Leave me alone
On Wednesday Stef Penney won the coveted Costa Book of the Year award. She tells Stephen Moss about her long battle with agoraphobia, why she shuns celebrity – and why this could be her last ever interview
Friday February 9, 2007
The morning-after interview with the winner of a big literary prize is a time-honoured ritual. Bleary-eyed journalist turns up having speed-read book; equally bleary-eyed prize-winner makes allowances for thinness of textual detail in interviewer’s questions; publisher and bookshops look forward to large boost in sales. Stef Penney, winner of the £25,000 Costa Book of the Year award, plays the game – but only up to a point. She is here – fortunately in a bistro-style restaurant in Hackney rather than the soulless hotel usually reserved for these encounters – but says she loathes doing interviews and that standing in front of a dozen flashing cameras at the prize dinner the previous night had made her feel like a criminal emerging from court.
She is serious, too: this is no arty pose. When she is having her photograph taken – looking far more severe than she really is – her phone goes off. She looks at the number. "Private caller – another journalist," she says, and ignores it. This reluctance to engage, the refusal to accept that writing an award-winning book makes you public property, could be frustrating, but she is so upfront about it, and so charming and wry when she chooses to be, that she doesn’t seem testy or evasive. Her sculpted beauty also helps me forgive her for letting my questions hang on the rusty hooks of their own banality. "Why is he gay?" I ask of one key character. "Well some people just are, you know," she says, simply and crushingly.
Her book, The Tenderness of Wolves, is a gripping adventure story set in Canada in the 1860s – part detective story, part romance, but most of all a western. Penney loves westerns and was determined to write one. I don’t think I could have put it down, even if I had had more than six hours to read it.
Its pace may owe something to the fact that before writing this debut novel, she wrote screenplays. But novel-writing, she says, gave her a new freedom. "With screenwriting you’re much more aware of the fact that it’s a collaborative process and you’re always going to be talking to directors and producers. You might be able to see pictures and have this wonderful, perfect creation in your head, but you know you’re going to come up against reality. There are going to be this series of steps when you make little compromises, and you end up stepping further and further away from this perfect film. You might end up with something that’s great in a different way, but it’s still a bit of a disappointment."
She finished the book four years ago, and has spent the time since cutting, honing and, more importantly, finding a publisher. Plenty turned it down, some put off by the mix of first-person and third-person narrative. The former is supplied by her main protagonist, Mrs Ross, a character who featured in one of Penney’s early screenplays. The screenplay, called Nova Scotia, which she hopes will shortly be made into a film, had Mrs Ross marrying and then leaving her Scottish home for Canada; the novel picks up her life in the wilds of North America 15 years later, trying to resolve a multiple mystery and falling in love again.
"At the end of the screenplay I’d sent these characters off in a boat to Canada," she says. "I really loved them and I wanted one day to go back and do something with them, but the more I thought about it I realised that I couldn’t do this as a screenplay because I wanted to weave in too many stories. It was such a pleasure in the book to be able to digress and to think, ‘Well, I know this isn’t strictly relevant, but I don’t care – it’s my book.’ I didn’t know everything that was going to happen, but I did know what the end was going to be – a shootout, like a real western."
Mrs Ross shares one characteristic with her creator – agoraphobia. Shortly after leaving Bristol University, where she studied philosophy and theology, and before she began a film and TV course at Bournemouth College of Art, Penney started to suffer agoraphobic panic attacks. "My fear wasn’t of crowds or being out in the open," she explains. "It was more a fear of losing control. For me it was public transport, and the bigger and faster, the worse it was, so planes were the scariest thing. Once you’re in a plane you really can’t say, ‘Actually, let me out here’; there’s nothing you can do. It’s that feeling that it’s totally out of your control."
Mrs Ross was a direct response to those attacks. "She came very specifically from thinking about how someone with agoraphobic panic attacks would have been dealt with or would have coped in the Victorian, pre-Valium era," she says. "It’s very appealing setting something in the past, and speculating on what it would be like. Agoraphobia is a difficult thing to explain to people, so perhaps it was an attempt to try to explain what it’s like. This was what was happening to me."
