A New York Times best-selling author whose detective tales have attracted a cult-like fan following is coming to Tallahassee. But it seems Louise Penny underwent considerable trauma in her own life before she could take up the profession that would make her so famous.
Some people want to be a doctor, performer or an astronaut when they grow up. Louise Penny recalled her aspirations were of a more literary nature.
"Well, I'd always wanted to write since the age of 8. It was almost the only thing I wanted to do. A couple of reasons I didn't. The main reason was I was afraid of failing; afraid of trying the only thing that I really wanted to do and then finding out I couldn't do it."
Still, Penny did find an occupation which included a different kind of writing. For years, she was a radio reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
"So I took the ancillary route into journalism, which turned out to be a really rewarding experience on a whole bunch of levels, intellectual, spiritual and ethical. But it took me a long time to come back to writing."
That journalistic experience also gave Penny a fierce devotion to conveying truth in her writing. For instance, how could she authentically write about a character’s emotion or experience unless she had undergone the same thing herself?
"So I kind of had to be hurt enough in life in order to actually have something to say, rather than to write because I wanted to be famous or wanted to impress my mother or my teachers or my former colleagues. So a whole bunch of things had to come together."
Not only did this mean plumbing her emotional depths, Penny acknowledged, it also meant following her experiential envelope into some admittedly self-destructive places.
"I felt despair. I was an alcoholic. I came close to ending it all. I think the only thing that stopped me from ending it all was not being sure how to do it. But I came out the other side - with the help of many others - understanding that while despair and terrible things happen in the world, that goodness exists as well."
All of this helped inform the creation of her most famous literary character: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the provincial police force in Quebec. A character she had originally envisioned as an extension of some of her own dark impulses.
"A person at odds with himself," she said, describing her initial concept. "At war with himself, struggling with all sorts of personal demons, probably in a bad marriage, his dog was probably dying," she laughed. "I was just going to throw everything at this poor guy! And then I thought, 'Why would I want to hang around this person, as I might have to for many years, who is so unhappy?'"
And then, Penny found a real-life model for Gamache.
"He was actually inspired by my own husband," she admitted. "I thought I was being quite clever to create him and then I looked up at the breakfast table one day and realized I had essentially transcribed the man."
Even though her husband has passed on, the literary character that assumed so many of his personality traits lives on in Penny's newest addition to the detective series entitled "Kingdom of the Blind."
"It's about all the different ways that we are blind, the things that we are blind to, the blind spots, the blind loyalty that we often have without questioning some of the choices we make. That we come to conclusions at some stage in life and never revisit them and say, 'Is that still true?'"
That book will actually receive its world debut in Tallahassee during Penny's appearance at Faith Presbyterian Church on Tuesday, November twenty-seventh. Which prompts the obvious question, "Why Tallahassee?!"
"You are, I don't know if you realize as a city, renowned in writers' circles as being welcoming, as being extremely thoughtful and very supportive of arts and culture and so I can hardly wait to bask in that and to thank the Tallahassee readers for their support."
A portion of the proceeds from the event will go to the Westminster Oaks Foundation for a new memory center. Midtown Reader is hosting Penny's visit and you can contact the bookstore for more ticket info.