Thursday, January 22, 2009
Louise Penny on Tour - A Rule Against Murder
Louise Penny's tour for A Rule Against Murder brought her to Phoenix on Inauguration Day. It was a perfect day for friends to get together before Louise's appearance at The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale. Louise Penny joined me, along with Barbara Peters, owner of the bookstore, and two other friends, Patti O'Brien and Kay Stewart, for dinner at The Italian Grotto. The conversation turned to topics as varied as the Inauguration to why crime fiction novelist Eric Stone was on the TV over the bar while we had dinner.
It was a natural transition to The Poisoned Pen for Penny's program. When Barbara Peters welcomed her, in French, she said an author from Penny's area in Canada needed to be conversant with French and English. Language is a political issue in Quebec. Louise said that her books are about duality, what we think, and what face we present to the world. They are about the French and English, and how they get along on the surface. Montreal's license tags are in French, but they translate to "I Remember". And what they remember is being conquered by the English on the Plains of Abraham.
Penny said when she leaves Phoenix on Wednesday, she'll be going to Montreal, and then Quebec City, where she is staying for a month. Her sixth novel takes place there, where she has rented an old stone house in the city. She said Quebec City is magical in winter, where the Christmas lights are still up, with the lights, and snow, and mullioned windows.
When Barbara Peters commented that she likes shopping in Quebec City because she's petite, and can find clothes that don't need to be shortened, Louise commented that Quebec women are tiny. When she first moved to Quebec City from Winnipeg, she thought she'd blend in quickly after learning French, but she's tall, and the women there are short, and they dress beautifully.
That brought the conversation around to Armand Gamache's wife, Reine-Marie (Queen Mary), and A Rule Against Murder. St.
Martin's Minotaur has put Penny's mysteries on the same schedule as the Canadian books, so the next book will be out in October.
Peters said Three Pines is almost like Brigadoon. Penny said her fictional village of Three Pines is almost magical, people find the village when they need it. Three Pines is Penny's ideal village.
With her latest book, she said she wanted to let the series settle. She wanted to step back, and take a breath. She allows Gamache and her readers to do the same, so she set it outside of Three Pines.
This book is a clear and deliberate homage to Agatha Christie, with a 21st century sensibility. Gamache and his wife go to an isolated inn in an isolated woods. There's a sense of And Then There Were None. It's a country house murder.
Gamache and his wife, Reine-Marie, are on their 35th visit to the inn, where they go every summer for their anniversary. As part of the duality, there is a dysfunctional family taking up the rest of the inn. There's a subtext of family.
There's a finite number of suspects. Penny said A Rule Against Murder was a fun book to write, and see if she could write a book away from Three Pines. She didn't want to limit herself to that village. But, book five, The Brutal Telling, will go back to Three Pines.
Penny tried to explain that Gamache works for the Sûreté de Quebec by saying they are sort of like state troopers. They are provincial police. Peters said they are probably similar to a county sheriff. Someone commented that Gamache is lucky that so much crime is centered in one village. Louise laughed and said even the villagers of Three Pines realize that. In book five, Clara says every village has a vocation. Some make cheese. Three Pines makes murder.
A Rule Against Murder was called The Murder Stone in Canada. Louise asked the audience if they knew the British magazine, Country Life. She said it has high-end houses for sale. She got tips for using the stone out of that magazine. So, she contacted the Royal Academy, asking if she could have an appointment with their Head of Sculptures. She said she was a mystery writer, and wanted to run something by her to see if it would work for a murder. For some reason, that wasn't well-received. But, she soon received an answer that her solution would work, and no one had ever heard of it before.
Louise and Barbara agree that A Rule Against Murder has all the cliches of a traditional mystery, the isolated country house, the resident sleuth, and the storm. Penny deliberately put them in, and then subverted an Agatha Christie tenet. Peters said, for fans of the classic mystery, there's a lot to explore. It's a "Manor House Mystery".
The Brutal Telling is the name of Penny's next book. Penny said she wanted to start the book with "Once upon a time," and she did start her first and second drafts that way. In her third draft, she had to take it out because it wasn't working. Penny said, "Good writers are good editors, and good editors are willing to kill their young." Author Rhys Bowen, who was in the audience, said she tells her classes to write on the computer. Nothing is written in stone.
Penny has an interesting discussion of class in A Rule Against Murder. The moneyed family in the book regard Gamache and his wife as a shopkeeper and a cleaning woman. The family insists on regarding them that way. It's the courtesy that is often present on cruise ships or lodges. Since Gamache is a Francophone, and he's staying in a back room, the family assumes his status in life, and treats him that way.
