Hannah Pearl – Meet Me on the Buddy Bench

Today, I’m incredibly lucky to be joined on my blog by the lovely Hannah Pearl, who is talking about her new book. Thank you, Hannah, for joining me on my blog today to talk about your new book.

Hannah was born in East London. She is married with two children and now lives in Cambridge.

She has previously worked as a Criminology researcher, as a Development Worker with various charities and even pulled a few pints in her time.

In 2015 Hannah was struck down by Labrynthitis, which left her feeling dizzy and virtually housebound. She has since been diagnosed with ME. Reading has allowed Hannah to escape from the reality of feeling ill. She read upwards of three hundred books during the first year of her illness. When her burgeoning eReader addiction grew to be too expensive, she decided to have a go at writing. In 2017 she won Simon and Schuster’s Books and the City #heatseeker short story competition, in partnership with Heat magazine, for her short story “The Last Good Day”, which led to her signing with Ruby Fiction, Choc Lit’s “sister” imprint and Meet Me on the Buddy Bench is Hannah’s sixth book with them.

Meet Me on the Buddy Bench

When an ordinary park bench becomes a lifeline …
As a primary school teacher, Ava Lam is familiar with the ‘buddy bench’: a rainbow painted bench where sad or lonely children can sit to show they need a friend.
But are buddy benches just for kids? Ava might have assumed so – until she finds herself sobbing her heart out on a park bench and a kind stranger sits down next to her.
The stranger, Dr Sam Stone, has a house, an impressive job and he’s even training for a marathon – all things that have become painfully out of reach for Ava in her new and scary circumstances. But whilst Sam appears to have everything figured out, it seems he needs a sympathetic ear just as much as she does.
Is the encounter a one-off, or could the ‘buddy bench’ begin to represent a source of comfort and support that will become precious to them both?

This is an emotional heart touching story and very different to your previous books in that it is so clearly a personal story.  Which type of books do you find easiest to write and why. 

This book was a lot longer in the writing than some of my others. I’d never written a dual point of view book before, and the first draft was also much longer than anything else I’d written as I had so much that I wanted to say. Because I have ME too, like Ava in the book, I experience a lot of fatigue. I’m not well enough to write every day, and it can be tricky to get back into a book if I have a longer spell where I’ve not written, but being very motivated to write this one really helped. 

I think writing the second book in Daisy’s series, Daisy’s Summer Mission, seemed to be fairly fast because I knew the characters so well. 

I can’t imagine how difficult life must be for you, but I think you’ve handled Ava and Sam’s stories beautifully and explained the symptoms and problems Ava encounters beautifully. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that they have both challenges in this book and need each other to get through some pretty difficult times. What I found shocking was how long it took for Ava to get a correct diagnosis of her condition. It felt like you were writing from the heart. Can you tell us a bit about your journey from onset to diagnosis?

Ava actually got her diagnosis much, much quicker than I did. I had a long spell as a teenager where I was having to lie down for several hours after school every day, had unrefreshing sleep and lots of sore throats but because my blood tests came back normal, I didn’t know what the problem was. After this began to lift, whilst I regained some energy, I never seemed to be quite right. I used to go to the doctor every couple of years to ask as I was always the most tired person in a group, the first to be ready to go home in the evening, struggled to have the energy to do things like evening classes that interested me and found it really hard to gain any fitness when I exercised. Again, nothing ever showed up and so I just had to try to carry on. Eventually, about seven and a half years ago, I developed labyrinthitis and subsequently my ME worsened significantly, leading finally to my diagnosis. When I finally reached the ME clinic, the nurse told me that based on my symptoms, I’d most likely had ME since I was 15, a wait of around 20 years to be diagnosed. It felt as though lots of my life experiences finally made sense. 

