From “View from here Magazine”
by Shanta Everington
Romy Wood gained a BEd from Homerton College Cambridge in 1995, and spent ten years teaching in secondary schools, where as Head of Drama she staged productions from Macbeth to Les Mis. In 2006, she gained a distinction in the MA at Cardiff University in ‘The Teaching & Practice of Creative Writing’ and continued to write under a bursary from Academi. She was a lecturer in Life Writing at UWIC and now teaches Creative Writing for the Open University and facilitates therapeutic writing groups. Her first novel, Bamboo Grove, was published by Alcemi in October 2010. Romy lives in Cardiff with her husband and three children.
Hello Romy and welcome to The View From Here. Let’s kick off with me asking you when you first knew you wanted to be ‘a writer’?
I’ve always liked stories and I wrote as a child, and read a lot too of course. Then I shifted my attentions to Drama and Theatre, which is a physical, visual version of the same thing. It was reading that brought me back to writing; that wonderful, frustrating feeling when you read a book that makes you wish you’d written it.
When did you get your first ‘break’ as a writer?
I studied at Cardiff University for an MA in the Teaching and Practice of Creative Writing, which was life-changing. I spent a year talking to like-minded people, reading, writing and exploring the business of words and stories. Writing, like any other work, is something you develop and explore for as long as you are doing it – if you have pride but not arrogance. But the MA was the springboard for everything I have done since. I’ve been lucky to have grants from Academi, too (now Literature Wales), to help me concentrate on writing.
Let’s talk about your debut novel, Bamboo Grove, a brilliantly quirky story following a cast of characters linked by a dubious organisation called Eastern Vision. What inspired you to write it?
I’m one of those writers who wanders into a story knowing very little about it. I had been thinking a lot about what it must be like for a child to have a bipolar mother, so I wrote a scene between a teenage girl and a mother. I sent it to one of the tutors I’d studied with at Cardiff, and she was nice about it, and I liked the characters I’d begun to sketch, so I wrote some more scenes. I have family in Bangkok and I feel very drawn to Thailand, so it seemed natural as a setting.
The book is partly set in Thailand. The details – from the snippets of dialect to the descriptions of the food to the young sex workers living in the slums – all felt very authentic. How important do you think setting is for a story?
In Bamboo Grove, the settings are like characters in themselves. They’re not backdrops, they’re integral to action and plot. The rainbow office acts as a portal to the world of Eastern Vision, and its magic gradually descends into cynicism and then violence. In Bangkok there are the stark contrasts of wealth and poverty, human and corporate in the offices, luxury apartments and the slum. And on Bamboo Grove itself, the setting becomes the action.
A pseudo-Buddhist monk selling ‘fertility services’, a Romanian refugee with a drug addict brother, a pregnant teenager with precarious mental health. Your characters did some pretty awful things yet were also hugely appealing. It was hard to dislike any of them, even at their worst. I’d be interested to learn how you develop your characters. Do they come to you fully formed or do you do a lot of work to build them up?
I write until I find out who my characters are. It can feel stilted when I’m first inventing them. Then there’ll be a moment when I realise that a character is very like someone I know, or fits a certain type, and that will form a core to play with. And some of my characters are partly autobiographical, but that doesn’t mean they are based on me. It’s more the case that you use a part of yourself to understand a part of a character. And names are pivotal for me. When a character’s name pops into my head, it’s a real boost in knowing who they are. I’ll sometimes have a working name and then change it when the character develops. Surnames tend to be more arbitrary, but first names come to me more naturally as I write.
People often talk about novels being either plot-driven or character-led. Bamboo Grove defies these labels as the characters are so vividly drawn and the story is also very finely plotted with lots of twists and turns and a stunning climax. Did you plot in advance or did the story unfold as you wrote it?
There was no plotting at all! I wrote scenes, and then I did a series of jigsaws to work out the order of events. Actually, don’t tell my students that, because it can really cause chaos as a working method…
Tell us about the novel’s route to publication?
I was sending out a different novel to various publishers and agents, who all rejected it. I cried quite a bit. Then Gwen Davies, who was the editor at Alcemi, rang to say that she had read the beginning and would like to see the rest. I sent it to her, and took the liberty of sending a draft of Bamboo Grove along with it. She decided against the first novel but she liked Bamboo Grove. She was clear at the outset that it had at least two more drafts in it before it would be ready for publication, and I battled with it for a year or more. The final draft was hard work, because it was a complete restructure involving a shifting dramatic present and the decision to use Yingyang as a first person narrator for the framing narrative. It felt as if I was wrestling with the novel, tying it in knots and getting lost in it. The changes were a big risk, but Gwen was happy with it and applied to the Welsh Books Council for a publication grant.
