Ghost Moth author Michele Forbes: 'I was a child when my mum died, but I feel she's watching over us'
At the Linen Hall Library today to announce the winner of the Michael McLaverty short story award, Belfast's Michele Forbes, author of Ghost Moth, tells Una Brankin about her mother's death and her dad's work with Dave Allen.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, along comes a writer to make the Irish Sea one big, scary no-go area. Granted, the nightmarish marine scenario depicted by Michele Forbes is not on the same fright scale as Steven Spielberg's Great White shark attacks in his film Jaws, but the power of her writing has completely put me off and, no doubt, many of her readers, from ever again taking a dip in Dublin Bay.
The Belfast-born actress/novelist's monster-of-the deep is, in fact, a common seal. But not a cute baby one about to be clubbed to death by some fiend for its shiny skin. This thing is an enormous wild-eyed, fat, slimy predator which bares its fangs at a hapless swimmer in the opening passage of the writer's critically acclaimed debut, Ghost Moth.
"The seal's heavy muzzle thrusts toward Katherine, his nostrils - two dark inlets - flare," she writes ominously. "He is taking in her smell, her fear … Battle-scarred, his snout slopes to an ugly dull point where his long wiry whiskers afford him the seductive familiarity of a family dog. But it's his eyes - the eyes of a wild animal - that terrify Katherine the most; huge, opaque, and overbold, they hold onto her like the lustrous black-egged eyes of a ruined man."
It turns out that Castlereagh-raised Michele actually saw such an incident off the shore in the affluent south Dublin enclave of Dalkey, and has used the experience to do a Jaws on the sea-spooked among her readers.
"It didn't happen to me - I only learned to swim in my 40s and I'm happy if there's a bar I can hang onto in the pool," she laughs. "No, I was walking along by the sea in Bull Harbour with a friend and we saw this seal come up very close to a woman swimming. She was very frightened and my friend went over to help. Seals are beautiful animals but they're terrifying and unpredictable. The woman was making this very eerie frightened sound, and I used that to kick off the novel."
Three decades in Dublin have left the former Holywood schoolgirl with a mixture of accents that sounds like a soft Scottish burr. She left Belfast at 18 to study English and Psychology at Trinity College in the city, where she joined drama groups and met her husband, the rumpled-faced actor Owen Roe, who starred in the Neil Jordan films Breakfast on Pluto and Michael Collins. They married in 1994, when Michele was 23, and have two children, Megan (19) and Ethan (15).
"Yes, 23 is quite young, isn't it?" she remarks. "You do change so much between your 20s and 30s, but we've managed to stay together 30 years. As Owen says 'It's been the best 30 years of Michele's life!'. Going on tour helps - it brings something new back to the relationship, and us both being involved in the arts helps too; you understand the process."
Our interview - to promote today's announcement of the Linen Hall Library's 2014 Michael McLaverty short story award - has provided a distraction from the intense creative process of Michele's first draft of her second novel. Set in Belfast and the English music hall circuit of the early 1900s, it is inspired by the author's grandfather, Ernest Edgar Forbes, who was the manager of the old Empire Theatre in Belfast from 1919 to 1921 before moving to a similar job at Dublin's famous Gaiety Theatre, where he collected autographs of all the stars.
Michele's father, Ernest Forbes, also had the theatre in his blood, combining his work as a fireman with writing material for TV stars like Dave Allen, the Two Ronnies, Les Dawson and Marti Caine, as well as writing comedy books. One of the performers he wrote for was Roy Hudd, who appeared recently as an ageing First World War veteran in the hit TV series Call The Midwife.
"Barry Cryer was helping me with my research and he said Roy was the man to talk to," says Michele. "I'm meeting him in the new year - it's a lovely connection to have, with my dad having written for him. And it was so great to have dad at my first book launch and share the sense of achievement with him.
"Dad has written, too - I found his countless rejection slips in the coal house in our back yard. He kept on going regardless, and so did I."
She had quite a few Dear John letters before the Bellevue Literary Press in New York published Ghost Moth, to widespread acclaim. One person missing from the launch of her debut, though, was her mother Eleanor, who died from cancer when Michele was only nine years old. Eleanor had been a full-time hairdresser and part-time singer, who performed with amateur musical societies in Belfast, and it was in one of these groups she met her future husband.
