If I had made it to the UK in 2020 as planned, I might have been able to sit in the same room with Penny as we chatted. But this year it was of course done remotely.
Penny has written three historical novels, all set in the early medieval period: The Saxon Wolves, The Saxon Plague, and The King’s Daughter (a story of Aethelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians).She is a keen amateur archaeologist and has dug at many different sites including Silchester Roman town, Fishbourne Roman Palace and Basing House in Hampshire (which endured an English Civil War siege, as featured in The Welsh Linnet). She has two grown up children and lives with her husband in rural Hampshire.
When and why did you start writing? How did your family feel about it?
My father was a journalist and novelist, and even from a young age I knew I wanted to follow in his footsteps. My first ‘novel’ (written when I was about 8 years old) was just five pages long and featured a wizard named Ambrosius. My husband and children have always been very supportive of my writing. I worked on my first novel in a small walk-in wardrobe. It was the only spare space in the house! My kids would say, ‘mum’s in the cupboard again.’
What got you interested in the Anglo Saxon period? Is it a long standing interest?
I’ve been fascinated by history and archaeology since I was a child. My interest began with the Roman occupation of Britain – The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe is still a favourite novel of mine. I studied Classics at university, which in turn led to a curiosity about the post Roman period. What happened in Britain after the Empire fell? Just how ‘dark’ were these so called Dark Ages?
What research techniques do you use? Do you ever get lost down the Google rabbit hole?
Yes, I do! But initially, I buy a lot of books, and make notes – although the original source material for The Saxon Wolves and the Saxon Plague was extremely thin on the ground. Gildas, a monk writing in the sixth century AD, tells us the Anglo Saxons invaded Britain with fire and slaughter, but modern historians are divided on this. some insisting it was a relatively peaceful migration.
I was delighted to learn that recent archaeological discoveries are beginning to shed light on these so called Dark Ages. Both The Saxon Wolves and The Saxon Plague feature Tintagel in Cornwall, birth place of the legendary King Arthur. Excavations have shown there was a thriving high status settlement on the cliff top in the fifth century AD. I love that archaeology is finally proving there is a grain of truth in these ancient legends.
There was more original source material available for The King’s Daughter, which is set in the late ninth century. However, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle can’t be taken at face value either. It was compiled at King Alfred’s instigation, so it can also be seen as the PR exercise of an Anglo Saxon king determined to enhance his reputation for future generations!
And finally… volunteering at Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire is one of the most enjoyable ways to immersive myself in the Anglo Saxon world. I love donning my costume and spending a day in their authentically constructed Saxon Hall. I grind wheat on the quern stones with the younger visitors, make bread cakes and bake them on the hearth. Like King Alfred, we do occasionally burn them!
I’ve been lucky enough to visit all the sites in my novels and I’ve ‘dug’ at quite a few of them. King Alfred’s capital at Winchester has largely disappeared beneath the modern city – which was a chance for me to use my imagination. But the Roman baths complex at Bath has survived largely intact. So too have the towering walls and towers of the Roman ‘Saxon Shore Fort’ at Portchester on the south coast. But my favourite site has to be Tintagel with it’s spectacular cliff top setting.
What are you working on at the moment? When will it be published and how has Covid affected your writing techniques?
My current work in progress, which will be published in late 2021, is quite a departure from my previous novels. It’s set in Elizabethan London and features William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Elizabethans endured recurring outbreaks of the plague and the theatres regularly closed whenever the death toll rose. Living through the current Covid pandemic has certainly given me an unexpected insight into their terrifying plight.
Who are your favourite authors? What 3 books would you take to a desert island with you and why?
If I had to choose three historical novelists, they would be Philippa Gregory, Bernard Cornwell and Mandy Haggith.
Three books to take to a desert island:
The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, because I can get lost in it for hours and it never fails to inspire me.
The Complete Works of Shakespeare, because for me, he is the greatest wordsmith of all time. It’s all there – history, tragedy, comedy, romance!
And finally, because it makes me feel warm inside : Still Me by JoJo Moyes (the third book in her Me Before You trilogy).