Louise Penny writes the Chief Inspector Gamache novels, set in Quebec. She lives there with her husband, Michael, and their golden retriever, Trudy. Her latest Gamache book, BURY YOUR DEAD debuted on the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists. Her previous book, THE BRUTAL TELLING has won the 2010 Agatha and 2010 Anthony awards for Best Crime Fiction Novel of the year.
Lucky Penny. As a child I used to hate it when people called me that. It seemed dismissive, cliched. Mocking even. But no more. Now it seems blessedly, simply, clearly true.
I am lucky.
Yes, I work hard. But no harder than you work. No harder than the person across from me on the bus or plane works. And considerably less than the chamber maid, the miner, the teacher and nurse. Hard work is necessary, but it doesn't altogether explain good fortune. When I look back on my life, and specifically my writing career I know there's no way I'd be where I am without luck. Dumb luck. Smart luck. Divine luck. All sorts of it. Great gobs of it. A wonderful friend and brilliant crime writer, Ann Cleeves, recently wrote an entry for a blog I used to belong to, The Lipstick Chronicles. In it she lamented how many writers at a recent conference declared their success was due to damned hard work and, well, personal brilliance.
Ann then went on to write about the role luck has played in her career.
We'd talked about this before. And I feel the same way. How many things had to be in place before I could write my first book? I needed to live in a society where women are educated. Not raped and sold and mutilated. Not marginalized. I had to have had a great education and be able to write (not a given in Canada anymore, I'm desperately sorry to say). I had to have a mother who read to me. I had to have a roof and a warm bed. Safety. Food. Peace. A husband who loved and supported me. Friends who believed in my dream.
And then I could write.
How lucky is that? But it didn't end there. I had to be inspired by other writers. And finally, when I'd finished the book and been rejected by at least 50 agents and editors world-wide (which in itself turned out to be fortunate) I entered a contest by the Crime Writer's Association in Britain and was shortlisted. Now the fact I even found the contest was lucky - but the biggest stroke was yet to come.
We were invited to the banquet in London. Oh, my God! Every person I'd tried to meet for 2 years, every agent, editor, publisher, was going to be in one room. For two hours. And I was going to be there too! We flew to London and I went and spoke to bookstore owners and asked them one question: Who are the top literary agents for crime fiction? They narrowed it down to three.
I was desperately nervous. The hair was done. The dress bought. Shoes chosen. Nails done. Candles lit. Virgins sacrificed. Finally the cab dropped us off at the banquet. I put a smile on my face, hoping I looked more confident than maniacal. My purse held two things. Money for the cab ride home (in case I lost Michael - my mother raised me well) and the now dog-eared list of the three top literary agents.
We started circulating. Everyone knew everyone else. Everyone was happy to see each other. Everyone was chatting away. Except me. My smile began to fade as insecurity burrowed in. I'd forgotten to leave that in Montreal. Finally I got up my courage and asked a kind looking woman if she could point out the first agent. She shook her head.
'Not here, I'm afraid.'
I asked about the second agent and she pointed across the crowded room to a woman surrounded by admirers. I approached. Took a breath. Said a prayer. Made sure the smile was in place.
And was immediately rebuffed. Looking imperious, the agent gave me a smile that, had I been a man would have guaranteed infertility. No, she wasn't taking on any new writers. The people around her smiled too and I could feel their mirth slam into me.
I wish I could say it had no effect on me, but it did. I slunk away, hurt. And would have left had Michael not taken me by the hand and whispered, 'Let's just walk around the room once more. We'll just stroll. No need to speak to anyone.'
I took his hand and we strolled and by the time we got back to where we'd started the hurt had turned to anger. I asked after the next person on the list. The last person. My last hope.
The person I asked looked a little surprised, and amused. And pointed. There, at a table, was the third agent. Drunk. And loud.
I looked at Michael. He looked at me. Stricken. We stayed for the banquet. I didn't win the award, but I met a few kind people who were very encouraging in a vague sort of way. Then we left. No award. No agent.
The next night Michael's sister took us to a drinks party in London. It was close to Christmas and this was something the English seem to do. Combine a cocktail party and a 'sale of goods'. In this case, items brought back from a woman's co-op in Afghanistan. Lovely items meant to be sold for Christmas presents with the money going back to the women. I wandered around and finally saw a magnificent pashmina. Reaching out I grabbed it just as another woman took hold of it.
We both held on. It really was magnificent. And, as only two English woman can, we chatted aimlessly about the weather and the season and the party, while delicately tugging the shawl. Finally the other woman asked, 'Who are you?'
I gathered what dignity I could and said, 'I'm Louise Penny.'
She tilted her head, puzzled and said the most extraordinary thing. 'Really? I have a post-it note with your name on it attached to my computer.'
Of all the things I thought this woman would say, that would have been my last guess.
I looked at her and asked, 'And who are you?'
That was the final name on my list. The third woman. The literary agent who hadn't been at the banquet.
In all of London, I'd found her. Attached to the other end of a pashmina.
I let go of the shawl. But Teresa and I have been attached ever since. She became my agent and within weeks the book no one wanted, that had been rejected internationally, was sold to publishers all over the world.
That was luck. Or fate, perhaps. But not my doing.
I don't deserve all the wonderful things that have happened to me. I know that. Everyday, as I sit in our living room writing, with a cafe au lait and a dog at my side and Michael playing the piano or writing himself, I know how lucky I am. And one day, as blithely as all these blessings came they will go. All except, perhaps, one last thing that will never leave. My gratitude for having had such great good luck at all.
I'm a huge fan of Louise Penny's work, if you're interested in how I feel about BURY YOUR DEAD, click here.