Kathy Reichs and Louise Penny in conversation

First aired on C'est la vie (27/11/11)

Forensic anthropologist and author Kathy Reichs has written more than a dozen murder mysteries featuring Temperance Brennan; she's also the producer of the TV show Bones, and divides her time between Montreal and Charlotte, North Carolina. Louise Penny lives in Quebec's Eastern Townships, and is the author of seven whodunits featuring Armand Gamache. The two bestselling writers recently took part in Montreal's Salon du livre, and they sat down to talk about crime fiction and the role that Quebec plays in their work.

image Reichs Penny.jpg

Penny started by saying that before her first book came out, in 2004, her publisher urged her to get an endorser and so she wrote a letter to Reichs through her website. Reichs turned her down, but wrote such a gracious letter that Penny considers it a model rejection letter. "I use that now as a template," she said, "because now people approach me, and I've had to say no more often than I say yes." The two later met in person at a cocktail party.

Both use Quebec settings in their fiction. Reichs has sent her sleuth to a number of other locales as well, but she initially used Montreal, where she has worked since the late 1980s, as a backdrop because "it was a city that would appeal to Americans because it is a bit foreign and exotic and French, and yet it's close enough to home that it would be comfortable for an American audience."

Penny said that she writes about the places she's familiar with. "I live in the Townships, I write exactly what I have experienced — the kindness and some of the divisions, and the English and the French, and the intermarriage, and the misunderstandings that can happen, and the history, the je me souviens," she explained, adding, "it's so rich and it's so exciting. And at the same time it's both recognizable and exotic."

Neither Reichs nor Penny spoke much French when they first came to the province.

"One thing that living in the province has done for me is, hopefully, it's improved my French," Reichs commented. When she started working at a government lab in Quebec in 1988, she was the only anglophone. "It was learn French or sink."

Penny, who moved to Quebec from Winnipeg, found it humbling not to be able to communicate fluently. "It taught me, slightly, what an immigrant experience must be like," she said. "It also gave me a little bit of insight, and I stress very little insight, into what a stroke victim might feel like, in terms of having complex thoughts, with some subtlety, and speaking like an infant."

"You don't quite say what you mean because you go with the word you know," Reichs agreed.

Both authors now do interviews in French, though they remain more comfortable in their native English. In French, Reichs said, "I can pretty much say anything I need to say. [But] I worry that I'm not going to understand the question that's posed to me."

Both of them have had their books translated into French, among other languages, but this is a relatively new development for Penny. In fact, her work had been translated into a number of other languages first. "I was baffled by this, and a little bit hurt," she admitted. But when her first book came out in French translation, she worried about how it would be received, and whether francophone readers wouldn't like her take on Quebec politics.

Reichs said she'd had a similar experience, in part because she drew heavily on people she worked with at the forensics lab in creating her characters. Her francophone colleagues hadn't read her work when it came out in English, but Reichs experienced some reaction after the French editions were published. "No one was annoyed or irritated except people I didn't put in the book," she said.

The two writers differ greatly in their creative process. "I have a clear idea of what the mystery is, but all the other stuff, the character development, it all tends to be messy. The first draft is really hugely long and out of shape and a big mess," Penny said. "Then I spend several months editing and working and trying to fine-tune it."

Reichs, on the other hand, revises as she goes along. "I do it chapter by chapter by chapter, and I polish, polish, polish, polish as I go. So when I finish, I have less editing at the end," she explained.

Reichs also said that she keeps a chapter-by-chapter outline, so she can keep her facts straight. "It's okay to plant red herring clues, that's part of the fun of trying to figure out a thriller," she said. "But you better tie them off and they better make sense, because your readers are very sophisticated."

Pictured above: Kathy Reichs (left), Louise Penny (right)

Flash and Bones cover.jpgFlash and Bones

by Kathy Reichs

Buy this book at:

Save on Music, Books and Dvds at Indigo

From the publisher:

"Kathy Reichs — #1 New York Times bestselling author and producer of the FOX television hit Bones — returns with a riveting new novel set in Charlotte, North Carolina, featuring America's favorite forensic anthropologist, Dr. Temperance Brennan.

Just as 200,000 fans are pouring into town for Race Week, a body is found in a barrel of asphalt next to the Charlotte Motor Speedway. The next day, a NASCAR crew member comes to Temperance Brennan's office at the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner to share a devastating story. Twelve years earlier, Wayne Gamble's sister, Cindi, then a high school senior and aspiring racer, disappeared along with her boyfriend, Cale Lovette. Lovette kept company with a group of right-wing extremists known as the Patriot Posse. Could the body be Cindi's? Or Cale's? ..."

Read more at Simon and Schuster Canada.

A trick of the light cover.jpgA Trick of the Light

by Louise Penny

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From the publisher:

""Hearts are broken," Lillian Dyson carefully underlined in a book. "Sweet relationships are dead." But now Lillian herself is dead. Found among the bleeding hearts and lilacs of Clara Morrow's garden in Three Pines, shattering the celebrations of Clara's solo show at the famed Musée in Montreal. Chief Inspector Gamache, the head of homicide at the Sûreté du Québec, is called to the tiny Quebec village and there he finds the art world gathered, and with it a world of shading and nuance, a world of shadow and light. Where nothing is as it seems. Behind every smile there lurks a sneer. Inside every sweet relationship there hides a broken heart. And even when facts are slowly exposed, it is no longer clear to Gamache and his team if what they've found is the truth, or simply a trick of the light. ..."

Read more at Minotaur Books/Macmillan.

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