Julia interviews Louise Penny

Received wisdom has it that the traditional village mystery can’t sell in the UK, but yours has gone into a second printing. What do you think is the appeal? Or is the received wisdom wrong?

I wasn’t actually aware that that was the wisdom! My ignorance has yet again served me well. But it sure explains the Sunday Telegraph review which liked the book and called it, ‘delightfully unfashionable.’ Thank God for the ‘delightfully.’

I’m not sure why people in the UK seem to have taken to STILL LIFE. Frankly I think fashions change and it’s possible in this time of unease and uncertainty there’s a return to yearning for tradition. For places where you know your neighbor and the person behind the counter, where there’s a clear sense of belonging and community. Where kindness, not cynicism, is a currency and goodness exists. I think the books we both write appeal to people’s gentler nature while at the same time allowing people to escape. It’s also possible it’s simply good timing on my part.

The other advantage I have is Quebec. Perhaps village mysteries set in the UK would be less appealing to Britons, but like Alexander McCall Smith and Botswana, I have a somewhat exotic and unplumbed setting. I intentionally made the small Quebecois village, and the bilingual/bicultural nature of Quebec, a character in the story. I love where I live and am very grateful to be living here, and I love the people in this community. And, sometimes, I love killing them off. Of course, all the bad guys are fictional.

There’s another aspect to your question I find interesting. As a newcomer to the genre I’ve been interested to read about all the sub-genres. Noir, procedural, cozies etc. I don’t actually feel comfortable about that. STILL LIFE and the others in the series are unapologetically traditional – but they’re also modern with contemporary characters and technology and language and sensibility. They’re procedural at times and even noir. Yours, for instance Julia, have been described as cozies meet thrillers. How wonderful is that! And I loved your essay on your website about whether your books are in fact cozies. You summed up my own nascent feelings exactly.

What made you segue from journalism to writing traditional mysteries? And as a cosmopolitan, hard news reporter, what attracted you to Three Pines – as opposed to, say, a thriller about a journalist in Toronto?

I actually tried to write a book of literary fiction first – and ended up eating gummy bears and watching Oprah for three years, lying whenever anyone asked how the book was going. ‘Very well, thanks for asking.’ I finally realized I was taking myself far too seriously and maybe I should crawl out from the smug intellectual cloak and look at my own bedside table. Stacked there were murder mysteries. Traditional cozies. Set in small towns and villages.

All my life I’ve loved and read traditional mysteries. My heroes are Agatha, Dorothy, Ngaio, Josephine. By then Michael and I were living in the Eastern Townships, south of Montreal. Here I found the inspiration for the book and the characters, and the courage to take the chance and finally write the book I’ve wanted to since I was a child reading Charlotte’s Web alone in my bedroom, safe and sovereign.

A hard-boiled thriller was never an option. Still isn’t. As a journalist I’d had my fill of tough stories, of cynicism, of marginal people. I was tired of being like that myself – smug, cynical, sarcastic, superior. It’s exhausting. I realized all I wanted in life was to be content, happy – to laugh and be free of the prison of self-absorption. So when it finally came time to write, it needed to be about a community I’d want to live in with characters I’d choose as friends. I wanted something fresh, something alive and redemptive. Something with a heart and soul and laughter and croissants.

One of the things I love about writing a small town is its universality. Across barriers of language, culture and state, all small towns, I their essential, are the same. What’s your small-town story? Did you come from one or do you live in one now?

I’ve only ever lived in cities, of varying size. But when I got married my husband and I decided to try living in the country. And we love it. I completely agree with you about small towns. At their heart they’re the same. In fact, I think that of people. We all want the same things – to belong, to be safe, to love and be loved. We want company for the journey. I’m convinced the majority of people who’ll read STILL LIFE and the other books are stressed-out urban professionals who also long for a quieter, gentler, simpler life.

I live in a leaky 200 year old farmhouse in Maine. As you mention on your gorgeous website, www.louisepenny.com, you live in a United Empire Loyalist brick home, surrounded by maple woods and mountains and smelly dogs. Was the original builder of your house a former resident of…where? Brick versus wood? Inquiring minds must know!

What a fun question. I don’t actually know who first built this home – it’s in the style of the loyalists but is not as old. Our date stone above the front door says 1869 – so if they were loyal to the crown fleeing the Revolution they were very slow about it.

When we were first looking for a country home south of Montreal Michael and I told the real estate people we only wanted a wooden home beside a lake. We ended up in a brick home with no lake in sight. Totally happy. I wish we really were having a conversation, Julia, because I’d love to hear how you and your husband ended up in your leaky home. I bet it’s exquisite.

Your fiction seems to spring first and foremost from its powerfully realistic characters. What’s your process for developing and working with your characters?

