Ah, the writer’s life.
It was Earlene Fowler’s secret dream, to see her name on the cover of a book, on display at the local bookstore.
“My dad was a welder and my mom was a housewife. We didn’t come from the kind of background where people were even encouraged to go to college. We were people who read books--not people who write them.
“I got a lot of people snickering at me, patting me on the head, saying, ‘Oh yeah, sure, you’re writing a book.’ That’s why, when I was writing my first novel, “Fool’s Puzzle,” I told very few people about it. I was embarrassed.”
But an Orange Coast College writing instructor saw promise in her work and gave the book to a literary agent, who promptly secured Fowler a three-book contract with Putnam. After nearly 20 years of writing short stories that no one would publish, her first novel was snapped up for publication, instantly transforming her from housewife and part-time librarian to author.
“You’d think the hardest part is getting that first book published, and it really isn’t,” Fowler says. “That’s only when the hard part starts. I’ve heard it said that 40% of all people who publish a first book never publish a second one. I think it’s because the publishing experience is so discouraging. You have to deal with the fact that you’re a product and not let it affect who you are.”
Fowler’s fourth mystery novel in four years, “Goose in the Pond,” published by Putnam/Berkley, is now in print. But the 42-year-old Fountain Valley resident is far from being able to live off her royalties. Much of the time she used to spend writing in her halcyon, unpublished days, is now spent signing books to boost sales.
“With your first book, you walk into these bookstores and it’s like you’re a vacuum cleaner salesman. Now they’re calling me for book signings.
“Two weeks ago I had the flu so bad, but I had to get up and drive to San Diego. All I really wanted to do was chug-a-lug a gallon of Nyquil and fall in bed. Once you get these things set up, the bookstores do advertising and you have to be there, no matter what.
“And I couldn’t stop the book signings; they were already set, so I couldn’t stay home and get well. They sent me to the Midwest for eight days.”
Fowler did 70 book signings last year. She’s at 45 and counting this year.
“To show you the extremes, one week I was in New York in this Lincoln Town Car being taken around by my publicist. Two weeks later I was in Louisville, Ky., getting up at 6:30 in the morning to get on the one TV show that would have me, then doing a signing that night that nobody came to. I was sitting there in the bookstore with the clerk, and people were walking by, trying not to make eye contact--that type of thing.”
Though Fowler often finds herself knee-deep in self-promotion, she has not forsaken her original dream, to be a writer. But she also quickly admits that her mystery novels are not considered high literary art. All four books chronicle the adventures of crime-solving museum curator Benni Harper, an ex-cowgirl married to the police chief of San Celina, a fictional city based loosely on San Luis Obispo.
“I love the writing part so much, I do all the other stuff so I can do the writing. If it all ended tomorrow, I could give up having people take you out to fancy places for dinner and all of that. The hard part to give up would be the getting up every morning and going into my fantasy world. That’s the part that I really enjoy.”
Someday, Fowler says, she’ll make a stab at breaking out of mystery writing with a mainstream novel aimed at a larger audience.
“They say that it’s not a good thing to do, because obviously you establish a reputation in your particular genre. If I came out with a mainstream book, the decision would have to be made: Do I use the same name? Or do I write under another name, which a lot of writers do when they want to change genres?
“Let’s face it, most of us mid-list writers won’t become great literary masters. But if I can look at the end of my writing career--whenever that comes--and look at my books and say, ‘I respect what I’ve written,’ then I’ll feel like I’ve been a success. Then I’ll be OK and I’ll go back to cleaning houses and writing back in my head again. I’ll be satisfied with what I’ve done.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Profile: Earlene Fowler
Hometown: La Puente
Residence: Fountain Valley
Family: Husband, Allen
Education: Graduated from La Puente High School; studied writing at Citrus, Golden West and Orange Coast community colleges
Background: Part-time children’s librarian at Huntington Beach Library, 1987-92; started writing short stories in her late 20s that have not been published; landed first book contract in 1992 at age 38; has since written four mystery novels published by Putnam, including her newest, “Goose in the Pond”
Quote: “I started getting close to 40 and thought, ‘What have I always wanted to do that I’ve never done?’ That’s when I wrote my first novel. The idea of writing a novel seemed so daunting, but I tricked myself by telling myself it wasn’t any different than writing 20 short stories.”
Source: Earlene Fowler; Researched by RUSS LOAR / For The Times