Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Conversation with Louise Penny

One of the best aspects of being a mystery writer is the chance to meet and get to know other authors. It’s been a great pleasure, over the past few years, to call Louise Penny my friend. I can’t recall who sent me the ARC of her first book, Still Life, for a possible blurb. My reaction to it was the same as hundreds of thousands of other readers after me: Wow. I knew I was reading the first book by a major talent, and I have taken a great deal of satisfaction in seeing the rest of the world agree with me. Louise has won the Anthony, the Agatha (three times!), the Barry, the Dilys, The Arthur Ellis and the New Blood Dagger awards, has perched at dizzying heights on the NYTimes Bestseller list, and has been on so many “Best Book of the Year” lists she can probably paper her bathroom with them.

On top of that, she’s tall, graceful, funny, and she and her charming husband Michael still hold hands everywhere they go. Really, it’s almost too much to bear.

Julia: You and I are both bringing the traditional village mystery into the 21st century. Do you see yourself as reinventing? Paying homage? Or just updating?

Louise: You know, I don’t actually see myself as doing anything in particular. I really just sort of bumble along. If ignorance is bliss, I live in a perpetual state of it. I know that sounds lame, but I guess I just set out to write a book I’d love to read, it turned into a series and here we are. My books are definitely inspired by the novels I’ve read all my life - the Christie’s, Tey’s, Dorothy L’s etc - but I didn’t realize they were known as ‘traditional’. I knew there was a genre called murder mysteries - but not that there were sub-genres. And it never occurred to me this wasn’t literary fiction. It comes as a surprise when people say I break rules - since I didn’t realize writing had rules. So, I basically just plod along, happily writing books and while I’m very proud and happy to be writing traditional mysteries, I really let others decide what they are. Certainly ‘traditional’ is more polite than what some people have called them!

Julia: Have you found blending the police procedural with the, shall we say, softer sides of the stories difficult? Because I know for the first two books or so, I struggled with getting the balance right.

Louise: God, that’s hilarious - because you sure nailed it! In those books and subsequent ones. I actually don’t really think about that a lot. I must sound like a complete numb-skull, and perhaps I am. I’m not completely oblivious to issues of writing - especially as I go along I’m much more aware of the choices and issues facing me and the books. One thing I have become more aware of is the language I use - I think early on, mostly in the second book, I might have over-used the ‘f’ word. I still use it, but perhaps not quite as much. What I really struggle with is the balance between plot and character development. The personal lives of the characters and their story lines which might mirror the main plot but often doesn’t really have anything to do with it, and the murder mystery itself. I’m never sure I get that right and it’s interesting to read the comments and reviews by some who feel I’m top heavy in one direction or the other. I’ve now reached the stage where I read fewer and fewer reviews and comments and just keep my head down and write what seems appropriate for the stories and character - and hope people agree. I’ve sure made some mistakes, and will again, but at least they’ll be my mistakes. Do you read reviews, Julia? Do you find they affect you?

Julia: Not so much reviews, no. I do find that getting out and listening to what my readers say has influenced some aspects of my story. The status quo of my series changed dramatically by the end of the fifth book (I’m tip-toeing around here so as not to give away any plot points) in part because of what I heard time and again from my readers. It wasn’t really even a conscious decision--more like my readers created the gravity which bent the story arc naturally in a certain direction.

Including more of the police procedural--and letting it exist side-by-side with the personal lives of the characters--had more to do with my own sense of comfort as a writer. Maybe I figured since I was getting away with it a little, I could stretch the boundaries. I notice (this is an observation rather than a question) that within 5-6 books, both of us turned to a much more strictly procedural story (All Mortal Flesh, Bury Your Dead.)

