Monday, July 13, 2009


Author Louise Penny.

There is a world of grace in Canadian author Louise Penny's fiction. It shines through her multi layered stories the way a golden thread weaves a luminous trail through a dark tapestry. Grace and light are the constants in Still Life, The Cruelest Month, A Fatal Grace and A Rule Against Murder, so that the darkest murder serves mainly as contrast for the unwavering goodness of the characters who inhabit Penny's Canadian village of Three Pines. Artists Clara and Peter Morrow, bistro owner Olivier Brule and his partner Gabri Dubeau, poet Ruth Zardo are so vivid, they practically jump out of the pages to share their ideas with you. Chief among these unforgettable characters is Detective Armand Gamache of the Quebec Surete. Meet him and you will wish he would relocate from Montreal to your own neighborhood.
Penny's are not your mother's cozies. You will find no fussy would-be detectives sniffing around the neighborhood. This is crime fiction for the thinking reader.

1. What prompted you to switch from journalism to crime fiction writing?

I'd actually grown weary of journalism. I think I was burned out, and had
become the sort of person I wouldn't want to work with! Cynical, sarcastic,
not very supportive. I'd also developed, whether through journalism,
alcoholism or any number of 'ism's' the view that the world was a dark and
unfriendly place.
It was time for a change. And since I love reading crime fiction, it seemed
a good fit!

2. Is Armand Gamache purely fictional?

I thought so, and then one day I looked across the table at my husband
Michael and realized they share a huge number of qualities. Like Michael,
Armand Gamache is a content man, a happy man. Not because he's never known
difficulties, never known sorrow or loss or pain, but because he has.
Michael was the chief of hematology at the Montreal Children's
Hospital...the doctor you never hope to meet. Everyday he'd put on his
suit, his Winnie-the-pooh bowties, and go in and try to cure children of
cancer. And too often he had to tell parents the unbearable. And have to
sit at bedsides, when there was nothing else to do, but wait. And perhaps,
And yet, Michael is the most joyous man I know. Because he knows how
precious life is. Just like Gamache. His job has not made him cynical,
it's made him grateful.

3. Where do you find inspiration?

In music, in poetry, in the works of better writers. In people who are good
and kind and courageous.

4. What is it about writing that brings you joy ?

Mostly it's that moment when I realize somehow what I've created is actually
better than I am. Those moments of inspiration, when what comes out is as
much a surprise to me as anyone. I have to admit, as well, that I love my
characters, so I simply enjoy spending time with Gamache and Clara and Gabri
and Ruth. All my fictional friends.

5. Is there any part of the writing process that you would rather avoid?

Lots. Actually. I don't much like writing the first draft. I'm consumed by
fear and the certainty that what I'm writing really is crap. And somehow,
up til now, I've fooled everyone. But soon they'll figure out I don't know
what I'm doing. I'm also not a huge fan of book tours. I'm way too lazy
and they're way too much work. But, at times when I'm feeling sorry for
myself I try to stop, be quiet inside myself, and remember what a blessing
this is. How very, very lucky I am. Most people have real jobs, most
people aren't applauded and invited to be part of wonderful blogs like
But, like many writers, I'm a bit of a hermit...and always prefer a quiet
night in to a big literary event.

6. For whom do you write?

Myself. I came to a wonderful conclusion a few years ago. After many years
of thinking I was special and different, and perhaps even better than anyone
else, I realized suddenly that I wasn't. I'm exactly the same as most
people. What they want, I want. What most people like, I like. And so I
figure two things - 1) That is if write a book I'd want to read, others will
too and 2) If I'm writing what I want to write, it will be with joy and
creativity and passion...and that will transmit itself to others. Or not.
But at least I'll have had fun doing it.

7. How do you measure professional success?

Now there's an interesting question. The truth is, that bar keeps moving.
At first it was just to be published, then it was to win awards, then it was
to be on the New York Times Bestseller list. And now, I'm working at
realizing I need to just write the best book I can. Perhaps not the best
book anyone can...but my best. And that needs to be good enough. Honestly?
I have so far overshot anything I ever thought would happen in my writing
career, if it all stopped today I would be extremely content.

8. In a world where commercial success is so important, how can a
writer balance artistic integrity with the demands of the marketplace?

I think the one decides the other. I honestly do. There aren't many people
who can write books based on what they think people are buying, and make a
huge success of it. I think they come off shallow and mechanical. And
while they might enjoy initial success there will be no depth, no longevity.
I know it sounds soporific, but if you're writing what you love, and you're
a decent writer, you'll find an audience. Of course, you also need to be
open to your editors notes...but if they wanted Gamache to become a vampire
and re-locate to Jersey, I'd really have to object.

9. If you could be another writer, who would you be?

Linda Ellerbee...fabulous writer, journalist, humanitarian...who manages to
be both smart and kind. And happy.

10. Chekhov once said that his only job was to have talent. Do you
agree with him?

Hmmm...I have difficulty these days distinguishing 'job' from 'life'. I've
worked with many very talented a**holes - who drove good people away. So,
no, I don't think talent is enough. Nor do I think, in a professional
sense, is it enough to be kind. I think more along the lines of Harry
Truman who said that nobody ever listened himself out of a job. As a
writer, as a person, I think my job is to listen. The rest will come.

11. Do you have any plans for books in a genre other than crime fiction?

No, none at all. Crime fiction gives me all the scope I need to examine
myself and my world.

12. You recently mentioned that you have been a recovering alcoholic for fifteen years. Do you think that the good changes that took place in your life since you stopped drinking could have happened if you had not gone through the experience of walking through the fire?

Everything I have, every friend I have, every book I've written, every meal
I eat, every thought in my head, every feeling I home, my husband,
my career, my life...I owe to being an alcoholic, and to stopping drinking.
I am deeply grateful for having been an alcoholic, as strange as that may
sound. Though I wouldn't suggest anyone go out and try. It's a dangerous
field. But those of us who have been through it, been to the brink, know
how wonderful life is. I know how lucky I am.

The Armand Gamache books couldn't exist without having been to the brink,
looked inside, and come back. When I write about jealousy, about pettiness,
about being vindictive and filled with hate. When I write about wanting to
die, or wanting others to die, I do it from my own experience. I know those
places in my characters, because I know those places in myself.

And when I write about forgiveness, and patience, about friendship and
belonging. And goodness. And love. I also know those places inside

While my books are murder mysteries, they're not actually about murder.
That's just the catalyst. They're about friendship, about company, and
choosing kindness over cleverness, and goodness over cynicism.


  1. Clara,

    Thank you so much for your interview with Louise Penny. I learned more about her that I have in any other interview, I think. I love her writing (as I have told her repeatedly!) and her literary voice is so fine and witty and gracious. I can't wait for the fifth book to come out this autumn...but I have to!

    --Marjorie from Connecticut

  2. Very good interview. Well selected questions that brought very good answers from a very good author and a great person.
    Thank you.

  3. Thank you so much, Marjorie and Anonymous for your supportive comments. Ms. Penny's gift for communication and her good manners made this interview as pleasurable as reading one of her books.