The inn in the book, Manoir Bellechasse, is a log house built by skilled Canadian loggers. The robber barons built it as a hunting lodge. The inn is based on Manoir Hovey, a favorite of Louise's. She and her husband, Michael, got married there. In the book, the lodge looks like a log cabin from the outside. But, that's part of the duality. On the inside, it's very sophisticated with a superb cook. Louise said she loves to write about food.
Before taking questions, Penny thanked everyone for coming out on Inauguration Day. She said it was a thrilling day for her. She said she started crying at 5 after 7, and stopped when President Obama and Michelle got back in the car the second time during the parade, hours later.
She was asked what Canadians thought about the change in government. She said the Conservative government is thrilled. She showed off her Barack Obama button she received from "underground Democrats" handing out buttons when she was doing an event on Mackinac Island. Penny said she wanted to be here for the inauguration. She said how moving it was that even people who didn't vote for Obama, or agree with him, stood out there for eight hours to be part of history. She commented that many were getting behind him with grace once the decision was made.
Barbara said she had such an experience on Prince Edward Island once when she was there on July 1, Canada Day. It was years ago, but everyone was out, including the children. And, ice cream was popular. But, there was a feeling of pride and good will.
Louise has written the fifth book, and it will come out in October in the U.S., at the same time as her release in Canada. When Still Life came out, it was almost a year before it was published in the U.S. The U.S. publication has been moved back three months with every book. The publishers were worried that her October book would disappear because many of the big authors come out with their books then.
She commented that she made Reine-Marie a librarian because she loves them, and librarians are heroes to her.
She also said her editors have the fifth book. She enjoys breaking rules by nature. She didn't want to be in danger of slipping into a rut. With that in mind, her agent asked her to think about what else she might want to write, in case she tires of the series. But, Louise said right now everything she wants to say she's saying with this series. It allows her to talk about what she believes in, her philosophical underpinnings. Maybe she'll take a break after finishing the sixth book. She said when she finishes one, she feels like she's been running a marathon.
She was asked about the Canadian bookselling/publishing scene. She said the U.S. was her biggest audience. But, the Canadian mystery writing scene is exciting, and growing. She mentioned Giles Blunt, Vicki Delaney, Peter Robinson, and Maureen Jennings. Penny said publishers were afraid people wouldn't want to read mysteries set in Canada, but they were wrong. Canada does have a small population, so if 10,000 copies of a book are sold, it's considered a bestseller. And, Peters added that there is a duty on books shipped into Canada.
Peters mentioned Vicki Delaney's books, In the Shadow of the Glacier, and the new book, Valley of the Lost. These are village mysteries set in British Columbia. Modeled on Nelson in British Columbia, the city is called Trafalger. They depict country life in Western Canada.
When asked about her background, Louise said she was born in Toronto, and lived for five formative years in Montreal as a child. She was a journalist before writing. She got the chance to listen to people's stories for 25 years. She hosted live current affairs shows on CBC radio. She met people in extreme circumstances, good or bad.
She was asked what drove her to fiction from journalism, and she said she was weary. Journalism is too cynical. Penny became too cynical at 35. That was not the type of person she wanted to be. She was weary of a world view that saw only disaster. Fiction allowed her to step back. Her book are not about murder and blood. They are about he human toll - friendship, love, redemption and hope.
Penny encouraged people to read poetry. She said poets say in one line what she struggles to say Auden said, about Yeats, "Mad Ireland hurt him into poetry."
Louise Penny said she was hurt into fiction. She turned her back on a cynical world, and saw light. Gamache chooses kindness. There is nothing else to write about. She chooses kindness. It's all she wants to say, and she'll say it over and over again.
We were fortunate to host Louise at Velma Teague on Wednesday as part of the Authors @ The Teague series. She told the audience she has a brother who lives in Edmondton, who loves coming to Phoenix. He's planning to buy a place here.
Penny said she would presume the audience were not familiar with her books. She said she writes traditional murder mysteries. There are a subsets of mysteries - noir, police procedural, and traditionals are a few.
How did she find mysteries? Her mother introduced them to her. They had a rocky relationship, which is often common between mothers and daughters. But they did share a love of mysteries. Her mother introduced her to Josephine Tey, Agatha Christie, and Ngaio Marsh, authors of the Golden Age. She has a huge affection for them.
She thought she would write literary fiction. She wanted to write the best book ever, and win a Pulitzer Prize. But, it was paralyzing to think, if you can't be the very best, why bother? So, she had writer's block, and sat around and ate gummi bears and watched Oprah for five years. Her husband has said he'd support her after she quit her job, but he didn't know what he was getting into. She was able to move on after moving to the country, where she found artistic, creative women of all ages, artists, writers, and she was inspired by them. The women had courage to create because they cared. And, yes, they hurt when their work wasn't well-received, but it didn't kill them, and they picked themselves up because they found pleasure in creating. But, as in Waiting for Godot, if you have a dream, should you actually put it to the test? What if you finally try to write, and discover you can't write? Eventually, when she saw the mysteries on her nightstand, she realized they say write what you read. Her heart and history was with Golden Age mysteries. She has a huge affection for them, and understands them.
