IN FROM THE COLD
Liz Thomson meets the author whose debut novel The Tenderness of Wolves scooped the Costa Book of the Year award in 2006
Flying from Britain to the East Coast of North America, there’s a moment when you look down in wonder at Canada’s Arctic Archipelago, which stretches from Cape Columbia in the north to Hudson Bay and the Canadian mainland in the south. Depending on the time of year, it’s either aspirin-white or the green-brown of tundra and there’s something uniquely exciting about looking down on this untamed landscape, even as one heads for the excitements of New York or Boston or Chicago.
Stef Penney has never felt that frisson of excitement from on high: the inhospitable yet awe-inspiring terrain she conjured up in her debut novel The Tenderness of Wolves came entirely from her imagination, informed only by leather-bound accounts of nineteenth-century adventurers sent to Canada to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company. ‘I haven’t been there yet but probably will at some point,’ Penney ponders, adding that a friend in the film business had recently sent her photos of his house on Georgian Bay, the real-life inspiration for Dove River in the novel, a bay on Lake Huron, second-largest of the Great Lakes.
Penney’s atmospheric debut, published in 2006, was a critical and commercial success, winning a number of prizes, most notably the Costa Book of the Year Award, which put book and author on the international literary map, even if Penney herself wished to remain (so to speak) somewhat off-grid. The five years that have elapsed constitute, these days, a long silence between books – publishers constantly push authors to produce a book-a-year, the better (they believe) to build an audience. Now Penney is publishing her long-awaited second novel, The Invisible Ones, which could scarcely be more different than the first, except that, like it, it’s a novel about outsiders.
‘Five years – I think that’s quite quick!’ she says, as we sit chatting in the sun-drenched patio garden of her publisher, in the heart of Bloomsbury. ‘How many good ideas do people have in a lifetime? I only want to write a book if I feel I’ve got a fantastic story to tell.’ She agrees it’s ‘so different’ from Tenderness that she worried that ‘despite everything’ nobody might want to publish it. ‘I wasn’t under contract – it was only sold last year.’ Authors have a choice, Penney believes; they don’t need to get tied down by publishers. ‘The pressure to produce stuff is too great – which is daft, because there are far too many books. Not writing under contract was a fantastic idea. If you’re pushed you get shit. Trying to get an advance for a book that isn’t finished is crazy. I never want to get into that whole bidding war thing. There are agents who think if you ever earn royalties they haven’t done their job,’ she reflects, relieved it’s not a view shared by her own agent. ‘Everyone has a choice. You don’t have to take the biggest advance.’
“Most writers feel a bit like an outsider. You have a romanticised ideal.”
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Penney’s desire not to be tied down gives her something in common with the characters at the heart of her new novel, for they are gypsies. She admits to ‘a long-term fascination with outsider cultures. Most writers feel a bit like an outsider. You have a romanticised ideal.’ And she is, she adds, ‘very sympathetic’ to the gypsy plight. ‘The legislation – Caravan Acts and so on about stopping places – has been trying to make it impossible to live a travelling life. The government wants everyone to settle down and pay tax… A lot of them have bought their own land but they still find it difficult because they have to ask for planning permission and neighbours try to block it and it all gets quite angry.’
Has she known people from the travelling community, had friends from it? ‘I have done, but I don’t know it was that particularly. I had the idea for a very long time and it started as a screenplay. I wrote a treatment, but nobody was interested. I wanted to do a noir, and it is a thriller in some ways, more so than The Tenderness of Wolves. There’s a search, a mystery, and in a way that’s a great help as a writer – you have a progression and you know roughly where it’s going to go.’ She pauses for a sip of tea: ‘I wonder as a writer how long I can get away with clinging to the shirt-tails of a genre.’
Did she do much research among the gypsy community? ‘It wasn’t easy to chat and I’m not very good at that sort of thing, but I did go out and try to talk to people. I felt like a middle-class media wanker and I was embarrassed by the role. I don’t think I’d have talked to me either! So I did more book research, though it was quite difficult to find stuff that was useful.’
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The Invisible Ones opens with private detective Ray Lovell lying in a hospital bed, struggling to remember how he got there. He recalls, he thinks, some ‘embarrassingly quick’ sex and the police have told him that it appeared he’d driven his car through a fence. He is recovering from a period of paralysis and speechlessness; indeed, his right arm is still useless. Pretty much everything else having been eliminated, the medics think he’s suffered poisoning. But by what and by whom?
We then flash back to a late afternoon a few weeks earlier, when a Leon Wood had arrived at the offices of Lovell Price Investigations asking Ray to look for his daughter, a gypsy who married into gypsies and then disappeared without trace. Ray, whose father forsook the gypsy life to ‘live in bricks’ (as they say), is asked to look into the case on the grounds that he is still ‘one of us’. Lovell is a gypsy name and Wood has checked him out – once a gypsy… ‘I can tell by looking at you that you can talk to people. They’ll listen to you,’ Wood tells him. ‘They’ll talk to you.’
