; I'm not sure why. The stories really do come out of the characters. I will use crude language (one of the reasons my books won't be sold in Christian bookstores), but I won't use God's name in vain. I'm in a bit of a weird middle world, but it's one I choose to be in. Some reviewers and readers have problems with my Christian characters, but I can't do anything about that. My stories and characters are what they are.
Q: Do you plan your story in detail in advance? Do your characters ever take over and surprise you?
A: No, I've tried outlining, but just can't do it. For some writers it works wonderfully and I often wish it did for me. It would be a lot less stressful and I'd have less rewriting. I sometimes know a few scenes in advance and sometimes the ending. The characters often do surprise me. I used to laugh when I heard authors say that they lost control of their characters. I didn't believe it. Then I started writing seriously. Now I totally understand what they were saying.
Q: Do you often relax with a good book yourself and, if so, what are some favorites?
A: My recent favorite books are The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss; Life Sentences by Laura Lippman; The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle and Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan. Right now I'm reading Flannery O'Connor's new biography. Some of my favorite authors are: Bobbie Ann Mason, Lee Smith, James Lee Burke, Jo-Ann Mapson, Eudora Welty, Jessamyn West, John Steinbeck, Richard Russo, Chaim Potok, Fannie Flagg ... that's just off the top of my head. I have so many authors I love. That's always a hard question because I always feel like I'm leaving out about a thousand authors.
Q: I look forward to more of your wonderful stories of friendly, caring people – what's ahead for your fans?
A: Thank you so much for the kind words about my books! I'm working on another Benni Harper book called State Fair (May 2010). I've agreed to another contract with my current publisher for two more books - another Benni Harper book and the sequel to The Saddlemaker's Wife. They are scheduled to come out in 2011 and 2013.Find out more about Earlene Fowler and her novels, enjoy her entertaining essays, and check out her favorite (mainstream and mystery) writers and books at EarleneFowler.com.
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