The book blurb says that the novel is partly informed by your life as a woman with Bipolar Disorder. Do you believe there is a link between creativity and mental illness?
Yes, definitely. Although I do write in a working day sense, making myself sit down with a pen and squeezing out a scene, the more inspired stuff tends to come when I’m in a heightened state, such as agitated depression or hypomania. I’ll write and write, and it’s a great positive to come out of such a negative. I’ll stick out my neck here and say that commercial fiction is probably easier to churn out in working day mode, but more intelligent, literary fiction requires a different process and a way of seeing the world from a slanted perspective. And sometimes that perception is imposed on you, which is why writing is a blessing and a curse.
Have you experienced any therapeutic benefits from creative writing?
Yes, though not from my novels. Therapeutic writing is most often a more personal experience, which doesn’t find a wider audience. There have been times when I’ve felt terrible and maybe shut in, unable to communicate or even think straight, and I’ve made myself start writing. You can just write “I don’t know what to say” to start with, and then just keep waffling until you get going. There are some interesting techniques to try, too, such as writing about yourself in the third person. That can help unlock things.
You ran a writing group at a homeless centre. What did you learn from that experience?
That therapeutic writing can be funny as well as serious. That what helps one person doesn’t work for someone else. And that working with someone with a low level of literacy calls for creative solutions. I also saw how important regular appointments are for someone without a job – I felt so guilty if I couldn’t go, because there’d be someone with a note in their pocket saying “Romy: Tuesday 11am”. I would love to go back to it, but family and work have to take priority and something had to go in the endless quest for longer periods of good health.
You also taught drama in schools for ten years and now teach creative writing to adults. How do you see your role as a creative writing tutor?
I really value the support and encouragement my tutors gave me, and I hear myself parroting them when I’m teaching. There are lots of issues that can be dealt with as a group, but as the year goes on there is an inevitable divergence between students’ needs and there is some specific discussion that goes on with individuals. Some students feel that a tutor has preferences and biases towards a particular style or type of writing. It’s important to dispel that myth and for students and tutors alike to keep an open mind. Occasionally a student will break all the ‘rules’ and write something brilliant. Actually, don’t tell my students that either!
What are you working on now?
Following the sad demise of Alcemi as an imprint of yLolfa, I am trying to place my new novel. This one is set in Cardiff. It’s darkly comic again (I only seem to be able to write dark comedy, it’s what comes out of my pen whatever I intend to write), and deals with an epidemic which starts amongst the homeless population. It’s more fun than it sounds, honest.
I’m also working on a tragi-comic graphic novel set in a psychiatric institution, drawing on the excessive time I have spent in such places.
Thank you, Romy, and the very best of luck with all your writing.
Behind the scenes at Bamboo Grove
Bamboo Grove is the first novel by Romy Wood. In among the rich variety of subtly drawn characters and evocative atmospheres, Ian Macrae discovers that mental health is one of its central themes
Reading Romy Wood’s first novel is rather more like watching a TV show than reading a book. A number of plotlines develop in parallel in short scenes intercut with each other as the action shifts from London to Bangkok; characters move in and out of each other’s lives; even time doesn’t pass in a linear way.
One thing which is central to the plot, however – perhaps it’s the glue that ultimately sticks it together – is the mental health of one of the main characters, Jessica.
She has bipolar, a condition she shares with the book’s author. So it’s not surprising that I begin by asking Romy Wood that most banal of questions, to what extent is the book autobiographical.
“It’s a first novel, and lots of first novels are autobiographical,” she says while acknowledging that this fact then leads to another obvious question.
“When you say it’s autobiographical, you might think, well, which character is the author?”
And the answer to that question?
“I think I’m in more than one character. I think it’s very difficult to write a character that hasn’t got anything you can identify with. So it’s a case of which characters have got the most of me in them. But I’m definitely mostly in Jessica.”
While it would be simplistic and a little dangerous to come to that conclusion on the basis that the author Romy and the character Jessica share a mental health condition, that fact is material. But there are other similarities. Both, for instance are mothers: Jessica gives birth as the plot unfolds in Thailand to her daughter Yin-Yang, and it’s their relationship which is perhaps the central one in the book.
But it’s difficult to discuss something with a disabled author whose work contains a character with the same condition without addressing the importance of that condition – bipolar – to both book and author.
To the reader, particularly to a disabled reader, bipolar may appear to run through the plot like lettering through a stick of rock or, more appropriately, like an impairment runs through DNA. But would Romy Wood herself confirm that impression?
“I wouldn’t say it’s a central feature of the book, but it’s where it began in that the first scene I wrote was because I asked myself what must it be like to have a bipolar mother. So I wrote this scene from the point of view of Yin-Yang watching her mother and how that feels to her and the rest of the plot developed around that relationship.”