One of the lovely relationships in the book is seeing how Ava and her mother’s relationship develops over the course of the book.  Ava’s mother tried to push her harder, thinking exercise was good. My mother’s go to cure for all ills was butter – the jury’s still out on whether it ever worked, but it probably has something to do with the fact, that I spread butter more thickly on bread or anything than most people I know.  As a child, or more recently, was there something your mother could be relied upon to come out with to “help”?

I love the sound of your mum’s cure! And how cosy to have buttered bread! Now I’m daydreaming about a lovely crusty loaf of bread and nice butter.

I’m very, very lucky to have my mum. She has been the most amazing support. She has an enormous amount of energy and is very generous in how she uses it. I don’t know how I would have managed without her, especially the first few years. She would come up and stay for one night each week so I had a couple of days’ help. She would take my children to school, pick them up, take them to swimming lessons and help us to keep on top of the house. It just kept things ticking over when I could hardly move.  I’d be lost without her.

There seems to be more awareness of ME than say 30 years ago and there’s a huge amount of information available at a touch of a button on the internet.  I know that you have previously worked as a Criminology researcher, how did you to go about researching the condition and sorting out fact from fiction?

I can’t imagine how isolating and difficult it must have been to get a diagnosis of ME before the internet age. I found that the ME community online were much more up to date with the latest research and gave far better advice for coping than the doctors or ME service did at the time. I found some sites that I trusted. Many charities, including the ME Association, have medical advisors and there are plenty of patients with science or medical backgrounds who are very good at explaining the latest research in order to make this information as accessible as possible. 

It was a difficult balance to strike, writing this book and being true to my experiences but without wanting to be really hard on doctors because they can’t help what they’re taught, or in most cases not taught, about ME. There are quite a few medics in my family and they care so deeply about their patients. It was important to me to have Sam and Alex in the book to balance this against the difficulties that Ava had in accessing appropriate healthcare.  That being said, I’ve had some awful experiences of being given bad advice and facing a real lack of understanding and sadly this doesn’t seem to be uncommon. I really hope that this is slowly changing, but I think we just have so far to go still. 

For a long time the suggested treatment for ME in the UK was Graded Exercise. This means that you gradually increase your activity and the idea is that it stops you from being deconditioned. The problem is, ME isn’t deconditioning. I would do so much more if I were only well enough. I have two children and I have missed so many opportunities to do nice things with them because of my health. I’m not scared of being active, I’m not well enough. My children were six and three when I got ill. There is always more to do in a day than is possible, and I do as much as I can every day. I just know that if I were able to recover from pushing myself, I would be better. I’m not. 

Because of this reliance on an approach that doesn’t work for the vast majority of patients, opportunities to fund research that would have helped us to discover the real causes of ME have been ignored for a long time.  But it gets worse. Many, many people with ME who undertook graded exercise in the past found that it made their health worse. I hate to think what would have happened if I hadn’t been able to read up on people’s experiences. I would have done anything to get better, and could have followed this advice and made myself significantly more poorly.

Writing about one key study that affected ME treatment in the UK for a long time was difficult. My background as a researcher made me question the research design. My experience as a patient made me question the hypothesis underlying the approach. I had to find a way to distil some of this into the book without it just becoming a story of how angry I was at the way people have been treated. Or not treated. 

The guidelines have finally changed and the advice is now to stay within the amount of energy you have, if possible. This can be difficult because people with ME can be so ill that even the basics of daily self care can be beyond what some can manage. We rest, we pace ourselves, as Ava learns to in the book. We have to reduce how much we try to do. We get it wrong. Then we crash and all our symptoms become more severe, maybe for hours, maybe for days, sometimes for longer. We pace correctly, but we catch a cold or have a period or just one of those days and we will crash despite our best efforts. It is very difficult to get the right balance as there is always so much more I want to do and no real guide to know how much will be ok on any day. If I overdo it, I feel this exhaustion that is hard to explain. I can’t handle any more sensory information. I need to lie down. I’m too exhausted to move. I get dizzy. I lose words. It’s deeply unpleasant everytime, and it takes shockingly little activity to make this happen. I will never forget the day that I had a glass of water in my hand and still felt thirsty as I barely had the energy to lift the glass to drink it. Luckily, I rarely have days that are that bad, but I’m massively limited every day. I can work just a few hours a week from home. I still experience massive amounts of fatigue every day, brain fog, some dizziness quite often. I use a heart rate monitor and try to keep my pulse low as much as I can. This helps me not to crash so often but it isn’t a cure. I have to be careful all day every day about how much I do and how I do it.  

