Thursday, September 06, 2012

Louise Penny at The Poisoned Pen

I had actually started this recap when Louise Penny posted on Facebook that The Beautiful Mystery will appear at  #2 on the New York Times Bestseller List on Sept. 16. Congratulations to Louise! The book was that wonderful. And, we should have known when the Poisoned Pen sold out of every copy they had, and every copy they could get in Phoenix. Don't have a copy yet? I bought an extra one, so I have a signed first edition to give away in this week's contest. Check back tonight for the kickoff of this week's giveaway.

Now, to the recap.

I met up with Louise Penny before her recent appearance at the Poisoned Pen, and then took her over to the store. While she signed books, Barbara Peters, owner of the bookstore, told us the music we were listening to was Gregorian Plainchant because Louise's new book, The Beautiful Mystery, deals with a monastery in a remote area of Quebec, a monastery where the monks are famous for their Gregorian chant.

In the meantime, Barbara told us she was wearing a dress she bought in Quebec. And, the following night at the Poisoned Pen, the event with Laurie King would be a Moroccan night. Barbara told us they gave up being a bookstore years ago. They're really a media company. People come for the parties, the food, Barbara's clothes, and books. And, she said, unfortunately, they sold out all their copies of Penny's The Beautiful Mystery.

When she introduced Louise Penny, Louise said she wanted to take a picture of the audience for Facebook. She said she really uses the pictures as proof to her publisher that she's not back in the hotel, eating gummi bears and watching R-rated movies.

Encouraging Louise Penny's gummi bear habit
Trying to determine how many times Louise had been to the store, Louise said she's been there seven times because she didn't tour with her first book, Still Life. And, Barbara said it was published first in England, and she didn't get a pre-pub copy to read. When, she asked the publisher if she could get a couple hundred to sell, she was told they had already sold them all. Peters said she can't always bring the books she would like to readers because the supply side doesn't always have enough. Louise Penny is fortunate to have all her backlist in print, but many authors don't. Peters said that is one benefit of e-books. Readers can get early books in a series.

Penny asked Barbara Peters is she used an e-reader. She said no. She spends all day on the computer, and looks forward to curling up with a real book and chocolate at night. Louise said when her husband, Michael, toured with her one year, someone gave him an early e-reader. He was like a kid in a candy store, and downloaded ridiculous stuff, such as The History of Concrete. But, he tired of it, and hasn't gone back to the e-reader. Penny thinks they have their place as a tool, for traveling and for the visually impaired. But, she hopes people continue to go back to books.

Barbara Peters said the American Booksellers Association just signed a deal with Kobo, and the Poisoned Pen should be able to sell e-books for Kobo readers eventually. That doesn't help those with other devices, though. Then, she asked Louise when Facebook became a verb.

Louise said she always enjoyed blogging. She saw it as a daily diary of her life as a writer. One day, she will be able to sit back and read what that first year was like, what it was like on tour, what it was like when Michael went with her. She was resistant to Facebook, but she discovered it's been a terrific way to document her tour.

Then, Peters said maybe they should talk about the book, The Beautiful Mystery. The title comes from the beauty of Plainsong, Gregorian chant. Penny said she did a lot of research for the book. There's a monastery close to where she lives, and they often take visitors to 5:00 Mass there. The Benedictine monks sing Gregorian chants. Louise admitted she goes because they sell cheese and cds. All the monasteries have products they make and send. So the store had cheeses, chocolates, chocolate-covered blueberries as in The Beautiful Mystery.

When Penny decided to set this Armand Gamache novel in a monastery, she wrote to them, and said she was a crime writer, and was hoping to visit to do research. That monks in that monastery did not take a vow of silence, but it was a strong suggestion. Brother Raymond wrote back, and said she was welcome to come and visit. Then, Louise was hesitant. She wrote again, and said, I'm not sure you understand. I'm a woman, and a crime writer. And, he said, please come. She said there was a nunnery on the same property, and she thought they'd put her there, so she gave Michael a pad and pen and told him to follow the monks wherever they went and take notes. She was surprised that they not only allowed her to stay in the monastery, but they allowed them to stay together in a cell, their "suite". Louise said she wished she had taken a picture of the sign, "The Presidential Cell".

They stayed at the monastery for twenty-four hours. So, they heard the Divine Office chanted eight times in Gregorian chant. And, Penny said she found it dull. But, Vespers was the last time. After eight times, she was starting to get into it. At Vespers, they were the only ones there other than the monks. The lights were shining on the monks. It was transformative. She felt a deep peace, a feeling she'd never known before. The simplicity and austerity of the music cracked the veneer. It helped her in writing the book to see how transporting it could be, transporting to the real self. Peters reminded all of us that Gregorian chant is done a capella. Penny said it's the oldest form of Western music.

After Penny read from the beginning of The Beautiful Mystery, she said the Mass and the chants were the rhythm of life in the monastery. She wanted to deal with the issue of the power of music. She said think of the recent Olympics. Most of the athletes listened to music before they competed. She uses music when she's writing. All of her books have different soundtracks. Music inspires her to be as creative as she is.

