Quebec crime fiction writer Louise Penny on Order of Canada, friendship with Hillary Clinton
Renowned Quebec author, Louise Penny was inducted into both the Order of Canada and the Order of Quebec this year. On top of that, she released her latest book, Glass Houses, the thirteenth in her best-selling Armand Gamache murder mystery series, in late August.
On Thursday, she was the keynote speaker at a sold-out literary event at Quebec City’s Morrin Centre. That’s where she sat down with Global’s Raquel Fletcher to discuss how her late husband encouraged her to pursue a writing career and how she became unlikely friends with Hillary Clinton after his death last fall.
RF: You were recently inducted into the Order of Canada at the beginning of this year, and then this summer into the Order of Quebec. What did that mean for you?
LP: It was overwhelming and I think it would be a shame if someone just took it for granted and I didn’t. The Order of Canada came a few years ago, but I was only able to accept it this year and then to have the Order of Quebec come at the same time, well, it was exceptionally moving. But as an Anglo — I was born and for the most part raised in Ontario — to be recognized by my adopted province is deeply meaningful to me.
RF: I was going to ask you that because we’re sitting in the Morrin Centre in Quebec City, which is the hub of the English Community here and also the setting for a murder scene in one of your novels. What does it mean for you as an English-language writer to be recognized in this way?
LP: I was aware of the fact as an Anglo writing in a French province about the Québécois, about the culture, the language, the politics, the history, that I could get it wrong, or that some people could feel I got it wrong. So I was a bit concerned. My books didn’t come out in French, until I think it was the fourth or fifth book. It was out in Estonian before it was out here in Quebec and when it was out finally, the first one in French, I was anxious. I wanted my neighbours to read it, of course, because the characters are sons and daughters of the soil of Quebec, so it was important to me, but I suddenly thought, ‘Uh oh, suppose they don’t like it? Then what?’
RF: And then you can’t hide anymore?
LP: No, no exactly (laughs).
RF: You live in rural Quebec. And a lot of your books take place in rural Quebec. And that’s rare sometimes for authors, they like to set their stories in larger, more well-known centres. So why is that important for you to expose rural Quebec in that way?
LP: I’ve lived in Quebec for quite a while. I’ve lived here now for about 35 years. And I only started writing when I moved into the country. And I think that’s really important for me. It’s the Knowlten, Sutton area of the townships and there’s something about that area that I found really inspiring, and while I think of all of Quebec as a home and I think of myself as a Quebecoise. that is the place that finally inspired my writing and I wanted to bring it alive.
And for me, the sense of place is vital. Quebec is a character in the books. I want people when they read the books, wherever they are, I want them in the first paragraph, preferably the first sentence, to know this is set in Quebec. There’s no ambivalence. It’s not Ontario, it’s not Vermont, it’s not England, this is Quebec. This is Quebec. They are love letters to the place where I found a home.
RF: You write on your website that your late husband was the inspiration for Gamache and he encouraged you to quit your job in order to focus on your writing?
LP: He absolutely did that. I had covered, I think, one too many referenda (laughs) and I was getting a little tired, and I came home especially after the last referendum, which I think everybody felt pretty bruised after, and I was just exhausted and he said the most wonderful thing. He said: ‘I know that you’ve always wanted to write a book. If you would like to quit work in order to write that book, I’ll support you.’ And he did and he meant it, both emotionally, and thank God, economically (laughs).
I would give him my first drafts of the book, knowing they were awful. I would hand it to him and he would say, ‘It’s brilliant.’ How beautiful is that? That’s what I needed to hear. I don’t want to be married to my biggest critic. There’s lots of people who’ll do it for free, I don’t need to be married to him. What I want to be is married to a cheerleader. And that’s what he was.
RF: Did I hear that you are friends with Hillary Clinton?
LP: Yes, as a matter of fact, strange that that should happen. I never thought (laughs).
Michael was always a long-time fan of Hillary Clinton, as am I, but Michael was rabid about her and her politics. And then he died. He had dementia, and he passed away just over a year ago. And Hillary Clinton reads my books and her best friend, who also reads the books, follows my Facebook or something and heard about Michael dying. So she wrote to me the most beautiful letter of condolence about Michael, which was extraordinary. This was late September of last year; she’s at the end of a vicious election for president of the United States and she takes time to write a letter about a man she had never met to a woman she had never met, a Canadian who can’t even vote. It was an act of pure, unselfish kindness and I thought, ‘Here is an amazing person.’
RF: Thank you for joining us today.
LP: Thank you.
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