Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Louise Penny at the Poisoned Pen

It's always a treat to see Louise Penny. She and I try to grab a little bit of time together whenever she comes to Arizona. She gives me hugs, and I give her gummi bears for the next stage of her trip.

At this stage, she appeared at the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale to discuss her latest book, A Trick of the Light. It was the first time the Poisoned Pen hosted an author on Labor Day. Fortunately, the audience was full, and they sold out copies of the book. Barbara Peters started the program by talking about two islands off the coast of Canada that belong to France, St. Pierre and Miquelon. She told us Joseph Kennedy ran his bootlegging operations here. And, St. Pierre has a cod museum since cod was the staple food for millions. But, Barbara thought Louise would be particularly interested because there is a working model of the guillotine in the entrance to the cod museum. She thought that would be great for a mystery.

When they began to talk about Three Pines, Peters referred to it as a Brigadoon village. She said, in A Trick of the Light, Penny finally refers to it in that way. Louise said she's done that in other books, saying it's not on the map. Three Pines can only be found by people who are lost.

Louise introduced the book, saying Clara finally gets her solo show, and this is about what happens. How will the art world and Peter view it? Penny told us her books aren't about murder. There's only one per book. The books are about a lot of things, particularly duality. Peter loves Clara, but there's always been a shard of jealousy, growing and festering. Duality is a major theme. Can their relationship survive?

Asked about the museum in which Clara's show is held, Penny said it was the contemporary arts museum in Montréal, the Musée d'Art Contemporain. She said she always struggles with how much French to use and explain in her books. For instance, the party at the museum before the public opening is called a vernissage. It's about networking and being seen, not about paying attention to art. It's a cocktail party in which people stand with their backs to the art. She struggles with the balance in French, then decides she doesn't have to explain. She assumes readers will understand what a vernissage is by the context. She said she watches American shows, and no one has to tell her what grits are. She said readers will figure out what the words mean. And, if they don't know how to say them, the wonderful Ralph Cosham reads it on the audio, and they can hear them. Louise said she also has a pronunciation guide on her website. There, she pronounces the words, so it's an Anglo pronouncing the French words.

Anyways, the vernissage is a snooty event, so everyone goes back to Three Pines for the real celebration.

Louise told us she was raised with books and music. She went to libraries and concerts. She wasn't raised around art. It was only when she met her husband, Michael, that she paid attention to art. Michael's grandfather made a living as an artist. There are family portraits, including one of Michael as a girl. He looks so much like a girl, with his long blond curls. He's passionate about art, and she's learned enough that when she goes to a gallery, she no longer races to the gift shop. She lopes there, and pays enough attention to tell Michael she liked a painting halfway through the gallery, and why.
Louise loves to look at Michael as he looks at art. She recognizes passion. She writes about people's reaction to art, not art itself. 

When an audience member complained that she wanted to hear more about A Trick of the Light, Barbara and Louise assured her that was what they were talking about because they couldn't say more about the plot of the book without spoiling it. The book is about art, Clara, and art shows.

Louise offered to read from the book. She said, "Clara is me." Clara's feelings as she waits for the reviews of her art show are Penny's as she waits. Her book is out, but the reviews are not necessarily out. It's out there. The die is cast. Clara feels the same way Penny does. There's a certain vulnerability. So, she read the scene in which Clara is sitting in the garden. Peter went to get the reviews.
After the reading, Peters said the problem in discussing the books is, as they progress, they are so intertwined. It's difficult to talk about the stories without giving things away.

Penny said everyone knows she loves poetry. She quoted Robert Frost, not one of his poems, but something he wrote in a letter. "A poem begins as a lump in the throat." She said her own books begin with a strong emotion. There are themes of belonging, redemption, forgiveness, duality. This one questions whether people can change, and, if they do, can you trust it. Do people change for the better? This questions involves Peter, Clara, Armand Gamache, the victim. They all deal with memories in the books. They continue on, but they struggle.

Both Peters and Penny stressed that it was important that the books be read in order. Previous events take their toll on the characters. Gamache is carrying enormous amounts of guilt. He and Jean Guy have post-traumatic stress. How are they dealing with it? They're damaged. And, they struggled to get back in the sunshine. Louise said people hit a crossroads. You can turn into bitterness and cynicism or compassion and hope into the light. Everyone goes through it. She has.

A Trick of the Light is about shadow and light. It's what Clara represents in art, particularly her portrait of Ruth as the elderly Virgin Mary. She appears embittered, except for one dot of white. Is that hope, or a trick of the light?

When Barbara said Penny's books are one big novel like War and Peace, Louise said, "Yes! War and Peace." But there was a big shift in theme, tone, and intensity with The Brutal Telling. Peters said, fortunately all the books are in print.

