Writing Through Grief—By Louise Penny

Louise Penny writes at her dining table. (Photo by Lise Page)

A funny thing happened on my way to not writing a book.

I started writing.

The truth is, I’ve known since I began writing that if my husband Michael died, I couldn’t continue with the Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series. Not simply because he was the inspiration for Armand Gamache, and it would be too painful, but because he’s imbued every aspect of the books. The writing, the promotion, the conferences, the travel, the tours. He was the first to read a new book, and the last to criticize. Always telling me it was great, even when the first draft was quite clearly merde.

When Michael died peacefully at home in September 2016, I was pretty well spent. Physically, emotionally, and creatively. In French the saying is, tu me manques. Which means ‘I miss you’, but actually, literally, translates into ‘You are missing from me.’ That’s how it felt. Michael was missing from me.

How could I go on when half of me was missing? I could barely get out of bed.

I just could not face writing another book. And if I forced myself, the result would be a betrayal of all the previous books, the characters, the world of Three Pines. Of me. It would be a sad way to ruin what I’d created. I’d be writing because I had to, not because I wanted to.

Now, sometimes, it’s true, a writer just has to sit down, and do it. That’s often the case with me. Some days I’d much rather eat gummy bears and watch The Crown than write. But this would have been different. This would have been going through the motions. Forcing the characters, chocking out some lame plot. My readers deserved better.

So I spoke to my wonderful agent, and broke the news that I just didn’t think I could write a book. I just didn’t have it in me. I was too tired. Too broken. I’d mend, I knew that. But right then? No. She was wonderful, completely understanding and supportive. And then she had to tell the publishers. She did. And they were fabulous. They agreed that they’d rather have no Gamache book than a crappy one.

And so, that was the plan.

I was going to take a year off, to regroup and catch my breath after Michael died. That might have been a lie. In my heart I knew I could never write Gamache again. (And, sadly, would have to give back the next advance.)

But then, something happened. A few months later, I found myself sitting at the dining table, where I always write. My golden retriever Bishop lying beside me, fireplace on, café au lait in my Vive Gamache mug… opening the laptop.

I began having ideas—not the usual sort of thoughts of food and vacation, but actual book ideas. Armand began stirring. They all did. I could see them again. Hear them again.

And I wanted to be with them again.

I think my desire for distance was not just about exhaustion, but also because Armand was, and always will be, so associated with Michael. I just needed quiet time, to come to terms.

And then, there he was again.

I wish I could describe for you the joy I felt. And feel.

So I quietly, without telling anyone, began writing again. A little at first. Then more, and more. 

I wrote two words: Armand Gamache

Then the next day I wrote: slowed his car to a crawl

And the next day: then stopped on the snow-covered secondary road.

But I didn’t dare tell anyone. In case I stopped writing. Or the book took a very, very long time to write. The publishers had no idea I was writing. It wasn’t until six months later that I told them. But even then, I warned them the book might not be ready in time. My agent was magnificent. Telling me not to worry. To take whatever time I needed. Stop writing, if I needed.

And that was all I needed, to keep going.

I really gave myself permission to just let go and explore.

I discovered, again, how much I love to write. And, again, what a harbour it is. What would I do with my days otherwise? There are, after all, only so many episodes of Outlander.

And so Kingdom of the Blind was born. It is the child that was never going to be. But happened. My love child.

I began the book not with sadness. Not because I had to, but with joy. Because I wanted to. My heart was light. Even as I wrote about some very dark themes, it was with gladness. With relief. That I got to keep doing this.

Far from leaving Michael behind, he became even more infused in the books. All the things we had together came together. Love, companionship, friendship. His integrity. His courage. Laughter.

I realized, too, that the books are far more than Michael. Far more than Gamache. They’re the common yearning for community. For belonging. They’re about kindness, acceptance. Gratitude. They’re not so much about death, as life. And the consequences of the choices we make.

Photo by Mikaël Theimer

Louise Penny is an international award winning and bestselling author whose books have hit #1 on the New York TimesUSA TODAY, and Globe and Mail (Toronto) lists. Her Chief Inspector Armand Gamache novels, published by Minotaur Books, an imprint of the St. Martin’s Publishing Group, have been translated into thirty-one languages. In 2017, she received the Order of Canada for her contributions to Canadian culture. Louise Penny lives in Knowlton, Quebec. www.louisepenny.com

9 thoughts on “Writing Through Grief—By Louise Penny

  1. Thank you for this personal–and universally relatable–expression about the space needed before being able to write again. I was particularly inspired by this line, “I discovered, again, how much I love to write. And, again, what a harbour it is.”


  2. Poignant, personal, and inspiring … especially these two lines: “I discovered, again, how much I love to write. And, again, what a harbour it is.”


  3. Louise Penny is by far my absolute favorite author! She has immersed me in the Inspector Gamache series so skilfully I actually feel like I have personally met each one of the characters of Three Pines! I can hardly put each book down when I begin and the minute the story ends, I’m hungry for the next one to begin! My 50 year old son is now reading the series. We as Canadians are so proud to call Louise our treasure! My daughter-in-law is from Quebec so it means even that much more to all of us.
    Thank you Louise for sharing Writing Through Grief and your story of your beloved Michael.


  4. I was introduced to Louise Penny’s books by my sister… Louise Penny is my favorite author along with Donna Leon…all of their books are based around close relationships with family and friends…Three Pines is a village we would all like to live in and Inspector Gamache is a friend we would love to have…I had no idea he was based on Micheal, her late husband…it makes her books even more special…
    Having read this article by Ms Penny I’ll go back to ” Kingdom of the Blind” as it will now have a special meaning to me…Thank you Ms Penny for creating such a wonderful series of books


  5. My favorite author. An inspirational person, survivor through grief, strong and courageous. It was my privilege to meet Louise and Michael, both in Quebec and here in New Zealand when they traveled Far South for a book launch. Two very special and memorable people.


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