Saturday, September 6, 2014

Louise Penny Comes to Town

The news that mystery writer Louise Penny was going to appear at the Prior Lake Library, under the auspices of Club Book, was big news in the Twin Cities. She draws large crowds wherever she goes, but makes relatively few public appearances, and fans flew in from Washington D.C., Chicago, North Dakota, and Denver last Saturday to hear her at the Scott County Library venue.

Most of the three-hundred-odd fans who began to line up outside the building hours before the event were local, of course. By which I mean they were from Saint Cloud,  Menomonie, Rochester, and everywhere in between. The branch manager at the Prior Lake Library had been busy for weeks, recruiting volunteers, fielding phone calls from enthusiastic readers with various special needs who planned to attend, and generally devising solutions to a host of contingencies—few of which materialized, as luck would have it. (I happen to know this because my wife, Hilary, is the branch manager at Prior Lake.)

The atmosphere at the library when I arrived was festive, to say the least. (The farmer’s market being held just down the street didn’t hurt.) Many of the early arrivals had brought camp chairs, but soon the line stretched down and around the outside of the building for about fifty yards.

Three quarters of an hour before the event, the doors to the auditorium were opened and people began to shuffle in. Each guest was given a numbered ticket, to make sure the hall wasn’t filled beyond capacity and also to facilitate the orderly signing of books after the event.

Louise herself arrived in a limo and spent a few minutes eating a croissant sandwich at the Edelweiss Bakery around the corner before making her appearance. And what an appearance it was. She strode down the street from the bakery carrying a big white box of pastries she’d bought to share with the numerous volunteers working the event! 

By the time she got up to the microphone, she’d made about forty new friends, the atmosphere was electric, and roughly a third of those in attendance were clutching copies of her latest book, The Long Way Home, most of then newly purchased at a table outside the hall staffed by Common Good Books, one of the program sponsors.

Although the Gamache series of mysteries has its share of murders, most readers would agree, I think, that much of its charm derives from the appeal of detective Gamache himself, who seems a bit like a New World Inspector Maigret, and the quirky  and endearing characters who inhabit the village of Three Pines, located in a remote region of Quebec south of Montreal, where many of the tales take place. 

It didn’t take long for Louise to impress those same qualities—quirky and endearing—on her admirers in the audience, as she described, with humor and self-depreciation, her difficult path to “getting published,” the embarrassingly meager turnouts at her early public appearances, and other aspects of her life and career. 

For example, Louise was deathly afraid of insects as a child (along with a lot of other things) but when she was eight years old, she began to read, and love, Charlotte’s Web. She was halfway through the book before it dawned on her that Charlotte was a…spider! (Huge laugh here.) Thus she began to emerge, little by little,  from her shell of childhood phobias.

Louise told us a touching story about her mother taking a part-time job during a rough patch in the family’s income, and then bringing Louise downtown to buy, not food, but a painting, with the first money she earned. With the panache of a stand-up comedienne, she also described the unlikely string of coincidences that brought her face to face with the woman who became her agent, and took us down some slightly bawdy side streets as she wrestled with her scarf, before opening the forum for questions from the audience.

No doubt, Louise's years as a radio host for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation have made it easier for her to wow an audience. But I also got the impression that she’s been through things worse than a hardscrabble upbringing, critical rejection, or spiders, and has emerged with a sensitivity to both the complexity and the goodness in people that makes it easy for her to engage her many readers and fans, on the printed page and also face to face.

Louise loves to talk about herself, and she’s delighted by her literary success, but there isn’t much vanity in it. It’s obvious that she loves people (including herself) and reaches out to strangers to acknowledge them as individuals, too, with the childlike avidly of a medieval saint.

I felt a little of that myself, a few hours earlier, when, on a tip from one of the library volunteers, I wandered over to the bakery to say hi to Louise and perhaps get a photo. There she was, sitting alone by the window in an empty room, munching on a croissant sandwich.

I ordered a croissant myself at the counter and then said, “Are you Louise Penny? Do you mind if I take your picture? I don’t want to disturb your lunch…”

“No, please sit down,” she said. (The fact that I was wearing a Scott County volunteer badge may have helped.)

So I sat and took the picture. Then I felt obliged to come clean: “I’ve only read one of your books, the first one, but my wife says I ought to try Bury Your Dead. That’s the one about Samuel Champlain. Right?”

“Oh, so you’re interested in history?” All of this in a cheery, sing-song voice, accompanied by a slightly pained expression, which I hoped was the result of trying to eat while talking...

“Yes. European history. That was my field.”

“Prior Lake is such a pretty town,” she immediately volunteered. So I mumbled a few things about the older part of town, the lake itself, current development. And then, pushing my luck, I said.

“So, you live south of Quebec?”

“South of Montreal, actually. Quite close to the Vermont border.”

At this point I could not resist mentioning that the only time I’d been in the area, we’d flown in to Burlington, Vermont, and driven across the border to Quebec province, where we were struck by the antique agricultural patterns—those long, thin farms stretching down to the St. Lawrence River. Who knows? We might have driven right by her house.

“Well, you should go to Quebec City,” she said.

“Oh, we did go there,” I replied. Elaborate lines of travel conversation were beginning to take shape in the back of my mind: bicycling in Quebec City; Shadows on the Rock; the shrimp fishermen (on strike) we once came upon before dawn near Matane on the GaspĂ© Peninsula; the huge gannet colony on Bonaventure Island  ….

But what I said was, “I’m going to leave you in peace to enjoy your lunch.”

“Oh, but you haven’t taken your picture,” she replied.

So I took a second photo and scurried out…then slunk back in to snatch my croissant, which had been sitting in a bag on the counter the whole time.

A few minutes before the program was set to begin, I was standing near the back of the room, surveying the sea of book-lovers in front of me, when someone came up from behind and shook my arm. It was Louise! "Hi, there," she said, with a big smile before hurrying off.

The intent was clear enough. She wanted to reassure me that I hadn't ruined her lunch.

Louise stuck around for two hours after the program, signing books, adding personalized greetings, and having her picture taken with anyone who was interested. Then she was off in her limo to the airport and on to Seattle, where she had an evening engagement, leaving behind a welter of good feelings to remind us all, as her mother had reminded her, of what a powerful and beneficent force art (and personality) can be in this often crazy, mixed-up world.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well I am not sure whether to be sad or happy -- sad because I missed this event and I do love her books or happy because she sounds like the positive force I always have thought she must be. I just got her latest and am all set to read - always rewarding. Thanks for this! - Pat