Louise Penny on Gamache, Paris, and moments of grace

Vannessa Cronin on August 31, 2020
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Louise Penny on Gamache, Paris, and moments of grace

If you're not a fan of Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache series, you're missing out. Modeled after Penny's late husband Michael (a distinguished Montreal pediatric hematologist and scientist) as well as Atticus Finch, Gamache is a seasoned homicide detective, who has stared evil in the face for years and yet has never lost sight of the fact that goodness exists, too. He's a devoted husband, loving father, and proud grandfather.

In All the Devils Are Here, he is in Paris with his family, awaiting the birth of his youngest grandchild. Joining them is Gamache's godfather, Stephen Horowitz. Stephen is a larger than life, wealthy industrialist: "Armand suspected that even the furniture cowered when Stephen Horowitz entered a room." But walking home from dinner, a van careens into Stephen and leaves him for dead on the street. Gamache knows it was a deliberate assassination attempt. And he begins to do what he does best: get to the bottom of things. Thousands of miles away from Canada, with no Sûreté to assist him with the investigation, he relies on an old colleague, Claude Dussault, who just happens to be the Prefect of Police for Paris. And of course, his beloved family pitches in, too.

We were delighted to chat with Louise by phone to hear more about the latest entry in one of our favorite series.

Vannessa Cronin, Amazon Book Review: Thank you so much for speaking with us. What can you tell us about about the new book?

Louise Penny: Well, this is somewhat different for the series, for the characters, and for myself. Most of the books are set in a small village in Quebec, just south of Montreal, just north of the Vermont border, and I felt this was book 16 and I knew at some stage I would want to take the main character Gamache—who's the head of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec—I would want to take him out of Quebec, out of his comfort zone. And out of my comfort zone. I really wanted to stretch myself as a writer. The challenge with writing a series that uses essentially the same characters and pretty much the same location is by mistake writing the same book over and over and I'm keenly aware of that. And that holds no interest for me at all. But what it means is that for every book I have to try something different. I have to push myself.

And this is the most different that I have been. This book is set in Paris, because Gamache's son Daniel and his wife live in Paris, and his daughter and son-in-law—who also happens to be Gamache's second-in-command—have just moved there and they're about to have their second child. So they've gone to Paris for the birth of his grandchild and then there's this terrible accident, which Gamache knows is not actually an accident, where his Godfather is almost killed, and that's starts them on this journey through Paris.

But as they're going through Paris, it's really an examination of fathers and sons, and parents and children, of the fissures that appear in families that you sometimes don't even realize are there, but that grow and fester over the years. But also the special relationships that can develop, like the relationship between Gamache and Beauvoir. While they're not father and son biologically, they are in every other way. There's something ancient about their relationship. We see Daniel, who is Gamache's son, and we've known all along that there's something that's standing between them, that it's a fraught relationship. But it's unclear from Gamache's point why that is.

It's interesting that in the book, Gamache, a man who makes his living being able to read people's faces and read their motivations, should have a son whose inner thoughts or motivations he can't read.

You're absolutely right: he's completely blind to it, he cannot figure it out, and he has spent decades trying to work it out and asking Daniel, and he simply can't. It's as though he is illiterate when it comes to his son and then finally there's a confrontation in this hidden garden in Paris and they have it out, and Gamache finds out what happened, what went wrong, and it's pretty upsetting.

Please talk a little bit about how you came to decide on Paris as the setting.

It made sense to me because as I say Daniel was there, and I needed to move Gamache out of his comfort zone. He has been to other areas outside of the Eastern townships but this is clearly the furthest. The thing is, years ago—I think it was the third book—when I mentioned that Daniel and his family live in Paris, I chose that at random. But there is a tie, actually, because Quebec is French. So a lot of Quebecois go to Paris and vice versa. So it seemed to make sense but without any idea that I would eventually set a book there.

In fact, I know London much better than I know Paris so I was a little annoyed when I realized [laughs]. I mean, Paris is not a hardship obviously, but it is a little easier if you can set a book in a place you actually know. Gamache's parents were killed in a car accident when he was a child and he was raised by a woman who is kind of his adoptive grandmother and she was born and raised in Paris as well, and we knew that, so it just seemed like a natural place to set it. But as I say, I didn't know Paris that well so I was forced to go there a few times.

Oh, that's sad.

You know, not many people see that. Thank you. [laughs]

What about the fact that this is like a Gamache origin story? Because we learn so much about him as a child, such as intimate details about what he was like as a little boy. Did you think, “I'm setting this in Paris, here's my opportunity,” or was it, “I would love to do this and it works well with the Paris setting?”

