Friday, December 04, 2009

Louise Penny and Peter Robinson at The Poisoned Pen

It was Canadian Night when Louise Penny and Peter Robinson appeared at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore. Barbara Peters, the owner, introduced them, saying she hoped they would discuss the Canadian crime writing scene, and then turned the program over to them, so they could have a conversation.

Louise started, saying she lives in Montreal, and flew out of Burlington, Vermont, because it's easier to fly from there. She said when the border guard asked her why she was crossing into the United States, she told the truth for a change, and said she was an author on book tour. That must have made them suspicious because their car was immediately pulled over, and searched. They were answered questions such as, "Do you need a degree to do that?" And, Louise said her husband, Michael, who was on the trip with her, left the house so quickly he didn't change his shoes. He was wearing his snow boots. So, when they arrived in Phoenix, do you think they could spot the Canadian on the plane?

Peter Robinson said he has flown into U.S. airports from Toronto, and he's ready to explain a book tour, because he knows they're suspicious of that. When he says he's going to New York or Phoenix, and then says he's not getting paid for it, they find it hard to believe. Now, he takes a copy of his book for I.D. The last time he went on a book tour, he took a letter from his publisher, a list of his stops. One security guard, though, said he knew all about book tours. He had worked in New York when a woman came through, and said she was on a book tour. Her name was J.K. Rowling.

Robinson is on tour with his new story collection, The Price of Love.
When Penny mentioned the Banks novellas, he said they were only in the U.S. edition of the book because it came out later than the U.K. and Canadian editions. The novellas go back to Banks' last case in London. He said in the days of Ed McBain or Simenon, these novellas would been been published as novels of 120 pages. Now, novels have to be bloated or overweight. When Robinson wrote the first novella, he couldn't do anything with it until this collection. Penny agreed, saying one of her favorite authors, Josephine Tey wrote books about one third of the length of Louise's. Even so, they were perfect. Louise went on to say people may not know that Peter won an Edgar for his short stories.

Peter responded with, but Louise has come up so fast, and he feels he took forever. She said it helps to sleep around, and Barbara Peters said she wanted to hear more about that comment!

Penny remarked that she was just here in January, touring for A Rule Against Murder, and it was over the inauguration. Arizona was having a hot spell, in the 90s, and she arrived from Canada in snow boots and a turtleneck. But, she stayed at the Valley Ho. While out at the pool, she had her choice of entertainment, the inauguration on TV, or a newlywed couple in the hot tub. She was torn between sex and history.

Louise said Three Pines, her setting, is like the village where she lives. The neighbors think they're the people in the book. Peter commented that no one ever identifies withe the villain.

In A Rule Against Murder, Penny moved the crime to another location. There's only so much murder that can be occur, and have the setting still be called a village. The Brutal Telling is back in Three Pines. Louise said it's easy to fall into a rut, writing the same book over and over again, particularly if it's set in the same location. Changing the location helps, but it was a joy to be back in Three Pines for the latest book. Going back to Three Pines allowed her to describe it in different ways. Emotionally, it's a darker place in The Brutal Telling.

Peter Robinson's books are set in the Yorkshire Dells, and he invented the town, and put real places there. He said sometimes he wishes he'd set the series in Leeds. It's more anonymous in large cities. He said it's easier to invent a small town or village, than use one. Even so, most people wouldn't recognize themselves. He does often use real places, though.

The Brutal Telling was the fifth of Louise's books, and she's polishing the sixth. She said she's beginning to regret some of earlier decisions, but she's married to them now. She asked Peter if he had any regrets, and he said, yes. He once made Banks' brother younger, and then older at another time. He thought, "Who's going to care?" He gets emails about it. He said there are more things wrong, for the sake of drama. He did it for the readers, so they can tell him he's wrong.

Is Banks aging in real time? Robinson said there's fictional time, and then there's real time. His books take place in fictional time. He does a book a year, but the cases don't take place a year apart, so Banks hasn't aged an entire year in between books. One case, and book, might be two months after the previous one, and the next, six months later. So, Banks is younger than real time. He keeps it close, though. Hercule Poirot is an example of extreme fictional time.

When asked if it's OK to retire characters, the audience responded, yes, but don't kill them.

Louise has a married couple, but Banks was married, and then split up. Robinson said lots of people saw it coming before Peter and Banks did. Some saw it coming by ten years. People thought that if anything happened to the marriage, it would be Banks leaving. But, his wife found someone else in a reversal of expectations. Banks was always on a case, never there for her. He wasn't aware that would screw up their relations.

