It’s Meet the Author Monday! Each week we meet a new author and get to know a little about them, their writing process, publishing experience, and tips for other writers. Today we’re talking to Penny Haw, author of The Wilderness Between Us.
About Penny Haw:
Penny Haw worked as a journalist and columnist for many of South Africa’s leading newspapers and magazines for decades before she became an author. Her first book, Nicko, The Tale of a Vervet Monkey on an African Farm was written for children but has amassed a following among animal lovers of all ages. It was first published by Penguin Random House South Africa in 2017 and is now included in middle-grade school curricula.
Penny has, since then, written three novels for adults, all of which expound her interest in human conditions and relationships, and explore how animals, nature and the interconnectedness of all living things can help people find serenity. The Wilderness Between Us is the first of these to be published.
About The Wilderness Between Us:
Faye Mackenzie and her friends’ anorexic daughter, Clare, are thrown together when a flood separates them from their hiking group in the remote, mountainous Tsitsikamma region of South Africa. With Clare critically injured, Faye is compelled to overcome her self-doubt and fear of the wild to take care of the younger woman, who opens her heart to Faye.
As their new friendship takes the women on an unexpected journey of discovery, the rest of the group wrestles with the harrowing aftermath of their own near tragedy. When the hiking party is reunited, their number is reduced by one.
Juxtaposing physical and psychological suspense, The Wilderness Between Us is a tale of two fragile women who unexpectedly find clarity, independence, and renewed purpose as they fight to survive. It is a vivid, moving story about family, friendship, adventure, and the healing power of nature and compassion.
Author Interview with Penny Haw:
This post contains affiliate links which means, at no cost to you,
I’ll receive a small commission if you purchase using those links.
- Does writing energize or exhaust you?
When it’s good, it does both. Writing and running (perhaps any exercise) are alike in some ways. Even when I’m exhausted after a run, I’m energized by the feeling of having been out and done it. And, when I’ve had to push myself particularly hard to get going and keep running, I’m additionally energized by having overcome my lethargy or whatever the dastardly sensation was that threatened to hold me back.
After a good day of writing, I’m energized by the satisfaction of having done it. When I’ve triumphed over a challenging section, plugged a plot gap or been led to an especially creative place by my imagination, I might be mentally exhausted but you’ll almost certainly find me dancing to 80s disco music in my kitchen while I prepare dinner that night.
- If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Don’t be intimidated by the idea of writing a book. I’ve been a journalist all my adult life and learned at an early stage of my career that I could write about almost anything—provided I had good sources, asked the right questions and was thorough in my research. I loved the process and enjoyed constantly learning about new things.
Reporting, business writing, producing columns and the like didn’t faze me at all but somehow, for years, the idea of writing a book terrified me—even though I longed to do it. My 17,000-word children’s book, Nicko, was something of a gentle gateway to authordom. Because it is a story I grew up with—I urged my grandmother to tell it over and over again—it was an enjoyable and relatively easy book to write. It came naturally to me. The success I had with Nicko made me realise how foolish I had been to be daunted about writing a book. I wish I’d discovered that earlier so I could have begun learning the craft sooner.
- How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
(Lifts hand to count fingers.) I have one unpublished children’s book, which I wrote as something of an experimental project with an artist and didn’t pursue publishing; a work of full-length literary fiction, which has been on submission but hasn’t (yet) found a home; a recently completed piece of historical fiction based on the life of an extraordinary woman, which makes my heart sing and, I hope, will pluck the strings of other hearts soon; the first 11,000 words of women’s x literary fiction, which was (temporarily, I think) abandoned after I was told there wasn’t a market for it; and the first 15,000 words of another manuscript (also women’s x literary fiction), which is my work-in-progress and is filling me with delight to write. So, three complete but as yet unpublished books, and two incomplete manuscripts.
- If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
That’s a rather alarming thought. I often say I’m a writer because it’s the only thing I can do. On the other hand, I operated my own successful publishing business for nine years and, as a freelance journalist and writer thereafter, essentially continued running something of a small business. So, if I didn’t write, perhaps I’d be an entrepreneur of sorts. Or, given that I am the daughter of a farmer, was rurally-raised and love animals, maybe I’d be a farmhand.
