I was privileged to ask Louise Penny a question at her book signing in Ann Arbor, Michigan, last night.
First of all, I recommend going to see her if you have the chance. She tells a great story – both in her novels and in person – and she makes you feel at home; at home in front of a fire in Three Pines, but without the murder. And stories are her business, and the business of her long ago employer, CBC/Radio-Canada.
Twenty-five years ago or so, I was recently unemployed – a victim of some very bad hedging by my employer’s parent company, Metallgesellschaft AG. That bad bet led to a 20% across-the-board staff reduction, and I had been working there only a few months by that time. So what did I do with my greatly increased free time? I decided to paint the exterior of our house in Rochester, New York.
No, I had no experience with such an undertaking, especially not on a three story, stucco-over-brick, turn of the twentieth century house with no insulation and original counterweight pulley windows. I may not have been the fastest at this task, and certainly not the most skilled. There was that day, for example, when I pressure-washed the stucco off the brick rather than the paint off the stucco. Live and learn, right? And since I didn’t actually fall off the 40-foot ladder, that’s what I did.
What I also did that summer of 1994 was listen to radio. I tuned into NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, but in between I listened to CBC out of Toronto, and I fell in love with storytelling.
There were riveting interviews on The Vicki Gabereau Show and short fiction from Stuart McLean whose endearing characters first appeared on Morningside, and beginning that summer, The Vinyl Cafe. Vicki Gabereau took off summers and her show became an emotional combination of letters and song requests hosted by Bill Richardson. That summer of ’94, the fiftieth anniversary of the D-Day invasion, was a truly memorable experience as many of the letters were also fifty years old and some were the last letters written by those soldiers. (CBC executives: It would be nice to listen to those again.)
It took me a couple decades to realize that I was called to be a writer, but CBC and the thousands of audiobooks I’ve listened to have helped cement that calling. When I write, I hear the voices of my favorite audiobook readers – George Guidall, Blair Brown, Ralph Cosham. It’s the lyrical quality of those voices which spills out of my head and onto the (figurative) paper as I type.
So, onto my question for Louise Penny. So far, I am a “less than first draft” writer. I have great ideas (I think) and I can write well (i.e., quickly) when I’m on vacation or otherwise away from everyday obligations. But things tend to come to a screeching halt once I get back home. I don’t go right to the writing when I wake up; I check email or read the news or do church treasurer work. There’s always something in the way, often manufactured by me.
In answer to an earlier question, Louise Penny talked about her discipline and daily word goal as a key to her success. Stephen King and Jeffery Archer also speak of their writing discipline, and King makes the very good point that you loose your connection with the characters if you take off more than one day a week from writing. So, check, I need to be more disciplined.
My question had to do with what happens after the first draft. Louise Penny’s characters are so well developed, and their interconnections so vital to the storytelling that I wanted to know if that was there in her first draft. Her answer was enlightening.
While she never mentioned paint, her subsequent drafts offer her the opportunity to layer the humor and flaws and commitments and idiosyncrasies that make each character into the complex being the story requires. Layering also figures into the interactions between those complex characters and helps further drive that character development.
Okay, back to work. First thing: my writing discipline. Of course, I’m not at home for the next few days so it will be easier.
Recommendations & References
Louise Penny: Start with Still Life and go in order (https://www.louisepenny.com/)
Stuart McLean: Sadly passed away last year, but if you’re new to his character, Dave, try Dave Cooks the Turkey to find out more (https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/862677571666).
Stephen King: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (https://www.stephenking.com/library/nonfiction/on_writing:_a_memoir_of_the_craft.html).
Jeffery Archer: The interview at the end of the Audible version of Prisoner of Birth (for which he did 17 drafts – yikes!).