Louise said her couple, Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache, are very good together. She made a deliberate decision to make him very much in love with his wife, and vice versa. She wanted him to be able to give love, and receive it. She couldn't write about Reine-Marie's death. It would be too upsetting, and wouldn't move the series along.

Penny did say she thought ahead of time about a series, and was aware of the possibility of the longevity of a series. She created characters that would have a longevity, characters that were people she'd have as friends, even Ruth, the demented, drunken poet. Gamache is someone she would marry. Her books are about going home, and what happens when you go home. They are books about kindness, goodness, and belong; being accepted. They're about the yearning for kindred spirits. The Brutal Telling is about belonging, and what happens when you step beyond the pale, outside of a tight knit community. Three Pines is a selfish creation. It's a place she'd live.

In Still Life, Penny created Peter as the more successful artist. Clara was struggling, while Peter was baffled by her work. By the second and third book, she's discovered, and he's jealous. Louise was as surprised as Peter. Neither expected the jealousy, but Peter loves Clara with all of his life.

Louise was asked if she is an artist, and she said, no, but she lives in an artistic community. Her husband, Michael, has an art background, and takes her to galleries. She doesn't have an art background, but learned enough to be able to write about it.

Barbara Peters asked them about their views of the literary scene. Robinson said he's seen changes. It earlier years, British books were cozier, less urban, less dark. American crime novels were more urban, more violent. But, that has changed. Authors such as Stuart McBride, John Harvey, and even some of Robinson's own books, are lots darker now. Some of the American books are softer, such as quilt mysteries. There's more of a regionalization of books in Britain and the U.S. Now, crime novels are not set only in New York, London and L.A., so it's almost a pointless distinction to make between British or American books.

Peter did say the one separation between the books is a gun. British police, for the most part, still aren't armed. Banks has to be nimble, and talk himself out of a situation. Banks doesn't have a gun. That makes a difference as to how situations play out in books. Michael Connelly's Bosch has a gun, and handles situations differently.

Louise said she couldn't address the question because she doesn't have Peter's insight. Her comment was, "He does brilliantly in both cultures." She did say her British and U.S. publishers seem to think the author is addressing different audiences. The books have different covers, and, sometimes, different titles. She doesn't think they are; it's the same audience.

When asked what about Canadians, Robinson responded that he hasn't seen a unified Canadian writing scene. He knows some authors, but there is not unification. Louise said she is excited and encouraged by the Canadian crime writing scene. For instance, Alan Bradley published his first book in his 70s. But, the authors don't speak with a single voice. When asked if they were influenced more by the British or Americans, she said they were influenced by Americans, not by other Canadians.

Robinson said he knows some of the other authors, such as Gail Bowen. He said they write police procedurals or P.I. novels. And, Americans almost invented P.I. novels. He said, Toronto, in the vision of younger writers', has become darker and darker.

They both said there was a time when Canadians didn't set their books in Canada if they wanted to be published. But, now authors, such as Vicki Delany, set their books there, saying this is my voice, my heritage. Louise considers her own books to be love letters to Canada. She finds it moving that people in Phoenix or Manchester buy them. But some authors, such as Linwood Barclay, don't set their books in Canada.

Peter said Canada has given immigrants, like himself, the opportunity to write books from a distance. He has a different viewpoint of England. He can talk about the class system since he doesn't live there.

They agreed that the Canadian literary scene doesn't embrace crime writers. There's an invisible, but present, divide. There's literary, and what is not literary. The literary world thinks nobody with half a brain would read a mystery novel. Louise responds with, honestly, what do you Hamlet was? The literary classes are poets, then literary writers. Genre writers do rank over cookbook writers. And, mystery authors rank over science fiction writers. They kidded that's the inverse order of how much money is made.

When Peter was asked why he's popular in Scandinavia, he answered, it's his miserable perspective, kidding it's grey and sleeting in his books. He went on to say some of the names in Yorkshire are named for Scandinavian places. His favorite books, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were set in Sweden, and featured Martin Beck, a police inspector. He said those authors didn't write about murder; they used murder as a catalyst to discuss society.

Barbara Peters commented there are norms for village mysteries around the world. There are also urban mysteries set everywhere. Mysteries are going global. Louise Penny agreed, saying Three Pines is an allegory. She said the books have a keen sense of place. They are about the human condition, but they could be set anywhere. But, location can be a character, when there is a clear set of location.

