Stef Penney Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Stef Penney

Stef Penney

An interview with Stef Penney

In two separate interviews, Stef Penney discusses many aspects of her first two novels, The Tenderness of Wolves and The Invisible Ones, and in particular why she feels drawn to write about places and people that are far from her own life.

In two separate interviews Stef Penney discusses The Tenderness of Wolves and The Invisible Ones

Questions for Stef Penney from Tana French

I've never been a believer in the whole "write what you know" thing. I think it negates imagination and empathy, which are probably the two most crucial qualities for a writer, and I think it's especially pointless for mystery writers - what, you shouldn't write a murder mystery unless you've actually killed someone? But you go deeper into unknown territory than most, especially most in the crime genre. Is that a deliberate choice? Do you feel a pull toward exploring stuff that's very far from your own experience? Or is that just the way the ideas come up?

SP: I definitely do feel a pull toward people and places that are far from my own life. Whenever I pick up a book I think, "Tell me something I don't know." Because I work quite slowly, I have to keep myself interested over a long research and writing period. So I can't see myself writing about modern middle-class Londoners anytime soon. But, then, you never know . . .

You're one of the writers who stretch the conventions of the genre and that's one of the things I love about your books - they read equally well as unputdownable murder mysteries and as straight-up wonderful books. Is that deliberate, that blurring the genre boundaries, or is it just the way the books come out?

SP: Thanks! But, no, it's just the way they've come out - so far, anyway. With Tenderness I thought I was writing a western, and with The Invisible Ones I felt it was a noir - and, of course, it does feature a detective - but, then, what do I know? I love literary thrillers, having that very strong narrative pull through a story, especially one that has a uniquely angled voice. Two of my favorites are Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg and The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I've enjoyed using and benefiting from that structure, but I'm not sure that the next book will be classifiable as such. Again, it's not a deliberate choice - the story I want to tell just doesn't fit that pattern.

In your books, the setting becomes a major player - it's inextricably woven together with plot, theme, characterization, everything. Is the setting one of the first things to come to you?

SP: With Tenderness, the setting was definitely one of the first things - I knew my characters would be travelling through a harsh, winter landscape, and it felt incredibly vivid to me. With The Invisible Ones, the story came first, and I knew that it would be in a more domestic setting. It was a challenge - could I make England in the 1980s feel as atmospheric and strange as nineteenth-century Ontario in winter? Having said all that, it's really the main characters who come knocking first - Mrs. Ross and Ray - but setting and character is impossible to disentangle.

When an outsider writes about a marginalized and relatively closed community like the Gypsies - especially a community with such a tangle of myth and mystery around them - there's always a risk of either romanticizing or even being offensive. Did you worry about either of those or both?

SP: Yes, very much! At one point, I considered giving up the subject, but I really love the story, so here it is . . . My hope is that, first, I have given a well-researched, unstereotypical account of unique fictional characters who just happen to be from the Gypsy community, and, second, that the more portrayals there are culturally, the more balanced the overall picture becomes. Gypsies are, to say the least, underrepresented in literature and film.

You switch perspective apparently effortlessly between Ray, the worn, damaged private investigator, and JJ, bursting with teenage energy and curiosity. Was it difficult? Did you write Ray's bits first and then go back and do JJ's or vice versa? Or did you have a deep enough sense of both characters that the shifts in perspective came naturally?

SP: All I can say is, it didn't seem difficult! I wrote them as you read them. I found it fascinating to deal with two characters who are struggling with how, and who, you can love at such different stages of life. I think it felt easy because they both embody aspects of me - Ray the middle-aged, knackered aspect (obviously), while JJ, in part, channels my teenage self - although he's sweeter and more confident than I ever was. Maybe he's the teenager I wish I'd been.

For me, the most fascinating character in The Invisible Ones is also the one we get to know least - in quick, tantalizing glimpses - Ivo, who keeps us at arm's length the same way he keeps the other characters at arm's length. Do you have a favorite?

