Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Lucky Penny by Louise Penny

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?'

'Teresa Chris.'

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.


LJ Roberts said...

What a wonderful article and a good reminder to us all to be grateful for every good thing that comes our way.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

It is, isn't it L.J.?!
Hard to remember to do this, but we should - you're right.

Lesa said...

Two of my favorite people together in one place, Louise and Kaye. You couldn't ask for two people who are more appreciative of their gifts and their friends. You both know how lucky you are. And, you show it every day.

I'm so glad you ran into your agent, Louise. Our world would be a little smaller without your luck.

Big hugs to both of you.


Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Louise, Welcome!

I'm tickled pink to have you here, and even more tickled to have you in my life.

This piece made me get a bit choked up, but would you please tell Michael I think he is just wonderful. WHAT a sweetheart he is. You both deserve every happiness.

Hugs, my friend.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Lesa! Love you. to BITS! thank you.

Timothy Hallinan said...

What an AMAZING piece. This is the best thing I've read all month, Kaye. Really puts things in perspective. Actually, I wish I'd read it before I answered your e-mail. My response would have been a little less self-pitying,

Phyllis said...

As a Southern transplant to the Midwest, I seem to share your reading tastes. I, however, have not read Louise Penny. This posting, your enthusiasm, plus all the discussion on Dorothy-L, have moved Louise to the top of my TBR pile. I am thankful for both you and the wonderful writers you host.

Beth Groundwater said...

Lovely post from Louise Penny! I've decided to finally catch up her series and I'm in the middle of The Cruelest Month right now. The trouble with reading really good mysteries while you're writing one, however, is that your own rough draft pales in comparison. :)

To me, the "telling detail" in Louise's article is that the agent had a post-it with her name on it stuck to her computer. So, even if they hadn't met at the sale, they were bound to connect. Why? Because Louise was "out there," querying and entering (and finaling in) contests and gathering her rejections, making a name for herself, and showing her wonderful work around. The agent had heard of her and was interested in her.

I don't think Louise was lucky. Her connection with the agent was the result of months of hard work. I've seen this occur many times with writers. Rejections pile up, with some small successes like short story publications or contest placements, then BOOM! an agent and publication contract "magically" appear just when the author thinks it's time to throw in the towel.

Mason Canyon said...

Love this post. A great reminder of how we all need to be grateful for each day. So glad you found the right agent after all.

Kaye, a wonderful post.

Thoughts in Progress

Anonymous said...

Very nice post.

-Theresa de Valence

L.J. Sellers said...

Wonderful post! Lately, I've been feeling very lucky and very grateful too. It's still good to be reminded that just being born here in the US is the first step on a fortunate journey.

Bobbi Mumm said...

Kaye, thank you for bringing us the gracious and funny Louise Penny. We're lucky to have you both!

Anonymous said...

Great post..thanks to both Louise and Kaye. It is always good to remember not to take our blessings for granted.
I am halfway through STILL LIFE and enjoying it immensely.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Phyllis - thank you! What a nice way to start my day. I think you'll love the Three Pines series. will you let me know?

Beth - this is very astute on your part. And I agree with you. Sometimes things seemingly drop into our laps, but sometimes we've made that happen in some fashion.

Hey, Mason!! Thanks for dropping by!

Thank you, Theresa, LJ, Bobbi & Gina! I just love having you all here.

Ms. Penny is going to try to drop by today too, so do check back.

N. J. Lindquist said...

Congratulations on your recent win, Louise!

Yes, "luck" or "chance" or perhaps "predestination" does play an enormous role. But I think luck is often something that happens to those who are moving forward and doing something about their dreams, too. If you hadn't taken the time and made the effort to write the book - and write it well - there would have been no luck...

So enjoy it! You've earned it. :)

And yes, Louise is one of the writers worth checking out if you like well-written, thoughtful mysteries and haven't read her work.

Louise Penny Author said...

Hi all,

What beautiful comments - thank you. One of the great pieces of good luck has been meeting Kaye. What an amazing woman you are, Kaye! Whether you choose to call it luck, or fate, or the result of hard work, it gives me comfort to believe the Universe is smiling. One day I'll cede my place in the sun - and I hope instead of being upset, I'll remember to be grateful for having had it at all.

Thank you for your beautiful company today.

jenny milchman said...

I had never heard all these details about that sequence of events, Louise, and Kaye, and I thank you both for sharing them. Just as I kept thinking, OK, here's where it turns around--the Hollywood ending--you got disappointed again. And still you stood strong--although in the end it was a random strike of fate, not your preparation, or researching, or dress-donning that resulted in your lucky break. As someone who does a lot of prepping myself, I wonder what I can learn from that lesson?

Every sentence of your post rings true--except for one. The "I know I don't deserve this luck" part. Louise is a wise and generous author, giving back every bit of luck that came her way and more. Louise, you *do* deserve this--for the books you write, and the writer you are.

Pamela DuMond, D.C. said...

I love this post. Serendipity, meant to be. Perfect.

Earl Staggs said...

This was a beautiful and uplifting story, Louise. Here's s little thing I keep handy in a frontal lobe: "Luck is being in the right place at the right time. The trick is to be in a lot of places." Call it luck if you will, but the luck came to you because of your hard work and perseverance and because you had the gumption to go places where it could find you. Best wishes to you for continued success - and more good luck.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Thanks, everyone!
It's fun seeing some of my favorites folks here, along with some new comers.

And Louise? I love having you here - thank you for taking the time to visit.

and oh my - thanks for all the sweet words. We all need sweet words, and these are all quite meaningful.

Earl Darlin' - you have the most wonderful words if wisdom tucked into a frontal lobe. I love 'em!

Peg Brantley said...

Lucky Penny.

Thank you for the perspective, the humility and the hope.

I'm thinking maybe your middle name is Grace.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Peg - I knew you'd love this!