How I Wrote It

How Louise Penny keeps Armand Gamache fresh after 13 books

Glass Houses was written at a time of personal tragedy. Here's how the residents of Three Pines got Louise Penny through a difficult time.
Glass Houses is the 13th book in Louise Penny's bestselling Armand Gamache crime series. (Raincoast Books)

Glass Houses is Louise Penny's 13th book in the Armand Gamache series, which takes place in a warm, eccentric, tight-knit community known as Three Pines. Inspired by Knowlton, the small Quebec village the author calls home, Penny's beloved cast of characters have weathered many storms together — Glass Houses may present the most treacherous one yet.

Penny was caring for her husband, Dr. Michael Whitehead, while writing Glass Houses. Michael died from dementia in 2016. In her own words, she discusses the creative process behind the book during that difficult time.

Taking refuge in Three Pines

"I wasn't sure I would be able to write, particularly in the last couple of months, as [Michael's health] got worse and worse. But writing turned out to be a real harbour for me. I would get up early, about 5:00 a.m., and spend an hour looking after Michael's needs. I would feed and walk the dog and at 5:30 a.m. or so, I would be at my laptop with a cup of coffee and Michael safe in bed. It would be my quiet time and I would spend two or three hours writing. It was so peaceful and such a relief to be writing about these characters whose company I genuinely enjoy.

"It's so easy with any disease, and certainly with dementia, to have it consume your entire life. I was so lucky that I work from home and that I had this corner of my life that was mine. It gave me sanity. It gave me a sense of purpose, other than as a caregiver. Being a caregiver is exhausting emotionally and physically. Writing reminded me that I am me and I am a human being and not simply a caregiver. It was creative, something positive and forward looking."

Creating a community

"Everything I created in Three Pines was done selfishly. I created a village I would choose to live in. I populated it with people I would choose as friends; many characters are friends and are inspired by real people. I realized that this was a wonderful moment in my life, that I am like anybody else and everybody is like me. We all want the same thing: we want friends, we want love, we want companionship, we want a sense of belonging, we want to feel safe. That's what Three Pines provides. By safety I don't mean that nothing bad will ever happen, it means that when bad things inevitably happen we will be able to recover from it because we have a community there behind us. Three Pines isn't immune to bad things at all obviously. But what it has is an ability to recover from them to move forward."

Making new challenges

"The challenge with a series, particularly one set in essentially the same place with most of the same characters, is not becoming unintentionally formulaic. It's important to me as a writer to keep challenging myself and one setting that we haven't seen Gamache in is the courtroom. Clearly as the head of the Sûreté he would have to testify in court, so I thought that would be an interesting setting for him. The other thing I thought would be interesting would be to turn the story inside out and pretty much start at the end. They're in the courtroom. He's testifying in the murder trial and we see in flashbacks what happened, but we don't know who the defendant is. This was hugely challenging structurally and for pacing, but it was also amazing fun to have Gamache in that setting. The start of Glass Houses was wanting to begin in the courtroom, wanting to start at the end, and then the story evolved from there."

How to build suspense

"You have to care about the character. There has to be something at stake. If a complete stranger is threatened, you hope as a human being you care about this other human being, but there isn't that spasm deep down that might occur when someone you care about is in danger. What I hope to do is create caring first, so that there is a consequence to whatever is going to happen; not an intellectual one, but one that you feel in gut. To do that, you need a relationship with the character so that they feel like friends or, at the very least, acquaintances. What I try to do is drop that fourth wall, have readers feel, not that they're voyeurs, but that they are actually walking through the action with these characters. I want people to be almost yelling at the books, 'Stop it! Don't open that door! Don't go in there!' What's important to me is that there be an emotional resonance to what's happening, that it not simply be a cat and mouse intellectual game."

Louise Penny's comments have been edited and condensed.

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