Louise Penny, “New York Times” bestselling author of the Chief Armand Gamache series gives us an exclusive Q&A about her life and writing process.
Question: You weave a lot of Quebec setting, culture, and the seasons into your novels. How long have you lived in Quebec, and do you write mostly in Quebec or other places like Montreal or Toronto?
Louise: I was born and, for the most part, raised in Toronto – but spent several formative years in Montreal as a child. Later in life, after moving around with my job, I decided I needed to put down roots, to find home. I thought, and thought and sat quietly with it, and realized that Quebec always felt like home. So I moved here. That was thirty years ago. I have never, ever been made to feel like a stranger. Despite being anglo in a majority francophone society. I wanted to bring that sense of place, of belonging, of yearning, of finally finding home, to the books. As well as what it feels like to live and breathe, and eat, Quebec.
Q: Have you received a lot of comments about the French Canadian vernacular/colloquialisms in your novels from American readers?
L: Yes, especially the swear words. The English tend to swear using sexual references, or bodily functions. The Quebecois use a lot of religious words. I’ve heard elderly women (who were not Ruth Zardo) toss off the ‘f’ word as though it was just an adjective. But let me say ‘tabernac’ to them (a derivative of tabernacle) they’d be apoplectic. Of course, merde is pretty universal. I throw in conversational French words here and there, (oui, non, désolé etc), but never anything that cannot be figured out given the context. It’s important to give a clear sense of place, and language is part of that. I also have a pronunciation guide with translation on my website.
Q: Do you do a lot of research about Quebec history before weaving it into your novels?
L: Some. Like many, I’m draw to history anyway, and Quebec has a very rich and at times bizarre history. The trick, I find, and something I struggle with, is finding that golden mean – the perfect balance so that it is neither a history lesson, nor is there a lack of context. Quebec’s motto is ‘Je me souviens’ – I remember. So past and present meld in this remarkable place.
Q: When you write a long running series as you have, how much to you plan in advance the plots for future books?
L: I do now, but when I started I dreamed it would become a series, but didn’t dare believe it, so I really didn’t think beyond Still Life. So I felt my way forward, and prayed for inspiration each day. And each book. But then as my confidence grew, and my connection with the characters deepened even further, I could suddenly see years ahead. Not the details, but the broad strokes. Indeed, I knew how book 9 (HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN) would end when I was writing book 5 (THE BRUTAL TELLING). The difficult part is writing so that the vital backstory, how the characters got to that place, is clear to those new to the series, as well as those who have read from the beginning. It’s not simply bringing them up to speed on the sequence of events, it’s making sure the new readers care as deeply for Armand and Ruth and Clara and Gabri as long-time readers. My books need, I think, to be read through the chest.
Q: Are there ways that the characters or story lines surprise even you?
L: Constantly. I can’t begin to tell you how much fun it is to return to Three Pines and know that a scene will be set in, let’s say, the bistro. With Olivier and Gabri and Ruth….then Gamache and Beauvoir appear. And they need to talk about x, y and z…. but how they get there, how they do it, what other things they say to each other, is always a surprise. I have a goal, multiple goals actually, for most scenes – but how it happens if often a complete surprise. And, it must be admitted, not always a welcome one. My first drafts are a bit of a mess. Like Lewis and Clarke slogging through a bog. In subsequent drafts the story simplifies, clarifies – the characters become more sharply defined. But I have to have something on the page, in order to edit later.
Q: How do you decide to set the books away from Three Pines?
L: Well, now, the original idea was to set all the books in Three Pines, but then, I didn’t really expect there would ever be 10 or more. It became apparent after the third book that this tiny village in Quebec would not sustain the murder rate. And it was becoming more and more difficult to describe it as idyllic. So I decided to set every second book away from the village. Though there might be large sections back in Three Pines, it would not be the centre of the action. This has also allowed me more creative freedom. And, when I do return to the village, ahhhh. It feels like a genuine homecoming, rather that growing tired of the ‘same-old, same-old’.
Q: Are you ever tempted to exempt any one character from murder or heartbreak?
L: Tempted, yes. While I call them characters, I have to say they feel very real to me. I owe an amazing life to each one of them – to Armand Gamache, and Clara Morrow, and Gabri and Olivier and demented, drunken, brilliant Ruth. To cause them hurt is horrific. But these are crime novels, and neither the murder nor the consequences should ever be trivialized. My books are not about death, they’re about life. But life includes death, and pain, and despair, at times. But it also includes love and forgiveness, friendship and goodness.
Q: How do decide to weave multiple plot strings into one novel?
L: I think it’s important, if there are multiple plots, that there be cohesion thematically. I’m often, in fact almost exclusively, inspired by poetry. Before starting to design and consider a book, some piece of poetry (or sometimes lyrics) will touch me deeply. I’ll write those down on a post-it note, and stick it to my laptop. So that when I get lost, (which I often do) I can find my way back. Even in richness, there needs to be simplicity and clarity. Never chaos. The point is not to keep tossing sparkly things out there in the hopes the reader won’t notice that it makes no sense.