An interview with Louise Penny, author of the Canadian cozy mysteries Still Life and A Fatal Grace (published in Canada as Dead Cold)
by G.M. Malliet
Photo by Gary Matthews
Q: Still Life was short-listed for the Debut Dagger of the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain. After publication, Still Life won Britain's New Blood Dagger and Canada's Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel. It also won the Dilys award from the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association and landed on Kirkus Review's 2006 list of top ten mysteries.
And yet, you have said this novel nearly did not find a publisher. Do you have any thoughts as to why? Is the "cozy" perhaps a harder sell in New York than the "noir?"
A: When I finally found an agent her perception, before we sold it, was that the cozy was a harder sell in the UK than in New York. She said British readers were tired of it, having read, and bred, so many of them. But that Americans still loved the gentler, more idylized, stories. I wasn't so sure. But she proved to be right. The British reception has been good, and strong, but I have to say I think the US readers are really open to the traditional style. For which I'm grateful! I have no problem at all saying these are cozies, that's what I set out to write, as a homage to all the greats I loved, and still love, to read. It amazes me a little that this fine form is seen as incapable of also being rich, emotionally satisfiying and even challenging. Happily, this is a great community, which makes room for everyone.
In terms of it being so hard to find anyone interested in Still Life I think it was probably the combination of being a traditional tale set in Canada. It's frustrating but I do understand that agents and editors get a huge number of submissions and they make snap decisions. But it breaks my heart knowing how other writers have had the courage to start a book, finish it, send it out, and then finally give up. How many fantastic stories are shoved under beds or in drawers? I almost gave up with Still Life and was just about to put it away. Because of that my husband Michael and I have helped start an award like the Debut Dagger through the Crime Writers of Canada. It's for the Best Unpublished First Crime Novel and this inaugural year the winner was Phyllis Smallman, for her wonderful debut novel Marguerita Nights. We feel sure she'll be published now.
Q: The photos on your Web site offer a glimpse of a fictional, postcard-perfect village called Three Pines located in Canada's Eastern Township region. How much of Three Pines is like your own village, and how much of it is your fantasy of a St. Mary Mead type of village?
A: It's almost all fantasy, physically. Though this is an area of rolling hills and small mountains, of forests and lakes. But Three Pines itself is my dream village, my safe place. The place I'd create if God allowed me. What isn't made up is the feel of the village. I think of Three Pines as a state of mind. A village occupied by people who have made conscious choices in their lives. Not because they've never been hurt, not because they're too protected, or foolish, or shallow to know that the world can be a dreadful place. No. It's for that very reason they've all made their choices. They've all been hurt. As have we all. But when wounded some people become embittered, cynical, sarcastic. They hurt back. But some, and I sometimes think they're the ones most wounded, make another choice. They know nothing good comes of giving in to our darker instincts. And so they turn to what Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address called, 'The better angels of our nature.' Three Pines is a place where kindness trumps cruelty, where people help each other, and care. Where sharing isn't a word to be laughed at and even an embittered old poet is welcomed. There's that wonderful line from Auden is his poem to Melville - 'Goodness exists; that's the new knowledge/His terror had to blow itself quite out/To let him see it.'
In these books, and in Three Pines, there's terror, there's the wretched, stinking horror of the murder of someone they knew, by someone they know. But finally, these books, and Three Pines, are about goodness. The choice to be good, and to see good.
Q: Your background is as a radio journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Was that experience a help or a hindrance in writing fiction?
A: Wonderful question. It was a bit of a mixed bag. When writing news for the radio there's almost no character devolopment, description, mis-direction (you hope). Half a page and the story's over. When I started writing Still Life I was sure it would be over in a page and a half. 'An elderly woman was killed last night in the Eastern Townships village of Three Pines. Chief Inspector Gamache expects to make an arrest.' Good night.
On the plus side, I got to watch people as they reacted to extreme events in their lives. You don't generally end up on CBC radio if nothing is happening. I interviewed people on my show because either something extremely good or terrible had happened in their lives. For decades I saw how people absorbed those blows, sometimes with such courage it almost brought me to my knees, and other times with rage and violence. I covered accidents, illnesses, conflicts and the quieter tragedies of poverty and despair. All of that helped me try to understand our apparently limitless capacity for grace, and cruelty. It also helps put things in perspective. People have real problems. I don't. If a book doesn't end up on the bestsellers list, isn't well reviewed, well received, I'll be sad. But I've seen the end of the world, and that isn't it.
Q: Which books or writers do you feel have most influenced your writing?
A: Agatha Christie, definitely. Dorothy Sayers, Michael Innes. As you see, I'm old school. Isabel Allende is amazing as is Gabriel Garcia Marquez. They both have a layer of magical realism I connect to and try to bring to Three Pines.
Q: Who do you picture as the actor who might play your fictional detective Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surete du Quebec?
A: Whoohoo. What a fun question. Hmmm. Probably a cross between Lorne Greene (now dead of course) in his Pa Cartwright days and Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard. I also, and this might be nuts, see Kelsey Grammer. Yes, that one. He's a bit too old because I think they'd need to cast a person slightly younger than Gamache's mid-fifties, so he isn't eighty and still trying to be sixty or so. But Mr Grammer is capable of being an adorable intellectual, has a great sense of humour, and I've seen him in 'straight' roles where he has an amazing presence. He owns the screen. You'd need that with Gamache. Perhaps Vanessa Redgrave.
Q: What are your writing habits? Do you aim for a set number of pages a day, or hours at the desk? Do you have a special place where you write, or are you of the kitchen-table school of writing?
After A Fatal Grace/Dead Cold I rented a loft space in the nearby village and I write there. Six days a week. At least 1,000 words a day. I've found that while I love to think of myself as a free spirit, I'm not. Left to myself I'd eat gummy bears and watch Oprah all day. I need structure. Success for me depends upon structure and perseverence. My brother once told me a saying, The harder you work the luckier you get. I'd agree with that. Hard work doesn't garantee success, but laziness or fear or half-measures can sure handicap you. I know. I've tried all three.
The other thing I do, that I swear is potent, is a run a bubble bath and dream. I practice my own Oprah interview. I fly first class to London to accept a huge award. I win the Nobel Prize. Doesn't matter. I make up wonderful reviews for the books. I've learned that there are enough people who are willing, and even happy, to put you in your place. To criticise. And I have to be prepared for that, and even open to it. But I don't have to cut myself down. No. I have to do that opposite. I have to love myself.
Q: What is next for the series?
A: I'm actually off on a world tour in the fall then the third book, The Cruelest Month is coming out. Each Gamache book is set in a different season. So far we've had Autumn and Winter. The Cruelest Month is set in Easter - April - in Three Pines. The villagers decide to celebrate Easter by doing a little raising of the dead themselves, only to have one of their number die of fright at the seance. Enter Armand Gamache.
We still have Summer to go.