Louise: That’s true. Again, I’m not sure why that is. I suspect it’s just a natural progression and exploration. I’d really hate to be imprisoned in one location or ‘genre’. I think I’d get bored and I think the characters might get boring. Part of what I wanted to explore with Bury Your Dead was to put the lie to this whole sub-genre thing....as you do. There are elements in BYD that are historical fiction, parts police procedural, part traditional, part noir and part cozy. Actually, this makes it sound like a bit of a dog’s breakfast! But I hope it sounds like life. Sometimes my life is hilarious, sometimes tragic. Sometimes I’m furious, sometimes I’m gentle and kind. These aren’t contradictions, these are just living a full emotional life. Or maybe being psychotic. Don’t you find that the more aware of yourself you are, the better the books will be?

Julia: Absolutely. You can’t write real people unless you understand real people, and you can’t do that without understanding yourself.

Louise: I also think that the more screwed up I am, the better the books. I can relate to all the odd and sometimes deeply unpleasant things my characters think and feel. And do.

Julia: How are you dealing with what I call the “Cabot Cove” issue--the very small town with a very high murder rate? Other than relying on the goodwill of readers to suspend their disbelief.

Louise: Again, the numb-skull factor comes into play! When I wrote Still Life and it became a series it never occurred to me the “Cabot Cove” syndrome might be a problem. But, of course, by the time I was halfway through book 3, I realized my fictional village of Three Pines was producing both bodies and murderers at an alarming rate. And it was becoming increasingly difficult to describe Three Pines as idyllic, when clearly it isn’t. So, after the third book I’ve set every second book away from the village. This also keeps me fresh and allows me to see the main characters of Chief Inspector Gamache and his team in different settings. For me, and for you too I believe, the setting is also a character, so in changing the settings to other Quebec communities I get to write about other locations. Then go back to Three Pines, and feel excited to be back in the bistro, and back with those characters.

Julia: Kate Miciak, one of Bantam-Dell’s legendary editors, once told me a good writer must be able to feel her characters intimately and still keep them at enough distance to allow bad things to happen to them. I have to say, I think you’re a genius at this, since the residents of Three Pines can be both appealing and appalling, sometimes within a few pages’ span.

Louise: Yes, isn’t Kate amazing. Quite formidable too. Scares me to death. So there’s no way I’d ever dream of disagreeing with her. And actually, I don’t. I think this goes to something you and I’ve discussed over lunch, and that’s pouring our own experiences into our characters - so that they have a rich and sometimes unpleasant interior life. As I mentioned before, I know that the more screwed up I am, the more in touch with my interior life I am, the more I’m able to admit that I’m sometimes petty and jealous, lonely and hateful - as well as joyous and grateful and loving....well, then I can give those qualities to my characters. This bodes well for the future since I expect to become even more screwed up. Though, as you know, Julia, many readers have been very upset with where I’ve taken some of the characters - one in particular. I was amazed by their anger. And, frankly, their lack of trust.

Julia: We’ll tip-toe around this part too, to avoid spoilers...

Louise: I’d hoped after five books they’d appreciate that no one adores my characters more than I do, and if I do something dreadful to one of them it wasn’t done on a whim. But I guess that shows how much people care for the characters.

Julia: That’s it exactly. I think if you do it right, if you do it well, characters take on a life independent from us, their creators, and independent, in a way, from the books themselves. They come to exist in the minds and imaginations of readers, who want them never to come to grief. But our job is different than a reader’s job. Ours is to watch what the characters do and report it faithfully back.

Louise: Do you worry at all about what the readers will think?

Julia: I don’t consider it when I’m writing. Readers would be more than justified to scream if I broke their genre expectations--if the murders turned out to be committed by a nest of redneck, upstate New York vampires, for instance. But if a young man everyone likes had to die, well, that’s just because he had to die. It makes me sad, too, but that’s no reason to alter his fate.

The big question with any series--and especially a small-town series--is how to keep it fresh. What techniques have you used? What do you have in mind in coming books to change things up?

Louise: Besides the vampire sub-plot?

