Saturday, August 18, 2007
Canada Calling: Louise Penny (guest interview)
Louise Penny's first novel in her Armand Gamache series, Still Life won the New Blood Dagger in Britain and the 2007 Arthur Ellis Award in Canada for best first crime novel. As well as the Dilys award for the book the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association most enjoyed selling in 2006. Still Life was also named one of the Kirkus Reviews Top Ten mysteries of 2006.
Your bilingual detective, Armand Gamache, has a French name, lives in Outremont in Montreal, yet he studied at Christ's Church, Oxford, and speaks English with a British accent. Why did you make those choices when you developed his character?
Armand Gamache is very loosely based on a few people. One is my husband's tailor, Jean Gamache. I was hoping he'd give us free clothes but so far nothing. Am considering upgrading to an Inspector Armani for a subsequent book. But Gamache is also based upon Michael, my husband. Who, as luck would have it, went to Christ's College, Cambridge. It's a small shout-out to our pasts. And I wanted to make it clear that in French Quebec there are people (and Gamache is far from unique) who speak both languages beautifully and have a genuine affection for different cultures. There is also quite an amusing contradiction in Quebec where one of the fiercest and most articulate leaders in the separatist movement (he became our premier for many years) is Jacques Parizeau, who learned his English at Oxford and loves all things English. He simply loves Quebec more.
PDD: I've heard two opinions on using Canadian settings: one that a Canadian setting guarantees that a book won't sell and the other that people consider Canada an exotic location, which sells books. You're dealing not only with the Canadian question, but the Quebec question as well, something even most Canadians have trouble understanding. How do the "two solitudes" affect your stories?
Great question. I certainly heard from uninterested publishers that no one would want to read a mystery set in Canada. Ironically enough that comment came exclusively from Canadian publishers. The UK and British publishers don't seem to care. In fact, they seem delighted with the setting. My theory is two-fold. First and most important is that I think if a book is good it doesn't matter where it's set. Look at the deserved success of Giles Blunt, whose books are mostly set in North Bay. I could set a stinker in Florence, Italy and it would still smell. The other, smaller, issue is that I think I got lucky in living in Quebec. I naturally chose the place I live for the books and Quebec is exotic enough to be interesting, but close enough to not turn people off. I think readers are quite surprised to read how different Quebec is - especially non-Canadian readers. I think some North Americans never really appreciated that Quebec really is French. There are also, of course, the linguistic tensions that come with Quebec. The French/English struggles that some feel more than others. It's allows me to explore what happens when everyone in a community feels, in some ways, like a minority and slightly threatened.
You use multiple points of view, going from one character's head to another. How does this help you tell a story and are there any drawbacks in using that technique?
The only drawback I find is making sure each character gets his or her moment on the stage, without slowing the pacing down or making it feel forced. The challenge is getting inside the murderers head without the reader realizing it's the killer, but still being honest with the reader.
The fun is that I get to 'see ourselves as others see us', as Robbie Burns said. I just love trying to crawl inside the perceptions and emotions of others. To see the mis-perceptions. To see how hurt begins, often with a word not heard right or a look intercepted that is taken personally. These mis-understandings blossom, and corrupt, and stew, and grow. Into murder. My books are never about the huge events, they're about the tiny things that pile up and get to us. And in the mind of someone not quite well, those things can lead to a terrible place. As Emily Dickenson wrote, 'Not with a club the heart is broken/Nor with a stone/But with a whip so small you can barely see it.' That's what these books are about, the tiny whip. And the omniscient viewpoint allows me to explore that. Not just in the murderer but in many of the characters, because we're all hurt at times. But who among us takes that hurt and lashes back?
You say you suffered from writers' block for many years. How did you go from being blocked to writing award-winning books?
I ate gummy bears and watched Oprah and lied. Then we moved to the country and became surrounded by artistic people who had the courage to put their work out there. Art, film, poetry, books. And I saw that rejection didn't kill them. It's just part of the process. An expected and natural part.
I also surrounded myself with kind and thoughtful people. People who wouldn't, with a smile, cut down my literary baby.
And I stopped taking myself so seriously and decided to just write a book I'd love to read. That's it. Not for a millions of readers. Not for money. Not for accolades. Just quietly, for myself.
I've come to realize there's nothing special about me. It's a great comfort. What others feel, I feel. What appeals to others, appeals to me. So I kinda thought maybe if this book, with this setting and these characters, appealed to me, well maybe others were yearning for the same thing.
I realized too that writing a whole book was freaking me out. Seemed impossible. And while I love to believe I'm a free spirit, I'm not. I need structure. Without it I eat gummy bears and watch Oprah all day. So I set up a structure. Each day I write my 1,000 words. I'm not really writing a book, I'm just writing my 1,000 words. It's doable. Writing is hard enough, scary enough,I really try not to handicap myself. I only talk about it with people I know are enthusiastic and supportive. And I really consciously try to remember what a blessing this is. How very fortunate I am. This is hard, but it isn't a burden
You're a literacy advocate and the Patron for the Yamaska Literacy Council in the Brome-Missisquoi region of Quebec. How can writers, and readers, become more involved in literacy advocacy?
Thank you for this question. You can find out if there's a literacy council or group near you. You can volunteer your services. Some people have the vocation and time to be tutors, others prefer to raise money and awareness. You can offer yourself to schools and libraries and talk about how important the written word is in your life. There are after school programs for kids. You can just read to them, if you like.
For writers, well, I'm not sure writers appreciate how inspiring they can be, how exciting it is to meet a published author. I still remember the first one I met, when he came to my school. I was awe struck.
I can't tell you how crucial literacy is. There's a direct link between not being able to read and write effectively and crime, addictions, abuse, poverty, health crises. This isn't a vague, possible, link. There's a direct cause and effect. Being able to read and write won't guarantee a good job, happiness, health. But not being able to sure makes life a whole lot harder.
Thank you so much for inviting me to be a part of this forum. It's a great pleasure.
You can learn more about Louise, her books, and her passion for literacy at http://www.louisepenny.com/
In September, Canada Calling visits short-story writer Dennis Murphy.