The book deals with early musical notation, and how it was written down. Who was the first person who did that? What was the first book of neumes. Neumes were the earliest musical notations before notes. The first book of neumes hasn't been found, the first book of written chants. Until then, they were passed by memory. One monk came up with neumes, and decided they should be written down. That monk must have noticed his hands while conducting. Neumes are the stylized movement of the hand, up and down, and they look like wings. Every piece of music we listen to comes from neumes, but we won't ever know what the first music sounded like.

In discussing the plot of the book, Peters said Gamache was called to a remote monastery. Penny said she created the monastery, and being an author, and being god-like, she resurrected the Gilbertines, an order that had been extinct since the Inquisition. She sent them to the New World, to the far edges of the world.

Gamache is the first person to enter the monastery with plans to leave. It's a silent order of monks, and he has to tease the truth from men who spend a lifetime in silence, hiding their feelings.

When Peters asked why they didn't just dump the body in the lake, since no one would ever know. Penny replied that the Abbot was a wise man. It was the right thing to do. One of the monks is a murderer. Barbara said it's a true locked monastery murder because there are only so many men who can be the suspects in this murder mystery.

Penny said it is a variation of the "closed room" mysteries. Agatha Christie was the master of them. Louise was very aware of that, and The Beautiful Mystery is partially an homage to those books. She wanted to take that literary tradition, set it in modern times, and make it her own. The monks are literally locked in, but they sent the chants out into the world, thinking they would be heard by family and friends, and they went viral. In reaction they doublelocked the door, and now they don't want to let anyone in.

When Peters mentioned that Gamache brought his team, Penny said it was really only Gamache and Beauvoir. Her books have always been about duality and conflict. In what I thought was the most important statement she made, Louise Penny said her books are not really about murder, but what murder dislodges in a community. There is a rift in the monastery. Some of the monks see the success of the music as a sign that God needs them to share the music, to share their gifts. The other half sees that success as a snake in Eden, tempting them to use their voices. They want to keep their humble lives, and see that as their job. The two sides are fighting a war of silence in which gestures and head movements carry messages. Gamache needs to decode the messages communicated in silence. When Barbara asked about the victim, Louise said it does say on the book that the choir director is the murder victim.

Louise and Barbara teased and poked at each throughout the event. Peters told Louise she showed a surprisingly dark streak with this book. She asked if her writing was getting darker, or was she always this mean, and just covering it. Penny said her first book, Still Life, was dark. It dealt with loss underneath the surface, but the dark was hidden by a veneer of civility.

Louise Penny said the darkness is intentional. She's always seen something mythical about the books. Gamache is a mythological figure on a hero's journey. That journey doesn't always go the way he wants it to go. Think of the Rocky movies. Rocky doesn't always win. He gets pummeled. Not everything goes his way. He can be destroyed. That's more of a challenge to Gamache. But, he keeps getting up and moving forward. And, he's pushed to the edge in this book.

Peters responded that it's not just Gamache that she pushes. She's hard on others as well. Louise answered that life is joy and sorrow, sometimes back-to-back. She's known both in her life. Life is full of joy, and it can be tragic.

The Beautiful Mystery is part light and part dark. A book can be part cozy, part thriller, part police procedural. Louise Penny finds it frustrating that people try to slot books. Why can't they be more than one thing?

Barbara mentioned that The Beautiful Mystery was the first book with nothing of Three Pines. Penny's next book will be back in Three Pines. She did this for the growth of the series. She can't set every book in Three Pines. That's the danger in writing a series, and falling into a formula. There's a danger with writing about ongoing characters in a set environment. This is one way of getting away from that. Penny said, in fact, the early books were called Three Pines mysteries. The later ones have been called Inspector Armand Gamache novels.

They both admitted some authors only have one book in them, or only have time to write a few books. Harper Lee and Margaret Mitchell come to mind. But, Peters mentioned C.R.Corwin whose Morgue Mama books she loved,, but he died after just three books. And, Kate Ross died too soon. Authors die. When asked if some authors have one fabulous book, and then the others are never as good, two authors were mentioned as examples, Thomas Harris with Silence of the Lambs and the last Dan Brown book was not even written.

Sometimes, what happens with a phenomenal hit is that the publisher is afraid to criticize the next book, or they find it not even worth editing because it will sell no matter what. They said it's often hard for humorous mystery series to continue, hard to sustain the humor over time. But, there is so much pressure to write a series. There's pressure on an author who would like to do something else. Nowadays, many authors have the fear of change because they might not get a contract. Authors don't want to fail.

Louise Penny said she's been so lucky with her readers. She's had the leeway to go off. Every second book goes back to Three Pines. This was the first that was completely away. Peters said she's fortunate because Quebec is enormous. There's a political mix with the separatist movement. Peters loved Quebec. She mentioned the national parks. Penny said she experiences great joy in writing about areas that mean so much to her. She brings her heart to it.

