Louise Penny at The Poisoned Pen

Last night, I went to see Louise Penny at The Poisoned Pen. Louise is just as kind as her character, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. She's warm and personable. Before the formal introduction, Louise went around to the audience, introduced herself, and spoke to each person. And, funny! She has a witty sense of humor, with no unkindness. The audience appreciated her warmth and style. With only one teen in the audience, Louise started by asking her age, and when she was told thirteen, she asked if she'd read Rick Riordan's mythological series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians. She made a connection with everyone in the room.

Barbara Peters, owner of The Poisoned Pen, held an interesting conversation with Louise Penny. In fact, she began by introducing her in French, and then explaining what she had said. Louise lives in a French village in Canada, about an hour and a quarter from Montreal. She said actually the English speakers and French speakers in Canada get along fine. It's only in politics that the English and French doesn't work.

Louise explained that Chief Inspector Armand Gamache could not be English. The major cities all have their own police forces, but in Quebec, the Sûreté investigates crime outside of the major cities. So, Penny's inspector had to be exotic and work for the Sûreté. It was the only way she could send him to villages, such as Three Pines, the setting of the series. Because Quebec follows the Napoleonic Code, they have different laws from the rest of Canada. The British Commonwealth stresses individual rights, while the French emphasize the common good, not individual rights. The audience laughed when Louise slyly said, "It's not really considered a crime to murder someone who is English."

Penny said she worked for twenty years as a journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting System. However, she got jaded and cynical, and started to see everything as dark. She was forty years old and had turned into a person she didn't like. She quit work, and her husband said the best thing he could have said to her. "If you want to quit work and write a book, I'll support you." She said that's right up there with I love you.

Barbara Peter talked about giving Louise Penny the Dilys Award last year for Still Life. The Dilys Award is for the mystery that independent booksellers most enjoyed selling. Louise said that was the first U.S. award she won. When she submitted Still Life, nobody wanted it. Fifty or sixty publishers rejected it. It was an international failure before it was accepted in the U.K. That's why her books come out in the U.K. first. When she submitted it in Canada, she was told nobody would be interested in a mystery set in Canada. Barbara talked about village mysteries, traditional mysteries set in villages, making a comeback. The popular mysteries from Scandinavia right now are set in villages. Village mysteries can be set anywhere, so there is no reason they can't be set in Canada.

Three Pines, the setting of Penny's books, might be referred to as mystical or mythical. It's an idyllic village, where villagers don't lock their doors. Louise commented that if they don't lock their doors by now, after the murders in three books, they deserve to be slaughtered. She said Gamache does investigations all over Quebec, and other cases are referred to in the books, but she writes about his cases in Three Pines. She's going to kill off as many people as she wants in the village. She said her next book is a shout out to Agatha
Christie, and her book, And Then There Were None. Gamache is at a remote lodge, celebrating his wedding anniversary, when he's called out to Three Pines. Book Five is set totally in Three Pines, and Book Six is set half in Three Pines and half in Quebec City during Carnival.

Louise said she had so much fun designing Three Pines. She wanted to create a sense of belonging, a place for friends, and a place not to be alone. It was a place she wanted to be. It's a place with friends, a bistro to eat at, a used bookstore, a bakery, a Bed and Breakfast, and a general store. She wants to bring in more of the permanent villagers in the books.

The reader also gets to see police politics as well. You get to know Gamache as a man of integrity, a kindly and good man. He makes conscious choices. The contrast is the internal Sûreté politics, and the Byzantine way in which they work out their differences.

Before she read from The Cruelest Month, Louise pulled out her handwritten notebook for her next book. Each book gets a notebook, with dividers for ideas, plots, quotes, and notes. Penny said the advice she gives new writers is to persevere. Believe in yourself, and keep sending the book out. She also advises them to read poetry.

She then summarized the beginning of The Cruelest Month. She researched to find out how late Easter could be because she wanted to set the book in late April. It's a transition month in which any weather could occur. That gives a feeling of unease, when you don't know what might happen.

