CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. — Best-selling author Louise Penny regaled nearly 1,000 admirers with a first-person account of her internal and external struggles related to making it in the world of writing fiction during an event last week.
Penny is the author of the very popular "Chief Inspector Gamache" crime novels centered in a small Canadian village, not unlike the one she lives in outside of Montreal.
Her March 5 appearance in the Shenendehowa High School West auditorium filled nearly every seat with fans coming from as far away as Vermont, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.
Penny is so popular the event received scarce publicity due to the limited seating and the high demand. Her appearance was made possible by the generosity of the Friends of the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Library.
In the hour-long presentation on becoming the author she had always sought to be, Penny had the room roaring with laughter practically from the moment she moved to the microphone.
Since getting her first book in the series, “Still Life”, published in 2005 she has produced 12 others in the series and one crime novella. The books have sold thousands of copies all over the world and resulted in one made-for-TV movie. But it wasn’t always that way.
After making the move from journalism to writing fiction, she had five years of writer’s block, a description that brought an extended laugh from the audience.
“Three would have been enough, but five?” she said.
Like many authors, Penny grew up loving books. It was through them that she lost her fear of spiders, a circumstance she described as magic.
“I learned that words can heal, so one had to choose words carefully,” she said. “From that moment I knew I wanted to be a writer, but my fear of spiders had been transferred to a fear of writing.”
That fear of writing lingered deep inside her through 20 years as a journalist with the Canadian Broadcasting Company. It lingered inside her after leaving journalism to write fiction. What she didn’t realize, she said last week, was that writing was, in the end, not magical but a process. Once she understood that the writer’s block was overcome and she dove in.
“I thought if I just sat down it would come and if it didn’t then I was doing something wrong,” she said. “I realized how much getting approval had affected my life, including writing. I decided I would try and if I failed I would have no regrets because I had tried.”
Penny said she sat down to write a book she would want to read thinking that there were others out there who might feel the same way about what she had written. The result was “Still Life”.
“My first book came out when I was 45,” she said, “so I had a lot of time to think about what a book tour would look like.”
The line got a roar from the audience.
Layer by layer she revealed segments of her life in vivid detail, much to the delight of the audience.
She described the satisfaction of finishing her first book, the non-effect that achievement had on the local bookstore clerk, the dilemma of getting an agent and a publisher, and a book tour stop where no one showed up.
After completing “Still Life” and submitting it for a competition, Penny received an invitation to a writers’ conference in London. While there she and her late husband Michael spoke with publishers about taking her on. She also sought information on literary agents. After making a list they narrowed it to three names.
“One refused to see me, the second was out, and the third was drunk,” she said.
At a conference dinner that included a silent auction, she and another woman took an intense interest in an attractive scarf that was being auctioned. Both went to pick it up at the same time and neither would let go. After an exchange of identities and questions as to whether the other belonged there, Penny realized the woman at the other end of the scarf was the literary agent who had been unavailable. That woman eventually took her on as a client.
“There are a lot of circumstances that had to have happened, ones I’m not even aware of, that got me here standing in front of you all,” Penny said from the Shen stage.
Her readers are devoted to her and the characters in her books.
“She makes her characters so comfortable [that] you want to be part of that community; you want to be living there,” said Christine Saplin. “And when you come and meet her, you say, oh my goodness, no wonder, she’s so personable, of the earth.”
“It’s her characters,” said another reader waiting in line for a signed book from the author. “The way in which the members of the community treat each other and support each other, they are very Canadian.”
Other readers shared why they enjoy reading her books.
“I live near the Canadian border in Vermont and her writing is kind of relatable,” said Ethel Emery of St. Johnsbury, Vermont. “So, for me, it’s kind of personal in that way. We’re kind of independent in Vermont, and the people in the village are kind of independent.”
“I read them because she connects on all levels, there’s humanity, kindness, and there are difficult things that happen and they continue on,” said Linda Fieldhouse. “She hits the core of humanity, a struggling, loving, complex human person.”
“She writes so well that she puts you right into their minds,” said Clifton Park resident Larry Syzdek. “The people are all related to the community and they are very fascinating and all of it hinges on some flaw or a character trait that you’d never get. It’s common people doing common things in a most beautifully, loving way.”