top of page

As the Light Slowly Dimmed: my interview with author Michael Roc Thomas

I interview the author of Seeing Better Now

Michael Roc Thomas on his family’s heartfelt

journey which led to the book’s creation

By Ian Browne Shamrock News

Image sourced via United

In October last year, Michael Roc Thomas’ book - ‘Seeing Better Now’ - won the award for ‘Outstanding Achievement in the Literary Arts’ at the BRISLA Awards at Lords CG in London.

But this wonderful book’s inspiration was born to sad times…

As a freelance photographer for over 25 years, English born Michael and his wife Alison’s life in their adopted home Sri Lanka - was turned upside down. In 2006, their daughter was born very premature. Little Steele was also diagnosed with ROP - a disease that can lead to blindness - as in the case of Stevie Wonder.

Michael slipped into a surreal reality, but ultimately decided to try and improve his daughter’s existence. He wanted to help stimulate Steele’s other senses by writing poems for her. Beautifully illustrated by two of Sri Lanka’s finest female artists, ‘Seeing Better Now’ was launched at the Galle Literary Festival in January. Ten years had passed since the time Michael began this book, and by this stage he had just turned 65 when it was made available for the world to ponder. As Michael puts it: “Proof surely that it’s never too late to try something new.”

I interviewed Michael about his family’s journey through these sad times, while delving into what this creative book has to offer. And in Michael’s words:

“With Steele’s condition in mind, I am donating part of the proceeds to a charity that cares for disabled children in Sri Lanka.”

But first, let’s take-a-look at some of the reviews this vibrant set of poems have netted in Britain:

SUNDAY TIMES April '18 - “Verses that make an unseen world jump out of the page, an amazing book.” DAILY MIRROR April ’18 - “The magic in ‘Seeing Better Now’ brushes your heart in the gentlest of ways.” SUNDAY ISLAND January ’18 - “A Tour de Force of Magical Verse. Poetry? No, much more fun!” SUNDAY TIMES October ’18 – “With the tang of Edward Lear, Rudyard Kipling or Lewis Carroll, ‘Seeing Better Now’ brings a world of joy to the reader.”

As the light slowly dimmed…

“I am just happy it has made some people smile.”

Why were you & your wife living Sri Lanka, and how long did you stay?

I first visited Sri Lanka in January 2000 after spending the ‘Millennium’ staying with friends in Bangkok. My wife Alison had however been many times before, firstly as a child with her parents and sister, (her father was a trader in Malaysia/Singapore) then later when living and working in advertising in Singapore.

I had travelled extensively in Asia but never made it to Sri Lanka, and when we discussed leaving London in the late 90’s looking for the sun, my preference had been a move to Vietnam. The first poem in the book explains how she ‘won the argument.’ We ended up staying over ten years and still return 2-3 times a year.

Calling The Shots

When my wife and I moved to Sri Lanka

As opposed to the sunshine of Spain

She was being my rock and my anchor

But was calling the shots once again.

For I thought I’d prefer Indochina

Though I quickly conceded defeat

As she claimed Ceylon’s culture was finer

And that Vietnam’s couldn’t compete.

She would point out the joys of South Asia

Where the scent of spice hangs in the air

And though raised as a child in Malaysia

She convinced me it didn’t compare.

She’d say each day’s a new revelation

With a rhythm that’s hard to resist

And to flesh out each fresh inspiration

She proceeded to draw up a list.

“Every region is proud of its history

Every town has a sense of its worth

Every legend is shrouded in mystery

Every faith tips its’ hat at rebirth.

The array of wild life is astounding

The processions are something to see

Though the locals are often confounding

When they bring their whole family to tea.

While the food is a major attraction

That will tempt you wherever you go

There’s so much that provides satisfaction

Although room service tends to be slow.”

So we made our new home in Sri Lanka

Where our exploits were frequently mad

But I’ve one further reason to thank her

For it’s there that she made me a dad.

Photo by me - Ian Browne- in beautiful Galle, from my story "THE NEW LIGHT WHICH NURTURES SRI LANKA"

In Sri Lanka, and being away from family and close friends back in England, what kind of challenges did you face when first learning of your daughter’s life-changing events?

Both my parents were British movie stars in the 40’s & 50’s, so moving wasn’t a big deal for me. I had already spent 11 years in Southern Africa and 3 more based in Madrid, as well as shorter periods like a year in the US, Brasil and elsewhere - during my twenty-five years as a fashion and advertising photographer. My wife’s family were by then based in the UK however but came out to SL fairly frequently.

Steele was born in hospital in Colombo, then (before the highway was built) about a five hour drive from our home in the south. Alison had got a bad case of food poisoning (probably a prawn) but had been wrongly diagnosed and prescribed incorrect treatment and had become very seriously ill indeed.

So, two weeks after the emergency Caesar (the baby had to come out at 27 weeks to save its mother’s life, though there were naturally no guarantees as to her survival) a routine examination revealed that Steele had ROP or Retinopathy of Prematurity: the same disease as Stevie Wonder. Google it. This was extremely shocking news and precipitated our decision to temporarily drop everything (we had a small hotel and other business interests) and return to the UK to see what might be done. This we did when Steele was about six weeks old and deemed strong enough to fly in an incubator.

Facing the challenges, finding strength & never relenting!

“ ‘Tense’ doesn’t begin to describe the situation!”

