An Exclusive Interview with Author Louise Penny, Plus a Behind-the-Scenes Look at A Better Man

Deftly plotted, witty, and atmospheric, filled with memorable characters, and unafraid to confront uncomfortable truths about humanity, Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series is a true gift to mystery lovers. Penny was kind enough to answer a few of our burning questions, and to give us a fascinating glimpse of her thoughts during the writing of her latest novel, A Better Man

The 15th novel in the series finds Gamache taking up the reins in his new position as head of homicide, after his recent demotion from head of the whole force. To make matters even touchier, he’s now working alongside his former subordinate, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, on a new case, that of a woman who has gone missing. Gamache finds himself sympathizing with her agonized father, asking himself what he would do, were he in the man’s shoes; when a body turns up, the question becomes even more urgent, and the answer more unsettling.

Louise Penny, on A Better Man

I wanted to give you all a little behind-the-scenes look at what I was thinking when I was writing A Better Man, by showing you a few lines and exactly what was going through my mind. Here are five of my favorite lines from the book, along with my personal annotations.  

Ruth made a noise that could have been a laugh.  Or indigestion.  

‘I’ll tell you what is funny.  You crash and burn trying to do something different, while Armand destroys his career by agreeing to go back and do the same old thing.’ 

I so enjoy writing Ruth, though it takes a, perversely, delicate touch. She needs to be honest and cranky, often insulting, while not descending into caricature or outright nastiness. Here that ambivalence is illustrated, I hoped, through their inability to know if the noise is amusement or indigestion. Though, once again, she uncomfortably states what most are thinking. 

‘Consequences,’ said Gamache. ‘We must always consider the consequences of our actions. Or inaction.” 

This is an ongoing theme within the books, and with Gamache. Considering the consequences, knowing the consequences, weighing the outcomes….and still deciding to act. It’s one thing to act on instinct, and there’s often rare courage in that—but Armand tries to impress on his people that there’s even more courage in looking without blinking at what their actions might mean. Good and bad. Intended and unintended. He goes on to say that, in his opinion, that’s part of their contract with the Quebec population. That those with a badge and a gun, will have the maturity to think before they act.  

He left the woods late that afternoon, shattered.  

And now he was back.  

A better man?  A bitter man?  

They were about to find out.   

The homicide team is about to see Armand Gamache, back at work as their Chief Inspector, for the first time since his suspension and demotion from Chief Superintendent. I loved writing this scene…of his return, and their reaction.  And my reaction, to having him back as head of homicide. Where the whole Three Pines series began. Older. More bruised. Both him, and me. And you too, I suspect. Have the years, the events, the vicissitudes made him, us, bitter or better?   

‘I see.’  Gamache lowered his voice, though all could still hear the words.  ‘When I was Chief Superintendent I had a poster framed in my office.  On it were the last words of a favorite poet, Seamus Heaney. Noli Timere.  It’s Latin.  Do you know what it means?’ 

He looked around the room. 

‘Neither did I,’ he admitted, when no one spoke.  ‘I had to look it up. It means, Be Not Afraid.’   

Not completely coincidentally, I have the same poster in my living room, where I see it every day as I write. I’m looking at it now. Fear is such a thief. If I only did what I was comfortable with, there’d be no books, no marriage, fewer close relationships. Less travel, far fewer, or no, risks. And my life would shrink to nothing. Armand knows that the bravest person in any room is the one who can admit he’s scared sh**less. But does it anyway. Here he’s encouraging a young agent to speak his mind, even though he’s afraid.  

She also happened to be the chief of the volunteer fire department.  Not because she was a natural leader, but because most villagers would rather run into a burning building or a river in full flood than face Ruth Zardo’s sharp tongue.   

Ha—I’ve used similar descriptions of Ruth, and once again I hoped to illustrate the contradiction that is Ruth…indeed, that is most of us. The elderly poet could stay home, ignoring whatever natural disaster has cropped up. Instead, she takes on a leadership role, whether her neighbors like it or not. Yet she’s strangely effective, partly because the very thing that makes her almost as terrifying as the catastrophe, makes her uniquely effective. Ruth Zardo never shies away from the truth. From a fight. In this book we see her doing just that, with some great success, and with some terrible result. 

For more behind-the-scenes insight into some of my favorite lines from all of the books and the stories behind them, check out gamacheseries.com 

Further conversation with author Louise Penny:

What was the beginning of your fascination with mysteries?  

Agatha Christie, of course. It was the first ‘adult’ book my mother and I shared. I will always remember her standing on the landing upstairs, a book in her hand. She looked at it, then at me, and gave it to me saying she’d just finished it, and thought I’d like it too. It was a Christie. A Miss Marple, I think, but can’t remember the exact title. It was thrilling, to share a book with my mother. To have that in common. Something that we shared the rest of her life. When things went bad between us, as they sometimes do between mothers and daughters, our truce sign was asking, “What are you reading?” 

I went on to discover the Simenon books about Maigret. And the fabulous Josephine Tey, which are more crime novels than murder mysteries.  My favorite is The Franchise Affair.  Her books are gems, crystalline, every word, every phrase has a purpose. 

How do you sit down and start a new novel? What’s the spark? 

In The Long Way Home, I quote Robert Frost and a letter he wrote to a friend where he describes his creative process as a poet. And he says that for him, a poem begins as a lump in the throat. For me, each book of mine begins as a lump in the throat. Some emotion that I need to explore. My books are about many things, including, but far from exclusively, a crime. Murder is an act, and a dreadful one.  But I spend a year on each book and it must be about more than a crime. And so each book is inspired by an emotion, a theme, a piece of human nature that puzzles and fascinates.  A question that I do not really know the answer to. Most of my books are inspired by a poem, or even a few lines from a poem. I find a bit of poetry, I write it out on a Post-it, and I stick it on my laptop. So when I inevitably get all lost and confused, I can go back to it and say, ‘That’s what the book’s about.’ 

