Louise Penny: Learning Kindness (Part 2)

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Murder, She Writes

Description: Murder, She Writes

The discipline she found freed her as a writer. She embraced the structure of books her mother had loved, the popular mysteries written by Britain’s great crime novelist:

“It’s absolutely true; I was raised on the ristish crime novel: P.D. James. Ngaio Marsh, and, of course, Agatha Christie. I read widely, but I loved murder mysteries. It’s a form that I understand. There’s a beginning, there’s a middle, there’s an end, there’s a murder, there’s an investigation, there’s a resolution. And that structure is not confining. I fact, just the opposite. That’s simply the girders on which all the other elements can be hung. A murder mystery, a crime novel…what better way to explore human nature than when it’s challenged and shattered like that and you have to pick up the pieces. Hamlet was a crime novel!”

At the heart of each crime novel is the act of murder. That act Penny finds endlessly fascinating: “Murder is such as a violation and at the same time a part of being human. I don’t think there are very many of us who haven’t thought, ‘What would drive me to murder?’ That’s really at the core of it. It is so deeply human.”

Her first novel, Still Life, is set in a fictitious, picturesque, arty, and not so peaceful Quebec village called Three Pines. www.louisepenny.com describes the book’s central mystery:

“As the early morning mist clears on Thanksgiving Sunday, the homes of Three Pines come to life all except one… To local, the village is a safe haven. So they are bewildered when a well-loved member of the community is found lying dead in the maple woods. Surely it was an accident a hunter’s arrow gone astray. Who could want Jane Neal dead?”

The subsequent investigation introduces Penny’s charming, compassionate, and perceptive central character, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sureté du Québe, as well as many of vivid, colourful characters who call Three Pine home.

At first, no one wanted Still Life. Rejection slips piled up on Penny’s desk. Finally, she sent a manuscript to England, entering a first-novel competition called Debut Dagger, a contest created by Britain’s Crime Writer’s Association. Out of 800 entries in 2004, she took a highly-praised second place. Publishers noticed. And once she was in print, critics flagged her as a writer to watch. “An auspicious debut,” said the New York Times; “impressive… promising” echoed the London Times, Publisher’s Weekly simply called it “terrific.”

Next, in what has become the Three Pines/Chief Inspector Gamache series, came Dea Cold (a spectator is found electrocuted at a local curling match), then The Cruellest Month (a suspicious death among a group exploring an abandoned, “evil” house), then A Rule Against Murder (a genteel family returns to town; there is murder at the Manoir Bellechasse). Her fifth was The Brutal Telling (a mysterious stranger found dead in the local bistro); the sixth is Bury Your Dead (murder discovered deep in a long locked room in an ancient library in Quebec City). Seven years and seven fascinating mysteries later, A Trick of the Light was hailed as “stellar,” “stunning,” “superb…masterful,” and “top of the genre.” US publishing trade paper Kirkus Reviews compared her to the very best, noting:

“Penny, elevating herself to the pantheon that houses P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, and Minette Walters, and Minette Walters, demonstrates an exquisite touch with characterization, plotting, and artistic sensitivity.”

The Lump in the Throat


With her name shining on numerous bestseller lists, this engaging author clearly enjoys her success. She also keeps it very much in perspective. Penny chuckles as she illustrates the difference between fame and lack of it:

“I didn’t tour with the first book. And it was quite a blow to my ego, because of course this has been lifelong dream. I would lie in the bubble bath and practice my Oprah interview and imagine what it would be like to have a book published cocktail parties and penthouse suites and everybody fawning. The reality was, ‘No, we’re not going to tour you because frankly we can’t be bothered and nobody knows who you are.’ And with the second book, they did tour me and it was thrilling to get my itinerary and there were flights in cargo, of course, on ‘Bob’s Airlin.’ But they were absolutely right; even after a certain amount of success with the third, nobody turned out. I spoke to caretakers, I spoke to janitors, I spoke to people who just wanted me to stop speaking so they could close up the room. It was horrific. And then this fall, hundreds of people. Packed. It was wonderful. But I don’t take this for granted. No part of me stands in front of a room full of people all holding my book and thinks, ‘Yeah, well, this is pretty much par for the course.’ “

A Trick of the Light is set in motion at a Montreal vernissage in the exotic and highly competitive world of big league art and artists. Into this scene, Penny places a grateful and self-effacing painter named Clara Morrow whose great talent lies undiscovered until her middle years. Proud of her work, but not quite sure she belongs, Clara approaches the site of her gallery opening at Montreal’s Musée d’Art Contemporain. As Penny writes:

“Clara’s hands grew cold and numb as she moved slowly forward, propelled by an undeniable force, a rude mix of excitement and terror. She wanted to rush towards the doors, yank them open and yell, ‘Here I am!’ But mostly she wanted to turn and flee, to hide. To stumble back down the long, long, light-filled, art-filled, marble-filled hallway. To admit she’d made a mistake.”

“Yes,” Penny laughs, “I think anyone who knows me knows that I’m Clara. I’m actually, of course, elements of most of characters. Their most rancid emotions are certainly mine.”

This fall there will be a new, eight Three Pines/Chief Inspector Gamache novels. For a number of months each year, Penny gathers material, noting ideas, bits of poems and dialogue, new arcs for her characters. Ultimately, to find the core of a new novel, she clears her mind:

“I’m trying to sit quietly, I’m trying to, in some way, not gather material, but just let it come to me, to be open to it. I know it sounds kind of ‘ woo-woo’ and magical but…Robert Frost describes his poems beginning as a lump in the throat and that’s it…my books begin as a lump in the throat some emotion deeply left. Then I figure out a way to express that.”

Finding Home

As her fame grows, Penny finds quiet matters more. “I’m finding as I get older and I know from my friends that I’m far from unusual in this that we tend to get simpler. Our needs are simpler, and my needs certainly are simpler. Michael and I live basically on the side of a mountain. [They spend most of the year in a brick cottage near the pretty town of Sutton, Quebec, an hour southeast of Montreal.] We have a few a good friends and lots of acquaintances, a dog [Trudy, a golden retriever]. It’s a simple life. We don’t need much. I need my Gummi Bears and that’s about it.”

For all early pain in her journey, Louise Penny’s happiness is palpable today. In conversation, she’s a warm, vibrant presence self-deprecating, good-natured, and bright spirited. She feel lucky to have found a place that sustains her:

“Quebec is home. We talk about themes in the book. Another huge theme in belonging, is community. In all my books. Three Pines is about belonging. About finding your place, with friends. And I realize that for much of my life, I have been in search of home. And I’ve found it in Quebec. Which is odd. I’m basically a unilingual, English, middle-aged woman, and I have found it in the countryside of Quebec a place that never makes me feel like I’m a stranger, an outsider. It was important to me that these books become love letters to Quebec, and to my neighbours and my friends and to a province that has finally made me feel like I belong.”

Penny elaborates on her website: “The Chief Inspector Gamache books, while clearly crime fiction, are not, in fact, about murder or even death. They’re really about life. And friendship. About belonging and choices. And how very difficult it can be, how much courage it can take, to be kind.”

And the fascinating village of Three Pines, where her characters come to life. Is it real to her? Or an impossible Utopia ? Louise Penny is happy to tell you what, with luck, she has learned:

“Clearly, it physically doesn’t exist, but I think of it as an allegory. I think it exists for me in a way that’s much more important than a physical place. On the days when I choose to be kind, on the days when I choose forgiveness those are the days when I live in Three Pines. And there are days when I am none of those things. And it doesn’t feel very good. But I can find my way back to it because I know that Three Pines exists. And the passport is kindness.”

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