Friday, October 1, 2010

A Conversation with Louise Penny

New York Times bestselling author Louise Penny lives and writes in a small village near Montreal, not far from the U.S. border. Twice the recipient of the Agatha Award and other honors, Louise's latest novel, Bury Your Dead, was just released from Minotaur.

Bury Your Dead is set in Quebec City, during the winter carnival where it's bitterly cold and unbelievably beautiful. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache arrives at the carnival not to enjoy himself but to recover from an investigation gone wrong. What he discovers is a violent death, the result of an historian's quest for the remains of Samuel de Champlain, Quebec's founder. A secret was buried with Champlain for nearly 400 years, a secret so terrible that someone would murder to protect it.

Louise, you've had a long career as a journalist and radio host in your native Canada. When and why did you decide that you would rather write novels?

Well, I've wanted to write since I was a child, and tried every decade of my life. But the sad fact was, I had nothing to say. I was way too callow and self absorbed. And while I feigned interest in others, I really wasn't listening. These are not promising traits for a writer.

There's a wonderful line from Auden's elegy to Yeats in which he writes, 'Mad Ierland hurt him into poetry.' How searing, how true must that have been? And I feel the same was true of me. Not poetry, of course, but writing. I was finally buffeted and bruised and hurt enough by life that I started to empathise with and feel the pain of others. I understood loss and sorrow and aching loneliness. What it felt like to make dreadful mistakes. And what it felt like to be forgiven. And to forgive. And to love with all my heart. How friendship really felt.

And then I was ready to write.

Your work has taken you from Toronto to Thunder Bay to Winnipeg, Quebec City and Montreal. Have any of those cities served as a backdrop for your books?

My books are actually set, for the most part, in the fictional village of Three Pines, which is south of Montreal, near the border with Vermont. It's the area of Quebec I live in, called the Eastern Townships. However, Chief Inspector Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie live in Montreal, so I'm able to use my familiarity with that gorgeous city.


I know that you’re a fellow dog lover. Have canines inhabited your novels?

Yes! I love writing about dogs, and have given almost every character, including Clara and the Gamaches, dogs. Clara has a Golden Retriever, like us - and the Gamaches have a German Shepherd. Both are adoption dogs. Indeed, my last book, The Brutal Telling, is dedicated to our local no-kill shelter.

What did you find the most difficult when you made the transition from journalism to fiction?

There were actually a lot of challenges. In radio journalism I was used to a story being half a page long. Just the fact. No plot, no character development. Few adjectives. I was convinced that when I set out to write my novel it would be a page and a half long. What I found quite easy, though, was dialogue, since when I wrote for radio I wrote for the spoken word. And I had 20 years of listening closely to how people talk.

Did marrying later in life influence your work in any way?

Certainly finding love influenced it. My books are about murder and the terror that comes from a crime of such violation, but mostly they're about love. My husband is the first and only man I have loved. With all my heart. I know how Reine-Marie loves Gamache, and he her, because of how I feel. And Michael has also served as an inspiration for Gamache - a mature man, who is happy and content. Not because he's never known sorrow, but because he knows exactly how terrible the world can be, and chooses to stand in the light anyway.

What’s the best part of mystery writing and the worst? And what's your writing schedule like?

One of the great things about a career hosting a daily live radio show is I learned discipline. And perseverance. Two qualities I think are more important even than creativity. I write from January through until the book is finished...generally eight months for a first draft and re-writes. Though I am thinking of a book, and making notes, for about a year before I actually start writing.

Everyday I write at least 1,000 words. Even if they're stinkers...I can always take them out afterward. But I know myself. I can be very, very lazy. So I can't afford to even think about flagging!

In terms of mystery writing, there are so many great things beginning I think with the community of writers, editors, booksellers, bloggers like Jean and of course, readers. It is unbelievably supportive. What a relief not to be around people who smile to your face but stick a knife in when your back is turned.

And the people who read mysteries are the best! Genuinely interested in other cultures, in emotions. They're smart and thoughtful. There really isn't a downside to writing mysteries--not that I've seen.Though the slight thorn might be when people - some other writers and some readers-look down on the books as 'simply genre' and don't see the depth and power of a well-written mystery. It saddens me a bit, and sometimes it angers me. But mostly I don't notice.

How did you celebrate your first New York bestseller?

First, I shrieked! My publisher and editor called on a conference call from New York to tell me. But Andy Martin, the great publisher at Minotaur, started by saying, 'Do you know why we're calling?'

I, of course, immediately presumed the book, A Rule Against Murder, which had just come out, was such a failure they were about to fire me. And it took two to do it. When he said, 'You've made the New York Times Bestseller list!' I think there was a moment of silence - then a scream. Poor Michael, in another room, came running. Wow. I will never, ever forget that feeling. Then Michael took me out - we were in Quebec City researching an upcoming book--to a wonderful restaurant for dinner.

Advice to fledgling writers?

Believe in yourself. Never give up. Make sure your 'critic' isn't trying to write the first draft. And a bit of advice I got from an editor who turned down my first book. He said, 'New writers commonly make three mistakes, and you've made all three. The book is too long, too many characters and too many ideas.' I decided he was right. I'd tried to put everything I'd ever learned or thought into that first book. Every character I'd wanted to write showed up. And as a result, it was WAY too long.

But mostly, never forget what a privilege it is to write. I once heard a writer, after she'd won a huge award (not a mystery writer) say that writing is the hardest thing you can do. And I thought, Good Lord, has the woman never waited tables for minimum wages, serving people who sneer at her? Does she realize there are coal miners, daycare workers, teachers, firefighters, doctors who sit by sick children.

Writing is a blessing and a gift, and if you forget it you might win awards, but lose yourself.


(The interview was excerpted in part from Mysterious Writers, now on Kindle.)

Louise's website: www.louisepenny.com

Her blog site: www.louisepenny.blogspot.com

3 comments:

Bill Kirton said...

I know I always praise your interviews, Jean, but this one is particularly good. There's the usual interesting aspects of the writer's personality and working methods but for me there are extra elements here. I'm thinking of Louise's remarks about fellow writers in the mystery genre but most of all of how she speaks of the privilege of being a writer and the true meaning of 'hard work'. It's an expression which posers and dilettantes abuse so shamelessly. It's a great pleasure to read of a successful writer who still takes such joy in the actual gift of being able to write.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thank you, Bill. I couldn't agree with you (and Louise Penny) more. Those of us fortunate to have the ability to write are truly blessed.

Beth Terrell said...

Lovely interview, Jean. I'm introducing Louise Penny's presentation at the Southern Festival of Books, so I just finished BURY YOUR DEAD. What a beautiful book. It could only have been written by a sensitive and compassionate person--which your interview shows she is.