Robinson said the same types of characters are recognizable anyplace. Robert Barnard, in his book about Agatha Christie, said the secrets of her appeal is that the village could be in Norway or Africa, but we would still know those characters. Every village has the dodgy vicar or shaman, according to Penny. They're recognizable. Barbara commented if you like the village form, it's interesting to see what authors do with it.

Louise said she's baffled by those who see village mysteries as cozies. Humans have dark thoughts, complex thoughts, and, in a village, those people are thrown together. She said she thinks if it's far from New York, the people must be stupid.

But, Penny said village mysteries are more frightening. Someone you known is dead, and, someone you know did it. Those are more frightening, darker, than mysteries set in cities. Robinson agreed, saying village mysteries should be darker, because everyone knows the people involved. In a village, a murder is tragic to everyone.

Village mysteries are traditional ones. Agatha Christie didn't look underneath, but Penny said she looks at the human condition.

The problem is with the label of cozy. To Americans, cozies mean books with cats, and many people use cozy as a pejorative. In Britain, cozy means a traditional mystery. Peters was shocked when P.D. James defined herself to Barbara as a cozy writer.

Peters mentioned the Canadian Crime Writing Awards, and Robinson said they're the Arthur Ellis Awards, for the generic name for the Canadian hangman. Those awards are usually given in April or May.

Penny said her first novel was rejected universally, but it was shortlisted by the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain for best unpublished novel. She said best unpublished novel, how generous that is. She felt lucky to catch a break. How many wonderful Canadian novels may be under a bed somewhere? So, she and Michael set it up a best unpublished novel award with Arthur Ellis, hoping to nurture Canadian authors. Alan Bradley won a Debut Dagger. She recommended that unpublished authors check out awards for best unpublished novel.

Canadian Night at the Poisoned Pen was a success, and it was interesting to hear the viewpoints of two outstanding authors.

Louise Penny's blog is at, and her website is

The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny. St. Martin's Minotaur, ©2009. ISBN 9780312377038 (hardcover), 384p.

Peter Robinson's website is

The Price of Love and Other Stories by Peter Robinson. William Morrow, ©2009. ISBN
9780061809484 (hardcover), 368p.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

What an amazing event attended! I've really enjoyed reading Louise and Peter's insights into writing. Thanks so much for sharing this!

Mystery Writing is Murder

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Elizabeth. I know it gets to be old hat for authors who tour like they do, but I'm always so much in awe at the way they can so easily discuss their opinions and their books.

jenny milchman said...

Fascinating, Lesa! I'm only on the second of Louise's series but a big fan already. Had to jump around a little bit so as not to see spoilers but I thoroughly enjoyed this give and take between the authors. What a great event!

Mason Canyon said...

What a great post. Who knew traveling on a book tour could come under such scrutiny.

Both sound like interesting authors and books I should read.

Lesa said...

Thanks, Jenny. And, I'm glad you discovered Louise Penny's books. I'm a BIG fan, as you can tell. It was a terrific event.

Lesa said...


I never would have thought of authors as being controversial figures at customs. Who knew they were such threats to national security? Although, I guess they could be.

Janet Rudolph said...

What a great post. It was like being there. Terrific photos, too. Lucky you!

Lesa said...

Thanks, Janet! And, you of all people, know exactly what that's like. I do feel lucky.

Now, I'm planning to go see Sue Grafton at the Biltmore on Wednesday night, if everything works out. That should be fun!

Donis Casey said...

I saw Louise at Tempe PL that day. What a lovely soul, not to mention a fabulous writer.

Lesa said...

Donis, I knew she spoke at the Tempe PL before we went to dinner. That's the perfect description for her, "a lovely soul." She's one of the kindest people I know.

Sheila Beaumont said...

Lesa, thank you for your lively account of these two wonderful authors' appearance at Poisoned Pen, the next best thing to being there. I'd also like to say belatedly that I loved your great post a while back on the Terry Pratchett Q&A.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Sheila! I hope you find my accounts the next best thing to being there. I try to give you the feel of the event. I enjoy them so much, and I wish everyone who loves an author could be there.


Kay said...

Lesa, perfect notes, as always. Felt like I was there. Wish I had been. Love Peter's books a lot. You know how much I love Louise's books and Louise herself.

Think we may be coming to Phoenix again in February. I'll keep you posted. I'd love to visit your library.

Lesa said...

Oh, please do keep me posted, Kay. I hope I get the chance to show you the library.

I wish you could have been there, too. It was a wonderful evening.

I'm glad you felt as if you were there, though!