This is the third book in the Chief Inspector Gamache series - set at Easter in the tiny Quebec village of Three Pines. Each of my books is set in a different season, and clearly The Cruellest Month is April, spring. An unsettling time, of new life and killing frosts. Of vulnerability and boldness and breathtaking beauty. Of hope and sudden loss.
The Cruellest Month ended up being the easiest book to write so far. Thank God. The first, Still Life, took 45 years to write, then Headline wanted the second (Dead Cold) in a year. When I regained consciousness I started to panic. It didn't help that a whole lot of people were telling me about the 'sophomore curse', as though a critic with claws and a leather mask was waiting in the basement for me.
I became so stressed about writing the second book that the only way I could lure myself to the computer was by placing two huge pastries beside it every day. I was determined to become a huge writer, one way or the other.
The pastries got me to the keyboard, but what about the crap I was writing?
For crap it was, I was convinced. Having suffered from writers block at one stage in my life I was very afraid of suffering from it again, especially as I saw the days and weeks slipping by. And the deadline whizzing toward me.
So I did a couple of things that didn't, thank God, include baked goods. Or gummi bears.
I spoke to my agent, Teresa Chris, about it. Her reaction? 'Oh, for Heaven’s sake, it's not War And Peace you're writing!' Then she gave me some wonderful advice. She could see that each morning I'd been going to the computer to write a book. But she pointed out that I didn't have to write a book. Just 1,000 words a day. Then another thousand, and another. And after 3 or 4 months, with discipline (and éclairs) I'd have a book.
It sounds so obvious now, but it wasn't then. It reminded me of one of our Canadian heroes, a young man named Terry Fox who'd lost a leg to cancer. He decided that to raise money for cancer he'd run across the country. Canada. Not Monaco. Not the boot of Italy. But Canada. He died halfway across, in his early 20's. But his diaries were recently discovered and published, and in them he described how he did it. Each morning he woke up and determined not to run across the nation, but to run to the next corner. And the next. He made it more than a thousand miles, from one corner to the next.
So that's how I write my books now. I run to the next corner. Each day I write 1,000 words. That's all I have to worry about.
The other piece of invaluable advice came from a therapist I decided to see halfway through the book. I was still filled with fear, and it was making a process that had been hard but fulfilling into a misery. Well, she said, 'The wrong person is writing this book.'
I immediately thought she meant Teresa, my agent, should be writing the book, and agreed.
But no, she meant The Critic was writing the book. My internal Critic that tells me the book is crap, I'm incompetent. And fat. And really, what was I thinking anyway?
The therapist advised me to show The Critic the door. The Creative me needed to be writing the book.
'Just write,' she said. 'Have fun with it. Don't worry. At the end of the first draft you can invite The Critic back. But not before then.'
That was an “aha” moment.
I threw the entire draft of the second book away and started again. Sans Critic, sans pastry. And I had a great time. Dead Cold was born, and has been shortlisted for an Agatha for Best Novel in the US (under the title, A Fatal Grace).
But then it came time to write the third book in the Armand Gamache series.
I sat down at the computer, and out came The Cruellest Month. It certainly needed editing and revising. Lots of work for The Critic. But it was a joy from beginning to end.
Ironically, the themes of the book are redemption and second chances. There's a murder, at a séance, in the old Hadley house in Three Pines. A villager is frightened to death. And Chief Inspector Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is called to investigate. As he does, old ghosts close in on him too. A few years earlier he turned in a senior officer for hideous crimes, and the case has come back to haunt him.
Each of my books has a murder, certainly. In the classic tradition of Christie and Sayers and Simenon. But they're not about murder. They're about belonging, and friendship, love - and redemption.
These are themes I understand, having lived them - in my private life, and in my life as a writer. To have almost given up, and then to have been given such help, and a second chance.
I hope you enjoy reading The Cruellest Month as much as I enjoyed writing it.
THE CRUELLEST MONTH is published by Headline (UK) April 2008 pbk £6.99
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache
1. Still Life (2005)
2. Dead Cold (2006) aka A Fatal Grace
3. The Cruellest Month (2007)
Visit Louise Penny’s website: http://www.louisepenny.com/