Sunday, May 29, 2011
Interview with Louise Penny--Mystery Writer Par Excellence
"Valley of the Roc" by Julia Kennedy. I traded eggs and bread for this painting, which hangs now in my living room.
In 2009 at the Malice Domestic Mystery Convention in Arlington, VA, I met Louise Penny for the first time, and I'd recently read her book The Cruelest Month. I interviewed her by email for the Guppy newsletter, First Draft, and she has given permission to reprint it now. Since 2009, she won Best Traditional Novel of 2010 and of 2011, Agathas for The Brutal Telling and Bury Your Dead.
A recent notice on DorothyL, a mystery lovers' list, by Kaye Barley in Boone, declares about her new one, due out in August 2011: "A Trick of the Light is stunning, and, yes, it is the best one yet. How does she keep doing this? And continually top her own work? I have no idea other than the fact that she must be one of those angels walking the earth we hear about from time to time. She is, in my opinion, a writer of the very rarest kind of talent." I agree, Kaye, and right now she's my favorite of the contemporay mystery writers. Here's the 2009 interview. Judy Hogan
Louise Penny Interview
Louise Penny lives in Quebec with her husband, Michael, and is the internationally best-selling author of the Armand Gamache mysteries, Still Life, A Fatal Grace/Dead Cold, The Cruelest Month, and A Rule Against Murder/The Murder Stone. Her fifth book, The Brutal Telling, will be published in October 2009.
Before turning to writing, Louise was a journalist with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Her books have won the UK Dagger, the Canadian Arthur Ellis, and in the U.S. she’s won the Anthony, Barry, Dilys, and the Agatha for Best Novel two years in a row, the first author to do that in almost 20 years. Her latest novel made the New York Times best seller list.
1. When did you first write mysteries? And why?
I started writing my first mystery in 2001,though I’d actually quit work at CBC radio in 1996 to write, then immediately developed writers’ block. Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, "She is clever to do that–and to suffer it for five years."
It was horrible! I realized I was trying to write the wrong book. So I regrouped, looked at the stack of books on my bedside table, and saw there Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, Michael Innes, and realized I needed to simply write a book I would love to read. And so I did. All my literary decisions were selfish. I chose characters I’d want to spend time with, a protagonist I would marry, and a mystery that wouldn’t leave me petrified in bed. Indeed, my books, while clearly mysteries, are actually about friendship and community, about love and goodness.
2. Tell us about your road to publication. I think you’ve written that it wasn’t easy.
Blech, it was horrible. I was an international failure... If I could have had my manuscript shot into outer space, I’d have been an intergalactic failure. No one wanted it. The objections were three-fold–the "traditional mystery" is passe, the protagonist is too content, not enough people are killed. Never mind the agents and editors who just thought, generally, it stank. Feeding my 3 am certainty that everything I do is a piece of crap. And I’m fat and ugly and stupid, and often late. You can see how much fun this process was for me.
In fact, I almost shoved the manuscript under the bed for some poor surviving relations to find 30 years from now, after my death...to toss away. Then I was, unexpectedly, short-listed for the Debut Dagger sponsored by the CWA in Britain, and my life changed. I didn’t win, but I did find my agent out of it. And suddenly the novel no one wanted became the novel everyone wanted. That was STILL LIFE.
I was so taken by my experience, and upset at the thought of many wonderful mystery writers who were also turned down and might have given up, that my husband, Michael, and I have started (with the Crime Writers of Canada) a Best Unpublished Crime Novel competition.
3. Why are you committed to the traditional mystery (which a lot of Guppies write)?
Well, honestly, I wish I could say it was a moral or even creative choice. Frankly I love them because I read them. There’s a comfort I crave and appreciate in traditional mysteries. There is also, I believe, a great deal of scope and depth to explore the human condition. Murders in cities are dreadful, terrible. But I often think a murder in a village is worse. Because you’re killed by someone you know. The betrayal, the violation, is complete. And the suspects soon realize someone isn’t who they seem. There is, in fact, a stranger among them.
