“There is a crack in everything,” Louise Penny likes to quote in her bestselling mystery novels. “That’s how the light gets in.” That interplay of dark and light – and how one can’t exist without the other – is the theme for her books, and her life.

Penny is one of Canada’s most successful novelists in any genre, the winner of countless awards and, since 2013, a Member of the Order of Canada. Vibrant, funny, fit and famously kind, she is the epitome of living a life unlimited. 

But life hasn’t always been this bright.

Penny has battled alcoholism, loneliness and self-doubt. In 1996, she walked away from a successful 18-year career as a CBC radio broadcaster that was making her miserable. She met and married the love of her life, Michael Whitehead, head of hematology at Montreal Children’s Hospital, only to lose him, slowly and heartbreakingly, to dementia in 2016. 

She was 47 when she published her first book, Still Life, featuring the amiable Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. Now 60, Penny is about to launch her 14th novel, Kingdom of the Blind, which involves a mysterious will and a deadly batch of missing drugs. But first, she took time out to speak to YouAreUNLTD.

On the challenges of writing a series:

“You don’t want to inadvertently write the same book over and over again, or even have the same tone over and over again. But it still has to be relatable enough so you know you’re in safe hands.”

On reality merging with fiction:

“You’d have to be a fool not to be aware [of the real-life opioid crisis that echoes the plot of the new book], but it wasn’t as much of an issue when I started this thread. This is a great equalizer, this opioid epidemic. It is a plague.”

On caring for her husband after the dementia diagnosis:

“It was so scary. I could see one day to the next how it would change, and of course I knew where it would end. What finally happened, it was one of those a-ha moments. I finally realized that Michael couldn’t change so I would have to. It was very calming, and it allowed space for us to just enjoy each other.”

On what really matters:

“There was a clarity that came into our lives. Fewer things mattered, and the things that mattered became more important. Life became very small and very precious.”

On dementia’s unexpected gift:

“I got to lose him little bits at a time. He didn’t disappear at once. We had the most positive experience within the realm of it being awful.”

On asking for help – before it became a crisis:

“When he was in a wheelchair and couldn’t speak, there was a sense that Michael was still one of us. So if he fell, I could call and say, ‘Michael’s on the floor, can you help?’”

On meditating with friends during Michael’s illness:

“That was huge. Like they say, there are no atheists in foxholes. Same with meditation and yoga. But it’s best not to start it when you’re in a crisis.”

On aging well:

“I exercise every day using an app called Zova. I only go to the gym to pay the membership and leave. I don’t even pretend any more. I’ve decided that cellulite is beautiful. I might as well.”

On managing expectations:

“When you’ve been through hell and you’ve loved so completely, your expectations change. I want to be fit and I want to walk as well as I can for as long as I can. I’m not expecting more than that.” 

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Joanne Sasvari
Joanne is a Vancouver-based food, drink, travel and lifestyle writer. She is editor of Vitis, The Alchemist and Westcoast Homes & Design magazines, and contributes to publications including Vancouver Sun, The Publican and Destination BC. Joanne is also the author of The Wickaninnish Cookbook, Vancouver Eats and the website PlumandPepper.ca.