Left Coast Crime conference, Pt I: the amazing Louise Penny

How the light gets in: Louise Penny interviewed at Left Coast Crime 2014 by Andrew Martin, her publisher at Minotaur

by CJ Verburg

I never go to writers’ conferences.  In my (mumble mumble) years of experience, “I never” usually means “but I will very soon, surprise!” Thus, when I heard that Louise Penny, Ann Cleeves, Deborah Crombie, Cara Black, and 800 mystery writers and fans, including several remarkable authors I’d “met” on LinkedIn’s Crime Fiction group, would be at Left Coast Crime 2014 in Monterey, I realized I was overdue for a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and nearby historical sights.

The first I heard of Louise Penny was just a few months ago.  It wasn’t the rave reviews that made me pick up her first Inspector Gamache mystery, but the title of her latest book:  How the Light Gets In.  Any writer with the perspicacity to choose one of Leonard Cohen’s finest lines for a book title has already piqued my curiosity and won my tentative respect.  (Confession: my next Cory Goodwin mystery has the working title “Another Number for the Road.”)  My first happy discovery when I started turning Penny’s pages was the little Canadian town of Three Pines, a setting remarkably similar to the village of Quansett in my Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod mysteries.  A kindred spirit for sure!  By the time I finished her second book, I was a confirmed fan.

Stepping in for Deborah Crombie, who wasn’t feeling well (“because of what I put in her food”), Louise Penny interviews Cara Black on Saturday afternoon.

Louise Penny in person is beautiful, funny, articulate, diffident, brazen, charming, flirtatious, and unpredictable.  Interviewed on Friday afternoon by her editor at Minotaur, Andy Wilson, she talked frankly about how she came to mystery writing, and why it took her four decades to tackle what’s now her vocation.  She always wanted to write.  She was terrified she’d screw it up.  She became a journalist so that she could try it without risking massive failure.  Eventually her husband goosed her into taking the big leap with those three magic words:  “I’ll support you.”

Penny confided that she gave the name of Nichol to Gamache’s awkward, brash, irritating, foot-in-mouth young assistant–a very real character, whom she clearly understood from the heart–as a play on her own name.

Asked about her most recent book, which has won so many kudos and superlatives it’s almost embarrassing, Penny quoted the full chorus of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem.”  These are lines I get a chill just quoting; perhaps they ring a bell for every artist as they do for me:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

One last piece of good news: Penny’s next book is finished and in the publishing pipeline.