Interview with Author Penny Haw


Welcome Readers to another installment of our author interview series. Today we have the pleasure of chatting with Penny, author of two historical fiction books.

JMR-Welcome to the Books Delight, Penny. Tell our readers where you live, what you do for fun and what does the perfect day look like?

PH-Thank you, Jeanie. It’s pleasure to be here! I live in a fishing village called Hout Bay, which is little over 20 kilometers from Cape Town on the southern tip of South Africa. It’s a gorgeous spot where the Atlantic Ocean crashes against the mountains, except where it’s tamed by sandy, white beaches. Every morning my husband and I walk our three dogs along the track above the sea. The views never get tired. I’m a lover of the outdoors and animals so my days are incomplete without a hike with my hounds. Sometimes we head down the mountain to allow the dogs to romp on the beach. I also run—neither fast nor far, but regularly—to try and counterbalance the many hours I spend upon my butt at my desk. I enjoy cooking and, of course, like most writers, I am a great reader. The perfect day? A run in the cool of the morning, a dog walk, a swim (in summer) and then an uninterrupted day of writing in my office followed by a good meal and a few hours with a book.

JMR-What’s your favorite historical time period? Why?

PH-My books are set in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. I’m fascinated by the true lives of relatively unknown women who thrived during these years despite the odds stacked against by the patriarchy, church, and religion. The main characters in my novels—Aleen Cust, Britain and Ireland’s first female veterinary surgeon, and Bertha Benz, one of the world’s earliest motoring entrepreneurs—were trailblazers in professions dominated by men. Their lives are inspirational, and I absolutely loved researching and writing about them.

JMR-Who is your favorite historical figure? Why? If you could ask them one question, what would it be?

PH-Because I love animals and once dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, Aleen Cust is my favorite. My novel, The Invincible Miss Cust describes the extent of her passion and determination to live a life of purpose in the Victorian era and to work with animals. She was extraordinary. If I could ask her anything it would be to confirm the source of her determination. In my version of her life, I reason that she was driven by her love for animals and her desire to do more with her life than be an aristocratic wife and mother. I’d love to know if I was right. What did I get wrong? What don’t I know? Of course, Bertha Benz—the focus of my novel, The Woman at the Wheel—is also a favorite. I’d ask her how she managed to juggle the roles of wife and mother of five with her deep involvement with the invention and business of the Benz motorwagen.     

JMR- How did you come to be a writer of historical fiction?

PH-It happened by chance! I’d written contemporary fiction and was planning another, which I thought I’d set in a veterinary practice. This led me to researching when women first became veterinary surgeons. That’s how I came across Aleen Cust. Her story was gripping. I couldn’t believe that no one had written historical fiction about her. I couldn’t resist and one thing led to another.

JMR- You worked as a journalist and columnist for newspapers and magazines, how did this impact or help form your writing style?

PH-Having had a long career as a writer means that I am disciplined about my work. I’m accustomed to working to deadlines and, even when they’re self-imposed, have great respect for them. It seems like the luckiest thing to me that I love writing. I can’t imagine doing anything else. However, as much as I enjoy it, I don’t romanticize writing and wait for the muse to appear. I’m pragmatic and businesslike about the process. Also, my work as a journalist prepared me for the process of research. I enjoy it but have learned not to allow it to take over the job. On the other hand, I’ve had to learn to adjust certain things about my style since trying my hand at fiction. As a journalist, one doesn’t leave readers guessing. I’m still learning not to over-explain in my fiction. But isn’t that one of the joys of writer? The fact that we’re always learning and can always improve?

JMR- Did you visit anyone of the places in your book? Where did you feel closest to your characters?

PH-I’ve visited several places in Ireland, Scotland, and England (where The Invincible Miss Cust is set) and Germany (where The Woman at the Wheel is set). I particularly love the Irish countryside and can imagine Aleen Cust riding her white Arabian stallion, Nasser across the green fields. The Black Forest area in Baden-W├╝rttemberg in southwest Germany, where Bertha lived, is also magnificent. It was easy to picture her and Carl there, particularly in the picnic scene, when they meet.

JMR- Penny, tell us about your new book, The Woman at the Wheel.

PH- The Woman at the Wheel is based on the true story of Bertha Benz, who was the wife of the man known as the “Father of the Automobile”, Carl Benz. Bertha lived largely in Carl’s shadow but when, while working as a journalist, I read about a journey Bertha and her teenage sons made in the Benz motorwagen in 1888, I realized that there was more to her than most accounts let on. My research proved as much. She was inventive, entrepreneurial, adventurous, astute, and as much an extraordinary visionary as Carl was. The Woman at the Wheel celebrates Bertha’s foresight, wisdom, and many contributions to the development of the world’s first commercially produced motor vehicle. It is also a story of perseverance, resilience, family, friendship, and love.

JMR-What projects do you have in the pipeline?

PH-I am joyfully contracted to write two more works of biographical historical fiction for my publisher, Sourcebooks. I’m busy with the edits on the first of the two now. It is about archaeologist and paleoanthropologist, Mary Leakey and is set primarily in East Africa. It’ll be published early in 2025. The next—also based on the life of a woman from history—will be published in 2026.

JMR- Tell our readers how to find you on social media and the web.


JMR- What question were you hoping I’d ask but didn’t?

PH-Oh, I love this question and my response is based on something I’ve been thinking about a great deal recently as I recognize how challenging the book publishing business is. The question one might ask is: “What motivates you to write?” My answer? I do it for the enjoyment I get from storytelling and the process of writing, and the fact that I will never stop learning as long as I write. As others have said, books are the closest thing to magic we have. As authors, we create something out of nothing and that something takes readers on journeys to places in the world and in their minds that they might otherwise never visit. That’s what motivates me to write. 

JMR- Thank you, Penny, for stopping by. Your books look really great! Readers, I’ve included a link to Penny’s books below. Please be sure to check them out.



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