I was very grateful to my publishers for their support with this book. It means so much to me to have the opportunity to write about something that has affected my life so much. I hope that people enjoy reading Ava’s story and are left with a greater understanding of the condition.

I loved the idea of a buddy bench. I know after the third series of After Life with Ricky Gervais, Netflix teamed with CALM Campaign against living miserably to put benches through the country to encourage people to sit and gather their thoughts. If you could put a buddy bench anywhere, where would it be?

I think I’d put benches everywhere! I have a walking frame now with a built in seat so that on days that I’m well enough to go out, I have a frame to help my balance but can also rest whenever I need to and it makes so much difference. 

What inscription would you want on it?

‘Sit, my friend, and enjoy.’

You read quite a lot during the first year of your illness – over 300 books wasn’t it? So I’m going to have to put you on the spot and ask – what is your go to genre? 

Romance. I used to read a lot of crime or action books, and I still love them, but as soon as life just got tougher, I needed the uplift and reassurance and happiness that romance books brought. They put a smile on my face, they leave me feeling better for reading them. 

If you had to pick a character from any book to join you on the bench, who would it be and why?

I’d love to share a coffee on a bench with Jack Reacher. You know no one would mess with you whilst you were there! Or Milo Sturgis from Jonathan Kellerman’s books. Or Myron Bolitar from Harlan Coben’s. 

And the same question, but this time a character from one of your own books?

I’d catch up with Evie and be happy to find how much better she’s doing now. I’d have a coffee with Daisy and catch up on her gossip. Maybe not Lily so much, unless there was no one nearby who could overhear and be shocked by her stories. 

I’d love to see Ava and Sam sitting on their bench. Then I’d know Ava was having a decent day because she was out of the house. If she was having a bad day, we wouldn’t see her at all. 

Tell me about your writing journey.

I have always read a lot but when my dizziness was at its worst, that was pretty much all I could do. I read so many books that it made me want to have a try at writing more again myself. Then I began to follow writers and publishers on Twitter. I found places that I could submit my stories to and a short story competition, and it all just went from there really. I’ve been lucky enough to have a few of my books come out in paperback too. I love e-books and wouldn’t be a writer without them as it was having access to so many books that encouraged me to have a try, but it’s still a very special feeling to see a copy of your book on sale out in the world. 

What can we expect next from Hannah Pearl?

I’m hoping that my next book will be out in time for Christmas! This is a fun and festive caper and will hopefully make you laugh as you watch Cara and Damian have some great adventures as they get to know each other.  

Thank you, Hannah, for your time today, it has been great talking to you. 

Thank you very much, Anni, for inviting me onto your blog x

Book Links:

Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Meet-Buddy-Bench-Hannah-Pearl-ebook/dp/B09SLYN3J4/
Apple: Meet Me on the Buddy Bench on Apple Books
Kobo: Meet Me on the Buddy Bench eBook by Hannah Pearl – 9781781890318 | Rakuten Kobo United Kingdom
Google: Meet Me on the Buddy Bench by Hannah Pearl – Books on Google Play
Nook: Meet Me on the Buddy Bench by Hannah Pearl | NOOK Book (eBook) | Barnes & Noble® (barnesandnoble.com)
Website: Meet Me on the Buddy Bench (choc-lit.com)
Goodreads: Meet Me on the Buddy Bench by Hannah Pearl (goodreads.com)

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