Q&A with Stef Penney

Article published on October 18, 2011.

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Small-time private investigator Ray Lovell veers between paralysis and delirium in a hospital bed. But before the accident that landed him there, he had promised to find Rose Janko. Rose was married to the charismatic son of a travelling gypsy family, Ivo Janko. When Ray starts to investigate her disappearance he’s surprised that her family are so hostile towards him. The Jankos have not had an easy past. They are a clan touched by tragedy – either they are cursed, or they are hiding a terrible secret. Could it be that Rose’s discovery of that secret led to her disappearance all those years ago? Soon Ray wishes that he’d never asked the question.

In a novel that is totally different from Stef’s extraordinary debut The Tenderness of Wolves, she shows herself once more to be a matchless storyteller.

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What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given (and do you follow it)?

I don’t think anyone’s ever given me any, personally, but I remember Elmore Leonard (I think it was) saying, ‘cut out all the adverbs’, which I try and observe. I used to be a sub-editor, which helps, too.

Which authors do you find most inspiring as a writer?

There are so many – JG Farrell, Haruki Murakami, Elizabeth Strout, EM Forster, Barry Lopez, E Annie Proulx, F Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene, Jhumpa Lahiri, LP Hartley, Patrick O’Brien… (Initials seem to help)

Do you have an audience in mind when writing, or do you just write for yourself?

I can’t imagine doing anything other than writing what I most hope to read, although, as an untraceable Dutch poet once wrote, “My words are the corpses of my thoughts” – that’s usually how I feel at the end of it all. And if anyone knows who said that, please tell me!

Where do you write, and why?

I have a tiny office about 6’ square, so I have to get out regularly. Why do I write there? Because it’s my office!

Tell us the book you most wish you had written.

That varies from day to day. Today I’ll say “The end of the Affair” by Graham Greene. As clever as it’s provocative as it is utterly romantic.

You’ve spoken before of your love of film noir, and the arc of Ray’s character is certainly very noir.  Does he owe much to your cinematic leanings, or does the inspiration for him come from elsewhere?

Ray is very much inspired by my love of noir, both in films and novels – to pick out just two favourite films: “Chinatown” and “In a Lonely Place”.  The whole idea of a private detective came from my obsession with ‘Chinatown’. I suspect he’s also informed by a deeply ingrained love of Cornell Woolrich’s ‘Black’ series and by early James Ellroy. All of the above seem to nail that tension between deep romantic yearning and an almost operatic sense of desolation. But of course your characters are always, more than anything, informed by your own experience, and this is certainly true in Ray’s case (which is not quite the same as saying he’s autobiographical!)

A lot of writers tend to write protagonists of the same gender as themselves, but in The Invisible Ones, both the leading characters are male.  What made you decide to buck the trend?

I know this may sound disingenuous, but I didn’t ‘decide’ as such. The story arrived, and it was Ray’s story, and then it became JJ’s story too, so I had no choice but to tell it from their points of view. And in my view, gender isn’t a particularly important distinction – we’re all human beings…

The blood motif looms large in The Invisible Ones, but beyond that, blood also provides one of the most significant clues to solving the mystery.  Were you concerned about giving the game away?

Yes, but not especially for that reason. I was concerned about treading the line between parsing out too much information and too little, but that’s just part of the job – the heavy lifting part.

Your work manages to walk a line between high-brow literary fiction and crowd-pleasing crime.  How do you feel about the tension that often seems to exist between the two?

There isn’t really tension between them in my mind, and in general I think that the distinction between ‘high-brow’ and genre is made less and less – at the time of writing we have a thriller on the Booker shortlist, which is great for everyone. Having said that, I suspect that my next book may not look quite so much like a thriller from the outside. I love the strong narrative pull of the thriller structure, but the trade off, in my opinion, is that it’s very difficult not to make the solution an emotional anticlimax.

As we’ve seen of late, anti-gypsy sentiment seems to be among the most enduring of prejudices.  Having done so much research into their way of life, what’s your take on why this is?

It is, and this year has been interesting with so much media coverage – most of it unhelpful and unrepresentative. I think the prejudice endures precisely because they are usually less visibly distinct than most ethnic minorities. There is a tendency to say that Gypsies are not an ethnic minority (they are) and/or that people are not ‘real’ Gypsies, which is then used as an excuse for ill-treatment. Another important reason for continuing prejudice is that the travelling way of life has been rendered practically illegal by successive governments, so they have little or no legislative shelter unless they are prepared to forfeit that part of their culture.

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