Rose Janko is missing. It has been seven years since she disappeared, and nobody said a word. Now, following the death of his wife, her father Leon feels compelled to find her. Rumour had it she ran off when her baby boy was born with the family's genetic disorder. Leon is not so sure. He wants to know the truth and he hires a private investigator to discover it - Ray Lovell. Ray starts to delve deeper, but his investigation is hampered by the very people who ought to be helping him - the Jankos. He cannot understand their reluctance to help. Why don't they want to find Rose Janko?
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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?
Stef Penney: 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 any time soon. But, then, you never know. . .
French: 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?
Penney: Thanks! But, no, it’s just the way they’ve come out--so far, anyway. With Tenderness of Wolves 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.
French: 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?
Penney: 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.
French: 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?
Penney: 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.
French: 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?
Penney: 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.
French: 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?
Penney: 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.
(Photo of Stef Penney ©Ian Phillips-McLaren)About the Author:
Stef Penney grew up in Edinburgh. She has degrees in Philosophy and Theology and Film and TV, and was selected for the Carlton Television New Writers Scheme and has since written and directed two short films. She is the author of The Tenderness of Wolves and The Invisible Ones.
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