Actually, I’ve found that moving the location away from Three Pines every second book is not only helpful, but necessary. The next one, A TRICK OF THE LIGHT, is set in Three Pines and the one I’m just about to begin writing (which after much thought I’ve decided to call Book 8) is set in a remote monastery. (Had to learn how to spell monastery - kept spelling it monestary). I also set each of the first four books in a different season, so that was fun - to bring the seasons alive.

Julia: I do that, too! I love to circle around the seasons. It adds so much to the sense of place (which we both agree is vital.)

And finally (you can’t imagine how much pleasure I get from asking this question) your novels consistently land on “book of the year” lists, you’ve won almost every mystery award out there, and there are rumors the Agatha is going to be renamed the Penny. How has all this public adulation affected you?

Louise: People might not realize that I simply make-up literary awards, and present them to myself. For instance, I have only just now won the Julia Award! Thank you.

Actually, I should be giving you the Louise Award, for outstanding contribution to not only my career, but the careers of so many mystery writers! My career started taking off after you endorsed the first book, introduced me around, and really opened doors. I owe you a great deal!!! And have had the amazing pleasure of reading your latest - ONE WAS A SOLDIER. OMG!!!! Your fans are going to go crazy!!! They’ve had to wait for it, but I can absolutely guarantee them it will be so worth it.

Buy the book!!Julia: Thank you, dear. Your five spot will be in the mail tomorrow.

Louise: Getting to write is a dream. Getting to write and be published still astonishes me. And then to find that people, some of whom are even sober, like the books just blows me away. Not a day goes by I don’t count my blessings. And am very aware of my good luck. One day all this will go away, and someone else will take my place in the sun - and when that happens I want to step aside with good humor, having been aware of each and every golden moment. I don’t take this, or the readers, for granted. But, having said that, I don’t think there is a writer who is more generous to readers and other writers than you - as this interview shows. How wonderful to have Julia Spencer-Fleming as a friend.

Louise has the rare ability to strike me speechless. I can only reply by meeting her generosity: I have four Advance Reader Copies of One Was A Soldier and two copies of Bury Your Dead to give away. Leave a comment to be entered in the drawing.

61 comments:

MaxWriter said...

This is a wonderful interview. I had the good fortune to first read a book by each of you in the last few months and am hitting myself in the forehead that it took me so long. Thank you both for sharing so much about yourselves and your writing.

Edith
http://edithmaxwell.blogspot.com/

MaxWriter said...

(I mean that it took me so long to discover you both!)

Rosemary Harris said...

I feel as if I've had the opportunity to be a fly on the wall and eavesdrop on two of the best in the business! None of us likes labels-but what you two ladies have managed to do is shine a spotlight on mystery fiction that doesn't neatly fall into one of the existing categories and writers like me who are hoping to do the same thing LOVE you for it!

Lesa said...

Thank you for the blog interview I would expect from the two of you, a thoughtful, informative post. You're right, Julia. Bury Your Dead was on the top of my list of books read last year, the best. And, I'm looking forward to One Was A Soldier. Thank you, to both of you, for many wonderful hours of reading.

Lesa - www.lesasbookcritiques.blogspot.com

DarcyO said...

I enjoyed the interview, Julia. I've read two of Louise's books and loved them. Thanks for sharing Louise with us.

dlodden at frontiernet dot net

bjb said...

Loved the interview, will be sending the link to it to my sisters, have been working on getting them hooked on both of you gals.

Julia, I'm looking forward to One Was a Soldier a lot, in large part because I'm curious to see how Clare and Russ will be written. I admit that certain parts of their personalities grate on me, while others make me want to give them a hug, so I'm curious as to whether I'll be doing more teeth gritting or more hugging this time. ;-)

Ann from Boston said...

I have read all of each of your books and anxiously await each new one. I really can't wait to read One Was A Soldier.

Great interview. You both come off so real.

Ann

Elizabeth D said...

