Why Louise Penny had to step outside her comfort zone to write the latest Armand Gamache mystery
Thirteen years ago, Louise Penny was a CBC broadcaster and journalist. Now, she's an award-winning author who has sold millions of books and has won armloads of prizes, thanks to her Inspector Armand Gamache mysteries.
Her latest book, All the Devils Are Here, is the 16th novel in the bestselling Armand Gamache series of murder mysteries.
The latest mystery is set outside of the Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Quebec's usual stomping grounds; this time Gamache leaves the fictional Eastern Townships hamlet of Three Pines to investigate a sinister plot in Paris, known as the City of Light.
Do book sales, awards and the success of the Armand Gamache series offer validation to you as a writer?
"Yes! I wish I could say it doesn't matter, but it does. There are two levels to that. One is that when I write a book, I'm not driven by whether the readers like it.
"It's a factor, but I don't write books with that in mind. I generally write a book that I would read and, at this point in the life of the characters, it's about what makes sense for the development of these characters.
This book isn't set in the normal setting. I understood that would be a risk, but it was one I had to take.
"If readers want to follow along and agree, that's great — and it's okay if they don't. That's their choice. I can't be dictated to, but I am aware. It hurts my feelings if I get a bad review. I worry that a book won't be well-received and all of those human things certainly.
"This book, for instance, isn't set in the normal setting. I understood that would be a risk, but it was one I had to take."
The series is primarily set in the Eastern Townships and the community of Three Pines — but this one is set in Paris. Why?
"It's like that double-edged sword, where the dream is that people will feel ownership of the characters, of the setting and that it will be so important to them that they care. But on the other side of the sword is that you can get it in the neck if you don't meet those desires or you do something unexpected.
"I've upset readers by killing off characters. But for the life of the series — and for my own life as a writer — I have to keep pushing the envelope. Often that means doing the unexpected. Life is unexpected. These characters aren't meant to be caricatures or two-dimensional, so bad and unexpected things happen.
I've upset readers by killing off characters. But for the life of the series — and for my own life as a writer — I have to keep pushing the envelope.
"It wouldn't have changed anything, but I did speak to my publisher about the change and asked them how they were feeling about it. I was still going to write it but I wanted to get some sense of how bad this is going to be.
"And they pretty much told me to do what I have to do for the life and longevity of the series. The vast majority of emails I get from readers fall into two categories: either it's how much they love Three Pines — the village that is at the centre of the books — or how much they love Gamache, the characters and the sense of family and belonging.
"That's what the books are about. They are about crime fiction, but really they're about our yearning to belong. I take people out of the place that I've spent 15-16 years telling them they belong and rip them from that. I think it would be foolish of me not to expect that there is going to be some blowback."
What keeps you growing and evolving as a writer at this stage in your career?
"I write a series which has many, many blessings — but has some challenges to it. One of the challenges is not to inadvertently end up writing the same book over and over again and becoming formulaic.
"That's the challenge. But in order to meet a challenge, you have to take a risk. I have a poster in front of me when I write at home which features the last words of the poet Seamus Heaney.
On his deathbed, he said in Latin, 'Noli timere,' which means, 'Be not afraid.' I have to keep reminding myself, 'Don't be afraid. You can do this. Just keep pushing, keep pushing.'
One of the challenges is not to inadvertently end up writing the same book over and over again and becoming formulaic.
"Each book has a different theme. Many of the themes are ones that trouble me personally, where I don't know what the answer is. I'm torn. I'm uncomfortable.
"These questions are uncomfortable. Some of the language makes me uncomfortable. Literature isn't necessarily always a comfort. And I love that about writing these books."
What's the key to writing a great mystery, one that perhaps fits a formula, without being too formulaic?
"I think it's the richness of character development. I'm not a big fan of genre or of 'ghettoizing' books into genres. I think that's a marketing ploy and one that I've benefited from.
"But Hamlet was about crime. It was crime fiction. A lot of the great novels are crime fiction, they involve a crime.
"I don't think that there is a formula. I've heard early on that I had to have a murder in the first page — and one-third into the book there has to be another murder. God bless the writers who do that, because we need all sorts and this is a big tent.
"Great fiction that involves and includes a crime is simply a great read and has got universal subjects. When I was writing Still Life and sent it to a publisher, they didn't want it and no publisher did. But it was an early draft. An editor asked me if I knew what my book was about. And I got all huffy about it and said it was about a murder. It took me a long time to kind of get over my annoyance and realize that a book has to be about more than a murder. A murder is an act; it's not a theme.
That's what great crime fiction is about — really good literary fiction with well-rounded and believable characters.
"I'm going to spend a year of my life writing about murder… that's not going to hold my interest. The murder is the Trojan horse on which all sorts of other themes and emotions ride unexpectedly.
"That's what great crime fiction is about — really good literary fiction with well-rounded and believable characters."
While Three Pines isn't the main setting of this book, what is your personal connection to the fictional Eastern Township and the real-life region in southeastern Quebec?
"The Eastern Townships and Knowlton, Que., may not inspire anybody else, but I think it's this incredible treasure. That's what happened with [my late partner, Michael Whitehead] and I. We looked all over for a home and we found it there. It's a pastoral place. It has little villages and rolling hills and bakeries and restaurants. It's that kind of community.
The power of belonging was something that I've never had. But we found it in the Eastern Townships.
"Michael had lived in Quebec all his life, so he already had a sense of belonging. I hadn't. I missed having roots. I was desperate to put down roots, to find home.
"I understood that it was a physical place — but it was an emotional place as well. The power of belonging was something that I've never had. But we found it in the Eastern Townships.
"I wanted to translate that in the books, to what it feels like to find home. "
How did your past as a journalist help you get over any anxiety you may have had toward writing that first book?
"It was all my own fears. There was nothing external; it's all psychological. I had to get over my need for approbation and approval. The fact that I was initially trying to write a book for four others who would then applaud me. I had to set all that aside. I had to simply write for the joy of it. And that's finally what I did.
"I had to understand that the trying and failing wasn't going to kill me, but it was the not trying that was bringing me to my knees. And time was ticking: I was in my 40s by that stage. I thought, 'You know what, the joke's over — I'm never going to actually do it. Now's the time to do it.'
I had to simply write for the joy of it. And that's finally what I did.
"What is the worst that could happen? I wanted to write since the age of eight and the contract with my eight-year-old self wasn't that the book be published or that it was any good — it's just to have written the damn thing and then I could say that I did it."
Armand Gamache has endured a lot in the series, which doesn't appear to be ending any time soon. But do you have an endgame in mind for him?
"I don't! I don't know if you've noticed, but he is not aging quite as quickly as actually some of the other characters. Even as his grandchildren grow up, he is remaining essentially in the middle-to-late 60s.
"I love writing the character. I find him endlessly fascinating. I find it challenging to be decent and honourable in this world than it is to be cruel and sarcastic and cutting. Personally I can't imagine growing tired of him. The beauty of having a whole cast of characters as I can move between them and have them all grow and evolve.
"But it's also nice to be writing about a happy guy. Someone who, at his core, believes goodness exists and that makes him happy. Horrific bad things happen to him. But they happen to all of us. But what allows him to survive this is a sense of belonging, of community, of family. And he believes that goodness will triumph.
"I see nothing that will make me tire of him — and if I did, I would probably just take a year or two off and sort of recharge.
"Maybe I'd write something else. I can't imagine doing what so many others have done and throw him over a waterfall or something like that."
Louise Penny's comments have been edited for length and clarity. Read more interviews from our In Conversation series here.