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.'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
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.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions