Small talk: Stef Penney

Stef Penney was born in 1969 in Edinburgh and grew up in the city. She studied philosophy and theology at Bristol University, and then film and TV at Bournemouth College of Art. On graduation she was selected for the Carlton Television New Writers Scheme and went on to write and direct two short films. Her first novel, The Tenderness of Wolves, won the Costa book of the year prize in 2006. She lives in London.

What book changed your life?

There are many. Rites of Passage by William Golding; Troubles by J.G. Farrell; Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin; Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson; Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhongshu.

When did you know you were going to be a writer?

I started writing a book about a pony aged 10 or 11. Initially I wanted to be a filmmaker and I sort of came into writing sideways. I wrote The Tenderness of Wolves out of desperation because I had no work.

How do you cure writer’s block?

It’s an attitude thing; I know it’ll go away so I don’t feel guilty about walking away from my desk for a couple of days.

What music helps you write?

I need complete silence. Sometimes I make a compilation to go with a character – all my best work is done in my head.

Who are your literary influences?

My favourite authors are J.G. Farrell, Graham Greene, Haruki Murakami, F. Scott Fitzgerald and E.M. Forster.

Who would you most like to sit next to at a dinner party?

I’m hopeless with people. I’d rather sit with a friend.

What are you scared of?

Almost everything, but decreasingly so. My agoraphobia is a lot better now I can manage it. I can fly and everything.

When do you feel most free?

While swimming in the sea.

How do you relax?

Reading a book, and being anywhere I’m surrounded by green.

What is the best piece of advice a parent gave you?

My dad told me not to take myself too seriously.

If you could own any painting what would it be?

It would have to be a sculpture – I’d love to have a Brancusi.

What book do you wish you had written?

I think the most perfect book is The Great Gatsby but then if I’d written it I’d probably never pick up a pen again.

How would you earn your living if you had to give up writing?

I’d be very happy being a gardener.

Who is your perfect reader?

It’s a hard one. Anyone interested in how other people feel.

What does it mean to be a writer?

Fantastic freedom.

Stef Penney’s latest novel is ‘The Invisible Ones’ (Quercus)

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