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Louise Penny

Louise Penny

"Penny thinks of her work as updated traditional mysteries.”

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Talking with Louise Penny

When Louise Penny left a successful career in journalism with the CBC to pursue her dream of writing, she had writer’s block “for about five years.” She ended up on her couch eating gummi bears and watching a lot of “Oprah.” “And then,” she recalls, “a few things happened.”

Her husband retired, and the couple moved to the small village of Sutton in Quebec’s Eastern Township, where Penny says, “I met creative friends who were creating. They gave me a seat at the table and talked about their own creations; they never asked me to explain myself.” She pauses, reflecting, “I’ve learned I’m more impressionable than I would like to believe. And that I need good role models.

If I’m in the company of cynical, dark people, I’ll become that way. If I choose my company wisely--spend time with people who value kindness and who are both thoughtful and good beings--that brings out the better angels of my nature. My creative friends taught me that failing was not the problem--it was the not trying.”

One night, after another struggle with “the big blank page” on which she’d hoped to pen a historical novel, Penny remembers looking at her bedside table, piled high with Golden Age mysteries. “And I had another aha moment: I would write a book that I would choose to read, not so my mother or a colleague would say, ‘You’re so smart.’ It would be just for me.”

Writing her first mystery led Penny to another insight about process. One of her artist friends who had been reading Penny’s drafts took her into her studio. “She pulled out a canvas, the first go at a piece of art she knew I loved. It was good but not great. And I realized why I’d had writer’s block. I’d approached my writing thinking that I had to get it right the first time. I was afraid of making mistakes. She showed me that it is a process, and that gave me the freedom to make mistakes, overwrite, create cardboard characters, verbally obese characters. To realize there are second, third, and fourth drafts.”

Though her writing is inspired by authors such as Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, Penny thinks of her work as “updated traditional mysteries. Not about murder or about death, but about life. It’s a device to let me look at human nature. People are so interesting!”

Penny’s central character, the endearing Inspector Gamache, is known as an excellent listener. Indeed, Penny says, listening is one of the “cardinal qualities” that distinguishes Gamache from other senior Sûreté officers. “He listens. And he tells his team they must listen closely to what people say but also to how they say it. The words are what people are thinking; the tone is how they’re feeling. To find a killer, the investigators must listen closely to both. And decode meaning from the words.”

Penny’s thrilled at the enthusiastic reception Ralph Cosham has received as narrator of the series. “I’m 90 percent sure that the audiobooks are as successful as they are because of him. It’s perfect casting,” she says. “He’s hugely skilled, but he also really connects with the material, and particularly with Gamache. People seem to hear him as the voice of Gamache, which is lovely.”

In BURY YOUR DEAD, Penny places Gamache on the edge of a precipice. “He’s a good but flawed man, wracked by the pain of past mistakes.” Her interest in the imperfect--and in the theme that the broken places, once healed, can become even stronger--is a life philosophy that Penny also embraces.

“It goes hand in hand with a wonderful quote from Leonard Cohen, which I’ve used in at least one book: ‘Ring the bells that still can ring/forget your perfect offering/there’s a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in.’ I spent much of my youth trying to be right and perfect, only to realize late in life that it’s the cracks, the flaws, the faults that allow us to grow and maybe become wise. And maybe become content, and compassionate. And happy.”--Jessie C. Grearson

DEC 10/JAN 11
© AudioFile 2010, Portland, Maine

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Photo by Ian Crysler

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