Earlier this year, I caught up with award-winning journalist, public speaker and author Poorna Bell, formerly UK Executive Editor and Global Head of Lifestyle at HuffPost. Poorna has written for numerous magazines including Red, The Pool and The Guardian.
Poorna’s debut book — Chase the Rainbow — has been described as: “An honest yet uplifting account of a woman’s life affected (but not defined) by the suicide of her husband and the deadly paradox of modern-day masculinity.” With Fearne Cotton saying “It’s so beautifully written, honest and beyond thought-provoking. I urge you to delve into its courageously written pages to learn about Poorna Bell’s story.”
In this interview, we discuss Poorna’s career, how she fell in love with storytelling and what she hopes readers can take away from her book. Here’s her story:
Newnham: What were you like growing up — how would your friends and family have described you?
Bell: Growing up — let’s just say I’ve always been opinionated. I was the shortest in my class and felt I needed to be twice as loud for people to notice me. But — I think people would describe me as a bundle of energy and very chatty. And loyal. I have an older sister who was very sweet and quiet when she was a child (no longer, however!), and when she wanted to go on the swings and another kid wouldn’t let her, I demanded that the kid get off and let her have a go. Humour was also a big one — my mum and dad have still kept the letters we wrote to them when we were young and there is a lot of cheekiness there.
Newnham: When did you love of storytelling start?
Bell: My love of storytelling began when I was seven. I had been fairly good at Maths and English up to that point, but something happened and English became this thing that I loved and was good at. I went away on holiday to India and it was terrible. There were mosquitoes and power cuts and I wrote a short story about our trip there. My mother happened to come across it and she liked it, and then passed it around our relatives and they liked it too. That was the first time I realised I could create something and if it was good, it’d be appreciated by others. But more than that — there was something about the process of writing and articulating my experience, that hugely fulfilled me.
Newnham: What does your book writing process look like?
Bell: There are a lot of terrible fiction books that I started to write and abandoned, and I bought into that romantic notion that to write, you had to take yourself off somewhere. Or quit your job in order to do it. I didn’t have that luxury with my first non-fiction book because I had a very real, big day job that wasn’t going anywhere, and I had four months to write the book. My writing process is that I have to give myself chunks of two days at least, because the first day is usually thinking and pottering about and the second day is when I’m a writing demon. I write on my bed, with lots of tea and if I’ve written something really emotional then I usually have to go for a run afterwards. I’ve learned the hard way though that I have to carve out pockets of time because even if I’m not physically writing, thinking is immensely important.
Newnham: You write openly in your book about your husband’s battle with addiction and mental health issues which has undoubtedly helped others. What do you hope readers get from reading Chase the Rainbow?
Bell: There are three things I hope readers get from reading Chase The Rainbow. First, if you have no idea or experience about the things I write in the book, that it helps you to understand and above all, tap into your empathy. Second, for those who were in my shoes, I want it to provide comfort and to show they are not alone in this. Third, to people who were in Rob’s shoes, struggling with mental illness or addiction, for them to know they were seen and above all, understood.
Newnham: How do you think we encourage young men and women to open up more about mental health and addiction — is this something which should be taught from a young age?
Bell: So much of what we know about addiction is wrong. To a lesser extent mental illness nowadays because there has been so much campaigning, but we still don’t know a huge amount about it. There’s a weird idea that if you tell children about these things it might encourage them when the reality is that if you arm them with the facts, they are then much better placed to know what to do if they need to ask for help.
In researching the book, it is utterly heartbreaking to know how much of adult mental illness and addiction could be prevented if that person got the right help as a child, so it’s crucial we start educating our kids better. It is happening in small pockets but I would like to see kids being taught about mental health because we take it as a given they are taught physical education. Teen suicide is at an all-time high. Teaching them the right coping mechanisms at a young age could literally save lives.
Newnham: I wanted to ask you about grief. What was the single most important thing you did or piece of advice you were given which helped you in the grieving process?
Bell: I was lucky that people emailed me to try and help me through, and crucially these were people who had been through something similar. Because to be honest, if you hadn’t lost a spouse, or faced something similar, I didn’t want to hear advice from that person. But what I clung onto was that I was told that I was not alone, and that at some point I wouldn’t never forget him, but it would become easier to live with and the points between the sharpness of grief would grow longer and longer.
Newnham: If you could go back in time, what advice — if any — would you offer a younger Poorna?
Bell: Not that I would listen to this advice when I was younger, but I would tell myself that it will work out. That if you work really hard and persist and persevere, it’s going to pay off. And don’t accept terrible pay or shy away from negotiations because you feel grateful for the opportunity. Employers need you as much as you need them, so ask for your worth.
Images of Poorna c/o Build London