Louise Penny is Canada’s pre-eminent crime fiction writer. She has won the New Blood Dagger Award for mystery writers, the Arthur Ellis and Dilys Awards, and is the four-time recipient of the prestigious Agatha Award for best novel. She is also the patroness of the Yamaska Literacy Council, where she volunteers time and financial resources to teach Quebec federal prisoners reading and writing in English. Inkwell reached her at an undisclosed location out of the country.
1) You are Canada’s most prolific and decorated mystery writer. Your books have been on the New York Times Best Sellers list, yet many Canadians have never heard of you. Did the Kardashians have anything to do with that?
Actually, I am a Kardashian, as anyone who’s seen me from behind will attest.
2) Your most recent offering Trick of the Light tips its hat to both the Alcoholics Anonymous culture and the Montreal art scene. Which of the two has shaped you more as a writer?
I have to admit, until I met my husband, Michael, I knew very little about art. it wasn’t part of the ‘conversation’ when I grew up. My parents talked about (and were passionate about) music and literature, and while we had art on the walls I suspect it was pretty pedestrian stuff. Having said that, after my father died and we were left pretty well penniless, my mother had to go back to work. The only job she could find was fill in work as a secretary – barely making ends meet….but when she got her first paycheck she got the three of us kids together, took us on the bus to a small art gallery and she used that check, not for food or heat, but to buy a piece of art. As we looked on, astonished, she explained that art and creativity and beauty were nourishing too, and vital to the soul. And we needed to find what we considered beautiful and make space to it in our lives. When she died, that painting was the first thing I chose from the house. Now, what AA did for me, as a writer, but certainly as a person, was it gave me the grace to see the power and courage and beauty in what my mother did.
3) With all the problems facing modern society, why did you get behind literacy?
You and I’ve discussed this before and share a passion for the problem – the great handicap of illiteracy. The anvil it becomes. There is a direct link between much of misery in people’s lives, and not being able to properly read and write. It’s not a philosophical concept – it’s a multilane expressway. If you can’t read and write, you can’t fulfill your dreams. You can’t get an education, can’t get a decent job. You live in fear and shame. And poverty. The vast majority of low income people are illiterate. The vast majority of the prison population is illiterate. Drug abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, crime – all have many causes – but illiteracy is often one, and a big one. And a solvable one. We can do something about it. How exciting is that?! Now, being able to read and write is not a guarantee of happiness – but not being able to pretty much guarantees a life that is frustrated and stunted. It seems such an easy fix – teach kids to read and write. Teach them to love it, even, as more than a necessary skill, but a joy. Teach their parents how different life is when signs and documents and newspapers and job applications and medicine bottles make sense. And let them pass it on to their children. I could go on and on, but will stop – because I know you yourself are deeply committed to helping people read and write.
4) Last summer, Amazon passed the tipping point where it has now sold more e-books than paper. What future opportunities and challenges will e-reading bring for Canadians?
This is also, like so many things, a mixed blessing. I think young people might be drawn to books they can read in a medium they understand and that isn’t foreign or threatening. E-books have so much potential, and added value. My next book talks a fair amount about music – the e-version can have a link to the exact music I’m writing about. So the lines between reader and writer, between fiction and reality, can be blurred. That’s very exciting. It’s also a wonderful tool, for people who otherwise would be weighed down with paper. Travelers, for instance. But it has already cost us a number of bookstores (what’s now known as ‘bricks and mortar’ stores). I don’t own an ereader and have no plans to get one. I suspect the people who invented it had no intention of wiping out ‘paper’ books, or bookstores or libraries….but that is what might happen. And I would be devastated. There is no way an ereader or a download could ever replace the personal service and contact of a local bookstore or library. People who know your taste, who host bookclubs, who are themselves passionate about the written word.
I suspect (and perhaps this is more a hope than a rational thought) that eventually, once the thrill had died down, many people will go back to bound books – and use e-readers as a great tool. Just like movies and TV didn’t wipe out theatre. I just hope bricks and mortar bookstores can wait it out. And I hope I’m right, and there is a place for both e-readers and bound books in our lives. I remember interviewing a prominent scientist, when I was on the CBC, and he said something I’ve never forgotten. He said that we never really understand what we’ve invented. I think the e-reader’s a great example. As is the internet, the cellphone, tablets. All exciting, and all with applications that are growing, for better or worse.
5) So you and Chief Inspector Gamache are on the road right now. How would the Chief Inpector save the Eurozone from a meltdown?
I think he’d send Kris Kardashian to head up the EU. So simple it has been overlooked.