Penny Haw is the author of The Wilderness Between Us, which was published by Koehler Books on 31 July 2021.
She kindly answered a few of my questions.
1. Tell us a little about The Wilderness Between Us.
Set in the remote, mountainous Tsitsikamma region of South Africa, The Wilderness Between Us tells the story of a group of old friends—four couples—who undertake a ‘bucket list’ multi-day hike. At the last moment, one woman cannot make it and convinces her twenty-year-old daughter to go in her place.
The adventure is upended when the self-appointed leader of the group ignores weather warnings and the area is flooded. The hikers are separated and, after a fall and a near-tragic river crossing, beset by injuries and isolated. As they struggle to find help, the friends discover hard-to-face truths about one another and themselves. They are also reminded about the power of nature and empathy.
The book was described by veteran South African journalist and broadcaster, Nancy Richards, as follows, “It’s about the wiles, wonders and perils of hiking, it’s about listening – to yourself and others, oh, and to what’s around you. It’s about relationships, friendships and human behaviour – good, bad and questionable – and most importantly it’s about compassion.”
2. What inspired the book?
The idea for the book came about during a hike in the Tsitsikamma with friends some years ago. One morning, one member of our party awoke with a debilitating migraine. She insisted that we walk on, saying that she would get a lift to our next overnight stop with the rangers. As we hiked, I started to imagine what could go wrong. Fortunately for us, all ended well, we were safely reunited and completed the trail happily. The seed, however, was planted and I began thinking about writing a story about friendships, hiking and nature.
The young woman on the hike suffers from anorexia. Part of the story examines her condition and how it affects her interaction with others, particularly her father, who is also on the hike. This component of the story is based on my own experience of anorexia in my late-teens and early-twenties, the associated shame and how it impacted my relationships with my family and friends.
3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you?
I plan, create something of a mind-map and have a reasonably good idea of the arc of a story before I start. However, I am easy about changing things as I write. Typically, I am surprised and delighted by how stories evolve once I get to know the characters. It is one of best things about writing fiction. I have worked as a journalist all my life so the idea and possibility of making things up is a novelty to me and seems rather mischievous. It is as if I have rediscovered a playfulness that I had forgotten I had.
4. Is there anything about the process of publishing a book that surprised you?
One of the things I was not prepared for was the anxiety I suffered when the book was launched. Having been published as a journalist all my life, I expected a similar sense of detachment when my work was published. It was written and out there. There was nothing more to be done, was there? However, having a book published was different. It was scary. My stomach clawed with concerns about how it would be received, whether anyone would read it and whether I would annoy people by promoting it. I am pleased to say that the support I received has been wonderful, and the fact that people read, relate and respond to the story has more than made up for all the anxious nights.
5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?
My husband and I live on the slopes of a mountain that drops into the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Town. We traipse along the mountain paths or walk to beach with our three dogs every day. When our son and his fiancé are around to join us, we are happier still. I am at my most content when I am outdoors in the company of animals—particularly if I have just written a satisfying number of words at my desk. It’s no coincidence that my next book—a work of historical fiction to be published by Sourcebooks in 2022—is inspired by the life of one of the world’s first woman veterinary surgeons. When I am not writing or walking, you might see me going for a little run. Most likely though, I will be reading!
6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?
That is a difficult question. I have one or two massive book crushes every year! I recently completed Sarah Winman’s Still Life and feel that I could read it again and again and still discover new layers of enjoyment. Perhaps though, the book I would choose to carry with me to the end of days would be Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country. It is a South African classic. Part of it is based in the countryside where I grew up and the themes of the story resonate deeply.
7. I like to end my Q&As with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
What a great question! The question I would enjoy answering is, ‘Why are you a writer?’ I would answer as follows: I am a writer because I love stories. I love reading them and telling them. As a journalist, I enjoyed writing articles about people and places, what people do, how they live, how they create, how they overcome difficulties and how they live their lives. As an author, I love the opportunity of combining my imaginative world with the joy I get from storytelling. I am a writer because it enables me to create something out of nothing, which hopefully brings others enjoyment. I am a writer because, in addition enjoying telling stories, I love words and the fact that you can never completely master them, which means there is always opportunity for surprise and you never stop learning.
Thanks so much for the chance to talk about my book and my love of writing.
About the Book
Relationships, the truth and survival skills are put to the test when a hike in the magnificent and remote Tsitsikamma mountains in South Africa goes wrong for a group of old friends.