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Author Interviews

Author Interview: Louise Penny

Q: I really can't remember a first novel I've enjoyed so much, except maybe In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming. It's so accomplished; is it really the first thing you've ever written?
A: What an honor being compared in any way to Julia Spencer-Fleming! Thank you. You know, the truth is, I've tried to write a book every decade of my life, except perhaps the first, thank God. I'm now 48, so that gives you an idea of how many failed attempts there have been. The first two had good ideas but I was young and saddled, handicapped really for a writer, with a very happy home life. So I had very little natural insight into the terrors, insecurities, pettiness that accompany fully formed human beings. I learned those intimately later. For many years I struggled with my own demons and coming out the other side has given me an understanding of what it's like to live in fear, to be self-absorbed, to be angry and jealous. And to be joyous, as well. And full of gratitude. My life has been enriched by those dreadful times, and I hope my writing has too. If not, well, too late! Still Life is the first book I've finished after almost 30 years of trying.

Q: Still Life is an almost perfect traditional mystery - definitely in the "golden age" mode of Christie, Sayers, Marsh, etc. - but you have somehow made the formula more modern. It might be the emotional content, which feels very contemporary. Where there deliberate choices made on your part to make this book feel so modern, or was it a natural outgrowth of your writing?
A: What an interesting question. I love and read all the authors you mentioned - I'm re-reading a Christie right now. One of the great delights of reading them is a sense of place, of time, of tone, of an era long gone. It didn't seem to me a gift to readers to try and duplicate that time and place but rather to create the same thing - only to be true to my own era. It really was a deliberate attempt to update the classic mystery, while at the same time acknowledging the heritage. Also, for all that I love Agatha, she wasn't famous for her character development. It seemed important to me to have that dimension in the Gamache books. You might also notice that while there is some reliance on technology, it plays a very minor role. Someone once told me about a phenomenon they called "High Tech, High Touch." That was years ago and I've never forgotten it. The theory is that the more technology we have in our lives, the more acute our need for the human touch. Still Life and the other books are about the human touch.

Q: I love the setting and the description of it. The way the story is written it's like evil has invaded Eden. Is there a place much like Three Pines that you had in mind when you were writing the book?
A: Three Pines is based very loosely on a couple of villages in the Eastern Townships of Quebec and a village called Flora, not far from Toronto. Physically it's totally fabricated but emotionally it feels like these other places - where people go for a café au lait and a paper, where they stop by the baker on the way home, where people walk dogs and chat. I deliberately created a place that would feel safe because then when the worst of all crimes happens it's even more of a violation. Oddly, Three Pines is so vulnerable and kindly, it survives the violation just fine. In Three Pines kindness will always trump cruelty.

Q: Did you have to do a lot of research on bow hunting? Here in Michigan, I know people bow hunt, but I certainly don't know much about it. Are there really hunters out there who use the traditional type of bow you describe?
A: There's a lovely old feed store not far from us where we buy dog food. One of the men who runs it is a bow hunter and he gave me a lesson and lent me magazines. Apparently some people are "traditionalists" and enjoy the added challenge of a re-curve bow. While I respect their choices and certainly like many hunters personally, the whole thing repulses me.

Q: I loved Jane. The book is really a tribute to her and as you read it and know her better you just like her more and more. It's unusual, I think, to kill off a character that everyone likes so much. It's kind of a twist on the formula. Again, was that a deliberate choice?
A: It was. I wanted to play with the idea of killing someone without enemies. Who would want this woman dead? But I did find it a challenge since she was so loved she had to be mourned and it got a little sticky, since in the first draft the villagers spent far too long weeping and depressed - someone had to get on with the investigating! So I had to struggle with that and find a natural balance between mourning this much loved woman, and getting into action. In the next book I decided to go in the other direction and kill off someone universally hated. Electrocuted her in the middle of a lake in winter. Most satisfying though a little baffling.

