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Sunday January 27, 2008

Penny-wise thoughts

She wanted to be writer but didn't hit her stride until she found inspiration in the right place, people and genre. And even after she had her book in hand, no publisher was interested until.... 

IN a genre filled with relationally-challenged and emotionally-damaged heroes, Canadian mystery author Louise Penny, 50, triumphs with a hero that goes against the grain. 

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, the detective character of Penny’s books, lives in Montreal, Canada, has a distinguished career with the Sûreté du Quebec (the police force of Quebec ), is brilliant at solving mysteries, loves his wife, and is a happy guy. 

Louise Penny overcame writer’s block to come up with Still Life, a best-selling detective novel set in a village in Canada.
“The reason why Gamache is a happy man is not because he’s never known bad things,” says Penny in a telephone interview from Singapore where she was promoting her books last year. 

“The happiest people I know are people who have, through big tragedies, have come to the fork in the road where they can either be embittered by it or be filled with compassion or kindness. 

“Armand has come to that fork of the road; while many (of his) colleagues chose bitterness, he chose kindness,” she says. 

Gamache and the world of Three Pines have won the hearts of critics and readers; Penny’s debut novel Still Life won numerous awards: Britain’s New Blood Dagger award, the Arthur Ellis Award in Canada for best first crime novel, and was runner-up for Britain’s CWA Debut Dagger Award 2004. 

Her readers have also written to her expressing their love for Gamache. 

“There’s a kind of gratitude – that there’s a male character who is strong and in love with his wife. And can be a compassionate and courageous man. In my opinion, it takes a lot more courage to be a decent human being than it does a violent, aggressive person,” she says. 

But Penny didn’t write Gamache the way she did to be intentionally different, however. It was for purely selfish reasons, she insists. 

“I realised that if I was going to spend the rest of my life with this man, I don’t want to have someone so deeply troubled in my head for the rest of my life!” she says with a laugh. 

The struggle 

Penny remembers the day she decided to be a writer. She was eight years old, lying in bed reading E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.  

“I love Charlotte’s Web,” says Penny wistfully. “I was always a very shy child, didn’t have very many friends, and always felt on the outside. I sought the comfort of my bedroom and books. I realised how powerful books are. I developed a love affair with them and then I realised I want to be that kind of wizard to create this kind of world.” 

So she made a pact with herself to write a novel by her thirties. 

But things didn’t go as planned – in her words: she “chickened out”. 

“I became the next best thing: a journalist,” she says. She worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, covering hard news and current affairs, but her dream of publishing a novel was always at the back of her mind. 

But when she turned 35, it hit her: “I realised if I was going to do it, it was probably going to be a very good time to do it.” 

So, in 1996, Penny quit her job to begin writing her novel. 

This sudden move didn’t encourage a flood of creativity, however. Instead, she found herself staring at blank pages for five long years as she struggled with writer’s block. 

“Everybody kept asking how the book was going. It made me feel worse!” she says. “I think I really set myself up for failure.? For some reason I felt that I should write the best book ever. If it wasn’t going to best book ever then why bother? I became hypercritical of what I wrote, I was paralysed.” 

“I was riddled with fear and anxiety. ? When the critic is writing the book, you should show her the door and let the creative side do it,” she adds. 

Her turning point came when she moved to the country and found herself surrounded by “amazingly creative and courageous women” who were artists, writers, and poets. She realised that they had the courage to do what she didn’t – to create and to be out there for criticism. 

“I began to appreciate that it is not the end of the world if everybody doesn’t love what you do. It is the end of the world if you don’t even try.” 

One day, she finally got an idea of what kind of novel to write when she saw the big pile of mystery books on her bedside table. It was then that she realised that she could write a “fun yarn,” the kind of book that she would read, instead of the “best literary fiction the world has ever seen”. 

“I love mysteries. I read other books but when things go bad, it’s Gummy Bears, Diet Coke and Agatha Christie,” she says. “It’s comforting. The world makes sense; the murderer almost always gets caught. Our world, of course, is more upsetting, chaotic and confusing.” 

Hard work 

What followed after was pure hard work – “1,000 words a day, six days a week,” says Penny. And when was finished, there was the next hurdle: getting published. 

She met with rejection letter after rejection letter. 

“The editors who turned it down didn’t ever read it. I keep hearing that people don’t want to read a book set in Canada, which is why some publishers turned it down. I even sent it to a minuscule Canadian publisher and he didn’t want it either. I thought that was it,” she says. 

But when Still Life became the runner-up for the British-based CWA Debut Dagger Award in 2004 – the award for authors who have not had a novel published commercially – the tide turned. 

In 2004, the novel finally hit the bookstands. It took her five years to muster up the courage to write the first few words and then another three years to get it published. 

“It proved to me how arbitrary it all was; a book can be turned down a million times and then someone says it’s good and it starts winning these awards?.” she says. 

Since then, Penny has been living her dream. She lives in a small village south of Montreal with her husband and two dogs. Her day starts at 6am when she walks her pooches before heading for the rented office in the village to write. 

“Authors will talk about writing being an isolated experience, which I’ve not experienced. I’m so connected to the world around me. I ask people questions, and pay attention to the world. And I walk around with a notebook,” she says. 

Writing has become easier after Still Life – she hired a therapist to ensure that she didn’t suffer writer’s block again while writing her second book, Dead Cold – but it’s still hard work. 

“The only thing that separates me from an unpublished person is perseverance and discipline. Yes, there is an element of creativity and inspiration too but most of it is really hard work. Write even if you don’t want to,” she advises aspiring authors. 

With a third book (The Cruellest Month) out, Penny is simply grateful. 

“The only reason this has happened to me is not because I’m a better person, but that I’m more fortunate. There’s nothing that makes me deserve this more than other people, and this can be taken away,” she says.