The Globe 100 books of 2020 will be out Friday, Dec. 4. Over the next week, we’ll be publishing conversations between authors about the different genres on the list, starting with Ann Cleeves and Louise Penny talking about mysteries. Coming up: Cherie Dimaline and Eden Robinson explore science fiction and fantasy, Margaret Atwood and Ian Williams recall the poems they first read and wrote, and more.
The Globe Up Close podcast episode about the Globe 100 is now available. The Globe’s Western arts correspondent Marsha Lederman, features editor Dawn Calleja, writer and critic Emily Donaldson and books editor Judith Pereira shared details of their conversations with some of the country’s leading authors about the books that got them through 2020, how the pandemic will shape the literary world and their thoughts about genre.
Ann Cleeves and Louise Penny are the queens of crime. Cleeves’s Vera Stanhope series – featuring a shambolic but sharp detective, and set near the author’s home on England’s northeast coast – so far includes nine books; her Shetland series ended after eight (though both continue to have cult followings on television). The 17th book in Penny’s Armand Gamache series, set in the fictional town of Three Pines, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships (where Penny spends most of her time in real life), debuted in September. Dawn Calleja spoke to the long-time friends – Cleeves from her home in Whitley Bay, Penny from a flat in London, where she has spent the pandemic – the day after the U.S. election.
DC: What have you been doing during your time in isolation?
LP: I’m in London. I’m really lucky because I’m on my own, and I really don’t know that many people here. But there is one couple who live in my building, Rocky and Steve. They’re wonderful – we mutually chose each other for the bubble, because we’re only allowed one other family or person. Thankfully they can’t see inside my head and realize how many people are living in there!
AC: For the first 12 weeks of lockdown, I had my 11-year-old grandson with me. He’s a chronic asthmatic, and he had just come out of hospital. And he’s got three siblings and a single mom. So, he came and stayed with me. It was quite fun. He was homeschooling, and I was writing, and we’d sit at the kitchen table typing away and taking tea breaks.
LP: It’s been perfect. I wasn’t writing during the first lockdown. I had just finished All the Devils are Here, but they hadn’t gotten to the editing stage yet. I thought, “This is great – I’ll sleep in, I’ll watch Netflix.” And after about two days, it was like, “Oh my God, I’m bored.” So, I started writing a new book. I’m just finishing the second draft. It was genuinely a blessing to have something to do that feels worthwhile.
AC: Oddly enough, getting into our heads is a great escape, isn’t it? To just be able to make stuff up, to create a different world with characters that you like, who we want to be with right there in our bubble? It’s symbiotic, because it gives the readers an escape, as well.
DC: Did the crisis bleed into your work? Or were your next books already set?
AC: It didn’t with mine, because I started writing it before the virus. And like Louise, I finished it very quickly, because there was nothing much else to do, and no touring or travelling.
LP: With the book I’m writing now, readers would write in and say, “Are you going to include the pandemic?” Some said I must. And some said, “No, don’t – it’ll be awful.” And I didn’t. But two-thirds of the way through the first draft, I realized that one of the themes – and I won’t tell you what it is – but it occurred to me that it dovetailed into a lot of the issues brought up in the pandemic. And I suddenly thought, “I’m going to set it postpandemic.” So we’re looking back at it, and there’s a vaccine. So there’s a hopeful element to it, at the same as thinking back to how scary it was and how it has a knock-on effect in terms of how people view things.
DC: When you created your hallmark characters, did you know that you’d be living with them in your head for a number of years?
LP: Well, I didn’t know, but I hoped. As a result, Still Life was written as a kind of introduction. You’ve met these people at a cocktail party. You don’t know everything about them, but you know that you probably want to spend a little more time with them. But I wouldn’t dare to dream I would be writing 17 books – I still can’t believe it.
AC: The first Vera book was definitely going to be a standalone novel, because I’d written a series before, and I had a very young, new editor who decided that series were old-fashioned and wouldn’t sell ever again. So, this had to be a standalone novel of psychological suspense, because that’s what was selling. And that’s why Vera comes in so late to The Crow Trap. She just appeared at a church door in the middle of a funeral, and I loved her and wanted to carry on writing about her. And it was quite magical. I’m lucky that editor ended up getting married to a music journalist and going off to Australia.
