"I came out of the womb afraid,” Louise Penny says with a laugh. It’s a weekday afternoon in the Victorian village of Knowlton, in Quebec, and the likeable Canadian crime writer is at home on the couch, in front of a picture window that looks out onto a tree-filled backyard, reflecting over Zoom on her childhood in Toronto.
“I was afraid of other children, of heights, of the night, of breaking my nose,” Penny says. “Name something and I was afraid of it. Whenever I was bad—which was fairly rare—as punishment my mother would send me outside to play.”
Her favorite activity was reading in her room, and when she discovered Agatha Christie, a love of crime fiction was born. That love led Penny, who’ll turn 63 in July, to create the wildly popular Three Pines series, which stars esteemed Chief Insp. Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Quebec (the police department for the province) and is set in the fictional village of Three Pines, which is partly modeled on Knowlton.
It’s a charming place—if you don’t mind stepping over the occasional corpse on your way to the quaint French bistro or bookstore. The series has sold more than 10 million copies in North America, according to publisher Minotaur, and has been translated into 29 languages.
The 17th installment, The Madness of Crowds (Minotaur), lands in August and earned a starred review from PW. It concerns a controversial academic with disturbing views and a large following, who has come to Three Pines to give a lecture. There’s a murder, of course, but this book, like all of Penny’s works, is more concerned with why it was committed rather than how.
“Writing about murder doesn’t interest me,” Penny says. “Murder is a terrible act, but that’s all it is. What it allows me to do is explore emotions and themes, ideas and philosophies. I’m interested in what characters do and how they struggle.”
Penny shares her own ups and downs in monthly dispatches on her website. She’s open about everything, including her past issues with alcohol. In her 20s and 30s, she was a successful radio host and journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, but she struggled with loneliness and anxiety and drank to cope. “I was afraid I was going to kill myself,” she says. “When I eventually got sober, that terror blew away, and I could see that the world isn’t a scary place, that it’s not out to get me.”
Penny’s life took a big turn when, a year into sobriety, she met her future husband, Michael Whitehead, head of hematology at Montreal Children’s Hospital. Whitehead—who died in 2016 after struggling with dementia—offered to support Penny financially so she could pursue writing. She quit the CBC, powered through five years of writer’s block, then began Still Life, the first book in the Three Pines series, which was published in 2005, when she was in her mid-40s.
Whitehead was the inspiration for Gamache—though Penny didn’t realize that when she began writing. “Initially, I thought Gamache would have an addiction and be in a bad marriage,” she explains. “Then I thought, why? I want to be around someone who’s company I enjoy. So I gave him qualities I admire. He’s self-deprecating, warm, open to love. I was feeling proud of myself and went downstairs one day, and there was Michael, talking about world peace or something, and I realized I didn’t make Gamache up, I transcribed him. He was Michael. He and Gamache both had struggles but chose to be happy. They saw death and understood what a gift life is.”
After Whitehead got sick, Penny considered ending her series. “It was just too painful,” she says. But writing became a safe haven. “When someone around you has dementia, you’re always on the verge of chaos,” she notes. “I think writing saved my sanity. And then, after Michael died, because of that, I was able to carry on. And Michael’s now immortal. I get to visit him all the time.”
Penny and her husband didn’t have kids (“Michael loved me enough to try, and I loved him enough to stop trying,” she says), but she sees her books as her unique little progeny. “I don’t know that they’ll survive me, but I hope they do. I put everything I have into them. They’re all my beliefs. My DNA. All my time, my efforts. I put my love and focus into them as one would a child.”
Penny’s agent, David Gernert, says, “People make the grave mistake of calling Louise’s books mysteries, which isn’t accurate. The mystery is embedded in a bigger story about the characters. There’s morality and spirituality in these books. They’re beautifully complex, as people are.”
Cultivating human connections is important to Penny, as Andrew Martin, publisher of Minotaur, has seen firsthand. “Louise makes every fan feel like they’re at the center of the universe,” he says. He recalls a conference they attended together: “We got out of the elevator and Louise spotted a lonely-looking woman sitting by herself. Louise sat down next to her and leaned in to chat. Later, I asked who that was, and Louise said, ‘I don’t know. Just a fan, but she looked like she wanted to talk.’ There are plenty of authors who don’t do that. My God, they’d avoid it. Louise has a unique ability to connect with others, and she means it.”
Martin adds that Penny’s book sales are stronger than ever: “She’s growing so much. I still can’t see the top of the summit.”
Up next in the world of Three Pines: a television series currently in development at Amazon Studios, with the producers of Netflix’s The Crown at the helm. And this fall, St. Martin's Press and Simon & Schuster will release a political thriller that Penny cowrote with her friend Hillary Clinton.
Penny says she’s excited to get the book into readers’ hands. Gernert adds, “It’s a really good novel. It’s going to blow people away.”
Penny’s phone starts ringing as our conversation winds down. Time to get on with the day—perhaps connect with a friend. She takes a moment to reflect on the magic of Three Pines. “No matter where you are, what your culture is, whether man or woman, young or old, we all want the same thing: company,” she says. “That’s what these books give me, and I think that’s what they give people around the world.”
She marvels that she’s written 17 of them: “You should see my stretch marks! Actually, that may be all the éclairs I eat while I’m writing.”
Elaine Szewczyk’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and other publications. She’s the author of the novel 'I’m with Stupid.'
Correction: This piece has been updated to reflect the fact that the forthcoming thriller by Penny and Hillary Clinton will be published by St. Martin's Press and Simon & Schuster.