|Earlene Fowler: Down-home Murder|
Titled after traditional quilt patterns, each book of Earlene Fowler's mystery series offers country charm while inviting readers to visit with old friend Albenia "Bennie" Harper. The serene background of quilts and country enfolds each novel set in Fowler's wholesome San Celina, Calif.
In her mysteries, Fowler shares secrets of the past and future, combining the strength and work ethic of ranchers and farmers with the vision and creativity of entrepreneurs and artists. Readers share greasy food at the diner with Bennie or stroll through the folk art museum where she works as director. They meet her extended family and circle of friends, her past and present husbands (Jack and Gabe) and how she deals with widowhood, new relationships and, of course, murder.
Crescent Blues: You've been called the Susan Lucci of traditional mysteries, but Mariner's Compass took home the Agatha Award for Best Mystery of 1999, the most coveted award for writers working in traditional mysteries. What do you think made Mariner's Compass so special for the voters?
Earlene Fowler: The Susan Lucci nickname was actually quite flattering considering she was nominated 19 times for best actress. I'm glad I didn't have to wait that long!
Mariner's Compass was a special book for me because the book's whole premise was outside the traditional confines of a murder mystery. For one, there is no actual murder and two, because of the prologue. The prologue is written from my protagonist Benni's point-of-view when she is 75. She is in her middle thirties in the series. I allowed the reader a peek into the future to see what happens to her and Gabe, to show what type of woman she becomes.
I have received a lot of positive response about the prologue. It was really a gift to my readers, to set their minds at ease and also a creative stretch for me as a writer. The first stories I attempted twenty years ago when I started writing were mainstream and literary pieces where human emotions and relationships are the center of the plot, and I think my mysteries reflect that early influence, Mariner's Compass most of all. In my books, the crime is always there, but often more in the background, a part of the character's lives, not the center of it.
I've been told by fans that my books read easily, but then they can't forget about them and feel compelled to reread them. That touches me deeply. Telling an author you reread her books is the highest compliment imaginable.
Crescent Blues: Mariner's Compass represents a departure from earlier books in the Benni Harper series in more than just the prologue. How long had these developments been in the works? How will they affect future books in the series?
Earlene Fowler: I must confess that I am not organized enough to plan much of anything ahead in my books. Most of the time I don't even know what's going to happen the next day with my work in progress, though, perhaps, unconsciously I might have an idea. So, obviously, I do not outline. I do think about themes though, in a vague sort of way.
During the writing of Irish Chain my mother died. She was a very private, unknowable person and I knew when she died that some important family secrets died with her. She was from the backwoods of Arkansas where people did not express their emotions openly and many things were traditionally kept hidden, especially family scandals. I knew I wanted to write about mothers and secrets, but it took me four years before I could emotionally attempt it.
The prologue in Mariner's Compass just came to me one day. I'd been thinking about how sad it would be for me if I ever had to stop writing the series, how attached I'd become to the characters. I wanted to assure myself, as well as my readers, that Benni and Gabe would be okay. The prologue also gave me a chance to reveal some of my own philosophy and beliefs. As for future books, I will continue to strive for the uncommon. If I can, besides entertaining them, I want to give my readers a unique experience.
Earlene Fowler: Our waltz with the past is, without a doubt, one we never stop dancing. The problem is the steps are always changing, and we don't always have control over the music. Other people's choices and actions affect our history and therefore our future. That is a common theme for all human beings. So it makes sense that it would be a common theme in serious fiction, that is, fiction that is written for more than just escapism. It has been a theme throughout my series because I'm so interested in how the past affects who we are and how we react to life.
I try to layer my stories so that the main plot, that of the mystery, coincides with something in the minor plot, and those things usually include something from the past. Benni's past -- especially her marriage to her first husband, Jack -- colors everything she does and feels. Gabe's past, a somewhat more mysterious one that I'll address in future books, definitely affects his life and feelings.
When two people with such different pasts collide, you're going to have conflict. The fact that Benni and Gabe started their relationship in the middle of their lives rather than at the beginning demands that the past be a big part of the present. Books where the history of the characters isn't woven into the story read like elaborate short stories to me rather than novels. Short stories are wonderful for showing the reader a glimpse into someone's life, but when I read a novel I want to feel like I know the characters by the end of it and that demands that some intimate parts of their pasts be revealed.
Crescent Blues: How does your use of the past relate to your use of quilts as a theme for the series?