DC: I read a bunch of crime series, and I find great comfort in coming back to Bosch or Rebus or Tommy Lynley. People do really come to think of these characters as friends.
AC: With Louise, she has a group of people, so it’s not just one character. It’s an 11-character series. You’ve got this community you can write about, and that’s what’s so clever. And you want to be part of that community.
LP: Thank you for that. In many ways, it is limitless, but at the same time, it can be a little unwieldy. With every book, I introduce six or seven or eight people, plus I have to bring new readers up to speed, and it can get a bit confining at times. Which is why you take them every now and then outside of Three Pines.
DC: Ann, how quickly did you start to realize Vera had this whole backstory?
AC: She did have a backstory in that first book, and I knew what it was even before I explained it to the reader. Although she just appeared, she appeared with a history and this horrible father who had neglected her.
LP: For me it was a bit different – I didn’t really know a great deal about Gamache. In fact, within the first few pages of the first book, I described his career as having stalled. And an early comment from one of the editors was “maybe you should explain why his career stalled.” I had no idea. I just put it in because I could identify with someone who hasn’t had all the breaks, who’s had some stumbles. And that ended up playing a huge role later on in the series. There are just certain little things, almost like seeds that I could go back to and pick up or just forget.
DC: I’m curious about the settings you’ve chosen and how you manage to keep each book fresh without it seeming like, “Oh boy, another death in Three Pines.” Because the setting is almost as much of a character as the detectives themselves.
LP: That’s a real challenge – not to become formulaic. So, what I do is try to explore different themes. The books aren’t really about the murder. The murder is the catalyst, the Trojan horse in which all sorts of other themes and issues ride. So that makes the books different.
AC: Yes, I think each book has a different voice. I stopped writing the Shetland series after eight books just because it is so confined – there are only 23,000 people in all the Shetland islands. And it was the place that made people want to read them, so I didn’t think I could take Jimmy Perez anywhere else. I’ve taken Vera outside her northeast. And Matthew Venn is based in North Devon, where I grew up.
LP: The beauty of Three Pines is that it doesn’t exist, but it’s clearly set where I live. Every decision I made for this series was honestly selfish. The books are all about belonging. I had spent many years searching for, yearning for a home. And for someone like me, who’s an introvert, home means having a lot connections to family and friends. Then I found a home in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, unexpectedly – an anglo from Toronto. And I am deeply grateful for that. I wanted to reflect the power of belonging to a community.
AC: I think it’s about the place, the landscape. But it’s also about the community that grows out of that landscape, which is what fascinates both of us.
LP: Which is why people keep coming back to Shetlands and to Vera, and now to Matthew Venn. For my books, certainly, very few people come to them because of the plots. They do it because of the setting and the sense of community, the sense of belonging readers have, right? But Ann, you do have such brilliant plots that you [tick] me off. Honestly, you [tick] me off every time I read one of your books or we get together and you’re describing a plot. I’m thinking, “Oh, come on – that’s such a good idea, why did I not think of that?”
DC: How do you get inspired?
AC: I’m a great eavesdropper. I listen to people’s conversations, and it is quite often maybe a place I visit or overhearing two old ladies talking at a café. The Seagull was inspired just by listening to people in our local pub.
LP: You just don’t know what little nugget becomes an oak.
AC: I was walking on the beach and I saw these two girls staring into the sea, wearing sort of old-fashioned skirts and holding hands. And I thought, “What are they doing?” Some time, those girls will appear in a story. Because it’s all about what if, isn’t it? A good friend of mine is a senior crime investigator, and she says that’s what they do when they come to a crime scene – running potential scenarios. It’s a bit like that with creating a story, isn’t it? You start with this character. What if his relationship with his mother was this way? Or what if he seems like a really nice guy, but he’s abusive to his wife?
DC: What have you been reading during all this?
AC: Summerwater by Sarah Moss was one of my favourites. It’s brilliant. It takes place over one day in this shabby seaside resort, and it’s [pouring] with rain. It’s just how these different characters react, and she gets so well into their heads. I’m also reading The Survivors by Jane Harper, the Australian crime writer. I love her work.
LP: Though I read a few of my friends, I don’t read crime writing, for two reasons: I don’t want to be influenced. If a book is great, it stays with me, and I don’t have enough room in my brain for two books – mine and the one I’m reading. It also feels a bit like work. So I read a lot of non-fiction and comfort stuff.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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