That's an interesting question and I'm just trying to remember what came first. I knew obviously it would have to do with Daniel, it would have to do with the new grandchild, it would have to do with the grandmother whose place they have taken over, and I'm trying to remember when I brought in the godfather, when I was thinking about it. Because I think about a book for about a year before I start writing it. And it's like a pointillist painting in that I have an idea and then there's another idea and over the months an image appears and it coalesces, and at that stage I'm ready to write it.

I think once I realized I wanted Stephen, his godfather, to be there and to be a major part of the plot—that's kind of the engine of what happens, and Armand's relationship with his godfather—that then allowed for all of this exploration of what happened when Gamache's parents died. We don't see much of that but we find out that he was really taken under the wing of his godfather and brought to Paris once a year. So Gamache's relationship with Paris is intertwined with the loss of his parents and with finding himself bonding with this man he didn't know very well beforehand. And so he has a real affinity for Paris.

That was important for me, because I think readers have a sense of Three Pines and I think a lot of people go back to the books because they like that community, the sense of belonging and very keen sense of place. And I wanted to create that same sense of place. I wanted to bring Paris alive, not simply as a series of streets and buildings but for Gamache, almost a part of the family, part of his healing. I wanted to talk about Gamache at the age of eight, in the garden of the Rodin Museum, looking at the sculptures, and the effect that had on a little boy who'd just lost his parents.

And it's lovely that instead of thinking of Three Pines as the discovery of his life, it's almost like Three Pines may have been a rediscovery, in that it reminded him of that sense of belonging and community and peace that he had in Paris as a young man.

Yes, and as someone who's never had a family—I mean he didn't have brothers and sisters, he didn't have parents—it was all taken from him. So, for someone who is raised without that, how important is family? And how devastating is it when there's a problem?

I love how the whole family—except maybe for Annie and she's got a good excuse—are part of the investigation in this book. Was that planned?

Oh, good. Yes, that was planned. Again, that sense of community and the community this time is the family. I wanted very much to bring in Reine-Marie because there are some pivotal scenes that happen inside the Paris Archives and she's an archivist and librarian so her skills as a researcher come to the fore.

When you're writing the Gamache books, do you have a plan, an overall arc to adhere to? Or is the start of every book you sit down to write an endless possibility, anything could happen?

You know, a bit of both. Sometimes I can see three or four books ahead. Like I knew, probably about four books back, that the Paris book was going to happen. And so then you see it in the previous books there were little stones along the path that's leading him to Paris. In some cases I know the arc of where the characters are going but I don't want to be really tied to that. I want to have a sense of it that they have a future, where they're going, but at the same time I want it to be able to breathe, take on a life of its own, to have space for those Grace notes better always surprising. It's trying to find that balance.

Most of your books are standalones and then you come to the last few books which were part of an arc, beginning with the big drug bust, then trying to find the missing drugs, the fallout for Gamache's career at the Sûreté, where he's demoted...

Humiliated...

Yes, and it kind of felt like this book hit the reset button, like it put a nice period on that three or four book arc and kind of blew it all out of the water with something completely different.

Good, yes, that's a wonderful way of putting it.

So you're still enjoying writing this series is the impression I'm getting...

I'm loving it! This has always baffled me; I would go on panels at Bouchercon or other things, and people would say, “You don't want to be writing nice characters because that's boring.” And I'm thinking, "Are you kidding me?!" Boring? Nice? How did nice become boring? And isn't it far more difficult to be decent in this world than to find flaws? That's the first thing children do: they find flaws. It doesn't take a great human being to be brutal or to criticize.

So I'm loving exploring these characters and how they became who they are. And Gamache, obviously, is the center that holds it all together. But there are others as well. And as you say, in this book looking at family: at Reine-Marie and their courtship, as well as Daniel and what happened there in all its complexity; it's endlessly fascinating.

I think these books, they're clearly and absolutely and proudly crime books. I'm very clear about that, despite what I said about not liking genre. The idea of genre, I think that's kind of ghettoizing. But they are absolutely crime fiction, crimes happen in each of them. But I think of them as Trojan horses where the crime allows other issues to be brought in. So we can look at family dynamics and we can look at the nature of courage and look at loyalty, and how things sour, and look at misperceptions—all the things that actually happen in our lives, and use the crime as the Trojan Horse, to take us where we need to get to.

In an interview a few years ago with the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Channel) you said that you "had to be hurt into writing" and that that was one of the reasons why you started writing later in life. If hurt was what started you writing, what keeps you writing?