"I remember mum singing around the house - she had a lovely voice and always seemed to be singing," Michele recalls. "She died from lung cancer but she hadn't been a smoker. In those days there wasn't the same treatment available.
"It's only when you get older and have the resources that you can process the loss. At the time you experience it and you have to cope. It made me quiet, if you know what I mean. I retreated into myself a lot, but having my own children has brought a whole sense of healing, on a tremendous level. I have a great sense of support from her, in a way. I feel she's looking down on us all."
As a performer herself, Eleanor would have been proud of her daughter's TV and film roles as Mrs Fullaway, George Best's landlady in the biopic of the late footballer, and as Patsy Gallagher, the mother of Omagh bomb victim Aidan, in the Paul Greengrass drama about the the Real IRA massacre.
"It was quite daunting to meet the Gallagher family while filming but they were so warm and put me at my ease," says Michele. "I haven't been in touch with them for a while but I'm always aware of their relentless pursuit to get their questions answered. I've absolutely no doubt they will one day. They are so dignified and courageous and determined."
As much as she enjoys acting, Michele has always had a hankering to write. Her ambitions were given a welcome boost by the Michael McLaverty Award in 2010 for her vivid short story, Scandal, which was inspired by a bicycling trip from Belfast to Ballyhalbert with a free-spirited school-friend.
"The award kept me going as a writer - I was halfway through the first draft of Ghost Moth, which was hard going.
"To win was wonderful and I was very appreciative of the prize money (£2,000), given the many long hours you put into a book. (Belfast author) Glenn Patterson was the judge that year - I really admire him, so it was great to get the award from him."
Before she heads back to the grindstone of drafting her second novel, she takes the time to give three good tips to aspiring short story writers - write about whatever you want; write in whatever way you want; don't over-complicate - "the one demand of short story writing is reduction".
As William Faulkner (and Stephen King) advise: "Kill your darlings", ie the self-indulgent padding to which first-time writers often fall prey.
"You mine the memories that have stayed with you when you're writing and one idea leads to another," Michele concludes.
"Making up stuff is the best fun. A novel can be torture in the first draft, though, as Stephen King says. He's so clear, and clean and dry; he doesn't try to fancy it up.
"It's difficult in terms of length but once the first draft is down, it gets easier.
"I'd encourage anyone interested in writing to have a go at the McLaverty competition - it really did help me keep going."
Read all about the award...
- Previous winners of the Michael McLaverty Award have gone on to publish further works. Aiden O'Reilly (2008) has published The Stoneybatter Files, Michéle Forbes (2010) the acclaimed debut novel Ghost Moth, and Mandy Taggart (2012) The Man of the House
- Adjudicators for this year's competition are Anne Tannahill, freelance editor and retired MD of Belfast's Blackstaff Press, and author Bernard MacLaverty (above), author of Cal, Grace Notes, Lamb and five collections of short stories
- To celebrate the arcane craft of the short story, the Linen Hall Library has republished Michael McLaverty's The Game Cock and Other Stories (£9.99) with an introduction by Dr Sophia Hillan, joint-literary executor of the Michael McLaverty Literary Estate, who also recently launched her new book The Friday Tree.
- Entry Guidelines for the Michael McLaverty Short Story Award 2015 are available www.linenhall.com
- The Linen Hall Library is open free to the public. Opening hours are Monday-Friday 9.30am-5.30pm and Saturday 9.30am-4pm
The story on Michael McLaverty...
- Michael McLaverty (1904-1992) was one of the foremost proponents of the Irish short story
- Born in Co Monaghan, he moved as a child to the Beechmount area of Belfast and attended St Gall's School and St Malachy's College. He worked as a teacher, firstly at St John's Primary School in Colinward Street
- In his book, Belfast Born Bred And Buttered, writer and historian Joe Graham speaks fondly of having been taught by McLaverty
- For a short period he lived on Rathlin Island, where he gained much of the inspiration for his short stories
- In the 1950s-60s he was the principal of St Thomas' Secondary School on the Whiterock Road in Belfast (during his tenure there Seamus Heaney was one of his staff)