They do and they don’t, and Ray begins to assemble a jigsaw with many mysteriously missing pieces as the gypsy clan closes ranks, frequently telling him nothing or feeding him misinformation. It’s a world with which Penney’s simpatico PI is more than half familiar, physically and emotionally, and he and JJ, the youngest of the clan at the heart of the story, are appealing characters, the latter bright beyond his years, going to school yet constrained by a lifestyle and a tradition – and bound by innate loyalty – that he both loves and hates and seems to know cannot be sustained.
“I hate all the celebrity author stuff and I don’t think authors generally are celebrities. It’s distracting.”
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‘You can see why in the past [the gypsies] didn’t need a book-based education – because they did jobs that others didn’t want to do and they could fit in. But people adapt, the culture will adapt… There’s a terrific memoir called Gypsy Boy by Mikey Walsh, which isn’t his real name, because he grew up gay which is always difficult. He’s left, but he’s a very articulate and likeable voice.’ Penney also mentions Damian Le Bas, who left the gypsy community having graduated in theology from Oxford, as ‘a very articulate and likeable voice’. As for her own band of gypsies, the Janko family, ‘I’m not saying they’re representative, though there is a lot of cousin marriage. It’s a weird family with a weird secret and I liked the idea of a private detective who starts out with what seems like a simple problem.’ She acknowledges that given the furore which surrounded Channel 4’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, the novel’s title is ‘suddenly a little less apt’.
Of course, Penney herself prefers to be if not quite invisible then certainly low-profile, and much was made of her unwillingness to fully engage with the media following the success of Tenderness at the Costas when, having won the First Novel award, it took the main prize of Costa Book of the Year. The award was announced after a sit-down dinner for several hundred guests, at which each of the contenders was fêted. Penney, seated with her agent and publishers, ‘totally assumed that someone else had won, because I was sure they’d tip you off so you could prepare a speech. So I relaxed, had a few drinks...
‘It was really terrifying, more terrifying than I thought. In retrospect I enjoyed it but at the time it was overwhelming.’ Leaving the ceremony amid a hail of flash bulbs, she said, made her feel like a criminal leaving court. Moreover, she came down with a bug, possibly anxiety-induced, which made the following day’s round of media that much harder. ‘It’s weird and it’s not a rational thing,’ she reflects. ‘I just found it very difficult. I hadn’t reckoned on having to talk about myself. One journalist asked if I’d always been very secretive with friends and I thought what a bizarre question – you’re not a friend, you’re a journalist! I don’t think you have to be permanently on the circuit. It’s very market-driven. I hate all the celebrity author stuff and I don’t think authors generally are celebrities. It’s distracting. The opiate of the masses is celebrity magazines. It’s funny because, if you’re in film, which is closer to the razzmatazz of celebrity culture, filmmakers are not very visible at all. No one gives a shit about screenwriters, I suppose because there’s something more shiny over there. You’re creating a story and what’s interesting about me is what’s written here. It’s not anyone else’s business; people shouldn’t care.’
She’s got used to it to some extent now, sees it as a part of the process but recognises that she must control it, not the other way round. She never reads what’s written about her. ‘It’s hard to insulate yourself entirely… I don’t believe some very nice things that people wrote about the book and that makes it easier not to believe all the worst stuff too,’ she suggests, sensibly. And while it’s impossible not to sense her reticence, her desire not to reveal too much of her back story – and frankly why should she? Who among us would want to? – Penney seems relaxed enough as she talks about her formative years.
“How many good ideas do people have in a lifetime? I only want to write a book if I feel I’ve got a fantastic story to tell.”
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The Invisible Ones
by Stef Penney is published
1 September 2011
in hardback by Quercus,
She grew up principally in Glasgow and Edinburgh, though her accent bears no trace of Scotland. ‘I’m one of those people who sponge up the prevailing accent and anyway my mum is English. When I go back I don’t feel very Scottish: I’m a stranger, I don’t know where I am.’ She’s one of two children (‘I was the difficult, annoying one’) and her sister was the reader in the family. ‘I was quite sporty and into pop music.’
School was not an unalloyed delight; maybe her school in particular, maybe school in general. ‘I was very angry about it, the way they teach. It tended to be formulaic and authoritarian. It felt like individuality was something to be discouraged and crushed. I don’t feel like I was a rebel – I didn’t go around smashing things.’ It didn’t help that her English teacher told her parents that their daughter ‘wasn’t very imaginative’ and should perhaps pursue other alternatives. ‘I’d actually won a prize in a writing competition. I think it was because I didn’t agree with them very often. If you’re asking someone’s opinion on literature you can’t always say they’re wrong. It’s a subject response to something someone’s written.’
In any event, she didn’t choose to read English but rather Philosophy and Theology, and at Bristol. Why those subjects? ‘My parents were quite religious so I was brought up going to church – they weren’t prescriptive about it; it was just what they did,’ says Penney, quickly scotching any suggestions of an Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit childhood. ‘I got to around 14 and I said I didn’t want to go any more and that was fine. There was no censure. I wasn’t confirmed but, in my teens, I started to go through the process and I had a lot of conversations with the minister at their church and I asked lots of questions. Because as I became less religious, I became fascinated with philosophy and the philosophy of religion. The minister was a very interesting man and I thought: I like this stuff, I want to go and study it, discuss philosophy and why we’re here. Which you don’t do at university, obviously. We had some mature students – I mean 24, 25 – and they were really focused while I was busy discovering myself and going to parties. I always thought: I wish I had more time for my course because I’m really fascinated by it.’