She said the villagers have had better ideas than to hold a séance at the old Hadley House at night. When she read the séance scene from The Cruelest Month, the audience was totally absorbed. She's a terrific reader, and her pacing and emphasis had us hanging on her words, and laughing at the scene. She has a dramatic reading voice, and it was wonderful to hear it read in her Canadian accent. When Barbara asked her if she read her own recordings of the books, she said no, but said A Fatal Grace was just nominated for an Audie Award for best mystery, an award for audiobooks.

She said she thinks her biggest audience is in the States, just because of the sheer numbers. However, in Canada, she could feel the rise of popularity and awareness. With her third book, she appeared on the covers of magazines, and on news shows. She said for an author, she thinks the tipping point is when booksellers are asked for the book, not by the title, but with the question, "Do you have the latest Louise Penny?" That happens through word of mouth. With her first book, no one had read it. She said she was serious about word of mouth. When she picks up a new author, it's first because a friend recommends it. Second, is if a favorite bookseller recommends it. It's seldom a review that causes her to pick up a book.

Louise said she reads poetry, which needs to be read aloud. When asked if she reads her own books aloud to see how they sound, she said no. Her editor suggests it, but she's resistant. She does do a lot of editing. She loves editing. She said things do become clear when you read it aloud. She thinks she's just lazy. She took one of those personality tests in a woman's magazine, and her overriding personality trait is sloth.

When asked about Clara and her artistic career, and her relationship with Peter, Louise said Clara's career in on the ascendancy. Readers will see her career in subsequent books.

Someone mentioned how rude the villagers can be to each other. However, they love each other. They're diverse characters. Ruth's poetry is actually Margaret Atwood's from a book called Morning In The Burned House.

One audience member said her books are positive books, with positive people who have a benevolent view of the world. She was asked how she maintains that positive view. Louise said she has a keen sense of gratitude. She has a genuine understanding of how fortunate she is, and that she's being blessed.

Most of the people in Three Pines are wounded when they arrive there. It's really only found when it's needed. Three Pines is a state of mind inside all of us. Barbara, and others, mentioned places such as Brigadoon, Shangri-La, and Narnia. People choose to go there because they need to be there.

She said if there's a fear of loneliness and loss, the fears grow into terror. When you let it go, you can see goodness exists. The books are about love and friendship. Still Life is about choice. A Fatal Grace is about belief, becoming what we love, and the third book, The Cruelest Month, is about redemption.

Louise said she can be lazy, but she's a person of extremes. She's extremely disciplined when writing. She gets a book written from January to June by writing 1,000 to 2,000 words a day. She does nothing in the summer, lies by the pool with the dogs, watches TV and eats gummy bears.

I thought the nicest thing she could have said was that Gamache is her husband, Michael. She sees Gamache as a father figure, similar to Ben Cartwright or Walter Cronkite. She was influenced by them.

She said traditional mysteries aren't fashionable right now. But she's writing to her interest. Barbara Peters said traditional mysteries might reappear soon because they're cyclical. She said genre fiction goes through cycles, and it's time for something fresh. Mysteries were popular in the '90s, and now thrillers are popular. But, the classic form still works.

Louise said she's judging Best First Novel for the Ellis Awards right now. The awards are named for Arthur Ellis, the name always used for Canada's executioners, so they could remain anonymous. The award itself is a hanged man. She said there's been discussion as to whether or not books were actually mysteries when they read more like literary fiction. They're not classic crime fiction. Barbara said she felt the difference is that crime fiction has a story, and literary fiction often doesn't have a story. The name crime fiction embraces thrillers and all manner of mysteries.

It was so nice to finally meet Louise Penny. She hugged me, held my hands, and thanked me for the support from the very beginning. In emailing friends today, who met her last night at The Poisoned Pen, we all agreed we wanted to be Louise Penny's friend, and spend time in Three Pines with her.

Louise Penny's website is www.louisepenny.com

Her blog is at www.louisepenny.blogspot.com

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Comment by Lesa Holstine on March 17, 2008 at 4:59am
You're welcome, Naomi. I try to bring a flavor of the event to the writeup.
Comment by Naomi Hirahara on March 17, 2008 at 1:48am
I adore Louise's books. Thanks for the informative writeup.

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