7 Questions with . . . Louise Penny
Louise Penny's newest thriller A Trick of the Light is our top Whodunit pick for September. The next adventure of Chief Inspector Gamache brings him back to Quebec to investigate a murder within the art scene.
Our reviewer said, "Penny’s characters are, to a one, rich and multifaceted, her plotting is intricately laced with backstory and her depiction of modern-day Quebec is spot on." Read the rest of the review in the September 2011 Whodunit column.
Penny shared a little insight into Quebec and Chief Inspector Gamache, plus some valuable writing advice, in an interview with BookPage.
Describe your book in one sentence.
The book is about perceptions and duality, the difference between what we say and what we think, the look on our faces and the thoughts in our heads, how the same piece of art can be considered a masterpiece and a disaster, and how a glimmer of hope could simply be a trick of the light.
What do you consider to be the mark of an excellent murder mystery?
When the characters become people, and you care deeply about them. As a result, the main mystery becomes not who committed the crime, or how it was done, but why.
If you could take any one characteristic of CI Gamache for yourself, what would it be?
Gamache stands up for what he believes in, he has the courage of his convictions. I have convictions, but I often lack courage, and sit in silence while mean things are said about others. It's a part of myself I don't admire and constantly try to change, and a trait I intentionally put into Armand Gamache. He's the 'better angel' of my nature.
Why did you choose to set the CI Gamache novels in Quebec?
I love Quebec. It's where I choose to live and for me location is a very strong character. Emily Dickinson described novels as frigates, that can take us to other places. I'd love for people to pick up one of my books as though it's a passage to Quebec. To discover this amazing area, with the French language and cuisine and culture. Where the French and English intermarry and live as neighbours, but are not always at ease with each other. A place of rich history and deep passions. I wanted there to be absolutely no doubt, when people get on the frigate, that the destination is Quebec, and that is it an extraordinary place.
What is the best writing advice you've received?
When I was struggling with my second book, wrestling with near paralyzing fear, I went to a therapist. I could see that either writer's block would settle in, or, perhaps worse, I'd write a book simply to please others. I'd play it safe, and lose my own voice. I could see that happening and it was turning writing into a desperately frightening and disappointing chore. The therapist listened to me then said, 'The wrong person's writing the book.' Now, to be honest, that wasn't immediately helpful. Then she explained that my 'critic' was writing the book. I needed to thank the 'critic' and show her the door. Don't lock it, because I'll need her later, for the revisions. But I need my creative self to write the first draft. And if in that first draft I spend a day writing ten pages about a chair leg, then do it and don't worry. Just move on. All the crap will be taken out by the 'critic' in the subsequent drafts.
This was hugely freeing because implied in that advice was that I'd never get it right in the first time - and that isn't what the initial pass is for. It's to explore, to take chances, to get out of my comfort and do something really scary or stupid. To give myself permission to just 'try.' And know there's a safety net in the form of second, third, fourth drafts. So now my first drafts can be soft and smelly, but somewhere in there is a gem. And I spend the rest of the drafts shaping and polishing and digging deeper, and, I hope, finding the brilliance.
If you weren't a writer, how would you earn a living?
Well, I was a journalist for many years, though perhaps not the best one. I'm genuinely interested in hearing people talk about their lives, but I'm not a political animal and I tend to be slightly credulous. Not cynical enough. If writing wasn't an option and I had it to do over again I'd love to work in a museum. Ideally the British Museum. Or the Natural History museum in London. I spend hours there every time we visit.
What are you reading now?
An Agatha Christie! I love Christie and have been hugely inspired by her. Though I've tried to build on what Christie did, and not simply imitate. But I'm deeply grateful for their company throughout my life, especially the difficult and trying times.
Listen to a clip from the audio version of A Trick of the Light.