I discovered your books and Louise's at the very same time, and have been forcing them on my friends ever since. They don't complain. Oh, how I would LOVE to be able to read One Was a Soldier right now!

Hallie Ephron said...

What I love so much about being a crime fiction writer is the community of writers really do support one another. This interview: Exhibit #1!

Great interview...or should I say conversation(!), Louise and Julia.

A question: Louise and Julia, so many reviewers will praise a mystery they really like by saying it "exceeds the genre." What's your take on what they mean by that?

Shelagh, from Michigan said...

A marvelous interview between two very gracious ladies, who are also amazing writers. Have recently discovered your books, Julia, and am looking forward to reading them. And am anxiously awaiting the end of August when "Trick of the Light" will be published! Thank you both for this insightful interview.

Karen in Ohio said...

It's always fun to read about an author's process, but even more so when the explanation is curated so splendidly by a fellow author.

You were both new to me this past year, as well, and I'm now a devoted fan of you both. Best success with your next books. I'm looking forward to them!

Alicia said...

Great interview! I've heard of Louise but haven't yet ready any of her books. This inspired me to go and download the first to my Kindle. Can't wait to get started on it!

Brenda B. said...

Such a terrific conversation!

I'm fortunate to have known Julia for many years (we won't say how many) and to have met Louise a couple of years ago at Bloody Words in Ottawa. I've loved each of your books for all of the reasons you discuss here. They feature interesting, real, human characters and well-constructed plots. And they have such flow.

I'm counting the days till I can score a copy of One Was a Soldier and look forward to Trick of the Light later this year.

You are among my role models, both in my writing life and in my trying-to-be-a-good-person life.

And you're both funny, too. The complete package!



Brenda B. in Maine

Laura Benedict said...

Oh! I enjoyed this conversation so much that I had to run and make myself a cup of tea to listen along.

I'm such a devotee of Louise Penny's work that I've steered many other writers to her books so that they can learn from her as I am. And readers? Let's just say the redneck Vampires don't stand a chance against our hordes.

So thrilled to hear JSP talk about her books. The Cabot Cove syndrome description totally cracked me up. Can't wait to see how she tackles it on the page.

Thanks, ladies!

Anne MacFarlane said...

What a delight, two of my favourite authors in one place!

Julia Spencer-Fleming said...

Hallie, I think "exceeds the genre" means "I think mysteries are trashy, but this particular one is well-written and thought-provoking, so I'll say it's not really a mystery. Because mysteries are trashy."

I think everyone who conflates genre with crap should be forced to sit in a comfy chair and read the collected works of Michael Chabon.

Julia Spencer-Fleming said...

Great interview. You both come off so real.

Our publicists script that very carefully, Ann. ;-)

Julia Spencer-Fleming said...

Brenda, I started counting back and realized why you didn't want to mention how many years it's been!

Brenda and I went to Law School together. I believe I was voted Least Likely to Actually Practice Law by my peers.

Laura Benedict said...

JSP? *headslap*

Sorry, JS-F. Got carried away in my enthusiasm!!!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

OH, mouth open, jaw dropped. You both are enchanting. Sigh. We are lucky lucky lucky.

Kaye Barley said...

What a great interview!!!

What a thrill to drop by one of my favorite blogs and find a couple of the mystery world's First Ladies having a chat.

wow.

Thank you!

Louise - I am, once again, tapping my toe impatiently waiting for the next one. Cannot WAIT to read A Trick of the Light (have I mentioned lately how very much I adore your characters, including Three Pines?).

Julia - I too am looking forward to One Was a Soldier!

Margie said...

Wonderful interview. You are two of my favorites. I loved the characters you've created and the settings you've chosen.
Always waiting for the next book.
Your faithful reader,
Margie

J said...

I've added Louise Penny to my list of authors to keep an eye out for. I can't wait to try the series. :) And I also can't wait to read One Was a Soldier. Thanks for the interview and giveaway!