But, more than anything, I’ve found in my life a desire for peace...especially when my job was particularly stressful, when my life was falling apart, when the world proved less kind, less gentle, less loving than it might have been. I crawl into bed with my gummi bears and diet coke and a traditional mystery. And for a few blessed hours the world is right.
4. Who are your favorite authors, past and present, and why?
Agatha Christie–perhaps more for nostalgia than any literary value, but I do still adore her.
Michael Innes--a British author of the Golden Age...wonderful, literate mysteries...often extremely wry.
Dorothy L. Sayers–I had a crush on Lord Peter, and hated that horrible woman who stole him from me. Harriet something. Tramp.
Reginald Hill–his characters are brilliant, his settings so well described...his crimes central but rarely too graphic.
But my favorites are:
Georges Simenon–the Maigret books. Wonderful, crystalline in their clarity, each a short, sharp gem...a stunning evocation of France in the 1950s.
But mostly, Josephine Tey. Stunning writer. Clear, concise, often funny, always "true." I adore all her books, but my favorite (while Daughter of Time is close) is The Franchise Affair.
5. What do you tell people when they suggest you write "literary novels."
I tell them I do. And I tell them I haven’t yet begun to explore the depth or breadth of mystery novels. I’ve grown weary of being asked that, with its implication that I don’t but the questioner feels, if I apply myself, I might be good enough to. A sort of implied compliment. And I need to explain, gently, that simply because mystery novels have a structure doesn’t make them less literary. Haiku has a structure. Sonnets have a structure. That’s the challenge. To both occupy and transcend the formula. To live within the strictures while rising above them. No one would suggest sonnets are lesser poems because of their rigid structure. Would anyone suggest Hamlet was a lesser play, or Macbeth, because at their heart they deal with murder?
6. What routines/rituals do you have for getting your writing done?
I’m extremely disciplined. I write every day that I can, which amounts to six days a week, often seven. I get up at about 7 am, am writing by 8:30, and for the first draft I set a minimum word count for the day. When I’m just beginning a new book, I set it quite low, so as not to scare myself off. 250 words a day. Then 500, then up to 1,000. These are minimums. Because I’m quite competitive, I almost always exceed them. Sometimes this takes three hours, sometimes five. I have, however, come to appreciate that quality, not quantity, is what counts...so I’d rather hit my word count and feel good about the day’s work than write 5000 merde-like words. Though I don’t always, of course, feel good about my day’s writing. Probably about 60 percent of the time as I struggle through the first draft.
7. How do you handle/cope with the public attention and your need to work on your career that goes with being a published and prize-winning author?
That’s an excellent question and one that I never considered when yearning to be a writer, though not a day goes by I’m not keenly aware of how lucky I am. Again, I find I need to be extremely disciplined, and get things done right away...otherwise everything piles up and my stress goes through the roof. For instance, I began work at just before 9 am, editing book six, and it’s now 9:20 at night, and I’m still working, answering your questions. But if I don’t, when will I? Tomorrow will be no easier. And compared to the work I used to do, compared to the work that most people do, this is bliss. How wonderful when my job involves editing my own book, and answering smart questions for smart people?
Having said that, I have grown better at declining invitations–I say no to things at least once a day–and fighting for my precious writing time, because nothing else exists if the books start to get bad. In fact, I’d stop writing. I couldn’t imagine doing that to the readers, or the characters whom I’ve grown to love.
8. How did you feel when you won Best Novel Agatha at Malice Domestic 2009, when two other nominees, Anne Perry and Julia Spencer-Fleming, had been your mentors/supporters?
You know, I felt deeply grateful to them, but I also know that sometimes the sun shines on me and sometimes it shines on someone else. That happened to be my turn, but Anne’s and Julia’s and Rhys’ and Donna’s books were all superb, and it could just as easily have been them. And I would have happily applauded. It felt natural to accept, just as it would have felt natural to congratulate any one of them.