Steele, who was miniscule, had laser treatment on her eyes in Colombo. We then spent six months in England being discouraged by the medical establishment from doing anything much and just accepting fate. (Forget it not our style). What procedures they tried had all failed, so they simply refused to entertain the idea that anything more could be done. The one exception was her principal consultant in Oxford, but whatever he attempted also failed to reverse the disease. Finally, he gave us the name of his own teacher, so we flew to Toronto for two months where she underwent first an eleven-hour operation on her left eye, then two weeks later a much shorter failed op on her worse right eye. ‘Tense’ doesn’t begin to describe the situation, as even though he’d been happy with the technical result of the first op, he could not guarantee her eye-brain-connection would ever allow her to ever see anything.

As Steele grew, how did she adapt to her circumstances?

We first realised there was a glimmer of hope while watching a fireworks display when she was maybe two and a half and she suddenly started calling out colours. Pretty amazing no! Since then she has come to accept her disability, and even though she only has limited vision in her left eye and none in her right, she manages remarkably well and is a great achiever in all she attempts. For instance, when she goes to a new house, she somehow maps out her environment in her head and has it down pat within minutes. Those who don’t know her used to watch her gallivanting around with other kids and never thought she had an issue. Remarkable.

THE JOURNEY: How has your book ‘Seeing Better Now’; talking with the media, and your public speaking, helped you both gain a better understanding of your daughter’s illness? What strengths have you gained from this?

Hope shines eternal. The Press and the public’s reaction to the book has been fantastic, although it is still unknown by most people, but has sold in small numbers across a large swathe of the English-speaking world and beyond. Poetry (or verse) is hard to translate. Steele has been very tolerant of her annoying dad but is secretly very proud, I hope. As for me it has been a lot of fun. I really enjoy giving the talks, book signings etc, but I talk about a lot more than just Steele but about our lives in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. We were present during the Asian Tsunami and have had a number of other close scrapes, but overall the content is quite funny and gets a very good reception. Acting in the blood may help.

Why is it so important for you to share your family’s journey?

I wrote the book for Steele. However, my principal illustrator is a wonderful Sri Lankan lady also runs an island wide charity for children with mental and other disabilities, so a percentage of the proceeds are going there. Payback time, but my initial, though not constant inspiration, was Steele and her early childhood. I have subsequently diversified considerably but the 56 tales in the book are the ‘cream of the crop’ I wrote during a purple patch of about ten years. Overall, I must have written 450 or so, and certainly have enough for a volume 2. In this period, I also started writing song lyrics, one of which won a Lyrics competition, and ended up being recorded in Nashville, spending several weeks at No 1 in an online music station chart.

How does it make you feel when knowing that your words have touched others, while helping them to come to terms with their own grievances?

Humbled but delighted.

Why do you think your book has been so successful?

How do you assess success? It came out when I was sixty-five and I’ve done most of the promotional spadework on my own. It’s hard graft and very time consuming. Certainly, it might have been very different had I been properly represented, but the world of modern publishing is a very different beast to that of the past. Deep within however I harbour the feeling that one day it will be recognised on a much greater level. Quite possibly long after I have departed. If I’m honest I’m naturally quite a lazy person, so perhaps someone else would have made a better job of its marketing? I am just happy it has made some people smile.

What is the best thing about Seeing Better Now?

I believe it has a very wide generational appeal from kids to grand parents. Beside the words the illustrations are spectacular and together they combine perfectly. Sally May my illustrator always just ‘got it’. I’d email a poem and get her illustration back with a few days. Brilliant every time!

…for the past couple of years Steele has started writing her own fictional stories!”

How is your daughter coping? What skills has Steele gained/mastered since adapting to the drastic changes to her life and environment?

She goes to a regular not ‘special’ school where she uses whatever tech offers her the best access to learning and where she is an outstanding student who literally achieves 90’s across all her 12 subjects. Three years ago, she won a scholarship to a renowned Saturday morning music school and excels at singing, piano and guitar. She rides ponies, does ballet, swims and more, all to a high standard, and was admitted to Mensa UK aged 11. She is currently 13 and for the past couple of years has started writing her own fictional stories. I am sure she will make a great success of her life. The sky’s the limit.

…Thanks Michael. The ‘title poem’ can close the curtains here today:

Seeing Better Now

I’m walking and talking and seeing better now

Though I don’t know quite why and I can’t tell you how

But while walking came late and sweet-talking came first

It’s my seeing much better we all hope will last.

Soon after my birth came a nasty surprise

When the doctors discovered deep flaws in my eyes

For although I was born several months premature

It was tough to be told there might not be a cure.

So they started with laser in sunny Ceylon

Though its chance of success wasn’t deemed to be strong

And when that went awry we resolved to fly west

Where we hoped my prognosis could be reassessed.

Through the summer in England with breaks in between

The procedures I went through were far from routine

But when they also failed and this close to despair

We placed one final bet on two wings and a prayer.

For my mother had vowed that her baby should see

So we raced to the land of the sweet Maple Tree

Where at ‘Sick Kids’ Toronto they promised to try

And with love and devotion they saved my left eye.

After two weeks of rest we returned for the right

But the window had closed and extinguished the light

So while most of you take it for granted each day

I’m just thrilled to be able to look back and say.

I’m walking and talking and seeing better now

Though I don’t know quite why and I can’t tell you how

But while walking came late and sweet-talking came first

It’s my seeing much better we all hope will last.


I'm a paragraph. Click here to add your own text and edit me.



I'm a paragraph. Click here to add your own text and edit me.



I'm a paragraph. Click here to add your own text and edit me.

bottom of page