I’m visiting with mystery author Louise Penny and her husband Michael Whitehead, discussing her success. Michael leans forward and shows us the screen of his Blackberry – Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead is listed in second place on Amazon’s “Top 10 Mysteries of 2010” category. Louise and Michael share the moment, just smiling at each other. Success is coming to Louise with ever-increasing rapidity – but it has been a long time coming. At aged eight Louise Penny recognized the power of words, and knew that she wanted to be an author.
At the age of eight I decided that I wanted to be a writer.

“ My favourite place as a child was in my room – alone – and reading a book. It still is.” Louise continues; “I was so comfortable there, that instead of sending me to my room when my mother wanted to discipline me, she would send me outdoors to play with the other children.”

Louise had two kinds of lives growing up; the first as the daughter of a well-off Bay Street investment dealer, and the second part as a latch-key teenager whose single mother had to work. “My father left us and we quite literally went from being financially comfortable to… well, we were poor. I was the middle child, and since my mother was working, I had to make dinner.”

Louise’s mother believed in the importance of the arts. “Mom used her first paycheque to buy a painting. She told us; ‘I want you to know that art is important’.”

Louise wasn’t a star in the classroom. “I was a solid ‘C’ student. The teachers never wrote on my report cards that I could do better. Average or below was as good as I could get.” Nevertheless, she attended Ryerson’s Radio and Television Arts program and after graduating, was hired by CBC Radio. “I worked in Thunder Bay and Winnipeg, and I learned that smart people are everywhere, not just in the big cities. I spent 20 years listening to people’s stories – often extraordinary stories and often they were very painful stories. I learned about the choices people make to stand in the sun – rather than the shadows.”

Louise moved to Quebec City to host the CBC morning show, and then to Montreal and the hugely popular Radio Noon. “I was becoming very unhappy, so much so that I felt I was becoming a person that even I wouldn’t want as a friend.” Laughing, she jokes, “There are some of my former colleagues at CBC that will attest to that!”

While in her thirties and hosting Radio Noon, Louise met Michael Whitehead, a cardiologist and Head of Haematology at the Children’s Hospital. Michael’s wife had died of cancer, and he was still grieving her loss when he and Louise met on a blind date. It’s a relationship that continues to nourish and provide emotional stability for Louise.

“One day when I came home from work really depressed, Michael said to me; ‘If you’re this sad, why don’t you leave. You’ve always wanted to be writer, why don’t you try it? I’ll support you.” Louise continues; “I did just that, and then got writer’s block for five years…”

“We moved to the Sutton area, and I fell in with a wonderful group of creative and generous women. I saw that they didn’t collapse after a bad review or poor sales at a vernissage. They didn’t judge me for my lack of progress, and continued to welcome me into their midst.” However, it was increasing difficult for Louise to consider herself a “writer” without a book. “I was trying to write the perfect book, one that would win The Nobel Prize!”

Louise finally found the answer to her writer’s block on her bedside table. “I liked to read murder mysteries, books like those by Agatha Christie and others of that genre. The kind of books I liked to read – and was familiar with.”

Louise set her first novel in Three Pines, an imaginary Eastern Townships community thinly disguised as Sutton and/or Knowlton. Again, the familiar references were there to draw upon, giving credibility to her characters and places.

Finally Louise had triumphed over her writer’s block and completed Still Life. All she had to do now was sell it. “I was still fairly well connected from my days at CBC, and I knew how to put together a coherent proposal. I sent packages to literary agents. Most of the time I never heard back – not even the decency of a rejection letter. I have a suspicion (based on some frank and sheepish admissions) that often they didn’t ever open my envelope. Other agents would tell me that there was no interest in the book-buying public for a Canadian mystery writer. I was discouraged.”

Discouraged – but undaunted. With Michael’s encouragement, Louise entered the British Debut Dagger contest for unpublished authors. Out of 800 entries from around the world, Still Life made it to the shortlist of 10 candidates for the finals. “We thought that is would be a terrific opportunity to meet some of Britain’s most prominent literary agents. Michael and I traipsed around London visiting bookstores and asking the managers to identify the top literary agents in the country.”

By the time they arrived for the Debut Dagger Gala, Louise and Michael were prepared and ready to work the room. “We established a short list of three people that we wanted to see. Number One on the list wasn’t there; Number Two wasn’t interested at all; and Number Three was quite drunk and incoherent.” Despite their best efforts, the wheels had fallen off Louise and Michael’s wagon. Even though she had come in second, the couple was deeply disappointed that their plan had failed.

“We were staying with Michael’s sister, and she had a pre-Christmas fundraiser ‘goods sale’ at her home. I reached out for a Pashmina scarf at the same time as another woman. We each held on, politely but firmly tugging back and forth. The other woman asked somewhat haughtily, ‘Who are you?’ and I replied ‘Louise Penny – and who are you?’ although I couldn’t match her British upper class demeanour.” Louise continues; “My Pashmina competitor replied; ‘Oh my – I have your name on a Post-It Note on my computer. My name if Teresa Chris’. Theresa Chris had been Louise and Michael’s Number One ‘no-show’ at the gala. Yet here they were sitting down in Michael’s sister’s living room with the country’s best literary agent.

“How many things have to be in place for that to happen,” wonders Louise, shaking her head.

“I met with her, she became my agent, and in a short time she had publishing contracts for Still Life in England and Germany. This success created a bidding war in the U.S.” Those unanswered queries quickly became unimportant.

Five years and six books later, Louise Penny is listed in the New York Times Best Seller List (Bury Your Dead); Amazon’s Top Ten Mystery/Thrillers of 2010; USA Today’s Bestseller List; an Anthony Award for Best Crime Novel in the United States (The Brutal Telling), which also won an Agatha Award for Best Traditional Mystery in the US; the first time that a book series has won this award for three consecutive years. The Bury Your Dead audio version, narrated by Ralph Cosham has been selected by Amazon as one of their Top Ten Audio Books of 2010. People Magazine has given it four out of four stars and named it Editor’s Pick.

Throughout the series, the hero is Inspector Armand Gamache, a man of great strength and civility. During her talk with a Westmount audience, Louise answered a question about the origins of Gamache; “Why wouldn’t I create a magnificent man – one that I would spend the rest of my life with? A man I would marry. Gamache has been through Hell and come out on the other side – retaining his dignity and civility.”

While waiting for Louise to complete her after talk conversations, I introduced myself to her husband Michael Whitehead, retired Head of Haematology from The Children’s Hospital. We joked a little about Louise’s comments about marrying Inspector Gamache. As the three of us continued our conversation during the afternoon, it became apparent that Louise has indeed married Inspector Gamache – except in the real world he’s known to his friends and associates as Michael Whitehead.

With all this success, Louise remains centered. “Because it happened later in life – not a day goes by that I don’t appreciate my good fortune.”