9. In the U.S. there is rather a harsh climate among the big publishers with emphasis on books, like thrillers, with violence and weird behavior so it’s surprising to me that you have been so well-published and received here. Have you run into any difficulties with agents or publishers being unsympathetic to your good characters like Gamache and Clara or reacting negatively to the cozy qualities of your Three Pines village and its rituals, which I love.
Well, as I mentioned, the climate was definitely polar to begin with. And I cannot for the life of me explain what changed except great good luck and the fact that I think publishers might not totally appreciate the longing among us all, American, Canadian, British, French, etc.,for community and belonging and friendship. For a world not ruled by sarcasm and cynicism. And brutality. A world where goodness exists. The readers found the books and turned the series into what it is. I’m extremely fortunate in my publisher, Minotaur Books in the US! And my editor, the wonderful Hope Dellon. They understand the books and support them. But I know they were also a little surprised at the success. And no one was more surprised than I was. But the success is uniquely due to the readers, who spread the word. Which I why I write a blog and respond to every email I possibly can...so people know how grateful I am. Not only in word, but in action. At the age of 51 they’ve given me my dream.
10. Do you seek feedback from others after you have a good first draft? How do you handle revisions?
Not after the first draft...my first drafts are real dog’s breakfasts. Characters disappear halfway through, new ones appear. Names change, subplots disappear. Yech. A great deal of the shape of my books and my characters comes out in the editing. I love editing. I’ll do at least two edits before showing it to anyone...and even then it’s generally just my husband, Michael, and my brother, Doug. And they’ve been instructed to tell me, "God, Louise, it’s brilliant!!" Then I send it off to my agent and fight nausea for two weeks.
11. What is it like to work with your St. Martin’s editor (Minotaur Books), Hope Dellon?
Oh, I’m so glad you asked this question...she is bliss...on every level. Not only does she completely understand what I’m trying to achieve, she knows how to bring the best out, of the books and me. I don’t respond well to bullying, to sharp retorts, to commands. I need to be handled carefully. I wish it was different and I had a thicker skin, but I don’t. Not when it comes to my books. Each takes a year to write, after having thought about them for about a year before beginning. I don’t need someone whacking it and me, with a figurative frying pan. And Hope never does. Her notes are clear, diplomatic, thoughtful, and kind. And always constructive. Any thought and suggestions I don’t agree with we discuss. Some she sees my point of view, some I see hers. We always agree, amicably.
Hope is one of the truly creative, great editors today. Anyone who gets her is lucky indeed. She has made every one of my books she’s worked on better. And made me a better writer in the process. I so enjoy her company, in fact, that Michael and I had dinner with Hope and her husband, Charles, in New York earlier in the summer.
12. You have at least three major audiences in the U.S., Canada, and U.K. Are they all responding in a similar way to your novels or do you see differences?
I see quite striking differences. In the UK I think they’re still viewed as quaint village mysteries, which surprises me. The setting is definitely a village, and the people are definitely kindly, for the most part, but that’s the most superficial reading of them. There’s an emotional and philosophical underpinning that both the American and Canadian readership seems to get, but the UK doesn’t. They’re often referred to as "cozies" there, while here, I think, for the most part people have realized they aren’t exactly that. Still, happily, the readership is strong, and while I’d love everyone to read the books I meant to write, I am happy they’re giving pleasure.
