© Chris Close
Stef Penney is a screenwriter and the author of three novels: The Tenderness of Wolves (2006), The Invisible Ones (2011), and Under a Pole Star (2016). She has also written extensively for radio, including adaptations of Moby Dick, The Worst Journey in the World, and, mostly recently, a third installment of Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise series.
The Tenderness of Wolves won Costa Book of the Year, Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year, and was translated into thirty languages. It has just been re-issued in a 10th anniversary edition.
Five facts about SP:
1. I like snow. There is a magic in cold landscapes that compels me more than any other. I’m the ultimate armchair explorer. In my mind this is linked to my former agoraphobia. Wide open, hostile places produce in me a visceral reaction; perhaps that’s why I can’t stop writing, or reading, about them. I’m drawn to what scares me – treeless wilderness, the open sea, Space...
2. I do zero-carbon research. Unlike the protagonist of Under A Pole Star, I haven’t been to the North Pole. I have been to the Scandinavian Arctic – which is totally different – but am unconvinced that being there has made my writing about landscape any stronger (I hadn’t been before The Tenderness of Wolves). Being there normalises a place; you are struck by differences, but even more by similarities: wherever there are people, there be dentists. Still, I have great memories of Lapland: picking sour blueberries from the banks of a mountain stream; cross-country skiing and realising that I could still fall over as safely as when I was a child; watching a Japanese contestant at the Air Guitar World Championships channeling Star Wars; visiting Santa’s village and meeting the man himself. And sitting on his knee. In August.
3. I’m Scottish. I have a love-hate relationship with Scotland that is shared by many Scottish exiles. Elements of this: pride in its Enlightenment thinkers, its inventiveness and internationalism; love of the landscape; nostalgia for chilly Highland summers; a sneaking pride in having endured games on frozen fields in shorts, and endless walks in scenery obscured by drizzle. Then there’s the food: deep-fried Mars bar – delicious. Deep-fried frozen pizza, on the other hand... Scotland's a great place. I'd probably want to live in it, if I hadn't grown up there.
4. I’m a feminist. Doesn’t need saying these days, right? Or maybe it does. Writing about a female explorer at the end of the 19th Century, I’ve been more aware of it than ever. The protagonist struggles to be taken seriously with her ambition, of course, but something else happened in the writing process I didn’t expect: it became a deeply explicit love story. It felt like a political as well as a narrative necessity; there have been far too many vague, unconvincing and plain misleading sex scenes in books and films, and it felt vital to tell the truth as I know it – and for that, “Dot, dot, dot. Afterwards” was not going to cut it.
5. I have a degree in Philosophy and Theology. It made me unemployable. In my final year, I was browsing through the job pages when I came across my perfect job – Officer for Comparative Religions in a local authority. Hurray, I thought, finally, something that suits my skill set. Then I noticed that the advert next to it was for a Senior Carrot Inspector. I looked at the date – it was April 1st. Obviously, I had to become a writer.