Louise told us that as a writer she has a problem with her readers, but, as a reader, she understands. It takes her a year or more to write the book. Then it comes out, and readers gobble it up. As a writer, she wants to say, "You need to reread the book. 365 times."

Peters asked her about continuing the series. She answered that she loves her characters. She can hardly wait to get to her laptop. Penny still has lots of ideas. She doesn't see an end. She is aware of the trap seris authors fall into, writing the same book over and over. So, almost every second book is set somewhere else. Barbara said, well, realistically, Gamache's jurisdiction is large, so he could cover a number of places.

Book 8, The Beautiful Mystery, is finished. It's set in a monastery in a remote area. It's based on a monastery close to where Penny lives. The monastery is Benedictine, and it's known for cheese-making and Gregorian chants. They don't take a vow of silence, but, in general, they remain silent. However, they're world famous for their voices.

Penny wanted to set a murder mystery in that closed community. She wrote, introducing herself, and saying what she wanted to do. She received a charming letter back, inviting her and Michael to stay overnight, saying they would open the doors of St-Benoît-du-Lac to them. Brother Charles was an American, the archivist, who loves murder mysteries. Louise and Michael were taken behind the scenes. Halfway through a day of masses, Penny found herself appreciating the rhythm to the day. She fell into the rhythm. It was peaceful, magical. The day ended with Compline after Vespers. All the lights were out. It was just the voices of the men calling to each other in chants and responses.

Louise said they were so nice. She was surprised they even let her and Michael sleep together. The monks sleep in small rooms, cells. She and Michael were given the Presidential cell, about one foot larger.

After all that, Louise thought she should talk to the Abbot again. She wanted to make it clear that she wanted to set a murder mystery at the monastery. She told him one of the monks would die. That means, and one of your monks did it. He hesitated, and said, "I can't condone that." He couldn't give his blessing to the project. They talked more. He said, "Murder in a Benedictine monastery is very very unlikely." Then he leaned forward. "Now, the Trappists..." 

Brother Charles and Frère Raymond felt badly, and they got together, and discussed how they could save the situation. Brother Charles said they thought they solved it. Louise said their suggestion was much better than her original idea. She's not setting the mystery there. It was generous of them to suggest a change. She said it was an honor to be in the presence of men with such humility. Now, she even listens to a cd of Gregorian chants on planes.

Peters asked if the books are available in French, and Penny said they've been translated into twenty languages. One of the most recent is French. They were available in Estonia before Québec. Now she has a Québec publisher, and a French one. The third book is just out, and it hit the bestseller list in Québec. Penny is so pleased they have accepted an Anglo writer writing about Québec when the main characters are French. It means that the community accepts it. It's nice that Penny's neighbors and friends can read it in French.

When Louise took questions, she and Peters reminded the audience not to spoil the books for others since the books are so intertwined. The first question was about Penny's home. Is the small village where she lives south of Québec, Sutton, similar to Three Pines? Louise answered that the lawyers tell her to say no. She said, they don't really say that. But, Three Pines is inspired by a lot of villages. It comes from her own desire for a quiet place in the bright sunshine. Three Pines exists inside us when we choose to be good instead of critical. Penny feels Three Pines inside her. When she's petty, bitter, nasty, she leaves Three Pines.

What is her writing schedule? Penny replied that she's very disciplined and structured. That's because she's hugely lazy. If it was up to her, she'd be in bed or on a massage table. So, she's at work by nine or before. She gives herself a word count. That word count is low on the first draft, since she's just starting, and it's already hard work. She slowly primes it. She'll begin at 100 words a day. Sometimes she's done by 9:10. But she works from 100 words to 200, then up to 1000 words a day. The draft will be 90,000-105,000 words. She aimed for 80-100,000 words for her first novel. Now, she's up to 110,000 or so. The Beautiful Mystery is 115,000 words.

How do you know when it's done? Penny does a lot of editing. The first draft is long, "A Dog's Breakfast." She does more drafts. Finally, she knows it's as good as she'll get it. 

Are readers ever going to get Ruth's backstory? Book 9, (Louise is calling it Book 9 right now), the next book, will deal with Myrna. She's going to reveal a little about her. Readers are getting a little backstory of each character. Louise doesn't know what Ruth's story is. And, she doesn't want to get her story wrong. When someone called out, "I want her duck back," Louise responded with, "Well, shut the duck up!"

Her favorite authors? Louise said there are some sadnesses in a field of joy. She writes murder mysteries because she loves them. But, she reads for pleasure and escape. And, if she reads mysteries, it feels like work because she analyzes them. So, she tends not to read mystery fiction. She loves the classics; Josephine Tey's The Franchise Affair, The Daughter of Time. She's reading Agatha Christie on this tour, comfort reading. It's Why Didn't They Ask Evans, from the 1930s. It's silly, a charm.