13. Tell us a little about your fifth book, The Brutal Telling, due out in October.
I decided after The Cruelest Month, which is the third book, that Three Pines really couldn’t sustain every novel. And as a writer, I also wanted to explore other terrain and characters, while retaining Chief Inspector Gamache...so I decided every second book would be set, for the most part, away from Three Pines. As a result A Rule Against Murder (The Murder Stone –UK and Canada)–book 4--was set on a nearby lake. But book 5– The Brutal Telling –is back firmly in the village. What a pleasure it was, too, to be back with all the familiar characters. Peter and Clara, mad, brilliant Ruth, Myrna, and of course, Gabri and Olivier. In The Brutal Telling we find out more about Olivier. Who he is, what brought him to the village, his history, and the secrets he carries that finally come creeping out. A body is found in his bistro, and the investigation takes Chief Inspector Gamache deep into the forests around Three Pines, and across the continent, trying to solve the murder. And yet, all avenues, all clues, all the evidence points back to Olivier. Until all his secrets are stripped away in a final, brutal, telling.
I’m very excited about this book!
14. How do you approach promoting your books, beyond your email newsletter, going to conferences, and accepting invitations to read/speak?
Well, I do things like this, and my daily blog. And I ask readers to tell friends and family. And I realize how powerful the internet is and social networking. Many readers have huge influence on their own blogs and websites, or they have access to others...and the ability to spread the word. So I ask them to please, if they feel comfortable, to do that. I also go on whatever book tour Minotaur Books wants to send me on, and my other publishers. Book tours are quite tiring. While it’s clear the publisher doesn’t want you to actually drop dead while on tour, they do want to see how close they can come. Midnight flights, early morning interviews, late night events. And when I get tired, I remind myself that this is the dream, this is what I wanted, what I asked for, and what I am lucky enough to get. Who else gets to have an audience as an office?
15. Do you think about your readers as you write? Knowing now more about who your fans are, does that affect your writing?
No. I only still ever write what I would like to read. One great moment of awareness for me was that, after almost a lifetime of thinking I was special and different (and better) than others, I realized I was just the same as everyone, and everyone was the same as me. If I liked something, chances are lots of other people liked it. If most people like something, chances are I will, too. I am not, and never will be, a pioneer. I realized, if I was yearning for a peaceful village filled with croissants and café au lait, with kind friends and thoughtful, funny conversation–then others might be, too.
People ask if Three Pines exists, and I have say, no, not physically. But I think of it as a state of mind. When in the harried, sometimes harsh, world we choose kindness over cleverness, when we choose goodness over cynicism and sarcasm. Then we choose to live in Three Pines.
We all create the village.
16. What do you believe the goal of art is? Per Alexander McCall Smith, it’s "to help us to live better." [The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday, p. 170]. Do you agree with that? In short, what do you hope to achieve in your mysteries, beyond entertainment?
Personal peace. And if others find it, too, while reading the books, I’m thrilled.
Judy Hogan is an enthusiastic Guppy, who founded Carolina Wren Press in 1976. In 1984 she helped found the North Carolina Writers’ Network, serving as its president until 1987. She has published five volumes of poetry with small presses and two prose works. She has written seven traditional mystery novels featuring Penny Weaver, a poet and amateur detective, and Kenneth Morgan, a Welsh detective inspector, for which she is seeking an agent through AgentQuest. A freelance editor, she is also a small farmer. Email her at mailto:email@example.com. Check her web page at http://judyhogan.home.mindspring.com/
Louise Penny’s books and her story to publication help me believe in my still unpublished books. I treasure the fundamental human tone/reality in her mysteries. Movies these days, and many books, emphasize excessive violence and sex, and general weirdness. I remember the movies of the 1950s, where human suffering and joy, human problems and their solutions were the focus. These same problems have been endlessly interesting to us since the first recorded stories and songs. They are the great human dilemmas of love, loss, growing up, growing old, our fears, hates, loyalties, prejudices, failures to be and do what we aim to, and our successes after overcoming many obstacles. It’s called the human condition, and it’s still news, and Louise Penny knows how to open it and so engage us that we can relish every sentence, every scene, every real human dilemma. Her books are, to me, simply delicious. I want to eat the food, know the people, solve the crime, be there. Thank you, Louise, for sharing yourself in the interview below. Judy Hogan