Romy Wood Interview
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.
For more information on Romy and her writing, please visit http://www.literaturewales.org/writers-of-wales/i/136118/desc/wood-romy/