Agoraphobia is central to the screenplay Nova Scotia; in The Tenderness of Wolves it provides a backbeat, as it now seems to in Penney’s own life. "It is under control now," she says. "I can manage it. I can fly now, and that’s fantastic. I gradually worked my way up through bus, tube, coach, train, plane. I did all sorts of things to get it under control. I had hypnotherapy and I went to group therapy, which was brilliant. At group therapy there were people with different problems, not just agoraphobics, and it gave me a different perspective." The improvement, however, came too late for her to visit Canada to research the book; she relied instead on intensive reading in the British Library and an imaginative re-creation of the struggle to survive in a wilderness.
She says she has no idea what originally triggered the attacks. "That’s the million-dollar question. Everyone asks that and you personally want there to be a simple ‘Oh, this caused it’ because if something simple caused it, maybe something simple can cure it. But it’s not that simple. It’s always going to be a combination of all sorts of things." The attacks persisted for more than a decade and restricted her chances to direct. "It made it much more difficult to go out there and say ‘I’m a director’ because you have to do anything, go anywhere. That was a factor in making me lean towards writing." She has, though, managed to direct two short films, one of them – she admits with a flicker of embarrassment – about agoraphobia.
The fact that her condition has been a factor in her work makes it a legitimate subject for discussion – it is the one aspect of her private life she will talk about freely – but she is also wary of it dominating views of her. It was certainly the angle taken in the coverage of the Costa award; she has become the "agoraphobic novelist" – in part, she says, because publicists are desperate for a label to attach to a writer.
"When you initially have your meeting with the PR company, they say, ‘What angles can we take? Are there any exciting stories? Do you know any famous people?’, and you go, ‘No, no, no, no, I’m not related to anyone famous.’ And then I said, ‘Given that the main character is agoraphobic, I don’t mind talking about my agoraphobia,’ and everyone seized on it in a really big way. But I think it will all die away eventually, and everyone will move on. I’ll probably take forever to write the next book, so everyone will have lost interest."
Her next novel – it’s not about Mrs Ross or Canada is all she will say about it – is already well under way, though not yet sold to a publisher. More pressing, however, is a screenplay that she is willing to describe. "It’s a road movie set in Lapland about two girls driving through northern Finland. It’s contemporary, quite comic, and very different from The Tenderness of Wolves."
Is she now a novelist or a screenwriter? "You can’t write one novel and say, ‘Now I’m a novelist.’ At the moment I’m working on a screenplay, so I feel like a screenwriter." Having won the Costa prize for her first book, she worries about second-novel syndrome. "It would be very scary to do this again but with a load more expectation. When you write a first book, no one is expecting anything, which is a nice, free situation to be in. I can’t ever have that again, which is a shame."
I try asking some personal stuff, but don’t get very far. In fact, I don’t really get beyond "You’re 37, aren’t you?" "I don’t think age is particularly relevant," she says, nicely, charmingly. The biog, however, reads something like: grew up in Edinburgh (all trace of a Scottish accent now gone, replaced by a London twang); middle-class (and religious) parents; librarian mother; demanding, headstrong child; didn’t like school; rejected the church but enjoyed intense discussions with a friendly minister – hence the philosophy and theology degree; became a screenwriter and film-maker; and headed for London – which she loves because it allows you "to choose where you want to be and who you want to be".
All this, though, she would dismiss as "pop psychology" and, worse, an intrusion. "I’ve written a book, I’ve sold the book, and the book’s public – fine. But I haven’t gone on Big Brother. That’s not me. I’m a writer, and I want to go and sit in a room on my own." Then she goes to the loo, signalling that our conversation is over. "I hope this is the last interview I will ever have to do," she says a few minutes later as we head to an appropriately snow-clad London Fields to take her photograph. This may be directed at me, for asking dumb questions and forgetting Mrs Ross’s first name (mentioned only once in the book), but I don’t think so. She really does believe you should read the book, not the life.
· The Tenderness of Wolves is published by Quercus at £12.99
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… un repliegue estratégico.