Please welcome our June author of the month, award winning suspense novelist Louise Penny!
Interview with Louise Penny
1. Why don't we start with a little background on your new series, in particular the village of Three Pines and the kind of people who live there.
When I started writing I suffered terrible writers block, for many years. People would ask how the writing was going and Iíd say, ĎFine, great, thanks for asking,í then go back to watching Oprah and eating gummy bears. It was actually a terribly sad time for me. Iíd wanted to write fiction since I was a child and had quit work to write the first book, figuring I was over 40 and it was time to stop talking and start doing. And I wasnít doing. Then one fine day I looked at my nightstand and saw a stack of traditional mysteries. Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Michael Innes, Dorothy Sayers. And in the twinkling of an eye I realized I was trying to write the wrong book. Iíd wanted to write the best literary fiction the world had ever seen. I might have set the bar a bit high. Instead I decided to stop taking myself so damned seriously and simply write a book Iíd love to read. A classic traditional mystery. Set in a village, not unlike the ones in my area of Quebec. And since I knew it might take years to write and sell, I figured Iíd better populate it with people Iíd want to spend years with. And shops Iíd love to wander, with food Iíd eat. In the loveliest of settings. And so I created Three Pines. A place of great and almost mystical peace and contentment, where people are kind to each other, and laugh and enjoy life. Where friendships flourish, except perhaps for Ruth, the embittered and preternaturally talented poet. And so each morning I get to visit my fictional friends, and have a cafť au lait, and solve a traditional murder a la Agatha. Bliss.
2. Why did you choose a fictional location as opposed to a real village?
Iím exceptionally lazy so I didnít want to have to remember what street actually intersected with what, and I also wanted the freedom to design my own place. Why be a novelist unless I could play God? I also didnít want to hurt anyoneís feelings by making them think they were in the book, or not. It was simply easier, and since writing is hard enough anything that makes it easier is fine with me.
3. Did you begin your first book, Still Life, knowing it was part of a series, or did that come about later?
I knew it was part of a series, though I didnít really believe the other books would actually be written. What I did know was that Christie eventually tired of Poirot, and I didnít want that to happen with my main detective, so I again created someone I thought I could spend many years with. Voila. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. My fictional husband. Mid fifties, kindly, strong, a man of integrity and humor. He loves his wife and reads poetry and stands up against tyranny, and doesnít take himself too seriously. I didnít know whether anyone else would respond to him Ė but I knew he was the man for me.
When I was a kid I used to think I was different. At times that was a comfort. It allowed me to feel superior. But eventually it became a burden. It made me feel quite isolated and lonely. Then I woke up and realized Iím no different than anyone else. What others feel, I feel. What others like, I like. Movies, magazines, books. Iím pretty much right smack-dab in the middle of the demographic. What a relief.
So, if at times I need comforting, a safe place, then others might too. A place where kindness trumps cleverness. Where cynicism and sarcasm arenít the currency. Where goodness exists. Because my life can be stressful and lonely and I can be sad and worried. And in those times I turn to books, and read to escape. And I thought, if Iím like that others might be too. Three Pines was created as a refuge for all of us who need a place to hide from a world not always as kind as it might be.
The other element I knew right from the start was that each of the first four books would be set in a different season. STILL LIFE in autumn, A FATAL GRACE in winter, etc.
4. It's easy to see why everyone involved would want to see the return of these characters and this place; so how hard is it for you to leave them behind when putting the story to bed each night during the writing, and especially when completely finished with it?
Wonderful question. I donít, not completely. They become like a film in my head, and a sleep with a notebook beside me, and have one on every table in the home, and make constant notes. At the end of a book itís nice to take a break, but the characters are always there, just a little quieter, which in Ruthís case is a blessing.
5. In your latest, A Fatal Grace, you devised one of the more interesting methods of murder; how did you come up with this?
That was actually my husband Michaelís idea. I knew I wanted something rural and Canadian Ė and cold. One day he suggested curling. I liked it. The next day he suggested a Boxing Day match. I liked it. Then he suggested it be outdoors. Then he thought maybe an electrocution, in front of the whole village, on a frozen lake. In the middle of nowhere. I LOVED the idea, and waited for the next day, when heíd tell me how it might be done. He was silent. He then explained that heíd gotten me that far, I could do the rest. It took me weeks to actually figure out how CC could have been killed. For a while, in the drafts, it helped to call the victim Michael.
6. Which character of your series, if any particular one, would you most enjoy sitting down to dinner with and why?
There are actually twoÖthe first is Gamache. I really do love him. What a blessing and delight to have a crush on my own main character! I wonít tell you what happens after dinner, in my fantasy. A good conversationalist is also a good listener, and Gamache is that. Heís thoughtful and funny and warm, but heís also a great listener. As a woman I appreciate being drawn out, not led or interrupted or ignored. Gamache is roughly based on my husband, Michael. Itís a remarkable thing to be married to a man I both love and admire.
The other is Ruth, the poet with no impulse control. I just really adore her. So refreshing to be around someone who actually says what everyone else is thinking. And then some. Though it would probably be a very short dinner, before I stormed out in tears.
7. Which character of all novels, if any particular one, would you most enjoy sitting down to dinner with and why?
I struggled with this, between wanting to impress and the truth. Sadly, the two arenít one. To impress Iíd say Leopold Bloom, from Joyceís Ulysses, but since Iíve never read the book it would be hard to explain why. I wouldnít mind having dinner with Captain James T. Kirk, from the book versions of Star Trek, but Iíd never admit that, so Iím left with an equally legitimate, though perhaps boring, answer. Atticus Finch, from To Kill a Mockingbird. For the same reasons as Gamache. I like decent men. I love being in the company of flamboyant, fun, over-the-top people, for about ten minutes. But for an actual conversation? Give me someone thoughtful and warm and kind. Iíd also love to sit down with Miss Marple.
8. Your bio reveals that you are also an award-winning journalist as well as an award-winning novelist; how does writing fiction compare?
Itís much more fun. The sort of stories I did were generally about loss and someoneís sadness or shame. As a result I got to see people in the extremes of their lives. And how they coped. It was very inspiring and at times frightening. Decades listening and watching was wonderful training for writing mysteries, which are also about regular people leading normal lives, until their lives and safe village are violated. Then we get to see who is really decent and who has been hiding behind a faÁade all this time.
9. Which part of the fiction-writing process do you find most gratifying?
When I get it right. Wow. At the end of a days writing when I just know I captured what I wanted. And sometimes surprised myself. When something else takes over and makes me better than I actually am, thatís the most astonishing, wonderful, transporting feeling.
10. And of course we have to ask, what do you like to read yourself?
I still read traditional mysteries. Have just re-read Josephine Teyís The Franchise Affair. Fantastic.
11. And finally, what's next for this idyllic village and its wonderful inhabitants?
Spring is next. In THE CRUELLEST MONTH (out early 2008) itís Easter in Three Pines and the residents, led by Gabri, decide to hold a sťance, to raise the dead on Good Friday. Not a good idea, as it turns out.
A pleasure. Thank you for asking me, and for the questions that really made me think, and feel.
Louise Penny is the internationally bestselling author of the Three Pines mystery series. Her first book, STILL LIFE, won the UK New Blood Dagger, the Canadian Arthur Ellis and the American Dilys awards. Her second book, A FATAL GRACE, has just been released. A former radio journalist Louise lives south of Montreal, near the Vermont border, with her husband and a few stinky dogs.