SP: Ah . . . there's such a lot that didn't end up in the book. I find him fascinating too, but that is perhaps a whole other story. If I have to choose, I think my favorite would be JJ - I love writing teenage characters. That mixture of white-hot intensity, discovery, and idealism is very engaging.

Stef Penney discusses her first novel, The Tenderness of Wolves

This is your first novel. What inspired this story? Did you first decide to write a novel, or did the idea precede your writing? Can you tell us a little about your process?

The story grew out of the first screenplay I had written, Nova Scotia (hopefully it'll get made one day!) in which the characters of Mrs. Ross and Angus met, fell in love, and were caught up in the Highland Clearances in 1850s Scotland. First I wondered what would have happened to a woman in the nineteenth century who suffered from agoraphobia (as I have), then research led me to the land evictions and the wider social backdrop -- and I wanted to combine the two elements. At the end of the screenplay they emigrate to Canada, and I loved the characters so much I always felt I would come back to them. So really, my first novel is a sequel! Initially I only decided to try and write a novel because I wasn't getting enough screenwriting work. It wasn't a long-held ambition, and certainly the idea came first.

You are well-known as a screenwriter. How is writing a novel different from writing a film? How is it similar?

Differences: It was fantastically liberating. You can write what people are thinking and indulge in descriptions, and of course the language can be much richer and more complex. Also there seemed to be too many stories here for a screenplay -- but that was fine in a novel. Although some publishers turned it down on the grounds that it was too long and too digressive, that was a key part of the pleasure for me! Similarities: I would "see" all the scenes and hear the dialogue in my head. The visual setting was very important. And I suppose the short chapters and differing narrative points of view are quite "cinematic" devices, which came very naturally to me.

When this book was published in the UK, did your portrayal of the Hudson Bay Company and the tensions between early Canadians, British commercial interests, and the Natives strike anyone as controversial? Was your description of life as a Scottish immigrant in Canada revelatory, or did you stick mainly to what is already well-known and taught in the history books?

I did wonder whether it would, but there wasn't any controversy at all! I think attitudes have changed and a lot of past mistakes are recognized (although you could draw parallels with certain multinational companies, if you wanted to). My information on immigrant life came from contemporary sources in the British Library -- I don't know whether this is well-known (probably more so in Canada than in the UK). There were some key books, like Susanna Moodie's Life in the Backwoods and Roughing It in the Bush. She wrote brilliantly about her experiences as a settler, and clearly didn't like it much. Interestingly, her sister was also a settler -- Catherine Parr Traill. She also wrote a book about her experience, which is very sensible, practical, and incredibly dull!

The shifting points of view present a multifaceted experience of Canada and its settlers during this time period. And yet you always come back to Mrs. Ross, the only perspective relayed in a first-person POV. What did you hope to accomplish with this structure?

I don't really know! I just felt very strongly that Mrs. Ross was "I" -- possibly because I had lived with her for quite a long time -- and that the other characters should all be third person. I worried about this quite a lot initially, and then I read Bleak House, in which Dickens does the same. So I thought, well, if Dickens does it, it must be alright.

Mrs. Ross is a fascinating character who seems ahead of her time in many ways. For example, like many Victorian women, she finds herself in an asylum in part as an escape from "womanly" pursuits, such as sewing, floral arrangement, and even marriage. Did you find her creation inspiring, or does she elicit your sympathy?

Both. I loved writing her tone of voice, with her sarcasm and dry sense of humor, but I also found her moving -- particularly the way that perspective lets you reveal what the character wants other people to think, but they can also betray their true feelings, seemingly unwittingly. I definitely found it inspiring to write a woman into the center of a Western (or a "Northern"). I love Westerns and adventure stories (Patrick O'Brien, for example), but there aren't many where women are right in the thick of it -- outdoor struggles, difficult journeys, death, and violence -- why should it only be men who do that?