- Does your family support your career as a writer?
Unfailingly. I am fortunate that they’re interested in and read what I write, and also listen to me babble on about my writing ideas, frustrations and ideas ad nauseam. They’re also good at tethering me to reality when I get carried away and—my family includes an engineer, a scientist and a development activist—provide me with other perspectives on my work and the business of publishing. Also, my husband is Dutch but has an eagle-eye for English, which means he is an excellent proofreader—something every writer needs.
- What advice would you give a new writer, someone just starting out?
Do it because you enjoy it but, if you want to make a career from writing, don’t romanticize it. Writing is work that is done, not by a muse, but by a writer. Enjoy the creativity it allows but also acknowledge the practicality demanded by the work. If you want to be published, be self-driven and willing to listen and learn from others, set yourself deadlines and goals, and write, edit your work and bravely present it to the world. Put in the effort and never stop trying to get better. Two deeply satisfying things about being a writer are you can constantly do things differently and you never stop learning.
- Do you hear from your readers much? What do they say?
One of the most enjoyable things about writing a children’s book is that—pre-COVID, of course—I was invited to talk about it and read from it at many schools, literary festivals and the like. What a rewarding experience that was. I loved hearing what the children and other readers thought about the story and characters, and answering their many questions about the book and the process of writing. It was a wonderful opportunity to see how affected readers can be by books. I discovered that telling my story opened the door for others to tell theirs. I hope readers of The Wilderness Between Us will be similarly inspired to let me know what they think, how they relate to my characters’ experiences and whether they have corresponding stories and experiences. Writing can be a lonely process and, once the work is published, that doesn’t necessarily change. Your book is out there but, unless readers review it or make contact, the sense of seclusion can prevail. I cannot overemphasize how wonderful it is for writers to hear from readers and I welcome interaction.
- Are you on social media and can your readers interact with you?
Yes, please! I am on Twitter and Instagram @PennyHaw and also on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/PennyHawAuthor I look forward to chatting to readers on any of the platforms and would be delighted to engage with book clubs, writers’ groups and the like, and to participate in literary gatherings and events that address any of the subjects I write about.
- What was your favorite part, and your least favorite part, of the publishing journey?
The rejections authors inevitably encounter in publishing can be excruciating. Even when you think you’re prepared for it, the relentlessness of refusal grinds you down. Rejection is surely universally the least favourite part of anyone’s publishing experience. It’s helpful to put a plan in place to deal with it. Literary agent Carly Watters of P.S Literary puts it this way, “Develop a personal blueprint for your emotional well-being and individual success because this is a tough business.”
One way of dealing with rejection is by applying perspective. For example, a large percentage of South Africans are unemployed. Living in the country means encountering desperate workseekers on a daily basis. Most of them hear “no” hundreds of times every month. The rejections I receive in publishing made me aware of how extraordinarily hard it must be to be unemployed and looking for work but to face endless rejection day-after-day. The rejections I receive pale by comparison. It put things in perspective for me and I decided that, for every literary rejection I get, I’ll give something to an unemployed person looking for work. Turning rejection around, so to speak, is my way of dealing with it. It makes me feel better somehow.
My favourite parts of the publishing journey? Getting an email that says, “We’d like to discuss taking this further”; working with professionals who also love the story and the writing; and finally, holding a book that I am proud of in my hands.
- What were the key challenges you faced when writing this book?
I’ve wanted to write about my experience with anorexia for many years but have been concerned about how I might do it. The subject needs to be handled sensitively and with the seriousness it deserves so it is not glorified or downplayed in anyway. It is also important to me, in The Wilderness Between Us, that I don’t come across as professing to be an expert on eating disorders. At the same time though, I hope that I might throw some light on the serious effects it and the associated shame can have on individuals and their families. The overall objective was to write an engaging story, which, while it might make readers think deeply about certain issues, transports them to the pristine wilderness that is the Tsitsikamma and takes them on a satisfying adventure with Faye, Clare and company. I hope readers will let me know if I achieve this and tell me what else they might experience reading the book.
To learn more about Penny Haw, here’s where you can connect with her: