Montreal Gazette

Author Penny's `second act' has been a superb ride

Penny's remarkable ride took her from radio broadcaste­r to successful mystery writer

- BILL BROWNSTEIN bbrownstei­ billbrowns­tein

Louise Penny has two novels coming out this year: One featuring her trusty Chief Inspector Armand Gamache; the other, a collaborat­ion with one of Gamache's — and Penny's — greatest fans, Hillary Clinton.

The Madness of Crowds, Penny's 17th Gamache crime thriller, comes out in August and, like the others, will doubtless find its way atop the New York Times bestseller list immediatel­y thereafter.

But it's the latter novel, State of Terror, a political potboiler slated for release Oct. 12, that has been, understand­ably, garnering a lot of attention.

Thanks to Gamache, Penny and former secretary of state Clinton became fast friends. In August 2017, Penny, a Knowlton resident, invited Hillary, former president Bill Clinton, their daughter Chelsea and her kids for a weeklong stay at Manoir Hovey in North Hatley.

State of Terror focuses on a novice secretary of state, who, after joining forces with a rival administra­tion, finds herself trying to unravel terrorist plots and conspiracy theories.

“When it was suggested my friend Hillary and I write a political thriller together, I could not say yes fast enough,” Penny said in the publisher's release.

“What an incredible experience, to get inside the State Department. Inside the White House. Inside the mind of the secretary of state as high-stake crises explode. Before we started, we talked about her time as secretary of state. What was her worst nightmare? State of Terror is the answer.”

Added Clinton in the release: “Writing a thriller with Louise is a dream come true. I've relished every one of her books and their characters as well as her friendship. Now we're joining our experience­s to explore the complex world of high stakes diplomacy and treachery.”

Penny's story is almost as intriguing as those she writes. Not long after leaving a successful career as a CBC Montreal radio broadcaste­r 25 years ago, Penny was soon to embark on a voyage as a mystery writer, without any experience in the field other than a passion for the genre. The odds of success here are about as slim as winning big in the lottery.

Yet Penny was able to construct a scenario, built around her Sûreté du Québec homicide sleuth Gamache and mostly set around the fictional Eastern Townships burgh of Three Pines, a thinly-veiled Knowlton. It took her a few years to find a publisher, but when she did, the novels quickly resonated with readers around the world. They continue to gross lottery-winning-like numbers and are now translated into 31 languages.

“I was having a conversati­on about how many second acts that so many people I know have had, how we haven't all stayed in what we thought would be jobs of a lifetime, and ended up in our 40s and 50s jumping ship and trying something else,” Penny says in a phone interview. “The something else is almost always something of the heart, something rewarding, rather than just money, but you also hope to have some money, too.”

As second acts go, Penny's has been nothing less than remarkable and still spirals.

There have been rough patches. Her husband, Michael Whitehead, a well-respected hematologi­st and her inspiratio­n for Gamache, died in 2016 due to dementia. Penny had been his primary caregiver.

“I loved my (radio) job, but it was stressful. I was just burned out, tired of doing the same thing every day. There were diminishin­g returns. I was also becoming a person I wouldn't have wanted to work with, which is a bit of a problem.

“But, to be fair, at that stage I was married and had an incredibly supportive husband, so I didn't leap into the void the way others have had to. … Yet it was a leap of faith because it had been a lifetime dream of mine, but something I had put off because I was always afraid I would fail. Then I thought the joke is over. I'm 40, if I'm going to do it, now's the time.”

So take heart those who harbour big dreams.

“I'm not sure I have any words of wisdom for anyone who suddenly finds themselves thrown out of a job with a family to support. But what made a difference for me was when I stopped trying to impress others and just write for myself. The chances of being published, let alone being successful, were so small, that the only reward I was probably going to get was in the creation of it.”

She had initially tried to write some historical fiction “that everyone would be amazed at.”

“I barely even started it because it wasn't from the heart. So I decided to write something I would want to read. That made the difference. Really, there's nothing exceptiona­l about me, except how exceptiona­lly lucky I am. I'm no genius. But I had a moment of clarity. And there's a point where the stars seem to align.”

Luck can only carry one so far. Talent helps. She's a Toronto native who settled in Montreal, married, moved to the Townships, found a niche for herself and amazed multitudes, all the while picking up honours like the Orders of Canada and Quebec.

“My books aren't about murder. They're about all of us, about belonging. That's what I found in Quebec, in the Townships, although I must admit the area didn't have internatio­nal bestseller written all over it. Even Canadian publishers told me nobody is interested in crime novels set in Canada.”

Likely no longer.

 ?? JOHN KENNEY ?? Award-winning writer Louise Penny sits in the room of her Eastern Townships home where she writes her novels featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. Her novels have garnered internatio­nal success and been translated into multiple languages.
JOHN KENNEY Award-winning writer Louise Penny sits in the room of her Eastern Townships home where she writes her novels featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. Her novels have garnered internatio­nal success and been translated into multiple languages.
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