The Tenderness of Wolves is set in the mostly unsettled Northern Territory of nineteenth-century Canada. It is reported that you have never lived in or visited this region. How did you prepare yourself to bring this setting to life? What made it the perfect stage for the events of your story?

No, I've never been there, but I never saw that as particularly unusual or problematic. People write science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction all the time. If writers stuck to firsthand experience, novels would be pretty limited. I did lots of research in the British Library. I've always been fascinated by icy landscapes, so I knew the setting would be in a harsh winter, and the characters were already in Canada.

Many acts of violence are "crimes of passion," yet Jammet's death is the opposite -- a cold-blooded murder. Did you research any real-life trials or cases in preparation for writing this story?

No, the murder is purely invented. From my researches, nineteenth-century Canada came across as amazingly law-abiding.

There are several mentions of children who are lost in the woods and later turn up living with the Natives. Like Elizabeth Bird (Eve Seton), none of them seem interested in returning to their former lives or families. Is this representative of many recorded cases? Why do you think this happened?

There certainly were cases of kidnappees not wanting to return -- from very early settlers (for instance, The Unredeemed Captive by John Demos, a history about Puritan settlers in Massachusetts), up to the time depicted in John Ford's The Searchers -- mostly, I suppose, because children were often taken when they were very young and could adapt to a different way of life with relative ease. Perhaps -- who knows? -- the freedom also appealed to them.

The Tenderness of Wolves encompasses many complicated elements, such as a murder investigation, homosexuality, addiction, infidelity, racial tensions, marriage, love, and commercial conflict. What resources helped direct you in weaving this novel together?

Wow, that's a hard one. I suppose the answer is everything I've ever read and was interested in! I certainly love reading thrillers, so I wanted to include a basic mystery structure. And then it's just about people. Everyone feels their own actions are justified, so any story is full of complexity and contradiction, whether it acknowledges it or not. I just wanted to explore that.

In this novel, appearances and first impressions are often deceiving. What helps you shape your characters? Where do you find inspiration for characters who are culturally or racially foreign to your own?

All sorts of places. Other books, films certainly, even music. But I don't use real people for inspiration, except for one: The character of Sturrock is based on a nineteenth-century Irish journalist called Thomas Mulock. He wrote about the Highland Clearances and really was an amazing character. I first put him in the screenplay, but was forced to take him out as he wasn't totally integral to the story -- but now he lives again!

Unlike many novels, this story explores the depth of many different types of relationships and betrayals. Nothing is black and white. What was it like to immerse yourself in so many different personalities with different perspectives of the same situations?

I found it fascinating. I love the way it allows you to build up multidimensional character portraits. And I loved all of the characters. I don't think I could write about someone I didn't feel some sympathy for.

How did you arrive at the title, The Tenderness of Wolves, and what does it mean to you?

Like the character names, it just came along. I think it means that we're often wrong about things we don't understand -- particularly the things we fear. Just because we think of wolves (or the wilderness, or another race) as wild and fierce, doesn't mean there isn't another side to them.

In the end, things are left a little messy between several of the characters -- just as might happen the real-life aftermath of a tragic event. What do you hope readers will take away from this story?

I couldn't possibly have ended the story any other way. From the very beginning I knew what and where the end would be. Yes, endings are never neat, because when life goes on, there is no end. You may want to speculate about what the characters get up to afterwards, but I feel it would be presumptuous of me to dictate that.

What are some of the special challenges of writing historical fiction? Do you think you'll try it again?

It was total pleasure. I love research, and in fact it's liberating because you have to create your own world. No one can say "I've just got back from the 1860s, and you got it wrong." Anyway, it's fiction. I wasn't that concerned with total authenticity -- I wanted to put this rather modern (in some ways) woman in this restrictive setting and let her chafe. I may well do it again when the right story comes along, although right now I'm working on something contemporary -- a different sort of challenge.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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The Invisible Ones jacket The Tenderness of Wolves jacket
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All the books below are recommended as readalikes for Stef Penney but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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