Still Life , her first book, was a traditional mystery, written just for herself. It was set in a village not far from Quebec, Three Pines. Three Pines is Penny's ideal village. She said if she had to spend all her days someplace, why not build the ideal place. She created a used bookstore, then a bistro with wonderful homemade food. She added a baker and a general store. The villagers are people she would choose as friends. They are nice, kindly people who like each other, and have an acceptance of each other. People think intelligent people live in the city, and she wanted to show that all kinds of people live in small towns, as well as the city.
Then, she created a Chief Inspector of Homicide for the Sûreté de Quebec, Armand Gamache. In the first draft, his name was Pierre, and he was in his 30s, in a bad marriage, an unhappy man with a drug problem. Then, she thought, why would I crate such a dismal person? Why not create a person I would love to be around? She had heard that Agatha Christie grew to hate Poirot, and she was imprisoned by her character. If she was lucky enough to be punished, Louise wanted to have a character that would be someone to hang around. So, she created a man she could marry; in his mid 50s, tall, weighing about fifteen pounds more than he should, who liked to take long walks, and read and recite poetry. His wife is a librarian. He's a good man; a content man; a kindly man. He knows love, and gives love. He's content because he knows how cruel the world is. He chooses compassion, patience, goodness.
Gamache is quite a bit like Louise's husband, Michael, who was Chief of Hematology and Oncology at Montreal Children's Hospital. He was a man who dealt with children, and wore bow ties with teddy bears and Disney characters. He knows what a gift life is. Louise had to love him.
Beginning with Still Life, each of the first four books was set in a different season in Quebec. There is extreme weather in Quebec. It was 40 below last week, and normal is 10 to 12 below. She wanted to write about the Canadian Thanksgiving, with the leaves, and the autumn apple smell. Penny wanted to show what Christmas was like in Three Pines. There's no quiet like the country after snowfall. It's muffled, pristine, dazzling. It's the duality. Most mysteries are about contradiction, the public face and what's hidden.
The third book, The Cruelest Month, is set at Easter. It's a time of rebirth. But, the book shows that things thought dead and buried can come back.
The new book, A Rule Against Murder, is the last in the seasonal cycle.
Penny said Still Life received fifty rejections. No one wanted it. Did it confirm that her writing was bad? But, writing "The End" was so fulfilling. She had promised herself at the age of eight that she would finish a book; not necessarily publish it, or write a good one, but finish it. She did feel satisfied that she didn't not write the book because of the fear of failure.
Still Life was shortlisted for an award in Britain, for the best unpublished mystery. She came in second, but it brought her enough recognition to get an agent, who then sold it all over the world. It went on to win almost every award in the world.
Louise Penny has a keen sense of how lucky she is. She knows how lucky she is. Some people have read jobs, while she can sit by the fireplace in her pajamas, and visit Three Pines with Armand. She knows how lucky she is.
She said her books are set in Canada, and are traditional. They are not dark, at a time when noir crime novels are popular. But, there is a depth to her books.
Louise and her husband started the same kind of award in Canada that she had won, for the best unpublished mystery novel. They worked with the Crime Writers of Canada, and in the second year, had 100 submissions. She met the first woman who won. She got her book published, and her second one on the basis of the award. She's almost seventy.
She said Stephen Booth is a crime writer who doesn't know what his characters will do. She is a planner, and carries a notebook with her. At quiet times, the new characters become real. She sees scenes in her head as snippets. On the plane for this trip, she figured out who the murderer is in book six. She knew who was killed, but now knows who and why.
For the health and longevity of the series, she's now going to set every second book in Three Pines. It will give them a chance to repopulate the village.
Louise Penny's books have very little to do with murder. There are other issues that hang on the murder. And, there's only one in the book. Her books are actually puzzles, in the style of the best Christie. The clues are there, with red herrings.
She took the puzzle element and village element of Agatha Christie, and made it her own, placing the books in the 21st century. Christie's books were cunning, but not strong on character. Penny's mysteries are about redemption; the choices we make, and love. They're in a form she understands.
It was wonderful to have dinner with Louise Penny, and attend two programs. I gave her a gift of the Authors @ The Teague mug, filled with gummi bears. And, she writes special mysteries as gifts to us, her readers. Vive Gamache!
Louise Penny's website is www.louisepenny.com
A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny. St. Martin's Minotaur, ©2009. ISBN 9780312377021 (hardcover), 336p.