On The Table Read, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author Hannah Powell talks about why she wrote her new book, The Cactus Surgeon: Using Nature to Fix A Faulty Brain.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Hannah Powell about her life and career, the experiences that inspired her to write The Cactus Surgeon: Using Nature to Fix A Faulty Brain, and her creative writing process.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
Hannah Powell, author of The Cactus Surgeon: Using Nature to Fix A Faulty Brain. It’s my memoir of mindful moments, savouring the small wonders of nature. In London in the noughties I suffered burnout and was diagnosed with a functional neurological disorder. With no information available to help me, I found my own way to get better.
Growing up in a garden centre, my childhood was full of nature and plants. This was in stark contrast to the concrete of the capital, where I became unwell. In searching for the answers to my illness, I wonder whether being torn from my pot and replanted in a more hostile environment was the reason my body started to malfunction.
After seeking out alternative therapies, and moving to the countryside of North Essex, my ‘green recovery’ continued.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
During the first UK lockdown I joined the Write That Book Masterclass, with Michael Heppell a motivational speaker I had previously been inspired by. Something made me think, yes, I can do that! I’d been writing for work for more than 20 years, but never really considered doing it for myself.
When did you take a step to start writing?
Through the masterclass we were set challenges such as coming up with a title and sub title, and writing our first chapter. From there the rest of the book flowed out of me. It became something of an obsession to get it done.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
About ten months.
What made you want to write The Cactus Surgeon: Using Nature to Fix A Faulty Brain?
I suffered from functional neurological disorder (FND) in 2009 and, whilst researching it for my memoir, I realised that not much had changed in the years since. It was still misunderstood by much of the health profession, and little known by the general public. Even though it is more likely you will get an FND diagnosis in a neurology clinic than getting a Parkinson’s or MS diagnosis. And everyone knows about those. So, I wanted to raise awareness and help others going through something similar. I wanted to give them hope – because I recovered – and make them feel less isolated.
What were your biggest challenges with writing The Cactus Surgeon: Using Nature to Fix A Faulty Brain?
I wrote it in lockdown so I was lucky that I had more time than normal. Self-belief was probably the biggest challenge, but my fellow authors in my Write That Book accountability group were a great help in that regard.
What was your research process for The Cactus Surgeon: Using Nature to Fix A Faulty Brain?
I got everything out of my head then went back over photographs, looked at maps and interviewed family members. Anything to spark a creative description, and to add colour.
How did you plan the structure of The Cactus Surgeon: Using Nature to Fix A Faulty Brain?
I knew from the start that I wanted to have a prologue with my experiences of being in the MRI machine. I wanted to start from the worst point in the story, then reflect back to my childhood, and then bring it back into the current day. That initial idea worked really well and I didn’t change it.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did The Cactus Surgeon: Using Nature to Fix A Faulty Brain need?
I used a brilliant editor in New Zealand called Deborah Shaw. She helped me to change the tense, and encouraged me to add a lot more of my ‘show don’t tell’ descriptive writing. She gave thoughts on each chapter but allowed me to keep my voice. She helped me to find my best writing self, and all via email as we were in different time zones. It was always exciting to get an email from her with her next lot of feedback. I’d already used Grammarly so she didn’t have to edit too much spelling and grammar, and my flow and structure was already pretty good from my years of writing for PR and marketing.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a book?
Read books in the genre you want to write in. You will pick up so many ideas and it will improve your writing.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I’d love to wrote more about hope, nature and the environment and perhaps even some fiction. I’m re-reading Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales so maybe that will give me an idea. I just need to find the time to start writing again!
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
So worth it, and yes, I am super proud. I won the UK Selfies Award for Best Memoir/Autobiography earlier this year, which rewards the UK’s best self-published books. That was a real pinch me moment, but even better than that is the emails and reviews I regularly receive from readers. They tell me I have given them hope and inspired them to take control of their health challenges. They say I’ve encouraged them to view nature in a different way. Helping other people is really all I ever wanted.
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