Karen J. said...

I have to echo so many of the previous sentiments - my two favourite authors in one place - bliss!

I should point out that I started reading your books, Julia, after reading Louise's recommenation on her website...thank you both for many hours of engrossing reading!

KathyW said...

Great interview. Now I have two new writers to investigate. Just downloaded Still Life. Now I'm looking at Julia's books.

Kathy

Doris Ann said...

Two marvelous writers and gracious as well as entertaining in person as they are on the page. And neither runs madly the other way when they see me coming (or at least I haven't caught them stealing away) Eagerly awaiting Julia's new book and I know that I will read it as soon as it comes...on Mar. 12, I hope. Thanks Julia and Penny for giving your readers so much sheer reading pleasure.

Rhys Bowen said...

This was a great interview, Julia. You and Louise are flagbearers for the traditional mystery. Long may you flourish!

Tammy Kaehler said...

Fantastic interview! Thanks for the insight and motivation.

Gayle in VA said...

I read Louise's first book based on Julia's recommendation. What a great gift for one author to recommend another. No jealousy there. And lucky me to know about 2awesome authors!

Roberta Isleib said...

Louise, we're so pleased to have you visiting today. Very comforting to hear that you don't spend much time thinking about what people will think--an easy way to kill the story IMHO!

Rachel Brady said...

Louise is a great writer and all, but why are we not talking about they way she rocks wearing scarves and flowy stuff? Nobody else can pull that off like Louise. She's the picture of grace!

Linda said...

And now, with this interview, I've been introduced to another wonderful writer with a series I will begin as soon as possible. Thank you both for sharing so much with us.

Janet said...

What a wonderful interview! Two of my favorite authors. I adore Louise Penny and anxiously await each book release. There are times I wish I could live in 3 Pines or visit there.
Julia is a newer author for me and I am so enjoying catching up on her books. Thanks so much!

Marni said...

Since I read both of you regularly, I couldn't wait to read this interview and was not disappointed. Such good sense and good humor from two of the great women writers of our time! No wonder I eagerly await the new books of both of you. My favorite part was hearing how you've dealt with surprising your characters and sometimes going against reader expectations. Keep these kinds of great interviews coming--an inspiration to us all!

Diane said...

How wonderful to read an interview between two of my favourite writers. It's a win, win! I look forward to reading both new releases.

Jan Brogan said...

Hi Louise,
What great things you have to say about mystery writing - and what great questions Julia!

Louise Penny Author said...

Hi All - love your comments! And so kind. Phew. I'm always afraid I'll come across as an idiot in print. thanks for reassuring me. JRW rocks! and julia Spencer-Fleming rocks. Trust me, you'll adore One Was a Soldier. Congratulations, Julia, and thanks for this great conversation. See you at malice!

Leslie Angel said...

boydWhat a wonderful interview. You both are so gracious and open. I've read all your books (both of you), met Louise Penny and heard her speak, and still there was new and interesting material in the interview. I loved BYD and have been impatiently waiting for One Was a Soldier. Thank you both for the great pleasure you bring to us readers.

Alison said...

What a lovely conversation we were allowed to eavesdrop on! I am sometimes leery about delving into the social media life of authors I admire for fear of discovering what lies behind the curtain. Fortunately not in this case - rather a reinforcement of the hero worship that I exhibit. Rather like observing the cool kids at the lunch table and being thankful that I can hear what they have to say.

Deborah said...

Wonderful interview. And an introduction to your website linked from Louise Penny's blog today. I'll be back!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

OH, so nice to see so many wonderful new people! Please come back and visit...)

Julia and Louise, when you draw the winners, draw a name for a signed copy of DRIVE TIME!

Mary said...

What a pleasure to share in a conversation between two of my favorite mystery authors! I can actually hear Louise in the interview & enjoyed getting to know Julia a bit better. i can't wait to read both new books!! BTW - my mum has just started reading Louise's series & mentioned that there is a lot of "language" - must be the second book with all the "f" words she is referring to!!

danielle-momo said...

