My wish to see my one of my favorite authors came true this summer. I was one of the more than 400 people who packed North Carolina State University’s auditorium to see Canadian writer Louise Penny. The Washington Post lauds her books as being "review-proof," that desired literary category when fans buy books on pre-release and without any reviews.
I expected insider tidbits and a pitch for her new book, A Better Man, the 15th of her Inspector Gamache detective series. But I was wrong. Penny offered something a million times better.
Read on for her insights into life and her writing journey that will touch your heart. And for an extra treat, scroll to the end of this post to hear a preview of A Better Man, read by Robert Bathurst via McMillan Audio on Sound Cloud.
Louise Penny does not need book tours. Her top-sellers generate buzz and massive sales months before release. But she loves touring and meeting people she tells the packed audience waiting for her in the McKimmon Conference Center on a hot summer evening.
She is taller than I imagined. Mid-length gray hair swinging in a tidy bob above a sleeveless frock.
The wisdom and warmth in her writing shines through on stage in the relaxed way she speaks to the crowd like old friends
And she is funny! Bubbling-over and effervescent funny like a shaken can of Dr. Pepper.
Adoring fans clap wildly.
“No part of me takes this for granted,” she thanks us with a cordial smile, hand to heart in appreciation. “It’s been a grind to get here.”
And then she tells her story.
1. Everybody Has to Start Somewhere
Penny dreamed of being a famous author with book tours, private jets, and Oprah as her BFF, but it was a hard road to get there.
After finishing her first Inspector Gamache book in 2005, Still Life, at age 45, she called her publisher to ask about her book tour. “Who is this?” the publisher first wanted to know.
For the first three years, nobody came to her events. “It was all part of the long-range plan,” Penny quipped. “Who wants readers anyway!”
I'm remembering major distress at my first kid lit book event. No child showed until Tyler and his mom walked through the door. They stayed AND bought my books. Thank you, Tyler! Thank you, Mom!
2. Face Your Fears --- Even Spiders!
Penny was afraid of many things as a child: spiders, holes, night and more. She preferred to be alone in her bedroom with a book. (Her husband dubbed her a horizontalist.)
The writing bug hit when 8-year-old Penny read Charlotte’s Web and fell in love with the spider, a creature that once terrified her. Her ah-ha moment came as she realized books had the power to change lives, and Louise Penny wanted to be a storyteller with that kind of power.
But new anxieties took hold as an adult. Afraid of failing as a novelist, her career took a side route in journalism and writing for the CBC. After burning out covering Quebec's bitter separatist debate, her husband suggested she quit work to write novels.
Her ah-ha moment came
as she realized that
"books had the power to change lives."
Five years of writer’s block ensued. Penny experienced “overwhelming paralysis.” She was “not trying to write because of fear [of failing as a writer].”
A cascade of unplanned events finally stopped this cycle.
3. It Takes A Village
First, Penny moved south of Montreal to a small Canadian village that morphed into the inspiration for Three Pines, the quirky village setting of her novels. “People visit there and know I have no imagination,” she laughed.
Next, Penny met monthly at the village bistro with Les Girls, a group of creative women who shared their processes and struggles.
The author discovered that writing was a process. It was not just sitting down and immediately getting “everything right and perfect the first time.”
She also saw that her friends' huge successes and failures that did not kill them. What happened, good or bad, did not define them.
4. Write What You Love
The final push to overcome writer's block came as she noticed stacks of crime fiction on her bedside table. Voila! She had her niche.
Penny never expected to be published, so she wrote her first novel just for herself. Something she'd love to read and have flat out fun writing. She filled her tale with people and places she enjoyed. Modeled her Inspector Gamache protagonist after someone she’d want to marry.
It was just after the 911 terrorist attacks when Penny sketched a map of Three Pines, complete with its bookstore, bistro and bakery her readers adore. The world might feel vulnerable and unsafe after 911 “but in Three Pines, you are not alone,” Penny reminds us.
5. Be OK with "Soft and Smelly"
Her first book, Still Life, was magic, but the publisher wanted another in a year. Penny panicked and feared more writing blocks. She turned to a therapist who told her …. “the wrong person is writing the book. Your critic is writing the book. Your creative soul has to be in on first draft.”
"There has to be that balance
between planning and having ideas ...
but not over-planning,
There needs space for it to breathe."
Penny realized she was holding on too tight to her novel.
She needed to let go: “... there has to be that balance between planning it [the book] and having themes and ideas and a plot, but not over-planning….There needs space for it to breathe. Space for inspiration. Space for the grace notes to come in, and that’s where the surprises happen.”
The author sets a daily goal of completing 1,000 words for her first draft and accepts that it won't be great. Penny allows her first drafts to be “soft and smelly.” Re-writes and a great editorial team will polish it later.
My Ah-Ha Moment
A PING! goes off in my writer's brain at soft and smelly. I've been holding my breath and holding on too tight to my WIP, a women's fiction about the New South and Old South coming together (or not!) in a growing southern town. No wonder those grace notes and surprises are hiding!
Plus, I feel overwhelmed at the thought of crafting 80,000 meaningful words. (YIKES! - headache coming on here)
Perhaps I'll pull a Penny and write a tale for myself.
Add characters and plot I'd enjoy reading.
Remove the pressures.
See what shakes out.
I listen as Penny answers questions for another 30 minutes, but I'm stuck on soft and smelly. It's finally a wrap, and the author is off to western North Carolina for another book talk.
The buzz continues
as the auditorium empties
with excited chatter,
fans hugging their copies of
Penny's newest paperback release, Kingdom of the Blind,
purchased at the event.
I queue up in the parking lot
and wait my turn for my car to spill into traffic on Western Boulevard ...
with tons to think about
on the ride home.
Catch a delicious audio preview
of Penny's newest book,
A Better Man.
Read by Downton Abbey actor Robert Bathurst
via McMillan Audio on Sound Cloud
Available in print and audio
at your favorite bookseller
on 27 August 2019.
What's your experience attending book tours as a writer or reader? Do you find inspiration? Excitement meeting authors, mingling with other readers? What do you think of the 'soft and smelly' approach for the first time you try anything new? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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