Despite a backdrop of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions threatening travel plans to Iceland, I was able to catch up with Louise Penny, author of the popular Three Pines traditional mysteries starring Inspector Gamache. We talked over breakfast at the Hotel Saga in Reykjavik one Saturday morning during November’s Iceland Noir conference.
Given the conference line-up, it felt right that nature would go out of its way to greet the stars. How often will you find Richard Armitage, Dan Brown, Neil Gaiman, Lisa Jewell, C.J. Tudor, and Irvine Welsh all sharing the same space, along with many fine authors working a range of genres*.
But there’s more: The day before we met Louise had been in conversation with A.J. Finn, and the next day she would take part in an interview with Hillary Clinton and Eliza Reid, the first lady of Iceland – who has also written a crime novel, to be released in 2025, called Death of a Diplomat.
(All of Reykjavik, it seemed, was overrun with illustrious crime writers with connections to the world of politics. Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the prime minister of Iceland, also has collaborated with Ragnar Jonasson on a noir novel called Reykjavik.)
Louise has changed little in the fifteen years I’ve known her, with the same flawless, makeup-free complexion, the same hairstyle, and the same intense focus from behind stylish eyeglasses. Dressed casually in a beige cashmere sweater and jeans and a brightly patterned scarf, she’s an imposingly tall woman who seems to have found her “cozy” style years ago and stayed with it.
She is also still famously nice, friendly, and welcoming.
Speaking of “cozy, she and I agreed that the term as a book category needs to go and be replaced in bookshops by “traditional mystery,” particularly for authors writing in the vein of Agatha Christie.
How exactly did Louise get to where she is today? Nothing in her background seemed likely to provide fodder for a future crime writer, except for that feeling of being an “outsider” – a feeling many authors seem to share.
As the daughter of investment professionals and sister to two engineer brothers, she says she often felt like the odd one out in her intensely logical family.
Likening herself to Marilyn Munster – the “normal” one who couldn’t see how strange her family appeared to the outside world – Louise says she wasn’t academically inclined and barely scraped out “C” grades in school. She was dreamy rather than analytical, but it was this trait that eventually led her, after a career in radio broadcasting, to writing. She became an “overnight” success after a few years of struggle, placing in CWA’s Debut Dagger competition with the story that would become A Fatal Grace.
In recent years she has had to navigate significant life changes, including the loss of her beloved children’s-physician husband, Michael, to dementia. Eventually, with the help of a realtor friend, she moved out of the condo where she lived with Michael into a dream house, a one-level built for aging in place, sited on a six-acre plot of land outside the picturesque Quebec village of Knowlton in Canada. This new home is now complete with an El Chapo-like tunnel connecting her garage to the house, replacing an old garage that was too narrow for her car.
The house is her sanctuary, shared only with her dog Muggins, who barks at leaves but ignores the teams of workmen, assuming the leaves are up to no good but the workmen are welcome.
She likes being alone, she says, and cherishes her solitude.
Having lived in Knowlton for many years, she says a common misconception is that her hometown is the basis for her fictional Three Pines, and its population the basis for some of her characters. But she feels embraced by her community, and safeguarded by them from curious fans, an aspect of life among the villagers she deeply appreciates. It is clear from her writing that her fluency in English and French, a gift shared by many Quebecois, has woven its way into her narrative.
One focus of our conversation was her recent collaboration with Hillary Rodham Clinton on their political thriller. Louise admitted to feeling trepidation about venturing from her secure literary path and feared fan and reviewer reactions (“But where’s Three Pines? Where’s Gamache?”).
However, Hillary’s response to Louise’s question, “What fear keeps you up at night?” became the kickstarter for their thriller.
The collaboration between Penny and Clinton, born of mutual admiration during the pandemic, presented challenges, especially in melding their distinct writing habits and styles. Penny, who prefers writing and Facetiming or Zooming in her moose pajamas, had to adjust to Clinton’s preference for marking up printed pages and faxing them back and forth rather than tracking changes in Word.
Hillary’s daughter Chelsea had to make the same adjustment when she collaborated with her mother.
Peaceful protestors at Reykjavik’s Harpa venue, near the foot of the stairs leading to the Eldborg hall where the conversation among the three women took place, bore witness to the fact the world remains a vastly unsettled and unpredictable place. Perhaps the best writers can do is observe, listen, and try to warn.
Given the sort of books we both write, Louise still seems to believe, with me, in a world where order can be restored in the end, and justice prevail.
Asked if she will be returning to Three Pines in 2024, she said absolutely. She had only taken a hiatus from Gamache because of her book with Hillary. The date and title for Gamache’s return will soon be announced.