I just discovered this blog through Louise's one. So I just discovered you Julia with this conversation and I intend to continue by reading your books.
Good post, thank you

Carolyn said...

Note to self: Add Louise Penny to TBR list.

I'm going to start adding bookplates that say, "Julia Spencer-Fleming made me read this."

Thanks for the wonderful interview. Very enjoyable and informative.

Cindy Deatsman said...

What a wonderful interview! Thanks to Lesa Holstine for pointing me to it and introducing me to a great new blog.

Michelle said...

Thank you for such a great interview, Julia! After a customer suggested your first novel to me, I quickly devoured it and the subsequent titles. The wait for One Was a Soldier has been long!

And Louise Penny has become one of my favorites. I received an ARC of The Brutal Telling and decided to start from the beginning. Absolutely amazing! And Bury Your Dead may be my favorite title of 2010.

I'm so excited to see you blogging! I'm definitely bookmarking the site :-)

Gram said...

What a great interview. I think we appreciate authors and their books more after reading interviews.
Thanks for writing.

J D Webb said...

What an absolutely charming lady Louise is. My dream is now to sit down with her for just 30 minutes and laugh and learn.
Great interview, Julia.

Kathleen said...

Lovely interview. But then, Louise Penny is a lovely woman. Her books are great and I look forward to reading yours too, Julia-after we meet up (I hope) at Jamie and Robin's Aunt Agatha's in Ann Arbor.

Ellis Vidler said...

That was a good interview. I like the friendly tone and learning more about Louise. I'm looking forward to reading both your new books.

G.M. Malliet said...

I can testify that Louise and Julia are among the most generous of authors in the universe of generous mystery authors. I just wish I could phrase my own gratitude more eloquently. "You guys rock" somehow doesn't begin to cover it.

Kris from MD said...

One really couldn't ask for two more perfect authors to sit and have a conversation like this. You both have enriched my life with your stories and for that I will always be thankful.

Becke Davis said...

Darn - I'm sorry I missed this. I only discovered Louise's books recently (they were in my TBR pile a long time, I'm embarrassed to say). I read them all in a binge over the holidays, and now I'm counting the days until Louise's next book comes out!

fallafooka said...

I love the way you both write! I have just found your books, Julia and LOVE them. Louise books I found after a review in the Boston Globe. Great reads - both.

Kathleen

Kathleen said...

A beautiful interview. Your lovely voices come through so I wish I could have been there and wish I could meet you both. I've been reading Julia since the beginning and only just discovered Louise, but I'm taking her with me on vacation. Thanks for wonderful reading.
Kathleen

Laura S. Dillman said...

Julia, What a fun peek into the writing life this post is. I'm glad you two are not following the rules. I've listened to all of Louise's Gamache series on audiobook an am impatiently awaiting book #7! In the meantime, I'm thrilled to be introduced to your work. Louise gives you such a ringing endorsement, your books must be as good as hers!

Laura
http://kernelsfromct.blogspot.com

Sharon said...

Such a great interview. I am proud to say I have read all of both authors' books published so far, and am eagerly awaiting the new books. Both Julia and Louise give us wonderful escape time into their characters' lives when we need to leave our own for a bit. Thanks to you both for books and interview!

Anonymous said...

Wow--what a great interview with Julia and Louise! I've read all your books and immerse myself in the characters and story. I've loved being able to recommend all your books and can't wait for "One Was a Soldier"!
What great insights you both gave to how your public can influence future stories but still maintain the heart of the characters.
Thank You!
Sandi Lewis

Lynda said...

What an utter delight. I wonder if either of you have any idea what a treat it is to get this glimpse into the lives and writing process (processes?) of two of my favorite authors.

Ruby Johnson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Coach Stores Online said...

hello !