In answer to a question, she said a Canadian production company is doing a film of Still Life. She had fielded a number of offers to buy the rights, but most of the time they wanted to buy the rights to characters. But, the characters mean a lot to her. She lives out in the country. Her needs are small. Fortunately, she doesn't need a lot of money. But, this film company kept contacting her. She said she didn't trust that the characters would be done right. So, they made her an executive producer. She has some control. She's involved in casting.

Louise told us she's discovered being executive producer for her is similar to being Queen of England. No one listens to her. She was asked if she minded if it was set in Calgary. Of course she did! They're filming in Quebec, which is costing them money.

She's hoping each book will be a two hour film like Wallender or Sherlock. And, she realizes it can't be the same as her book transferred to film. She has to learn when to fight, and let go. She pointed out that every decision in Still Life affects the future. She told us she tries not to cry, saying "I'm a big girl."

Peters did tell her that some of the authors who went the television route, Craig Johnson, Tess Gerritsen, Kathy Reichs, seem happy. Robert B. Parker and Sara Paretsky had bad experiences, though. Barbsra agreed with Louise saying the time to hang tough was while working with the origin story. Penny said she's trusting them to not make a bad film. The film will be available outside of Canada, but she doesn't know yet who will carry it.

When Gamache and Quebec as mentioned, she said Quebec Tourism did do a small "Gamache" tour to places inspired by the book. And, she's been asked, are you sure Three Pines doesn't exist.

When asked about Ruth's poetry, Penny answered that Margaret Atwood provides the poetry. Louise said she herself is the worst poet ever. She writes like a sullen teenager. Penny said she asked permission to use Atwood's poetry for the first book. Peters said it costs a fortune to license poetry, and Penny agreed. She said any profit from Still Life went to Margaret Atwood. Now, she has a different arrangement.

But, she said she loves poetry. She quoted a letter from Robert Frost in which he said, "A poem begins as  a lump in the throat." That's how her books begin, as a lump in her throat.

She said she couldn't tell us who has been cast, but she thinks people will be pleased. They had to get Gamache right. He doesn't look like her personal image of Gamache, but he can embody the qualities, and that's more important.

She said she is doing a cameo in Still Life, she and Michael, and her assistant Lise. They're in bistro scenes. They were able to bring twenty friends. She was so pleased that Ralph Cosham, who does the audios of her books, is coming up, and will be in the bistro scene. If he were slightly younger, she would have loved him as Gamache.

When she was asked about Clara's art, she said she was as good at art as she is at poetry. Penny wasn't raised with art in the family. They talked about music and literature. When she married Michael, she was introduced to art. She was always rushing through museums to get to the gift shops. But, Michael's grandfather made a living as a portrait artist. What is a masterpiece to Louise is looking at Michael when he's looking at art, seeing the joy in his face. She said she describes the emotions in her books, not the art much.

Asked if she write a standalone or a different series, she said she has one idea and she's writing it. Barbara told her she wasn't done yet. Louise said this series allows her to explore.

After all the questions, and before signing books, Louise Penny ended by thanking the audience. She told us people have embraced her characters and Three Pines, and she was so grateful.

Visit Louise Penny on Facebook, at or at

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny. Minotaur Books. 2012. ISBN 9780312655464 (hardcover), 373p.

The Beautiful Mystery is also available from Macmillan audio. Here's a link if you'd like to listen to a clip.

From Macmillan audio.  9781427226099  (unabridged)



Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Great recap, Lesa! I'm looking forward to reading "Beautiful Mystery." :)

Kay said...

Thanks for the recap, Lesa. I'm so glad that the PP is filming some of the author events. I haven't watched one live yet, but I've seen several that have been archived. Almost as good as being there...almost. LOL

I loved THE BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY. But, I'm going to be ready to return to Three Pines. I feel the need for the closeness of the characters there. Don't you? :-)

Lesa said...

Oh, I envy someone reading The Beautiful Mystery for the first time, Elizabeth. Give yourself a couple days when you have time to savor it.

Lesa said...

You're right, Kay. ALMOST as good as being at the Poisoned Pen. After the events that just happened, Gamache is going to need a trip to Three Pines.

Jane R said...

What a fabulous time you all had! I love Louise Penny's books and it would be wonderful to hear her talk about them. I hope to be visiting Quebec this fall and I plan to have one of her books tucked in my bag. Thanks for the great post!

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Jane. It is wonderful to hear Louise Penny talk about her books, and she never gives too much away. It would be wonderful to have one of her books while in Quebec.

Jenny Rose said...

As soon as i saw the headline i couldn't wait to get to start reading
the comments.Thank you all so much for your comments and support...
ewald struggl

Lesa said...

I love Louise Penny's books, Jenny. She's just getting better with each one.

Donna Fletcher Crow said...

What an absolutely great report. Thank you so much for sharing all of this with those of us who are far away but would have loved to be there.

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Donna. I wish you all could have been there.

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