The Next Chapter

Why Louise Penny had to be 'hurt' into writing full time

At Wordfest in Calgary, the thriller writer discussed her latest in the Inspector Armand Gamache mysteries A Better Man with Shelagh Rogers.
Louise Penny is the author of A Better Man. (Jean-François Bérubé, Raincoast Books)

A good mystery has to convince the reader that it's worth their while to stick around. The stakes need to be high and the crime significant enough for the pursuit of justice — and that crime is usually murder.

13 years ago, Louise Penny was a CBC broadcaster and journalist. Now, she's an award-winning mystery writer who has sold more than 4 million books and has won armloads of prizes. Penny is the creator of the beloved Inspector Armand Gamache mysteries. 

In the latest edition in the series — A Better Man — Gamache has returned to the homicide unit, but has to battle catastrophic floodwaters, corruption at high levels and character assassination on Twitter. All the while, he struggles to investigate a particularly painful murder.

Penny spoke to The Next Chapter's Shelagh Rogers at Wordfest in Calgary about her late career change, finding spirituality in her mystery books and her community of readers. 

Writer Louise Penny (right) was interviewed by The Next Chapter's Shelagh Rogers live at Wordfest, Calgary. (Johanna Hung)

Libraries and childhood 

"I was quite an isolated child. I was introverted. I loved to read. I loved to be in my bedroom. That was really the only place where I felt safe. My favourite place in the world is still to be reading on my bed alone with the door closed.... As a child, where I felt safe outside of the home was a library. I remember walking into the little library in Toronto where I was born and raised. That was really the first place where I discovered reading and books and that sense of safety." 

Louise Penny on the latest book in her Chief Inspector Armand Gamache mystery series. 16:48

From journalism to mystery writing

"I had reached the end. I really had. I had become the sort of person I wouldn't want to work with. And that's painful. You don't like yourself, you don't admire yourself, don't respect yourself and that took a while for me to realize because I thought everybody else was the problem. It took a while to realize that it's me. I'm the problem. I have overstayed my usefulness. There were younger people who had come in and part of my role should have been as a mentor. But I was tired and burned out, and what I wasn't doing was helping them.

I had to be hurt into writing- Louise Penny

"I tried to write a book almost every decade of my life. I didn't realize why I couldn't [finish]. It was only looking back on it now I think what happened was that I really didn't have much to say. I'm jealous of all of these writers who at the age of 16 or 17 or 18 come out fully formed. I had to be hurt into writing. I had to have experiences of despair, of loss, of sorrow, of hope, of astonishment, of joy, of love in order to be able to write. Not to write in order to please my mother, or my brothers, or my teachers or my former colleagues, but just for myself. Just write for the joy of it."

A communal readership

"The books are found by people who are meant to find them. We form a community. That you're reading them is as important as my writing them ... It takes two of us to create Three Pines and that sense of belonging, that we belong together."

Louise Penny's comments have been edited for clarity and length. 

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