As we talk, it emerges that Romy Wood is somewhat out and proud about her condition. She has definite views on the kind of quiet proselytising she does attempting to confound people’s stereotypes of how someone with bipolar is likely to live and function. This emerges when I ask her whether it was important for her to write a book which included a character with bipolar.
“Probably,” she admits, “I’m interested in exploring mental health, and I’m interested in exploring emotional intelligence more than mental health.
“I’m kind of vocal about being bipolar because I think it helps if people meet intelligent, professional, functional people and say, ‘Oh look, here’s someone who spends time in psychiatric establishments and yet they function in society and are a good parent and are a professional’ and so on. The more people that you do that with, the more people are going to be increasingly comfortable with the idea that having a mental health condition doesn’t mean being isolated in some way or excluded.”
She is, however, wary of the trap that she saw, for example, the movie Rain Man create for itself and its viewers. The notion that the character in some way defines, or at least typifies the condition.
“It’s not a book that aims to promote knowledge or interest in bipolar as such. But I think that’s such a big part of me and that’s why it probably became such a major strand.”
So taking that point, I wonder whether what she’s trying to say is that the book isn’t flag-waving.
“There are two things here. There’s what I say and what the book says. So I guess I flag-wave a bit if I’m chatting to someone, but in terms of the book, Jessica is a different character from me. She’s more demanding, more dependant, and perhaps copes less well a lot of the time than maybe I do. So I don’t think the book is flag-waving.
“It’s a book with a character with bipolar in it and it is a bipolar book, but it doesn’t claim to define that in any way.”
It’s also a book full of subtle characterisation. No one is wholly good nor wholly bad.
There’s Moses, a definitely dodgy, almost fake Buddhist monk whose sole aim in life appears to be to use his position to sexually exploit as many women as possible. But he’s more complex than that says Romy Wood.
“Moses is not an entirely bad character. He grants people’s wishes. He does it cynically and he does it for self-promotion and because he finds the whole thing entertaining, but he does grant people’s wishes.”
What then does Romy Wood regard as the central message of the book?
“I don’t think it’s got one single message. My children say it’s like a soap opera, because you just explore these characters, these interactions, these societies.”
• Bamboo Grove by Romy Wood is published in paperback by Alcemi books. Price £8.99.http://alcemi.eu
From “Western Mail” By Kirstie McCrum
IN conversation, Romy Wood is bright, positive and chatty. She has a part-time job in academia and speaking about her new book, Bamboo Grove, Romy sounds like exactly the sort of erudite writer that Wales’ vibrant cultural scene nurtures.
But scratching the surface reveals a slightly different story, one that Romy is just as at ease discussing as her life at home with her husband and children. She suffers from bipolar disorder, a condition which means that she is prone to moods which can swing from one extreme to another, meaning that she often suffers from episodes of depression and mania.
The condition, previously known as manic depression, has informed Romy’s book, but she is keen to point out that it doesn’t define her as a person, a writer, or a mother.
The 38-year-old has lived in Radyr, Cardiff for eight years with her family.
“I married my husband Chuck Thomas in 1994 and we’ve got three children. Megan is 15 and she’s very good at singing and drawing.
Harry is 14. He’s also musical and scores lots of goals in football. And Bobby is five – he’s lovely, he’s in charge of the place,” she says with affection.
She was born and brought up in London, and Romy’s husband’s job meant moving around in the earlier part of their marriage.
“My other half is a doctor, so all the way up to consultant he had to move a lot. I’m a teacher and I was teaching in a comprehensive in Oxfordshire, where we spent seven years, and before that we were in London. So I’m an adopted Welsh girl. I’m a Londoner but I’ve lived in Cardiff for eight years.
“I love living here, Cardiff’s the best place to live. There’s a focus on the arts, and a lovely literary scene, so it’s a great place to be as a writer,” she adds.
Romy’s creativity is one of her most striking facets. In speech, she talks freely about ideas and emotions, all of them seemingly a springboard for some new story or novel that’s just waiting to be written. Her creativity bloomed at school, she says, when she took an interest in drama.
“I loved being in plays when I was at school. Because I am bipolar, I started having mood swings as a teenager, but I did well at school and then went to Cambridge to study drama and education. After that I worked as a teacher for 10 years, which I really enjoyed and I do miss it,” she says.
After the birth of her third child, Bobby, Romy gave up teaching full time, a decision which she says was better for her family and for her mental health.
“I stopped teaching at the comprehensive school in 2004 because I had a surprise third child. I found in the end I couldn’t hold down a full-time job where you’ve got to be in the same place every morning at a certain time,” she says.