Even at uni she had no ambitions to be a writer, indeed no particular ambitions at all, ‘other than to be a pop star, somehow’. She had, however, become more and more interested in film but had ‘no idea how anyone did it’, which was part of the fascination. ‘We didn’t know people who were anything to do with film or the media, so it was this really mysterious thing… it came from somewhere else. I remember people making little films at university, which I didn’t, but I found out about film schools and ended up going to Bournemouth College of Art’, after which she naturally gravitated to London.
‘I wanted to direct but I had no money so it was easier to sit down and write a film script.’ Indeed, she wrote a number of scripts, television and short films, and was part of Carlton New Writers scheme. There was an ‘unfulfilling, crappy TV series’ and then a couple of shorts and then Penney received a commission. ‘The first screenplay I wrote, the first person who read it bought it and I thought this is easy. Then of course I discovered that it wasn’t always like that.’
Among the screenplays that languished in development hell was Nova Scotia, about the Highland Clearances, the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century displacement of the population of the Scottish Highlands which pushed people west to the coast – and beyond, to the shores of North America. They were the equivalent of the Enclosure Movement during England’s earlier agrarian revolution, but much less known about. ‘It’s amazing no one’s made a film because it’s really emotional stuff, stirring and very visual – this massive social injustice. Scots know about it but the English don’t and if you tell them they don’t care.’ At the end of Penney’s still-unmade screenplay, two of the characters, Mr and Mrs Ross, board a boat and sail for Canada.
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THE BIG CHILL
The big chill
Thus was the germ from which Tenderness grew planted, ‘a very small germ. I didn’t really know where it was going, though I knew I would have Mrs Ross tramping through the snow, looking for someone, though I didn’t know who that someone would be initially.’ In fact it is her teenage son, who disappeared following the brutal murder of a tracker named Laurent Jammet. Penney did not, however, set out to write a novel about the Hudson’s Bay Company, but in researching nineteenth-century Canada it’s impossible to avoid it. ‘Lots of people went out there and did their seven-year term, usually the younger sons. They were very young, like Donald,’ gentle, romantic, who thinks he has found love. ‘They didn’t know what to expect and their accounts of the experience varied because they wanted to market it.’ Donald doesn’t find it congenial, physically or emotionally, and other ‘Company men’ he encounters have clearly been changed by the experience. ‘How boring it was, stuck in a Hudson Bay fort with not many colleagues and the winter lasting six months.’
She enjoyed the research and the writing, which itself took around a year. The easiest character to write was Francis, who is both central and spectral: ‘I loved that, and didn’t change the wording very much.’ The only character to come from the pages of history is Thomas Sturrock who, in real life was Thomas Mullock, an Anglo-Irish journalist who wrote about the Clearances and was ‘an amazing character who seemed too good to be true’ and who got cut out of Penney’s original screenplay. The novel is a unique blend of western, romance and thriller that will one day make a great film, though Penney has no interest in writing the screenplay.
Mrs Ross is, like her creator, agoraphobic, a condition she battled with in Penney’s unmade screenplay. There are flashbacks in Tenderness to her time in an asylum when she was hooked on laudanum, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s drug of choice. By the time we meet her in Canada, she has kicked the habit, though agoraphobic tendencies remain. Penney’s problem with it began as a film student, though she no longer finds it a disabling condition. If she hadn’t been agoraphobic, might she not have become a writer – might she have actually travelled, rather than simply travelling in her imagination?
‘That’s an interesting one’, she responds, pausing to think. ‘Possibly. I started out not wanting to be a writer at all, that wasn’t what I aspired to. I wanted to be a filmmaker. If you do that, then [agoraphobia] is a bit of a handicap because there’s an awful lot of travelling involved, meeting people, pitching, the whole publicity thing. You can’t stay at home. Writing is something you can do if you’re a bit more restricted. My interests in distant and difficult landscapes probably did come out of my not being able to travel very much. I’m fascinated by cold, northern landscapes – though it’s not really where I’d want to go on holiday. Travelling in my imagination I’ve definitely gone further than I would if I’d been travelling.’ And happily, we’re able to travel with her.
So now Penney is publishing that always difficult second novel, a novel which was in her mind as The Tenderness of Wolves made its way into the bestseller lists in 33 countries. ‘I felt very self-conscious and you can’t be self-conscious as you write. What happened was I ended up doing some radio’, including an adaptation of The Worst Journey in the World, Cherry Apsley-Gerrard’s account of Scott’s last expedition. ‘I just loved it. Radio is so quick – write it, record it, move on. No one interferes – they trust you and it’s really cheap. I came back and felt more relaxed about writing the book, not worrying about expectations.’
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