Louise Penny on Surviving Childhood Fears with Charlotte’s Web
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi, I’m Will Schwalbe, and this is But That’s Another Story. My oldest goddaughter Ming read so much when she was a child that her mother had to beg her to stop reading long enough to eat. And every birthday and Christmas, I’d get Ming books to feed her addiction. One year, I asked what she’d like. Without hesitation, she told me that she only wanted books about children whose parents were dead and who had to go on perilous adventures. Only orphans would do. My mission clear, I went to the great children’s bookstore near my apartment where I was greeted by an enthusiastic bookseller. I told her about my instructions—a children’s book, fiction, about a kid with dead or missing parents. An orphan on a perilous adventure. Did they have anything like that? The bookseller looked at me, then pointed to one shelf. Then another. Then another. She wasn’t so much pointing as drawing a circle around the entire store. Welcome to children’s literature, she said. As I picked up the stack, she clued me in. “The thing every child fears most is being left alone, orphaned, abandoned. But when they read about kids who were and how they survived, it’s a way of confronting their greatest fear. If another kid can survive it, so can they.” I realized then I’m still that kid. I too seek out books that tackle head-on my greatest fears: a plane crash. A murderous clown. If the people in those books can endure, then maybe so can I. And recently, I got to talking about stories of survival with today’s guest.
Louise Penny: My name is Louise Penny and I write the Armand Gamache mysteries.
WS: I’ve known her for the last five years, but you probably know her as the prolific—and suspense-inducing—author of books like Still Life, A Fatal Grace, and most recently, Glass Houses. They’re a series of mysteries that follow Detective Armand Gamache around Quebec as he investigates murders. So it should come as little surprise that Louise Penny has always had a vivid imagination.
LP: I used to dream that I was adopted and that my real mother was the Queen of England. That she would come and take me away from this horrific family that was only ever loving.
LP: I think I found it boring, growing up in Toronto in the 1950s and 60s. There just wasn’t a lot going on. And on top of that, as if that wasn’t bad enough, I was growing up in a neighborhood known as Hog Town. So there was humiliation kind of wrapped in with the boredom. But at the same time, there was sort of I think an Andy Griffith-esque quality to it, because there was a sort of sameness to it. Which appealed to me, I think. I came out of the womb afraid. Just terrified of everything. And I was thankfully never given a reason to be afraid, but I just always was, and so I was very, very shy. Insecure. Moody. You can see what a delight I was as a child.
WS: And that fear extended to other children.
LP: The worst thing in the world for me would be not being invited to other children’s birthday parties. And the second worst thing was being invited to other children’s birthday parties. My birthday was in July, so the school year was over, and I used to invite a bunch of girls to my birthday party and most of them would decline. And I realize now looking back it was probably because they went off to camp or went off with their family somewhere else or whatever. It wasn’t because they didn’t like me, but my interpretation was that they didn’t like me.
WS: But the one place that Louise found solace—and friends—was in her favorite activity: reading.
WS: How did you come across Charlotte’s Web?
LP: I think Charlotte’s Web—I think it must have been a gift. I was already a voracious reader and I ended up picking up Charlotte’s Web one day. It wasn’t read to me. I was never very good at school, but I was always a great reader, and so I just picked it up and started reading. It was just one of many books. One after another after another, but it was the book that—that essentially changed my life.
LP: I was afraid of everything. Everything. I was afraid of everything. Especially spiders.
LP: It became like a phobia for me. I would see a spider and I would literally run away and run upstairs and hide in my room, close the door and get into a corner. Then I was a little screwed because I didn’t know where the spider was! I could imagine it growing and coming up with all of its friends, up the stairs and down the hallway toward me and I’d stare at the door waiting for them to start piling in.
WS: In spite of that phobia, Louise found herself drawn into the story of Charlotte, the spider who helps save the life of Wilbur the pig, unable to put the book down.