After Bobby was born, Romy saw the opportunity to change her career direction and took it.
“I did a Masters degree at Cardiff University – The Teaching and Practice of Creative Writing – and then started writing under a grant from Academi,” she reveals.
As a lecturer for the Open University, Romy says she is growing as a writer herself and loving every second of it.
“I’ve been working for the Open University for three or four years, and the materials are great so I’ve learned quite a lot from them. I like the students who are prepared to keep an open mind. I think you learn much more,” she adds.
Although she admits that her husband’s long hours can be difficult to deal with, Romy says she feels very happy and lucky to have his support which allows her to lecture part-time and write. Because of her condition, Romy is often admitted to hospital for treatment which she says is an impediment to a normal working life, but the flexibility of the Open University offers her hours she can commit to.
Bamboo Grove is her first published novel, and Romy says that she believes in life writing, putting what she has learned from her own experiences into her work.
“I can’t really disentangle being a writer from being bipolar because when I’m heading for hypomania or sinking into depression, I do tend to write quite crazily, quite ferociously. There are times at the absolute extremes when I’m not able to write coherently, but when I’m on the way there I tend to write a lot,” she reveals.
Romy’s book centres on Jessica, a young woman who has bipolar disorder. Befriending Moses, a pseudo-Buddhist monk and Pippa, a Romanian illegal immigrant, Jessica is sent to Bangkok by a pair of young businessmen. Bamboo Grove is a satire about sex, financial boom and bust, cultural collision and unethical tourism.
“I think you’re always drawing on your life experience, but this book is much more direct in that it draws on the experience of being bipolar and also of travel in Thailand. I’ve got family in Thailand, and I’ve got lots of friends in Romania as well, so it draws on experiences in those ways.
“This isn’t a book about manic depression, it’s just that one of the characters has manic depression. It’s all about the business of what happens when the East embraces the West. It’s quite a cynical, satirical view of that but at the same time it is quite affectionate to the characters so it’s not a coldly cynical book.”
Romy is currently seeking a publisher for her next book which she has already finished. The book, Word On The Street, is set among the homeless community, but Romy says she has once again used her own experiences in the writing.
“It’s about emotional intelligence rather than mental health problems. There is a man with Asperger’s syndrome, so invisible disabilities are in there but most of it’s a case of being emotionally messed up or not able to interact in a healthy way rather than being diagnosed with mental illness.”
Romy says that she was suffering from the symptoms of bipolar disorder for many years before it was diagnosed.
“My bipolar wasn’t picked up when I was young. I was treated for depression and post-natal depression until I was about 35 and then somebody took a longer-term view and realised that I’m actually bipolar,” she says.
As far as her day-to-day reaction to the condition, Romy says that it is a very intense experience.
“I have what we call mixed affective state where you can be hyped up and active and very talkative and wound up but actually very depressed with it. It is a real challenge, living like that, but I think there are positives and certainly writing has been a positive.”
Writing with bipolar has given Romy a focus for her creativity, and she says it has been possible to write when she has been taken in for treatment.
“Sometimes you can write in hospital, when you’re not too catatonic with depression or drugs. I take writing therapy sessions in a day centre for people on the edge of homelessness with alcohol and drug problems, which I find very therapeutic myself when I’m too unwell to write. I’ve written quite a lot in psychiatric hospitals and clinics,” she adds.
Treatment for Romy’s condition is ongoing, but she says she often has warning signs of a bipolar episode.
“I have to take a lot of medication which I hate, but there are also behavioural strategies in terms of how you cope with signs and early symptoms,” she says.
Although she praises the doctors and nurses she works with, Romy is critical of the wider mental health services on offer in Wales.
“We aren’t dealing with mental illness properly and I think that’s really embarrassing and something that needs to be dealt with, otherwise we’re just going to end up with mentally ill people sleeping on the streets because we’re not looking after them.”
Romy admits that dealing with her illness has been hard on the whole family.
“I think my kids have suffered from having a bipolar mother, but the other side of it is if you have a severe mental illness you learn about emotional intelligence.
“In that respect my husband and I have brought the children up to be very aware of emotions and thought processes so they’re probably more emotionally intelligent because we tend to be very open as a family.
“That sets them up for life, but there are so many times in the last few years that I have been carted away to hospital and they’re very brave about it, but they don’t like it. I miss them desperately when I’m in hospital, it’s horrible,” she says.
But she says she has learned dwelling on being bipolar is damaging in itself, and she has learned to be thankful.
“I appreciate my life enormously. I am a very positive, happy person but it is difficult when chemically there are things going wrong that prevent me from enjoying my life and from being a part of it.”