Q: How much planning do you do in advance? Do you outline everything or does it become evident as you write it? I've heard all kinds of answers to this question, all are interesting!
A: The first thing I did was buy a book called How to Write a Murder Mystery, edited by Sue Grafton. Very helpful. Sat on a terrasse overlooking the village pond with a café and read it cover to cover, taking notes. Then I filled a notebook. Character studies, red herrings, real clues, false leads. I drew up a diagram of Three Pines and put it on a stand by my desk, and also drew up floor plans from the various homes. I still refer to these. Then I got a huge piece of board and some large stickums and wrote out what happens in each chapter. Not in great detail but things like, "Gamache arrives, interviews Clara." It was, for me, absolutely necessary, if only as a starting point. It gave me confidence and perversely allowed me to deviate from the plan. I read over these early notes recently and realized that while these early bones are still there in the finished book, so much else changed. But I need a plan to start with. Always will, I suspect. Wish I was more of a "free spirit" but I'm just not.

Q: What's more key to you, character or plot? This is such a wonderful book because it's meticulously plotted but everything that happens is really character based.
A: Definitely character. Now when planning a new book I always come up with characters first. And some overweening, unhealthy emotion that has twisted and grown so grotesque the only way out is to kill. But all wrapped in a reasonable, even likeable, facade. Then add other characters with their own needs and emotions. Then I figure out how the murder might happen. But the "why" always precedes the "how". It starts out very, very simple. Then I complicate it. That's a real hoot. So much fun.

Q: I just finished a book by Ruth Rendell who I admire very much, and I think you have some similar strengths, but one of the things I admired about your book were the bits that were actually joyful rather than entirely depressing. Do you see yourself ever going off into the "dark side" covered by writers like Ms. Rendell? Or do you think you will retain the balance you portray in this novel?
A: Thank you so much for that comment. It means a great deal to me that you see that and comment on it. In the book I use a lot of poetry, as you know, including one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite poets, Auden. He wrote, "Goodness existed; that was the new knowledge. His terror had to blow itself quite out to let him see it." That is really at the heart of the Gamache/Three Pines series. It's about terror, terror so horrible it leads someone to kill. But finally, the books are about goodness. I've been fortunate to have learned that in my own life. Like some of the characters in Still Life, I too have been "surprised by joy." This is a long answer to your very elegant question - but unless something strange happens my books will always have a deliberately redemptive quality.

Q: I love Inspector Gamache, too! He reminds me of Maigret! Is Simenon an influence?
A: God, nothing gets by you! I think I've read all the Maigret - now there's a series evocative of time and place. Yes, physically he is certainly like Maigret - large, old world, gentlemanly, courteous and thoughtful. I hope Gamache has a bit more humor and delight in him than Maigret, who always struck me as a little stern. I didn't deliberately set out to fashion Gamache on Maigret, but that sort of fatherly, kind and calm and compassionate character fascinates and attracts me. As they do, honestly, in real life.

Q: Who are your influences, mystery-wise? I noticed you mentioned Michael Innes in the book, one of my personal favorites.
A: All the people you've already mentioned - Christie, Marsh, Sayers, Michael Innes certainly. I love Josephine Tey. I think her Franchise Affair is perhaps the best mystery ever written. In terms of modern writers, I love Reginald Hill, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Caroline Graham.

Q: What's next for you? Another Inspector Gamache? Will he be back in the city this time?
A: I'm actually thinking about a mystery for him in Quebec City, but that will be further down the line. In the second book, called Dead Cold, he's back in Three Pines for the murder of a horrible woman at a Boxing Day curling match. Since the seasons are as much a character in Canada as the people I've decided to set each of the first four books in a different season. Dead Cold sees us back in Three Pines for Christmas - which has been such a delight to write. But, as someone commented recently, at this rate, Three Pines will be a ghost town by the time summer rolls around!

Thank you, Louise!


Author Interview: Nancy Pickard

Nancy Pickard is the author of two series. The Jenny Cain mysteries feature a non-profit arts administrator in Virginia, and the Marie Lightfoot mysteries feature a fictional true crime author. The chapters featuring Marie are interspersed with chapters from whatever book Marie is working on. Pickard also continued Virginia Rich's cooking series with great success. She has been nominated for an Edgar three times, and has won the Agatha, Anthony and Macavity awards.