One woman told Penny she always looks first at the front of the book to read the poem. She asked if Louise knew Mary Oliver's poetry. Louise said loved her, but never used her poems. Ruth's poetry has to be brilliant, modern, but not well known. Louise used Stevie Smith's poem, "Not Waving But Drowning" in A Trick of the Light. She quoted, "I was much too far out all my life and not waving but drowning." She said Jean Guy appears fine in the book, but he's drowning.

The program ended when a member of the audience said what she likes best about Louise's books is that there's one murder, and the murderee comes alive. When someone asked what she said, Louise laughed and said, "She was saying how brilliant I am." Barbara Peters said that was the perfect way to close.

Louise Penny's website is

A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny. St. Martin's Minotaur. ©2011. ISBN 9780372655457 (hardcover), 352p.

A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny. Macmillan Audio. ©2011. Read by Ralph Cosham. 9 cds. ISBN 9781427213204. unabridged.


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Wish I could have been there! I love Louise and her books. Can't wait to read her latest. :) I love that 3 Pines can only be found by those who are lost...

Lesa said...

Elizabeth, I wish you could have been there, too. Louise is just wonderful, isn't she? She's the only person who could have created Three Pines.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I love that last sentence! You all are so lucky to have The Poisoned Pen!

Lesa said...

You're right, Jill. We are very lucky to have The Poisoned Pen. I know that. Great sentence, wasn't it? But, that's Louise.

Terry said...

Great article, Lesa: thanks!

Lesa said...

Thank you, Terry. Glad you liked it!

Bev Stephans said...

What a beautiful post about a gifted writer. I enjoyed it so much. I just finished A Trick of the Light and everything is still swirling around in my head. I liked Louise's comment about re-reading her book 365 times. I feel you almost have to to catch all of the nuances. Thank you again for a truly wonderful post.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Bev. And, readers who have already read some of Louise's books will appreciate that post the most. Wasn't A Trick of the Light wonderful? I love books that make me think even after I've finished.

Kaye Barley said...

Oh, Lesa - I LOVED this! Thank You! I "almost" felt as though I was right there.

I've read "A Trick of the Light," (LOVED LOVED LOVED it!) and am now getting ready to re-read the series.

I am going to LOVE learning Myra's backstory!!!

Hugs, sweetie!

Lesa said...

Thank you, Kaye. I'm so glad you enjoyed the recap. Others say it's almost like being there as well. I try my best. But, there's nothing like being there when Louise Penny does a program. She's wonderful. And, I agree with you. "A Trick of the Light" was great.

Hugs, Kaye!

Literary Corner Cafe said...

I'm glad to know "A Beautiful Mystery" is finished, and Louise is writing the next book in the series. Her books are my favorite mystery series. I love Three Pines and the people who live there. Thank goodness we have Three Pines!



Lesa said...

I love Three Pines as well, Gabrielle. And, it's good to know that Louise is still excited about her characters, and can't wait to get to her laptop to work on the books. Yes!

Inside A Book said...

You nailed it! I swear I was reliving the event by reading this post. I think you got nearly every word VERBATIM! Awesome job. (Were you a court reporter in another lifetime?!?!)

It was a wonderful evening surrounded by readers....the only awkward moment was when the woman next to me got cranky about wanting to know about the book!!! I thought Louise handled it beautifully when she asked if she wanted her to read something from the book. Well handled and what a good way to still respect the customer.

Kudos for another great update.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Gaye! You know, I always thought it would have been interesting to be a court reporter. If I hadn't started working in the library in high school, I might have gone that direction. I actually liked shorthand!

You're right. That was an awkward moment. I couldn't tell if she wanted more about the books, or wanted Barbara to talk less. Louise did handle it beautifully.

It's always good to hear from someone who was there, saying I got it. Thank you!

Sandie Herron said...

I can't wait to get started. I'm a complete virgin when it comes to Louise Penny. However, everyone talks about her and her books with such excitement.

Lesa was kind enough to have the mixture of first editions and paperbacks and bargain books, some new and some used, to the event and get them signed.

It's almost too bad that so much was shared about book #8 because that won't be out for a year and now y'all know so much about it. It would lessen the anticipation if I knew what you were talking about!

I'm so glad you had such a wonderful time with Louise. What a treat!


Lesa said...

Actually, Sandie, Louise has been talking about this book and the monastery for a while. It doesn't make any difference. She hasn't told us about characters, and characters are so important in her books. We'll all be wating.

I hope you enjoy them as much as the rest of us have!