As It Happens

How a Montreal Massacre survivor became a character in a Louise Penny detective novel

Louise Penny’s latest novel, A World of Curiosities, includes a fictionalized account of the Dec. 6, 1989, École Polytechnique shooting that includes survivor Nathalie Provost.

Nathalie Provost says she was thrilled to become a part of Louise Penny’s bestselling series

Nathalie Provost, a survivor of the 1989 Montreal Massacre, recently collaborated with novelist Louise Penny, who wrote a fictionalized account of the shooting in her novel A World of Curiosities. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Warning: This story contains discussion of alcoholism, self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

Louise Penny says she was "very nervous" when she called École Polytechnique shooting survivor Nathalie Provost to ask whether she could write her into her new novel. 

It turns out Penny had nothing to worry about: Provost was already a huge fan.

"I was really excited and amazed for this extraordinary proposition. And for me, it was clearly a yes," Provost said. "When somebody calls me to talk about Polytechnique, I say yes. We have to keep the memory alive."

Penny, a CBC reporter-turned-bestselling author, and Provost, an engineer and gun control advocate, both joined As It Happens host Nil Köksal to talk about Penny's latest novel, A World of Curiosities. The book includes a fictionalized account of the Dec. 6, 1989, École Polytechnique shooting.

Tuesday marks 33 years since shooter Marc Lépine walked into a classroom full of students at the Montreal post-secondary school, ordered the men to leave, proclaimed his hatred for feminism, then opened fire, killing 14 women and injuring 14 others.

The shooting has left an indelible mark on Quebec, and served as a Canada-wide wake-up call about the dangers of violent misogyny. 

"One of the great things that Nathalie and others have been involved in is making the memory of it not just about equal rights for women, but equal rights, period," Penny said. "I think that's vital if we're actually going to progress."

From reporting on the shooting, to fictionalizing it 

World of Curiosities is the 18th novel in Penny's bestselling mystery novel series that revolves around protagonist Armand Gamache, a chief inspector with the Sûreté du Québec.

The newest book reveals that Gamache was a young paramedic when the Montreal Massacre happened, and that he treated a fictionalized version of Provost at the scene. 

That traumatic memory inspired Gamache to become a staunch advocate for gun reform — much like Provost in real life.

"I wanted to give Gamache his origin story — how he ended up not only in homicide, but how he ended up hating guns," Penny said. "He hates guns because he saw at the Polytechnique what they do."

A woman with gray hair and blue glasses sits in front of a mic in a recording studio. She's wearing headphones and smiling at the camera while thumbing through a book.
Penny, a CBC reporter-turned-bestselling novelist, joined As It Happens in studio to talk about the Montreal Massacre and her latest novel. (Nil Köksal/CBC)

Penny was a young reporter for the CBC when the shooting happened. 

"I was quite young and fairly naive … and what I mostly remember is getting it wrong," she said.

Penny says she bought into the early narrative perpetuated by journalists and politicians — "all men," she says — that the shooting was an "isolated incident by some maniac."

"There was so much more to it," Penny said. "And to my shame, it took me days and days to listen to the quieter but more insistent voices of the survivors."

One of those insistent voices was Provost, who was wounded in the attack and did several media interviews from her hospital bed.

Provost, too, says the shooting changed her perspective on feminism.

"I said to Marc Lépine that I was not a feminist in 1989. It took me time to understand that I obviously was one by what I was doing and living," she told Köksal.

"It took me some years to understand that I have to say it as a white female — a privileged white female — because the first thing we are losing when times are bad is our freedom, our equality. Women and children are always the first to lose. So it's very important to not take for granted what we have."

A composite of three photos, from left to right: A portrait of a bespectacled woman with a gray bob, a book cover for A World of Curiosities by Louise Penny, and a portrait of a woman with long brown hair.
Penny, left, has written a fictionalized version of Provost, right, into her new novel, A World of Curiosities, centre. (Raincoast Books, École Polytechnique de Montréal)

Penny compared Provost's personal journey to a verse from the poem Half Hanged Mary by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, which is about a woman falsely accused of witchcraft.

"Before, I was not a witch. But now I am one," the poem declares, in a sentiment of solidarity with women who have been unfairly targeted because of their power and independence.

"I know that I am a witch, too," Provost said.

"As am I," Penny echoed. 

'It just feels like a very dangerous time'

Penny says she was inspired to write Provost and the Montreal Massacre into her latest novel because of the alarming trends she sees playing out in the news — continuing gun violence and the rise of misogyny and far-right bigotry.

But it was the U.S. Supreme Court overturning of Roe v. Wade, the case that entrenched abortion rights in the country, that finally propelled her to tackle the subject. For her, it's yet another example of women's autonomy coming under assault.

"It just feels like a very dangerous time, like we are on the precipice," she said. "I just wanted to remind people that we do need to be vigilant."

Flowers sit in front of the memorial plaque at the École Polytechnique in Montreal in 2018. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Like Provost and the fictional Gamache, Penny says she has a deeply personal motivation for her stance on guns. 

"I was brought to my knees by something else. Fortunately,  it wasn't outside violence. It was interior violence," she said.

She's referring to her struggles with alcoholism, which she says was sometimes accompanied by a desire to self-harm. 

"I realized if there was a gun in the house, I would have done it to myself," said Penny, who has been in recovery for more than 30 years. 

"I think that that's true for many, many people. A lot of the gun violence is because it's there. You pick it up and you do something that is irrevocable."

In Canada, about 80 per cent of firearm-related deaths are suicides, according to Statistics Canada. In the U.S., that number is 54 per cent, according to the Pew Research Center.

A pair of witches

As she follows the seemingly endless news of mass shootings in the U.S. and elsewhere, Provost says she copes through her activism.

"That's the way I think I stay calm," she said. "But my mental health is not as strong as somebody who hasn't survived anything. And I know where I'm fragile. I know that I need help. And I take care of myself, also."

Penny says Provost and the other Polytechnique survivors are powerful sources of inspiration.

"To be able to turn something that was so awful into a strength, into something good, into something positive is the greatest legacy for these women," she said. "That's what Nathalie has done. And I think it behooves all of us to try to do it."

"And that's witchery," Provost added.

If you or someone you know is struggling, here's where to get help:

This guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health outlines how to talk about suicide with someone you're worried about.

Interview with Louise Penny and Nathalie Provost produced by Chris Trowbridge. 

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