What kind of entertainment interests you aside from reading? 

I love music, and listen to it a lot, when not actually writing.  All sorts of music.  In fact, each book has its own playlist, made up of current favorites.  The one I’m listening to right now has Rag ‘n Bone Man, Bizet, Bach, X Ambassadors, some Gregorian Chants, Crash Test DummiesFlatt&Scruggs, Dire Straits, Leonard Cohen, Cosmo Sheldrake. And more. I also relax in front of the TV.  Mostly HGTV.  Trying to work out which home I’d buy.   

How much of what you write is influenced by current events, by real people, by real places? And how much is completely invented? 

People might read the books and think I’m creative, and the fact is I’m not. I just write what I see. And I write what I feel every day.  

The books are definitely drawn from a whole bunch of things. Absolutely from the Eastern Townships of Quebec. The books are many things, probably least among them crime novels. They are definitely crime fiction, but they are love letters to the place I choose to live. I have never been made to feel a stranger in Knowlton. Michael and I were welcomed and embraced. It feels like there was always a place at the table just waiting for us. Much of my life I wandered, geographically and emotionally. Searching for home. I found it in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. I found it with Michael. I found it buried deep inside myself. And that’s what I write about. The yearning to belong.  The search for home.   

What’s your daily routine? Can you describe for us a typical day at home?  

Well, not to be too boring, but I write every day, except when I’m between books. I used to be a night person, as a teen (I guess most of us were). But my first real job was hosting a morning show for CBC Radio in Thunder Bay, Ontario. I had to get up at 4am. A few years of that, and voila. A morning person was created. I no longer get up at 4am, but I am up sometime around 6am.   

I make coffee, and get to work right away, while fresh. I re-read what I wrote the day before, noodling with it a bit, then press ahead with the new writing.  I set a goal of 1,000 words a day. I’m very disciplined, mostly because I need to be.  All I really want to do is lie on the sofa eating gummy bears and watching HGTV.   

Though it’s no secret why no reality show follows a writer around. At least not this writer. I essentially go from the dining room table, where I work, to the coffee machine. And back. And I stare into space. A lot. I often think it’s unfair that the creative process and doing nothing look exactly alike.   

In the afternoons, after I finish writing, I often walk into the village for lunch with a friend. I am, by nature, a bit of a recluse, so I need to work at getting out. Though I love my friends and enjoy time with them.   

Then I answer emails and do any other work that needs to be done, like interviews etc. Not, perhaps, a hugely exciting life. But it’s perfect for me. And I know how lucky I am. 

How did you come up with the idea for the village of Three Pines? Is it based on a real place?  

Three Pines has long been both a setting and a main character in my books. It’s fictional, for sure, but inspired by all sorts of villages. Some in Quebec, some elsewhere in Canada. Some Vermont towns have inspired the books, as well as English villages. Three Pines is an intentionally hyper-ideal village. Beautiful and peaceful. At least on the outside.  It plays into another theme throughout the series, one of duality.  The difference between perception and reality.  Between what we say and what we’re really thinking.  Between the public face and the inner turmoil.   

I consider the books allegories and Three Pines a state-of-mind. A place we find only when we’re lost.  When we need it.  And not home to everyone.   

I’ve been lost in my life, and tired of sarcasm and dark cynicism. I’d had too much of that. It drained me. Left me hollow and callow. I needed belonging, and kindness. I needed friendship. A warm hearth on a cold night. That’s Three Pines. But, like Gamache, while it’s good, it isn’t perfect. There’s always a serpent, even in Paradise. A shadow to the light. And that’s what makes Three Pines what it is, and the people who they are 

What do you think it is about your books that makes them so successful? 

I think the setting helps. As I said earlier, the books aren’t about murder, they aren’t even about death, they’re about duality and belonging, community and love. I think people are also fascinated with Quebec. They’re interested in the French/English culture and the history. I wanted to bring alive the life, culture, music and cuisine of Quebec. To make the books sensuous, engaging all the senses, so that anyone reading them doesn’t feel like a voyeur, but walks into the pages. Stands beside Gamache. Sits in the bistro with Clara and Gabri. Hopes Ruth doesn’t turn her rheumy eye on them.   

Do you have a favorite character in your books? Do you find them easier to write now that they have been in so many books, or is that actually harder?   

Trick question! Well, of course, Gamache. Ruth is fun to write. I love that she, like all the characters, I guess like all of us, has a saving grace. She genuinely is embittered, she’s drunk most of the time, she has a potty mouth, she says what she thinks and what she thinks is often not very kind, but she’s clever with it. It’s like she keeps all of her kindness deep down inside.  

To be honest, I’m finding the characters increasingly interesting as the series goes along. As I get to know them. Like intimate friends, who never bore us.   

There are, of course, challenges to writing a series with essentially the same characters and setting.  Not falling into a formula, becoming predictable, is a major one. But I get around that, I hope, by changing structure, theme, tone, and pace. By exploring new ideas, ones that make me think, and often make me uncomfortable. And so, also make the characters uncomfortable. And perhaps the reader.   

I’m very aware that readers are spending precious time, and money, on the books, and I need to make it worthwhile.   

I also have a duty to the characters who have given me a life beyond anything I could have dare dreamed.   

A Better Man is on B&N bookshelves now.

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