Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Louise Penny: Cool Canadian Crime

Here on Mystery Fanfare, I've been adding a series of interviews with Canadian Crime Writers. This series was organized by David Cole, a US author and CWC member and began with interviews he did with the three Canadian Guests of Honor at the last Bloody Words Conference. The overall group of authors were chosen by David to represent a variety of mystery genres, styles, and historical periods. Some of the authors have won or been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis award for best mystery novel. These interviews will be posted periodically. The first interview was with Mary Jane Maffini, and the second with Barbara Fradkin. Today David gives us an interview with the Guest of Honor at Bloody Words, Louise Penny.

David Cole (DC): You and I both came to writing in later years, after different careers. What did you do before you began Still Life?

Louise Penny (LP): Before I started writing mysteries I was a journalist with the Canadian
Broadcasting Corporation, hosting live current affairs radio programs. We covered what's called 'hard' news. Politics, economics, social debates. But we also heard human stories, often tragic. Stories of grinding poverty, of despair, of terrible isolation and loneliness. And out of that came my absolute certainty that I was fortunate. And the certainty, too, that it wasn't enough to be fortunate. I had to know it. And I do.

DC: I recently read a Scandinavian mystery that, like Still Life, involved a bow and arrow, yet that book was laden with anxiety, constant tension, and sad, sorry lives. Still Life involves a death, but the lovely, almost elegiac tone is so different. I think of this difference in tone when hearing your passionate comments about the emergence of a Canadian voice in mysteries. Tell me more about this "voice."

LP: In terms of a Canadian voice, I frankly have no idea. Canada, as you know, is huge. A person born and raised in Newfoundland might not, on the surface, have a great deal in common with someone from the Northwest Territories, or the Prairies. And yet, I sometimes wonder. I happen to believe, and maybe this is wishful thinking, that as Canadians we really are the product of a belief system that includes social justice, a social safety net. Medicine and education for everyone. A belief that a meritocracy isn't good enough. We need to help each other. It's our obligation, as citizens. In the Second World War Canadians, who were in at the beginning, were known as fierce fighters. In peacetime we gained a reputation as committed and passionate peace keepers. We go about what needs to be done, without fanfare.

I don't really know how this translates into a 'voice'. But I think, or want to think, there is a compassion there. Not just in words, but in quiet deeds.

When I was first in broadcasting, hundreds of years ago, there was a received wisdom that Canadians don't do fiction very well. Our strength was the documentary. Straight-forward, factual, no-nonsense, not much whimsy or creativity. A little plodding.

The last thing you wanted to see in the 1960s was a Canadian film. Or read a Canadian book. They tended to the dreary, with some spectacular exceptions, like Robertson Davies.

And then, guess what, a bunch of writers gave that piece of 'wisdom' the finger. And Mordecai Richler burst onto the scene. Margaret Atwood, Douglas Coupland, Nino Ricci, Yann Martel, Carol Shields, Elizabeth Hay, Joseph Boyden and far too many to name. And now crime fiction is in its Golden Age here, with stories that reflect Canada and Canadian sensibilities. With round vowels and 'ehs' and talk of toques. And maybe, a bit of compassion.

DC: Canada doesn't have a long history of crime fiction. What do you think 
has changed in the past fifteen years or so?

LP: Plenty! It's great to be a Canadian crime writer these days. This is an excellent time to be a reader too. Business is booming. More than sixty Canadian crime books landed on the Arthur Ellis submission list for best novel this year, to say nothing of the other categories. But it hasn't always been this way. For many years, it seemed that the doors of every publishing house were closed to all but a handful of beloved crime and mystery writers. Until recently, our cultural agencies put their muscle into literary fiction and quality non-fiction and there was a tendency to look down one's pointed nose at what was known as 'commercial fiction' -- one cut above shower scum.The genre was considered not only at a lower level, but also seen to be in competition for scarce readership. Snap open a crime novel and a reader would be forever ruined for Atwood and Ondaatje, although they've been known to read mysteries.

A large percentage of intelligent readers adore mysteries. Just ask any librarian! But people can only read books they can find on the shelves of libraries and bookstores or what they spot in reviews. As long as publishers were not bringing out new Canadian mysteries, people continued to get their mystery fix by inhaling books from the USA and the UK. All the while, in Canada, we had our own stories to tell. Gradually, over the last few years, something changed: new presses and regional publishers began to serve up wonderful works of crime fiction. Larger publishers took on new names. Readers began to take notice.

Crime Writers of Canada beat the bushes, connecting with librarians, bookstores and readers to spread the word about our 'home grown homicide'. Cheryl Freedman, our executive director for many years, worked tirelessly to raise the profile of the CWC members. The Canada Council and the Department of Canadian Heritage funded awareness programs that allowed CWC to have a presence at key conferences and to produce publications about Canadian mysteries. In Ottawa, Capital Crime Writers helped many writers to learn the craft and launch their series. Along the way, reviewers began to pay attention. The Globe and Mail now provides coverage of mysteries from Canadian presses large and small. Even though review space is shrinking, papers such as the Ottawa Citizen, the London Free Press, the Hamilton Spectator and the Sherbrooke Record pay close attention to new Canadian mysteries in their review sections.

Meanwhile, libraries across the country sponsor readings and special events with Canadian crime writers and readers are flocking to them. And a key factor for Canadian mysteries has been this warm and welcoming Bloody Words conference, which has done so much to build excitement and to draw people from across Canada and from other countries. Individual Canadian crime writers have also worked hard to promote themselves, their books and those of their colleagues. As a result of these interactions, Canadian writers and books are now routinely mentioned in online discussion groups, which, luckily, know no borders.

Canadians have truly been discovered elsewhere. Louise Penny's international success has been something to celebrate. Peter Robinson and Linwood Barclay also routinely make the bestselling lists in other countries. Our biggest names are shooting stars in other countries. Back home, readers are catching on. I have found that since my own American books have been published, readers in the USA are discovering my two Canadian series as well. Contrary to the belief of the New York publishing houses, American readers love Canadian settings and books. Perhaps that's the next obstacle we'll all overcome.

As a lover of Canadian mysteries and crime fiction, I have been glad to visit our country coast to coast through the works of other talented writers like Thomas R. Curran, R. J. Harlick, Barbara Fradkin, Vicki Delany, Stanley Evans, and Lou Allin to name just a few. We have found our Canadian voice in mystery. Finally, it's spring and our crime fiction is in full bloom.

Coincidentally, Louise Penny is interviewed on Jungle Red today by Rhys Bowen.

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