LP: What happened in that instant that was life-changing and magical and mystical is that I realized that I loved Charlotte. And I wanted nothing bad to happen to her. And she was a friend of mine. And in that instant, my cardinal fear was lifted. And that really was magic. It was incredible. And I understood that it came from the power of the word, the power of storytelling. And the power of imagination. To heal.
LP: If reading could lift that fear, maybe it could help heal other fears. And it helped, one by one. A lot of my fears—not all of them, but a lot of them fell away. Or at least, if they didn’t actually fall away, reading gave me a map through life. A way to navigate humanity that made sense to me, so that I could have friendships and I didn’t have to be so sensitive and I could resolve issues with people. And I learned that from reading books.
WS: And one of the fears that fell away was the fear of spending time with other children. Louise and her family moved to Montreal, where they spent their summers at a lake house. A place Louise says she finally came into her own.
LP: I finally had friends I felt I could trust who loved me and I loved them. Elene Richy, Vicky Harris, Lucy Holden, and Sarah Dobell. We would have sleepovers, we would play games, we’d take tennis lessons. And Vicky and I had a crush on the same boy at the same time. We used to just leave in the morning and run outside and we’d put our bath towels around our necks like capes and it was fantastic. We would get on bikes and go out and be completely free and then we’d come home when we were hungry. It was a little bit like Peanuts comics where parents were kind of “wah, wah, wah, wah.” And they handed us food and that was it. But I remember lying in bed one night, absolutely and completely at peace and calm and happy, and hearing through the grate my parents discussing the fact they were about to divorce.
LP: I never forgot, obviously, that moment of finally finding peace and having it completely shattered.
WS: Louise Penny had spent much of her early childhood using books to conquer her fears—of spiders, of making friends, you name it. But when her parents announced their divorce, she found herself thrown into new circumstances that she hadn’t been prepared for.
LP: We went from being very privileged and very comfortable in our existence to having nothing. And my mother had to go out to work, and this was not something she ever expected in a million years would happen. And as I said, we had nothing. I mean, I remember days where we barely had food. She came home with her first paycheck and we thought, finally, we’ll have food. And she said, come with me, I want to take you out. So we thought we’d go to a restaurant for dinner or something special, a treat. And she took us on a couple of buses and then on the subway, retracing the route that she took to work, and eventually she led us down a road with a bunch of shops. Then we turned into an art gallery, and with her first paycheck, she bought a work of art. And she said to us, now, you must remember: no matter what is happening, you must always have beauty in your life.
LP: It looks like a very, very full bodied, voluptuous Mayan statue. It looks like a painting of a statue. And I understand now why it appealed to her, because she herself was a woman who was taking her place in the world.
LP: And when she died, and we each got to choose something of hers to take, that was the first thing I chose, and it still obviously has a place of importance in my home.
WS: And what role did books play for you during that period?
LP: I don’t think I would have killed myself had books not existed, but they certainly were a comfort and a company. Because I was always, as I said, a fearful child. And that just made me isolate myself more. Had I not had books, I would have been sitting in my room alone ruminating. But I was able to pick out these books and find friendship and find a community that I wouldn’t normally have. They were friends. And I know that can sound cliché, but for a lonely, confused, frightened child to have an island of refuge that were my books, was beyond meaningful.
WS: And it was then that Louise realized that her love of books might go beyond simply reading them.
LP: If reading was that powerful, then imagine how powerful writing must be. I decided that I would be a writer.
LP: I didn’t, of course, become a writer right away. Oddly enough, I wasn’t even one of those children who sat down and made up stories all by myself! I think it felt too much like work. I had an active imagination but I didn’t write down the stories, they just lived in my head. I tried to write from late teens through my twenties. I have my first rejection letter, actually. It’s from McClelland and Stewart in Toronto. Very polite but quite firm.
WS: Louise kept trying to write, but found that her work was never what she wanted it to be.
