When among Roma, do as the Roma do

Stef Penney reluctantly tells Christian House how she researched her gypsy thriller follow-up to 'The Tenderness of Wolves'

'I don't remember saying that," says Stef Penney.

I have just repeated her comment from her last interview, four years ago. It was the day after her debut novel, The Tenderness of Wolves, won the Costa Book of the Year award, and she reportedly said that she hoped it was the last interview she would ever do.

"I don't like them, I must say," she admits, calling them artificial and unfair. Both seem accurate when I compare her reputation as being cold and closed with our pleasant hour drinking tea at a tie-dyed Islington café in the charcoal gloom of a drizzling London afternoon.

Penney has agreed to discuss her new novel, The Invisible Ones, a detective story set in the gypsy community of 1980s Britain, and she is gracious and open – perhaps even cheeky in a head girl kind of a way. This may be due to my enquiries being kept to her books, writing style and influences. Several publications have complained to her publishers about her reticence to answer personal questions. ("A passive-aggressive clam," said The Scotsman.) Such is the lot of prize winners. Especially ones not willing to play ball.

The Tenderness of Wolves shot Penney to literary stardom due to its unusual milieu – it is a murder mystery set in the wilds of 19th-century Canada, with an agoraphobic farmer's wife for sleuth – and its author's own struggle with agoraphobia. She was both congratulated and criticised for not actually having visited Canada.

So was she nervous about the response to her follow-up. "I had some sleepless nights," says Penney with a smile. "I remember a fantastic dream in which I was at an awards ceremony: there were lots of other authors there, and they gave out all these awards to them but not to me, and then someone handed me my book and it had 'B-minus' scrawled across it."

In The Invisible Ones, private eye Ray Lovell investigates the six-year-old disappearance of Rose Wood, an English gypsy married to Ivo Janko, a moody Roma traveller. It's a world away from the icy wastes of Penney's first novel. "I really enjoyed the whole process of imagining myself in a landscape that freaked me out: open plains, endless wilderness and snow and discomfort," she says of writing her debut. So what about The Invisible Ones? "I thought, oh, maybe it's a shame setting it in grim old England. Its very familiar and mundane. But I've tried to make it as strange and potentially threatening as anywhere else. Just because it's England, that doesn't mean it can't be sinister."

"I'd had the idea for this book for about 10 years," Penney says. "It started out as a film idea before I'd written any prose. And I was thinking of it as a modern noir."

That it most certainly is. If her debut was a literary Western, then her new tale is something of a bookish version of a Bogart puzzler. As a film graduate, Penney's approach to prose is cinematic and inclusive.

"Fiction has a license to be fiction," she says, referring to sniffy comments previously made about her research practices. "I did get criticised from some quarters for inaccuracies in The Tenderness of Wolves – odd things, such as that the fountain pen wasn't invented until 1888. Someone pointed out that the rocks were wrong. I think, ultimately, I'm not a journalist for a reason. I've chosen to write fiction, which is something I love. When I sit down to write, I'm trying to write something I really want to read; I'm trying to write my favourite book because no one else has done it yet."

Penney's decision to set her new story in the 1980s was partly due to traditional detective plots having been scuppered by new technology. To have private eye Ray staking out suspects and following leads on the hoof would be unrealistic in the current information age. "Now, so much of it is online," Penney explains. "People do computer investigations, which are just not very interesting." But the novel is also set during a particular moment in gypsy history. "There was still this traditional way of life that is now certainly very hard to sustain. And it was before the Eastern European influx of Roma, which is a whole different thing."

Did she hit the road or hunker down in the British Library to scrutinise the cagey world of gypsies? "There was more book research. It was quite difficult talking to people," she admits. Partly this was due to the closed realm of travellers, but also her own struggle to engage. "I completely understand people not wanting to answer questions. I suppose I felt like a bit of a media wanker, you know? I was tentative and embarrassed." Penney acknowledges that there is huge public interest in Romany life following the success of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. But "I just thought that it was exploitative and shallow", she says of the television series.

The lexicon of gypsy life is key to her story's verisimilitude. From "gorjios" (non gypsies) to "prizaka" (bad luck), their lingo is an indicator of their separation from the rest of society and the difficulty Ray faces in uncovering their secrets. However, even when orchestrating the vocabulary, Penney remains the conductor: "I end up making my own rhythms."

Not content creating microcosms of outsiders, Penney also places outsiders within them. In her first novel, she has a character who not only lives on the periphery of civilisation but is also an orphan, a murder suspect and gay. "Poor boy," laughs Penney. And in her new novel, she has the Jenko family. "They're quite odd," she says. "I'm not interested in what's typical. What I find interesting is oddness. I also wanted to make it that they weren't representative of anyone else. They are themselves; one-offs." And being a one-off, even if only in the literary world, is something that Penney knows all too well.

The Invisible Ones, By Stef Penney (Quercus £18.99)

'Stakeout. It's better than rubbish-sifting, which usually isn't as fruitful as it's made out to be. To be honest, there's a certain excitement about a stakeout – at least for five minutes, when you park across the street, camera on the passenger seat, dictaphone, thermos, sandwiches, spare roll of film. You've all seen the movies. Well so have we. Anything could happen, at any time.'

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee