Sharing Books and Authors, with an emphasis on Mysteries.
Saturday, October 09, 2010
Louise Penny at the Poisoned Pen
The Poisoned Pen Bookstore kicked off Louise Penny's appearance there with champagne for everyone. Penny had just learned that Bury Your Dead, her latest book is on Sunday's New York Times extended Bestseller List. She told us she was two and a half weeks into a two month book tour, and it was hard to know what to pack. She said she brought her long underwear, but at least she didn't have to wear it that night in Arizona. She thanked the audience for showing up to see her, saying we were the reason Bury Your Dead cracked the Bestseller List. And, we all toasted Louise and her book.
Louise said she would do a short chat with a couple readings from the book before taking questions. She set the scene, saying in this book, Gamache is recovering from a catastrophic event. As the story progresses, the reader has insight into his struggling, to see why he is suffering from grief and guilt. And, he goes to Quebec City to recover, which gave Penny the perfect opportunity to set one of the books there.
Three Pines, an idyllic village, is the usual setting for the books. But, early on, Penny knew the village couldn't sustain the murder rate, or she would have difficulty describing it as idyllic. She said she can't believe those people who live there haven't learned to lock their doors. They deserve what they get if they don't lock them. But, she needs to give Three Pines time to repopulate, so she's setting every other book elsewhere.
When she wrote The Brutal Telling, Penny knew she was going to do a follow-up. There's a strong character development plot in the books, although any of them can be read as standalones. In Bury Your Dead, Gamache is on leave, recovering, staying with his mentor. He has also found a place of peace and recovery in a library. Louise said a library or bookstore is where she'd go to feel better. She always feels safe in a library or bookstore. The library in this book actually exists.
Bury Your Dead is set in Quebec City, a walled city. It's the only fortress city still standing in North America. It's 400 years old. Penny said she finds the city beautiful all the time, but particularly in winter. Then there are lights in the windows, you can see the people in the windows, and the city is lit with Christmas lights. This story is set at Carnival time.
The library is a bastion of the Anglo community in Quebec. The Literary and Historical Society is where Gamache goes to do research. He is a student of history. He's researching the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. That was the decisive battle of the Seven Years' War. Quebec City was the strategic city. Whoever holds the city controls the country. The English won the battle, and the war. One of the greatest mysteries of Canadian history is why, when the battle went on, the aide-de-camp of the French general didn't come to his aid. He hesitated, and the French lost. The aide-de-camp, Bougainville, went on to explore and map parts of the Americas, and the bougainvillea plant is named after him. Gamache is investigating why Bougainville hesitated.
Louise proceeded to read to us from a section of the book in which Gamache is walking the streets of Quebec City. Then, she repeated, "Je me souviens," which means, "I remember." That's the motto of Quebec. It brought laughter when she said it's not clear to anyone what they remember, but they remember! In the book, Penny refers to them as a "Rowboat society," moving forward, but looking back.
When Penny lived in Quebec, she worked for the CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Company, doing a morning show. There was a
flamboyant, maniacal amateur archaeologist who was obsessed with finding the body of Samuel de Champlain. Everyone is pretty sure Champlain is dead, but no one knows where the single most important man in Quebec history is buried. So, every eight weeks, this archaeologist announced he'd found Champlain. Everyone covered it, because he just might have. So there he was, with a backhoe in historic Quebec City, digging. He always found bones or something, but Louise said she could have found bones there. Once he ended up in the basement of a Chinese restaurant. Louise found that poetic, because Champlain spent most of his life trying to find China. She always remembered that archaeologist and his obsession, and used it as one of her plots in this book. The archaeologist's body was found in the basement of the English institution. Gamache was convinced to investigate, despite himself, because he felt sympathy for this tiny little English community. He agreed to look into the murder, on an informal basis.
To Penny, setting is character. It's sensual in the original definition of the word. She wants readers to smell the woodsmoke, and feel the bitter wind. She wants readers to not just give their head to the story, but their whole being. So, she read another scene to us, another walk with Gamache through that vivid setting.
She ended this section of the program by telling us Bury Your Dead has three stories, so we're getting our money's worth. And, she wouldn't say more about the plot because it's a difficult story to describe without giving it away.
The first question included a quote from something Penny had once said. She said her books are about terror, the terror curled up in us, but also about goodness. Goodness exists. Louise said, yes. This book is about the shadow and the light, and the difficult choices we make. It's difficult to stand in the light. It takes courage to be good. Gamache makes that decision every day. He chooses to be good and kind, but, in this book, he struggling with that.
The next question was about the character of Gamache, but most of the audience knew Gamache is based on Louise's husband, Michael. She said Michael is the retired Chief of Hematology at the Montreal Children's Hospital. He wore bow ties every day, with balloons, or teddy bears, or Micky Mouse. He dealt with children with cancer, and when he leaned over the children, they'd see his ties. Michael knows what a gift life is, and Gamache understands that. She mentioned that she and I had dinner, and we get to brush the grey hairs from our eyes, and some don't get to do that. She said Michael is lucky, and we all laughed when she went on to say, the second part is to know how lucky he is, and tell him how lucky he is.