LP: The problem I had was that despite what I’m describing now, I wasn’t a young child who was really in touch with myself. And so there wasn’t a lot of self-awareness, so there wasn’t a lot that I could bring to a book. And I realize I just wanted to write in order to impress other people. And so the books were pretty hollow and pretty callow and for the most part not even finished.
LP: I think what happened was that I was afraid of failing. Afraid of trying and failing. It’s a little bit like Waiting for Godot: maybe it’s better to not test out the dream. Just leave it as a dream because what happens if you can’t do it? And I had started drinking quite heavily when I was in my twenties. I think that was all an effort to cope. That did not help with self-awareness either because of course you don’t drink because you’re a happy person. You drink because you’re trying to escape. And so I became quite a superficial human being without a lot of human contact, because I am someone who’s naturally shy, naturally introverted, who prefers her own company. And then add that I didn’t go to bars. I was an isolated drinker. I would come home and get drunk. So that didn’t add to my store of friends or human interaction. And it wasn’t until I got sober and met Michael and started leading a healthier life with other human beings in it that I actually had a center. Before that, I was hollow.
WS: When Louise met her husband, Michael, she says she found more of her fears dissipating. And he also helped give her the opportunity to do the one thing she wanted to do the most: write.
LP: Michael played a huge role in allowing me to write. I was a journalist. I was working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation hosting shows. And I was getting pretty burned out.
LP: I came home one day, and I was just exhausted. And Michael said, “If you would like to quit work, in order to write that book that I know you’ve always dreamed of writing, I’ll support you.” And he meant it, and thank heavens he meant financially. He clearly meant emotionally as well. And so I quit work and then I suffered five years of writer’s block. It got to the stage where poor Michael would come home from work and he was afraid to ask me how my work was going. But he never, never, never, never led me to believe that he was any less interested in my writing, never any less supportive, never impatient or worried that he had backed the wrong horse. He was always positive that the book would happen.
LP: Michael used to call me a horizontalist because I would spend much of my day trying to figure out how to get horizontal, either on a sofa or on a bed or in the bathtub. One day I was preparing to get horizontal with the book and I looked over on the bedside table, and there was fiction and nonfiction and all sorts of different types of books. But very well represented was crime fiction. And I had one of those a-ha moments, and I realized in a flash that I was trying to write the wrong book for the wrong reason. I was trying to write a work of transcendent literary fiction, the best novel ever written. Because otherwise, why bother? I was trying to write a book that my mother would be proud of. That my brothers would be proud of. That my former colleagues would be jealous of. That strangers would come up and bow down to. I understood in that instant, like lightning. Boom! I became aware that I needed to write a book just for myself. Not for anyone else. And that the contract with my eight-year-old self sitting on a bed reading Charlotte’s Web wasn’t that the book be any good, not even that it be published, just that it be written.
LP: And that’s where Still Life came from. I got myself vertical and I went down to the kitchen and I drew the map of this fictional village that I write about, Three Pines. And I still have that map. And the first thing I created in Three Pines was the bookstore, because what could be more important than a brick-and-mortar bookstore? And so I created characters I’d like to hang around with and a village that I would want to live in. And so every decision that I made was absolutely about my own enjoyment. It was the most selfish thing I’ve ever done, and the most rewarding. It was a terrifying experience, but it was fantastic.
LP: I didn’t want to reach the end of my days regretting never having tried the one thing that I’ve always dreamed of doing out of fear. And I didn’t want fear—the fear that had plagued me most of my life—to steal from me. What a thief it has been for much of my life, and it wasn’t going to steal this from me.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Katie Ferguson, with editing help from Alyssa Martino and Alex Abnos. Thanks to Louise Penny, Kayla Janas, and Sarah Melnyk. For more from Louise Penny, check out the latest Armand Gamache mystery, coming out this November. It’s called Kingdom of the Blind. If you’d like to learn more about the books we mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. And if you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes — it really helps others discover the program. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at AnotherStory@macmillan.com. We’ll be back with our next episode in two weeks. I’m Will Schwalbe, thanks so much for listening.