Earlene Fowler: Quilts are a theme only in that the titles of my books are quilt patterns and sometimes I use them in the context of the stories because of Benni's job as curator of a folk art museum. I never intended it to be a marketing strategy, as many of the quilt fiction books are these days, though, of course, both my publisher and I have taken advantage of the connection. I initially used quilt patterns as titles because they were so evocative and they suggested stories to me much like an overheard stranger's conversation or a partial family story does.
I have thought and spoke about how much making a quilt and writing a novel are very much the same physical and creative process. A quilter takes scraps of fabric and rearranges them into a new pattern, then stitches them together in a whole piece. Every quilt tells an unspoken story about the quilter and people the quilter knows. Writers perform a similar task taking pieces of family history, people we've met, things we've read and heard, half-truths and out-and-out lies and turn them into stories, which also reveal something about the writer and the people she has encountered.
Earlene Fowler: I initially decided to use quilts as titles because in the first book there is a quilt show going on at the folk art museum. The original title for Fool's Puzzle was Drunkard's Path, which if you've read the book, is a marvelous metaphor for the story. It was changed because of my publisher's marketing department. They just didn't like the title even though they loved the idea of a series named after quilts. I didn't have enough power to fight them and have always felt sad that my initial title wasn't used.
As for how they've changed since I started the series, I'd say they've stayed the same, a part of the story and of Benni's life, but not the main theme. To my delight, my publisher hasn't changed a title since that first one. As I said before, the titles were never intended to be a marketing ploy so there's only one book, Kansas Troubles, where the clue is actually in a quilt. I wanted to try that once, just to see if I could do it in a convincing way, but I have never intended on using the quilt theme in any way but metaphorically.
Crescent Blues: Getting back to Mariner's Compass, could you, please, tell your readers a little something about Electric Quilt?
Earlene Fowler: Electric Quilt is a quilt design program for computers. You can actually see what your finished quilt will look like before it's done. I became involved with Electric Quilt through a fan who is now one of my best friends and also my webmaster.
Tina Davis wrote me an email five years ago telling me that my books helped her get through some cancer treatments. It was such a touching letter because it was the first time I truly realized how personal the relationship is between an author and a reader. It made me think of all the times authors have shared both good and hard times with me. Her letter started an email friendship between us and after a couple of years she asked if she could make me a quilt incorporating my first six book titles. She's a fabulous quilter and quilting teacher.
Tina used Electric Quilt to design the quilt which now hangs in my living room over the sofa. I actually received the quilt before I met her in person. The quilt (and its twin -- she made one exactly like it for herself) has taken on a life of its own. It's been in Quilter's Newsletter magazine, featured in Electric Quilt's newsletter and Web site, was the focal point (along with our friendship) for a segment of Simply Quilts television show on HGTV, exhibited in a quilting museum in Golden, Colo., and is the highlight of a talk I give about quilting and writing. It's a very special connection between Tina and me. I even made her and her husband, Tom, characters in Mariner's Compass. She owns a fictional quilt store, of course!
Crescent Blues: At times, Albenia "Benni" Harper seems like a compendium of contradictions. How do you integrate the various facets of her character? And how much do you feel Benni's virtues and foibles reflect your own?
Earlene Fowler: That is always one of the first things people want to know, how much of Benni is me. Physically, we're similar but our backgrounds have places that are very different. We both were raised by Southern women and have a tendency to make smart aleck remarks before thinking. We're both extremely curious people and we hate wearing dresses.
On the other hand, she grew up on a ranch outside of a small town, is an only child, lost her mother when she was six, went to a local college straight from high school. In my case I'm the second of four girls, grew up in a primarily Hispanic suburb outside of Los Angeles, lost my mother at 38, left home at 18 to work in downtown Los Angeles and have taken only a few college classes. Therefore, I have to be careful not to have her feel things or know things not consistent with her background as well as do a lot of research about how rural women feel and react.
Luckily, I have had two grandmothers, a mother and a mother-in-law who were all raised on farms. Benni's philosophy is similar to mine though she came to it from a different path. Also, she's younger than me, so I have to keep in mind how I felt and reacted at 36 as compared to how I am now at 46. We have the same sense of humor simply because I think that's an almost impossible thing for a writer to fake. One incident where I had to remember we weren't alike was in Mariner's Compass where I had her drive through Los Angeles. I had to make her nervous about it as many native Central Coasters are. I have been driving L.A. freeways since I was 16 so they don't faze me at all.
Crescent Blues: From the beginning, the Benni Harper series has reflected strong traditional values. For example, you chose not to let Benni and Gabe Ortiz consummate their love until after marriage. What prompted you to choose this path for your characters?