Sarah Kauffman sought permission from her church elders to paint murals of quilt squares on a few of the Amish community’s barns, but each was targeted by an arsonist. With Sarah’s help, state arson investigator Nate MacKenzie struggles to solve the crimes. As the fires rage, beliefs are challenged, a way of life is questioned and family secrets are exposed. But what Sarah and Nate didn’t plan was the forbidden fire between them.
I recently had an opportunity to talk to Karen Harper about FALL FROM PRIDE, book one in the new HOME VALLEY AMISH SERIES:
You have written four suspense novels set among the Amish, and now have three more on the way. Why the Amish?
Most writers start with character or plot. I usually begin with setting that intrigues me or looks like a great isolated place or people for a thriller. So I often use rural America for my suspense novels. The largest settlement of Amish in America is no longer Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, but Holmes, County, Ohio, a two-hour drive from our house. I’ve been traveling there for years and have made some great contacts among the Plain People.
A TV interviewer once asked me, “Why the Amish for a crime novel?” He added, “After all, they don’t like to deal with the police and don’t trust lawyers. They don’t even have cars to get help if they need it and allow no phones in their homes.” My reply: Exactly! What more fascinating group of isolated people who have to find a way to solve their own crimes, or at least learn to trust outsiders who can help them.
I also love the tension and cultural clash between the Amish and the outsiders, whom they call the English. The Plain People have a saying that “It’s not all cakes and pies,” meaning their lives are not idyllic and can be fraught with trouble. When someone hits a buggy, kills kids and does a hit-and-run; when someone abducts an Amish baby for genetic experiments; when Amish barns are burned, which is the crime in FALL FROM PRIDE, it seems especially heinous. Also a forbidden romance between an Amish and an English person really ups the tension and the ante. Remember the movie Witness?
There is a big boom in Amish books, both inspirational and secular. Other than curiosity, what seems to be the reading public’s fascination with the Amish?
Yes, the inspirational market is really into Amish romances and family sagas. My novels, DARK ROAD HOME, DARK HARVEST and DARK ANGEL are aimed more at mass market readers and are more—well, dark. I can’t call them Amish noir, but a crime is key. Also I lean a bit more toward the thriller/suspense/mystery genre than romance.
I think the fascination with the Amish is, as you say, a bit of curiosity, but even more nostalgia for the past. As our society becomes more dependent on technology, we are intrigued by a group of people who don’t seem to like or need tech toys or even basic things like home phones or cars.
The other big thing is that, in our stressful world where divorces are common, many parents can’t control their kids, and dangers like drugs abound, it’s refreshing and amazing to see people who marry for life, protect the family unit and manage to keep about 80% of their kids at home, despite the “running around” time they give their teens to sample the world’s pleasures and temptations.
The hook for the book in FALL FROM PRIDE is, as you say, barn arsons. Is this crime and others in your Amish novels fiction or more “ripped from the headlines.”
The premise for this plot is based on a series of barn arsons that occurred in Pennsylvania, although the circumstances and the culprit are my creation. Hate crimes against the Amish, which I use in DARK HARVEST, was taken from tragic events that occurred in northern Indiana.
NY Times bestselling author Tami Hoag said of your previous novel, DARK ROAD HOME, “A compelling story with intricate and fascinating details of Amish life.” How hard is it to get these details and to research a people who want to keep themselves “separate from the world”?
Over about ten years, it’s gotten easier with each book as I’ve made more contacts. It’s one thing to read letters or books by former Amish, but observing real Amish life “up close and personal” is invaluable. Once the Amish know that you respect their ways, they are willing to talk and have you ‘hang around.’ But yes, in the beginning it was challenging. When I visit Amish country, I dress conservatively and never take a camera or even a recorder, but use good, old fashioned notes.
Because the Amish only educate their children through eighth grade, they have been given a bad rap—but they are not ignorant. I’ve spoken with Plain People who could probably teach a college-level course in ornithology, agriculture…German history—mostly self-taught. And, of course their quilts are stunning, their furniture beautiful and sturdy, and their food fabulous. I include one popular bakery treat in each book: for FALL FROM PRIDE it’s half moon pies.
When are other novels in this series going to be released and what are you working on now?
Book #2, RETURN TO GRACE, will be out in March 2012 and FINDING MERCY, in Nov. of 2012. Besides writing these contemporary suspense novels for Mira Books, I write historical novels and historical mysteries for Penguin USA, so it’s a real challenge to jump back and forth between the past and present. Different mores, different cultures, different weapons—but always the same evil in the heart of man.
NYTimes and USA TODAY bestselling author Harper writes both contemporary and historical mystery-thrillers. She won the Mary Higgins Clark Award for her earlier suspense novel, Dark Angel. A former university and high school instructor, she divides her time between Columbus, Ohio and Naples, Florida.
To learn more about Karen, please visit her website.