She repeated, "Goodness exists." Penny was a journalist for twenty years. She spent those years covering bad things, and finally had to quit. That became her view of the world. John Milton said, "You have to sift through evil to find good." Gamache knows that.
Someone in the audience told Louise there are such entertaining characters in Three Pines, and asked if they were based on anyone. She said Ruth, the poet, is inspired by a couple real people. Ruth is demented, drunken. She has no ability to self-edit, so she's fun to write. She has a saving grace. Ruth has insight into herself and human nature. Louise reminded us her books are about duality. There is the duality, the public face, and the inner gap between feelings. Ruth's negativity is on the outside. There is kindness buried inside. In Bury Your Dead, Beauvoir falls in with Ruth.
When Penny's first book, Still Life, came out, it was classified as a cozy, but it's definitely not a cozy. She said she was inspired by the Golden Age mystery writers, and Agatha Christie. But, Marketing thought it was best to call it a cozy, and they went with that. As the series progressed, the books became psychological thrillers in the vein of Hitchcock. Louise said she hates classification. Her books are getting more difficult to classify. She said she's annoyed, and finds it hurtful that crime fiction is ghettoized and not considered literature. Crime fiction can be literature at its best. Penny's books are part police procedural, part traditional mystery, with poetry and politics included. She wants to challenge the establishment, saying a crime novel can be everything, and not be a mishmash.
There is a sense of humor in Penny's serious books, but it's part of the narration. It's situational humor, hard to take out of context. Louise said when she tries too hard for one-liners they get tossed out in editing.
Penny's next book is A Trick of the Light. Clara gets her art show in that one. Peter had been recognized as an artist. Now, it's Clara's turn. Asked about Myrna, Louise said in creating her ideal village, the first thing she wanted was a bookstore. Myrna is based on a friend, not surprisingly a large black woman, a retired psychologist from the city, named Myrna. Louise told us she isn't good at creating characters.
She does have a plan for future books. Seven, eight and nine will take place in a period of roughly a year. She has created a problem in that Gamache is not aging. Everyone else can age in the books, but he and Reine-Marie are not going to age.
A fan in the audience told her what she likes about her books is they are not formulaic. After thanking her, Louise said it's a double-edged sword that readers feel so strongly about her characters. She found their reaction to The Brutal Telling to be interesting. But, she hopes her readers have learned to trust her. She may make difficult decisions, but they're necessary. No matter who dies, or what goes wrong, she wants them to trust her. There's a danger in writing a series that it will become formulaic. Before that would happen, she would end the series.
Asked if any of her books had been published in French, Penny said none of them have yet come out in France. The first one, Still Life, just came out in French in Quebec, although with a different title. Her books have been published in a dozen languages and countries, even Turkey, but not in French until now. No French publisher was interested in them for five years, then in the course of a few weeks, five or six expressed interest. They chose one, and were pleased the book started on the Bestseller list in Quebec at 5 or 6, and it's now up to 2.
Asked about the artwork on the book jackets, she said she has some control of that, and it's increasing. With the latest book, neither she nor her agent liked the first couple versions. She gave Minotaur credit because they hired someone from outside to do it. Penny likes the leaves, and the light cover which is unlike other crime fiction. It didn't scream with blood, and it isn't dark. She called it compelling, and feels it speaks of literary qualities.
When asked as a writer what it's like to write such tragedy as she did with her character, Louise answered that it was interesting. She thought she knew everything about Gamache, but she saw more deeply into him, with his grief and loss. When she goes to bed, this book haunts her, with how Gamache felt. He came alive even more. It was difficult to write this, but rewarding.
Penny said it takes her about a year to write a book. Bury Your Dead is number six, but she's already thinking about eight. She starts writing in March, but thinks about the book for about six months ahead of time. She carries a notebook with her, one that has five sections. One section is for quotes, one for thoughts, plots, characters.
Book eight will be set in a monastery. Quebec has a lot of monasteries. She visited this one. It felt funny to let them know she wanted to write a mystery set there. One of you will die, and one will do it. But, she found a great resource in Brother Charles, the archivist. He loves books, and he invited them back to spend a couple nights. This monastery is one in which the monks took a vow of silence, but they are world famous for their Gregorian Chants. The chants are part of the duality Penny likes, with the dynamics of the choir. These are men who took a vow of silence, but they're famous for their voices.
With the question, who does she read, Louise said that's a sadness for her. She loves crime fiction, but now can't read it because she doesn't want to be influenced. There's some great crime fiction out there. If she reads brilliant works, she thinks she can't measure up. She reads for enjoyment, to escape and have fun. Penny said she can read traditionals, the Golden Age authors. She's reading Edmund Crispin, and Agatha Christie. She reads a lot of nonfiction, and just finished the latest Jon Krakauer.
The final question. "Are you surprised by your success?" "Shocked! Bury Your Dead is the 21st most popular book in the United States, and she lives in a tiny little village in the middle of nowhere."
I've been lucky enough to attend every one of Louise Penny's appearances at the Poisoned Pen, and to have had dinner with her three times. She's a wonderful friend who must have been an outstanding journalist. It's evident in how she listens. There's a reason Louise Penny creates such wonderful characters. She listens, and she cares.
Louise Penny's website is http://www.louisepenny.com/