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Virtual book club: Hannah Powell introduces her award-winning memoir, The Cactus Surgeon

This week saw the launch of my tenth novel, Small Eden, which tells the story of Robert Cooke, who created a pleasure garden the the memory of his two infant sons. In keeping with the theme of nature and of gardens in particular, I’m delighted to welcome Hannah Powell, author of The Cactus Surgeon, to Virtual Book Club.

Hannah Powell is Communications and HR Director for the Perrywood Garden Centres she runs with her dad and two brothers. When she was six years old, she wanted to be a cactus surgeon.

Before coming back into the family business, she had a successful career in PR and marketing, running high-profile campaigns for clients, including Barclaycard and Domino’s Pizza. She was part of the team that launched Global Entrepreneurship Week, an annual campaign to encourage young people to set up businesses worldwide.

She now lives in North Essex with her husband, daughter and many plants.

Q: Firstly, congratulations on being the winner of the inaugural memoir/autobiography Selfies Award. What does winning the award mean for you?

It’s just wonderful. Having knowledgeable judges choose my book as the winner, just makes all the hard work worthwhile. I also have a winner’s badge which I can use on social media and on the cover of my book.  

Hannah Powell at London Book Fair receiving her Selfies Award

Hannah is pictured with award-winners, Hannah Peckham and Ivan D. Wainewright.

Q:  Nature writing has exploded in the UK in the last five years. Where does The Cactus Surgeon sit within that canon of literature?

I describe it as a nature and health memoir. I read lots of nature memoirs whilst writing my book, and was influenced by writers like Katherine May, Alys Fowler and Marc Hamer. Readers tell me I have encouraged them to reconnect with nature, which is amazing! 

Q: I’m intrigued by the title and note that at the age of six you wanted to be a cactus surgeon. Can you explain what a cactus surgeon actually does, and why you chose this as the title for your book?

Well, when I was six a cactus surgeon was someone who reattached broken off limbs of cacti with cocktail sticks. Who gouged out rotten bits of cactus with a knife. Sadly, it isn’t an actual career path.   

Q: In that case, I’m going to have to have a re-think! Perhaps you could share one distinct memory of growing up in a garden centre.

My two brothers and I spent a lot of time in ‘the coke can’, an old red water tank which had been laid on its side. We filled it with furniture, discarded old boxes and other rubbish. The den could be found ‘up the top’ which is how we referred to the top of the site, furthest away from the house. Free and independent, we had our own secateurs and spent hours hacking back the hedgerow.  Mum and Dad were very encouraging of our efforts as it kept us busy and out of trouble. 

Click here to buy the book from Hannah’s website

Click here to buy the eBook

Q: Back to the book. You begin by explaining where and how your burnout began, and how busy your life was in the lead up to your ill health. You were living a life that was far removed from your childhood. Had you felt the lure of the city?

I’d been living in Reading at university, and by moving to London I saw an opportunity to continue the student lifestyle. Not to mention that a friend offered me a room in her house. It wasn’t anything more really.  

Q: You moved away from the city. What advice would you have for those whose lives mean that they must stay?

Cities have lots of green spaces. Don’t wait to be invited in, go out and discover parks, community gardens, open squares and roof gardens. And a house or flat of any space can have some greenery in it. Start with a houseplant, a few herbs or grow some seeds. Soon you’ll be hooked. 

Q: Reviewers have praised your honesty and bravery. Did you set any personal boundaries about what you were prepared to share?

Yes, absolutely. It’s my story so it’s told through my lens, and I was very clear about where to start and stop particularly when bringing other people into the book. I shared parts of the draft manuscript with my husband, parents, brothers and the family of the friend I lost because I wanted them to be comfortable with it. When it comes to my own story the boundaries are much looser, as I am a pretty open and honest person.  

Q: Was the process of writing this book cathartic? Would you go as far as saying it was part of your recovery?

Yes, very. It became something of an obsession to get the words out of me. Health is an ongoing journey, and reflecting on how far I’ve come has been very liberating. Even better, in doing so, that I have helped other people.   

Q: I understand that you found encouragement from a writing group. Did you feel as if they came on the journey with you?

Yes, I’ve been very lucky to be part of the Write That Book Masterclass with Michael Heppell. It’s very powerful to be part of a group with a shared mission, to publish their book. We regularly help each other and to be part of that network is invaluable.  

Echinops by Hannah Powell

I asked Hannah to chose a nature shot to share. She chose this photo of an echinops in the early autumn sunshine, taken in her garden during lockdown. It’s one of the full page photos from The Cactus Surgeon. 

Q: Combining reading and nature as healers, I’ve just read an article about enterprising libraries in the US that have started to give away seeds. I wondered what you thought about that?

I love this idea! It’s not something I have seen in the UK yet. Seeds can get people of all ages started on what can become a lifelong hobby. Growing seeds also connects us to the planet and the food we eat which has to be a good thing! 

Q: During lockdown, those who had gardens had a very different experience to those who didn’t. One in eight British households have no green space at home. Do you have any tips for how people can maximise what little space they have?  

– Borrow external spaces – make sure you maximise views of trees or gardens from your home. Position your chair or bed where you can see the view and keep the curtains or blinds open!

– Find spots in your home that plants will like, and start with a couple of plants to see if they like it. Choose the right plant for the right place. Ferns like bathrooms. Aspidistra or Sanseveria like dark halls. Succulents and cacti like hot spots. You can hang plants, have moss balls which live in jars of water or plant up quirky containers. The possibilities are endless. Get creative and go to social media or your local garden centre for ideas. 

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