Louise Penny Finds Her Way

Originally published in More Magazine, 2007

Louise Penny’s laughter is as warm as cocoa on a winter’s day. “I thought at 35 that there was nothing good ahead of me. Now I’m 50 and in my wildest dreams I never thought life could be this good,” she says. Life is good: Penny has three internationally acclaimed murder mysteries to her credit and has just finished writing her fourth. Her quietly elegant hero, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, and the good—and not so good—people of her fictional village Three Pines, Quebec have garnered Penny a stack of prizes others might, well, kill for: the UK Debut Dagger, the Canadian Ellis and the American Dilys, Barry and Anthony.

And none of it would have happened without what Penny calls “the gift of despair.” From the outside her life looked great: she was a successful CBC radio host in Winnipeg, Quebec City and then Montreal. But she was also an alcoholic, “desperately unhappy, lonely and embittered.” In her mid-30s, she came to “the proverbial fork in the road: I couldn’t sustain this unhappiness any longer, so I either had to do myself in or make a change.” Change won out: Penny entered a 12-step program and stopped drinking. Not long afterwards, she met the man who would become her husband, Dr. Michael Whitehead, chief of hematology at Montreal’s Children’s Hospital. It sounds like a fairytale, and in this one, Penny quit her job to devote herself to her childhood dream of writing a book.

And then she was paralyzed: She spent the next five years “eating gummy bears and watching Oprah.” When people asked about her book, she lied. “What if what I wrote was no good, if I put my lifelong dream to the test and was found wanting?” Finally, in desperation, she set her project aside and decided to write a murder mystery “just for me, just for fun.” She modeled Gamache on husband Michael, set the fictional town of Three Pines in the Quebec Townships landscape where they live. She finished her draft in a year—and spent the next 18 months facing rejection after rejection. One publisher simply scrawled “No” across her letter and sent it back. Others told her “no-one wants to read mysteries set in Canada.”

“I was left with the feeling that they must be right,” she says. “The book must be crap.” And then salvation: in 2003 she entered the manuscript in a British competition for unpublished authors. She didn’t win—she placed second—but while in London for the awards ceremony, Penny met an agent who agreed to take her on. Within months, she signed contracts with publishers in London and New York. “And I knew my life had changed.”

Still, there were challenges ahead. “I threw out the entire draft of my second book,” she says. “I was too worried about what people would think and I couldn’t connect with my characters.” She saw a therapist, worked past the block and wrote the new draft in two months. Two more books have followed since, with work on her fifth just started.

Given her path, it’s not a coincidence that the characters in Penny’s book only find Three Pines if they’re lost—and only prosper there if they’re true to themselves. “Three Pines is the place where we become who we are,” says the woman who has become who she is: a writer, grateful for the despair that got her here.

Louise Penny’s latest book The Brutal Telling recently debuted at number 19 on the New York Times Bestseller List.