Thank you. My stories are driven by the characters – their turmoil and fears and secrets and I love it. That was one of the great gifts of being a journalist and radio host with the CBC. I spent 20 years listening to people. Hearing their stories, hearing how they felt. It was a real education in the character of people – their courage and pettiness, their meanness and their spirit. People are amazing. And endlessly fascinating.

I start with an idea for a murder…someone kills someone else – for a reason. The reason, of course, is personal and secret and twisted. What was once a rational, natural feeling has become grotesque over time.

Then I take walks and baths and I see them – not necessarily physically yet, but I guess the real word is I feel them. What drives them, both in a noble sense and the ignoble. Characters are generous and jealous, courageous and greedy. I’ll often write down their traits. And then, as you know, I love poetry. I find a line or two from poems I love that describe them and their fate. ‘More sinned against than sinning’, or ‘Not waving but drowning.’

It helps me to really feel the person – to get beneath the public façade. My books are about murder, but beneath that there’s another theme. In STILL LIFE it’s change and choice and that we’re products of the choices we make. In the second book, DEAD COLD, it’s about belief (as opposed to faith) and that we are what we believe about ourselves. The third book, which I’m working on now, is about jealousy and redemption and is set at Easter in Three Pines. After that, if I have it right and firmly in my head, I let the characters loose. Which brings us to your next question.

Outline or no outline?

Definitely an outline! I’m in total awe of writers who can sit down and write and end up with a book. I’m finding as I go I need less outline but I still need one. I don’t necessarily follow it, but it serves as a good ‘centre’ for me. From there I at least know whether I’m ‘off-book’ as they say. When I write a chapter I know what important information it must contain…but how it’s communicated and the business that surrounds it, is up to the characters. It’s always amazing to me at the end of a work day where the book has gone. Sometimes I need to fix it, but often not. Thank God for computers. I suspect without an outline I’d end up with 180,000 words and spend the next year editing the mess into something usable. An outline gives me a sense of security, of purpose, of what drives the story and a clear idea of the story I want to tell. On good days.

How did it feel to ‘win’ a contest (I count a Dagger Honorable Mention a big win!) and be published?

It was a dream. I’d sent off query letters to tons of New York agents – my theory always being we might as well be turned down by the best. And I was. One actually scrawled “no” across my own letter. That was about as personal a reply as I got.

Then I entered the Debut Dagger contest put on by the Crime Writers Association in Britain and was shortlisted. When I read that email I just knew my life had changed.

I know for sure I’m not the best writer in the world, I know there are far more brilliant, gifted, writers of mysteries – and what kills me is I know there are any number of wonderful manuscripts shoved under beds and in drawers and gifted people who should be writing if they hadn’t finally grown too discouraged. In fact, Michael and I have started a scholarship at the local High School to encourage young writers, and I’m trying to get a Debut Dagger type award, for unpublished mysteries, going in Canada. It would be unconscionable for me to have had such good fortune and not to give it back. It’s a gift designed to be given away.

Author Denise Hamilton, a former L.A. Times reporter says her biggest challenge switching from journalism to fiction was giving herself permission to write feelings – i.e. to make things up. True for you?

Not the feelings part. What was the real challenge for me was writing description. For 20 years every story I did needed to be over in a flash – no padding, we don’t care what the trees, or cars, or gardens looked like and we sure don’t care what people ate. I was afraid I’d sit down to write a book and it would be over in a page and a half.

What are you going to do to launch STILL LIFE in the US?

We were hoping the Canadian Consulate in New York would host a party but it seems they’re on hiatus in the summer – so now we’re hoping they’ll do something in the fall – perhaps to coincide with the big sale of Star Trek memorabilia – I’m such a wonk. Besides that Michael and I have a week in New York to meet Ben Sevier, my editor and others at St. Martin’s, and do some signings. And enjoy one of the worlds remarkable cities and the breath-taking experience of seeing STILL LIFE in American bookstores!

Any word yet on the US publication date for your second book, DEAD COLD? Tell us a bit about it.

DEAD COLD is set in Three Pines at Christmas. While STILL LIFE was about the murder of a beloved villager, book 2 is about the murder of someone universally hated. Motives and clues galore. It was an absolute riot writing it. At the same time it explores the issues of what makes us who we are…what voices do we hear in our head? What are our core beliefs and how do they drive us?

And something is creeping up behind Gamache, something from his past. Something we see coming, but he doesn’t. I’m not sure when St. Martin’s Minotaur plans to bring it out though they have the book and like it – thank God. Phew.

Julia, thank you so much for doing this interview. To have someone as successful and prominent as you take notice of me and take an interest is amazing and more than that – you’re a wonderful role model for giving back. Thank you.

Louise Penny

Share

“My stories are driven by the characters – their turmoil and fears and secrets and I love it. That was one of the great gifts of being a journalist and radio host with the CBC. I spent 20 years listening to people. Hearing their stories, hearing how they felt. It was a real education in the character of people – their courage and pettiness, their meanness and their spirit. People are amazing. And endlessly fascinating.”