Q: Two of my favorite mysteries are actually one from each of your previous series - Twilight and The Whole Truth. To backtrack, did you feel Twilight was a wrap up for Jenny Cain? It felt that way to me.
A: I feel that way, too. That was a series that felt like ten big chapters in one long book, and Twilight was the denouement. I get a lot of inquiries about Jenny, though, so it is possible that she will show up again for one more adventure in another book. I even have a plot in mind.

Q: I LOVE Marie Lightfoot. Are you a true crime reader yourself? We sell both mystery and true crime but find very little cross over between readers of those genres - so I loved that you mixed it up a bit. Where did the idea for those books come from?
A: I don't think I can make this long story short, so you better settle in!
Some time before starting that series, I was on an Edgar committee for Best True Crime book of the year. I got on the committee because I thought true crime books might give me a deeper understanding of why people kill. But after reading 75 of them that year, I was surprised to see that only a couple of books did that. Most of them concentrated on the lead-up to the crime, the crime itself, the search for the killer, and the legal aftermath, but hardly any of them "explained" the killer to any satisfying degree. When I gave it some thought I realized how hard it must be for a true crime writer to do that. For one thing, they're dealing with people who might sue them, so they have to tread carefully. Plus, if the killer is alive, he's hardly likely to tell them the truth, and nor is his family if there's been any abuse in that killer's background. So that leaves the true crime writer with her hands tied - probably knowing or guessing a lot that she can't actually put into her book. So I thought what if I created a true crime writer and I tried to tell both stories - the one she's writing and what's really going on behind the scenes of the book.

Now to get a bit more specific: the idea for the crime in The Whole Truth came from an actual case, as did the crime for Ring of Truth. The crimes in The Truth Hurts didn't come from any specific cases, but rather from the history of the many crimes committed by segregationists.

Q: And now a whole new direction from you, and another great one. The Virgin of Small Plains reminded me some of Jane Smiley's wonderful A Thousand Acres. Is she an influence at all?
A: No, but thank you for the comparison. It has also been compared to Ken Haupt's Plainsong, to Martha Grimes' Hotel Paradise, and to Jodi Piccoult's novels, which is kind of funny because even though I'd certainly like to claim them, the truth is that none of them were influences. If any authors influenced me in the writing of that book it would be Alice Hoffman, with her magical realism, and Louis Erdich with her luxurious character development and story-telling.

Q: I think many, many good modern mysteries deal not so much with the actual puzzle, but with the aftermath of the crime. Certainly Virgin fits this pattern. What was more important to you as you were writing the book - character or plot? I thought both were very strong.
A: Character, though without the plot there would be no grist for the mill that formed those characters, so plot was also very important to me.

Q: To me the most heartbreaking character in the book was Mitch, because of what was stolen from him (it really sticks with you). Did you personally feel a special affinity for a single character in the book more than another?
A: Mitch is turning out to be the character that most readers tell me has the greatest effect on them. For me, it's Rex, which is funny because as one reader commented to me, "he's the most unstable of the three of them". Hmm.

Q: I feel like the blurbs and reviews of this book give away too much of the story, and it's something I plan to warn readers about. I know the book is about repercussions, but the plot is complex and full of surprises that are more fun for a reader to discover on their own. What are your thoughts on that?
A: I agree! What are those reviewers thinking, to give away so many surprises?! It's so vexing to work so hard to provide those surprises...hoping they WILL be fun for readers... and then to have them so blithely spoiled by a review.

Q: Who are your influences, mystery-wise? Your skillful use of multiple threads reminds me of another favorite write of mine, Sharyn McCrumb.
A: Sharyn's a wonderful writer, so thanks for that. My influences mystery-wise? Oh, god, the list is so long and so crazily diverse! Agatha Christie, James M. Cain, Dorothy Sayers, Raymond Chandler, Catherine Aird, John D. MacDonald, Sue Grafton, Mickey Spillane, Josephine Tey, Celia Fremlin, Dick Francis, Mary Stewart...and not to forget Nancy Drew or Perry Mason!

Q: What's next for you? What can readers look forward to?
A: More books "like" Virgin, which is to say a bit "bigger" in concept than I used to do, and all set in Kansas.

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