Louise Penny: Learning Kindness (Part 1)

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Description: Louise Penny: Learning Kindness

It takes courage, talent, and luck to reinvent yourself at mid-life. Louise Penny has plenty of all three.

“I have been lucky in my life in many, many ways”, she says. “And I think I was very lucky in my mid-30s. I really had to evaluate where I was and if it was where I wanted to be. And I realized it wasn’t. I wasn’t even halfway through my life and something had to change.”

Penny had built a successful career in broadcasting, hosting popular local programs on CBC Radio, first in Thunder Bay, then in Winnipeg, Quebec City, and finally Montreal. She speaks frankly, looking back.

“There are many people who have great careers in the media because they thrive in that atmosphere. But I didn’t. I needed something else.”

As a child she dreamt of creating novels that would be widely read, showered with critical praise, eagerly anticipated by fans. And, in her middle years, that has become the bestselling author’s reality. In less than a decade, Penny has become one of Canada’s most successful writers. She has sold over a million copies of her seven books. Her latest, A Trick of the Light (St. Martin’s Press, September 2011),debuted at number four on the prestigious New York Times bestseller list. She’s won a bushel of awards for her writing (including four consecutive Agathas for Best Novel in the spirit of Agatha Christie). Her fans are ardent, and her reputation is glowing.

In conversation from her city home in Montreal, she speaks often of her winding, difficult road to reach this place:

“I tried to write early in life and couldn’t. And in retrospect now I realize I was trying to write for the wrong reasons. I was trying to write so that I would have success and the applause and approval of the outside world. And the reality was, I had very little to say. I was quite callow. I was one of those people who really had to live fully and experience.”

Discovering Discipline  


Description: Discovering Discipline

Penny was born in Toronto in 1958 and raised there in the leafy Lawrence Park neighbourhood, a middle child with two brothers. Her love of words came naturally. “My mother instilled,” she recalls, “as my grandfather did, a great love of poetry.” Her father, John Penny, an investment dealer, ”loved reciting poetry and singing Harry Belafonte.”

John Penny died when Louise was 18. she remembers him as “a man of his time; he wasn’t always as warm and as present; he was busy building his own career. We weren’t a family that went around camping or on vacations together. It was later my brothers and I discovered how much we loved each other.”

A high school star in basketball and volleyball, Penny was Athlete of the year at Lawrence Park Collegiate, but, she says, “I was not one of those popular kids. I remember it being just a terrible time. I was overweight; I was, I think, socially maladroit. Athlete of Year but I always felt like a mental idiot.”

She backed into media accepting an invitation to cover high school sports for Toronto newspapers, then went on to study broadcasting. She joined CBC Radio, eventually relocating to Thunder Bay and carrying plenty of unhappiness and attitude. Penny summed up her brittle young self to Canada’s Quill and Quire:

“I was very cynical, very bitter, the sort of person who, when I joined the CBC, I hoped I wouldn’t have to work with. Well, I wasn’t just working with her. I was her. I try very hard now to be a decent human being because I’ve been an indecent one, and I know the difference.”

She still cringes, recalling her arrival at Lakehead:

“I remember showing up in Thunder Bay I think I was 20 to 21 or 21 to co-host the morning show and of course I was going to teach them all how it should be done. And I’m horrified at the thought of it. I was so arrogant, so full of myself. And how everybody put up with me, and didn’t just cut me up in little pieces and throw me over Kakabeka Falls… But I learned a certain humility, and that smart, thoughtful, kind people live outside of big cities. I spent a lot of my life… not dismissing kindness, but not thinking about it, about what a great gift it is.”

She rose in her career, but her unhappiness isolated her. Among her memories, she recalls “despair and just dreadful echoing loneliness that brought me to my knees.” Finally, at age 35, she realized she had to change. “I’m a recovering alcoholic,” she says evenly. “It’s not something I talk and has been sober for nearly 20 years, still practising a recovery program.

As she reinvented herself, she also found her luck. Fate and a blind date brought her something unexpected love, and a man she calls her soulmate. Happily married to Dr. Michael Whitehead, a widower and head of haematology at Montreal Children’s Hospital, she left broadcasting in 1996, free to create at last:

“I thought, ‘Oh finally, the free spirit that is natural to me will come out. I am no longer imprison
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