That was a quote from Auden, and his elegy to Yeats, and the quote was "mad Ireland hurt him into poetry," which is just such a wonderful line, and I understood that because what happened was, I lead a fairly shallow, pretty callow, self-involved life until a number of things happened that forced me to look outside of myself and to reach outside of myself, to ask for help and to see that help is there, to ask for forgiveness, to offer forgiveness. All those things that are difficult, to reach that fork in the road where we become embittered or we learn gratitude; I had to go through all of that to actually have something to say, rather than just writing to be rich or famous or for the approval of my mother or the teachers or my brother or perfect strangers. But just to write for the love of it.

And that's what happens if you’re hurt and you're lucky enough to fall into the gratitude side. Because then you find joy and light and laughter and awareness of how lucky we are and that's what keeps me writing, is that it gives me joy every day. It's hard, and some days it's just, "Oh my God I can't do it anymore," but other people have much harder lives. Few people get the rewards I get, so on difficult days, I just say, "Buck up, you're doing this by choice, it's a great life.” But writing gives me joy. And the reason it gives me joy is that I know what despair is, and having come through despair into the light, that's why I keep writing.

So the 800-pound gorilla in everybody's room these days is lockdown. Are you finding that you're reading more? Or are you binge-watching TV?

The pandemic happened just as I was about to go on vacation. I had handed in All the Devils Are Here. I'd finished editing it, it was done. I try to take a couple of months off every year thinking about the next book but I'm not actively writing it. So my days are my own. So I came back to Canada. I was in New York at the time. I scuttled back. I was supposed to be in London but I came back to Canada. And I realized something: I actually liked being quarantined.

My inner introvert is loving it.

Yes! This is it! I'm an extroverted introvert. I think a lot of writers and book people are. I love the quietude, I love the simplicity of it. I read an article from The New York Times about the joy of having events cancel themselves. It was so weird. We talk about the bubble, and I have a nice bubble in every way.

Your bubble [house] looks really nice on my screen.

[Laughs] I love it. It's not huge but it's big enough. I actually took up running. I used to run around the kitchen island, then I got a little dizzy. It was either pile on 15lbs or figure out how to run. So I taught myself to run with some help. I actually have a trainer, in London. We do Zoom training. But I decided I love writing, so I started to write. I usually don't start writing again until May, after I finish a book. But I started writing the next book before the quarantine was over. I'm very lucky to live in a little village where I've got a lot of friends. So we kept in touch. And then to have something to do, to have the writing, without that I might have gone mad. It was strange though, to have such a beautiful personal experience and to be aware of the tragedies happening around the world. It was odd.

Agreed. Being able to read definitely helped, though. So what book or author made you a reader?

I think it was Charlotte's Web, which is the first book I really remember reading and losing myself in and caring about the characters so much. Reading Charlotte's Web I also realized how powerful reading really is because when I started Charlotte's Web I was mortally afraid of spiders. Halfway through, of course, that phobia disappeared. I loved spiders. I understood then how powerful stories were, and knew that I would be a lifelong reader. I just threw myself into reading after that. The other series that I got into was Anne of Green Gables. Anne with an 'e.'

I loved Anne of Green Gables, too! I think my other favorite Canadian author when I was a kid was Farley Mowat, author of The Dog Who Wouldn't Be.

Do you know, it's interesting that you mentioned Farley Mowat...

...So that's how you pronounce his name? I only ever saw it spelled it out. I've been mispronouncing it for 40 years!

Well, he's dead now, he doesn't care [laughs]. But I remember being told by my teachers that Farley Mowat was Canadian and still alive. And I thought, "That can't be right. Everything else we read is written by Brits who are dead." I remember thinking that if you could be Canadian, alive, and a writer all at the same time, then maybe I could do it. And when my first book was just about to come out, Still Life, Michael and I were on a train between Montreal and Toronto (the book launch was in Toronto). I was in my forties so the book was the culmination of many decades of writing and dreaming and fantasizing. And I went to go get something from the bar cart and I passed this tiny little man in a seat and I go back to Michael and I say, "I think that's Farley Mowat." And I went back again and looked, and it was! He's sitting three rows away as I'm on my way to my book launch.

He's the one. It's because of him that I realized I could be a writer. So I spent about 20 minutes, maybe more, maybe an hour of this train trip thinking, "Do I go up? Do I say something? Don't I? I don't know." So I finally did, and his wife couldn't have been more generous. I introduced myself and I thanked him for the inspiration. Without Farley Mowat there would be no Still Life. I went back to my seat and I started crying because the chance to say thank you to someone who changed your life...I'll never forget that. Talk about moments of grace.

I can't believe I brought up Farley Mowatt and ended up pre-empting my last question which was going to be: What book made you a writer?

[Laughs] It's so exciting isn't it, to discover reading? That's one of the reasons I'm so involved in literacy programs. It's not only about being able to read medicine labels and your bank statements. It's about discovering more about yourself, about your world, about tolerance. It's freeing.


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