Choose Carefully. Pick Three Writers to Come to Your Dinner Party Tonight
Relish the rousing conversation
A Common Question in Literary Interviews
I love reading author interviews because I get a glimpse into their writing process. Where do they get their ideas? What is their impetus for writing? story? What methods do they use to develop characters, research facts, and build worlds?
A common question in author interviews is,
“If you could invite three writers to a literary dinner party at your house, who would you choose?”
That question thrills me, and I’ve given it some thought. As a reader and a writer, there are dozens of authors I’d like to meet. Each book I read has an author whose brain I’d like to pick. Each writer offers a conversation I’d love to engage in. But if I could only pick three, I’d pick…
Louise Penny, creator of the Inspector Gamache Series and the Village of Three Pines
I never think of myself as a “groupie,” always more comfortable walking my own path and observing from afar. But from the very first novel, Still Life, through the most recent publication of All the Devils Are Here, the 16th novel in the Inspector Gamache series, I have been enamored with Armand Gamache and the village of Three Pines.
I’m in awe of a writer who can create moving, interesting novels time after time as Louise Penny has done.
Oh, to talk to Louise about how she built the world that I would like to live in! Three Pines is a tiny Canadian village not far from the Vermont border with a cozy bookshop, a church, a bakery, and the ever-inviting Bistro, daily offering mouth-watering meals and pastries. (I’ve often wondered if everyone in Three Pines, is massively overweight because of the rich and wonderful food offered on a daily basis.)
The Village of Three Pines
Three Pines is a quaint, isolated place filled with characters who are flawed and quirky, who have struggled with massive problems like greed, jealousy, imprisonment, divorce, and death, to name a few. But through it all, they are capable of fellowship and friendship as they share meals in each other's homes, visit the bookshop, attend festivals, and bask in the warmth of the ever-inviting-always-aromatic Bistro of Three Pines.
Don’t get me wrong. Three Pines is not the setting for “cozy” mysteries. Penny’s books are gritty, sometimes painful, and always engaging. Her work is a combination of character sketches, mysteries, crime drama, and observations of human nature.
Louise Penny’s imagination gave birth to one of my all-time favorite characters. The elderly Ruth Zardo is brilliant, acerbic, and mad. The old poet is followed around by a quacking duck, whose “cluck” sounds like “f…,” an indicator of Zardo’s own thoughts. Ruth utters occasional words of brilliance mixed in with insults and satirical remarks.
The Wall Street Journal says,
“Penny’s novels unravel criminal schemes that have moral consequences… what stays with the reader are the tender passages, the human insights, the reminders of what makes life worth living.”
Louise Penny as a Person
Not only is Penny a best-selling author many times over, (and fellow dog-lover) she’s also a person who has faced her own devils and arrived on the other side. Her beloved husband, Michael, suffered from dementia. When he died, Louise Penny established the Three Pines Foundation to provide help for the caregivers of patients with dementia.
“Three Pines exists in our hearts. When we choose decency over cruelty. Kindness over cynicism. It is a place, in the words of the poet Auden, where goodness exists. You have found Three Pines, and are now a villager. Thank you, and welcome!”
I hope she’ll come to my house for dinner, this warm, compassionate woman whose works I love.
Rick Bragg, Pulitzer-Prize Winning Journalist and Author of Ava’s Man
I had never heard of Rick Bragg until my dear friend and novelist, Teresa Medeiros, gifted me with his book, Ava’s Man. Since then, I’ve also read “All Over But the Shoutin’,” both bestsellers.
Ava’s Man knocked the breath out of me with its beauty and its power, telling a story that I have not forgotten, years after reading it.
Nothing compares to Bragg’s straight-forward, gut-busting language. His dialogue is real. His imagery is evocative. His emotion is genuine. I want to glean every bit of insight I can from this journalist and memoirist.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch says this about Ava’s Man and Rick Bragg’s ability to create such vivid pictures:
“Rich in the raw materials of character and local color, enhanced by language marked with extravagance and economy — and the born storyteller’s gift for knowing when to be lavish with words and when to be lean.”
I totally get what The Miami-Herald quipped:
“Bragg writes like his grandfather drank . . . He cuts loose with wonderful flowing descriptive floods…that can cripple another writer with envy.”
I hope I’m not so crippled with envy when he visits that I can’t carry on a decent conversation.
Ben Shattuck, Writer and Artist, Young Enough to Be My Son
No matter how much you know, you can’t know enough. In spite of the fact that I read dozens of book and literature blogs, I had not been exposed to a writer named Ben Shattuck.
(Please note that I could not find an image of him that was copyright-free, so this photo is a picture of a guy who looks sort of like Ben Shattuck.)
Ben Shattuck wrote an article for LitHub that gave me intense pleasure….(Oops. That sounds wrong considering the topic of his article.) His article reminded me of the joy of reading work that is founded in research, story-telling, AND emotion. I spent an hour reading and contemplating his beautifully-written article “There once was a Dildo in Nantucket…” about the hush-hush items that sea captains supposedly gave their wives before they left for a journey which caused them to be absent for years.
I’ve always been interested in the whaling period, traveling twice to New Bedford where I visited the whaling museum, reading the names of sailors lost-at-sea, and feeling awestruck at the courage of men who could aim at a huge whale with nothing but a slender harpoon, a rocking boat, and the belief that they could kill a leviathan.
A Glimpse of Profound Loneliness
Shattuck’s article was filled with glorious passages, sound journalism, and unexpected emotion. He talks about how his search for the taboo-to-talk-about-dildo, referred to in some diaries as the “he’s-at-homes,” led him to insights on profound loneliness.
“Loneliness petrifies over time, because it’s our last state, isn’t it? As we’re closed off from the world by last breaths. The fossils of our living loneliness, the letters and shirt collars and photographs boxed up for another generation to find, have eternal shelf lives, timeless as obituaries, fresh today as the ancient honey we keep discovering in Egyptian tombs.”
What We Leave Behind
But most of all, I appreciate Shattuck’s gorgeous passage about the things we leave behind, particularly in light of my recent piece about why we hold onto things.
“Often, in death, you exit in a rush, with your things scattered about, your life exposed, your desk drawers a mess. That will be the case for all of us — leaving behind more than what we’ve accounted for. The valuables and debris of your life reach equal status at death. They are simply everything that’s left behind. Everything that was once yours. You will have thought of money, jewelry, maybe car or house, but you will not have thought of your toothbrush, your old slippers, letters from your first girlfriend you could never bring yourself to throw away, a favorite book, your child’s baby teeth. These items will be found, puzzled over, and either tossed out or kept in the back of a drawer to follow the next generation and maybe the one after that.
I want to talk to this Pushcart Winner and writer-teacher fellow at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I hope he’ll come.
Dinner Is Served
I’d love to serve lobster in honor of the New England coastal regions, but it’s too messy to crack and eat when you’re in the company of greatness. So we’ll have a hearty New England seafood chowder to honor Ben Shattuck’s work in Nantucket.
We’ll serve cornbread with butter and honey along with sweet tea in recognition of Rick Bragg’s southern roots. Of course, for those who like to imbibe, we’ll have a bit of whiskey (since I don’t know where to get any moonshine) in remembrance of Charlie Bundrum, the grandfather Bragg wrote about in Ava’s Man.
And to finish the meal, we’ll order caramel-apple dumplings sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar — special delivery from Louise Penny’s beloved Bistro in Three Pines.
An Incredible Night
There is NOTHING I like better than sitting around an intimate table, enjoying good food and stimulating conversation about books and writing.
You’re invited, too. I hope you’ll come.
Read more great insights on books and writers in Book Talk.