Leesa Harker: A bully made my life hell, so I turned to a fantasy world where no one could hurt me
As her third play, Maggie's Feg Run, begins its run at the Grand Opera House in Belfast Leesa Harker tells Karen Ireland how being bullied as a child led her into the world of literature and how the first play she ever saw was her own - the risque Fifty Shades of Red White and Blue.
Leesa Harker believes she has three years of hell as a child to thank for her literary and theatrical success. Having moved schools at age nine when the family moved to a new area, Leesa says she was constantly bullied by some of her classmates.
"I joined the new primary school in the middle of the year," she says. "So I was a prime target as the new girl to be picked on. There was one girl, in particular, who made my life hell. She made fun of me all the time and picked on me. She made sure no one else would play with me and she even had the teachers manipulated.
"My mum was back and forward to the school all the time but nothing changed until I went to secondary school. That's when I started reading all the time and writing to escape into a fantasy world where no one could hurt me.
"I had my neighbours tortured as I would turn up with my notebook and pen and ask them a whole load of questions because I was a would-be journalist at one stage.
"When we moved from primary school, we all went to the same secondary school and the girl who had bullied me became a very small fish in a big pond, so she left me alone after that."
By this time Leesa admits she was hooked on reading and writing, which became her main passions in life.
She reveals that she has a "light bulb moment", as she calls it, to thank for her most successful trilogy.
The writer behind the Maggie Muff trilogy says the idea for the character just came to her as a joke for her friends.
A single mum of two young children, Leesa (38) was unsure what to do after her break-up with the father of her children, Lola (8) and Lexi (6).
On maternity leave from her job as a car salewoman, with a newborn and a two-year-old to look after, she decided to use the time wisely and do an Open University degree.
"I have always had a yearning to write, so when the opportunity came up to do a creative writing module I was delighted," she says.
"Around the time everyone was reading this book Fifty Shades of Grey and it was all anyone was talking about.
"I got a copy of it and read a few chapters and wasn't that impressed.
"I remember thinking no Belfast woman would ever put up with being that submissive and being told what to do by any man. Suddenly, the character of Maggie Muff was born and I started writing Fifty Shades of Red White and Blue."
Leesa reveals that the story started out as a joke for her friends but found its way onto Facebook.
"One morning it had been shared 1,000 times and two weeks later it was up to 30,000 with everyone saying it should be made into a book. Blackstaff Publishing then contacted me and the novel was born. In a way my dreams and aspirations had come true but not in the way I expected them to. Suddenly I was a writer. From doing all sorts of jobs, I was now writing for a living and it was very exciting.
"It was then suggested that it be turned into a play and I was unsure as I had never been to see a play in my life and I didn't think the type of people who went to see plays would get Maggie Muff and my humour. But I took it to a production company and they jumped at the chance to produce it and actress Caroline Curran was a natural fit for Maggie Muff."
When the play was a big success, Leesa decided to investigate why people like her and all those who had come along to see the play had never thought of going to the theatre before. "I asked them why they were theatre virgins and they said things like 'the theatre isn't for the working class', 'it is all one-sided political plays' and 'there is nothing for young people to go and see.'"
Spurred on by this, Leesa decided to start her own production company.
"I realised there was potential there to make the theatre more accessible to those people who felt excluded," she says.
"I tried to get funding locally but it didn't work out, so I had to fund the second play Dirty Dancin' in le Shebeen, myself." When asked if four books and three plays on, she is making a decent living for herself as an author and a playwright, Leesa jokes: "I'm certainly not a millionaire but I am doing okay and can afford things like a house and a car and holidays for the girls and me.
"The only thing is the plays need to be running for me to make any money, so I have had to learn how to stretch it out and make it last in between plays."
Such is the success of the first two plays that they have toured Northern Ireland, the Republic, England and even gone to Australia.
But Leesa is far from complacent. The opening night of Maggie's Feg Run found her sitting in the back row on her own as a bundle of nerves wondering if anyone would laugh and how the play would be received.
She needn't have worried as early reviews hailed it as a huge hit and packed with laughs - just like the first two.
"Most people think the plays are for women but there were plenty of men there on opening night and the loudest laughs were coming from them," she says.
As usual supporting her from the sidelines were her parents Sandra and Gordon.
"I couldn't do this without them," Leesa says. "My mum is always there. She would go and see a play every night of the run if she thought she could. She loves them so much."
I ask if her mum is not embarrassed by the near-the-knuckle humour of the play and Leesa jokes: "Mum has the same sort of humour as me and I think I inherited it from her. It is like innuendo bingo in her house. She only lives two doors up from me, so we are very close. She did tell me off this time though as she said there was more swearing in this one than in the last two.
"She is a great support, too. If I am on a roll with writing and it is time to pick the girls up from school mum will do it for me so I can just continue writing. Being a single parent I wouldn't be able to do it without her.
"Weekends are precious. I try to make that family time and time spent with the girls to clear my head from writing but at times like this when a play is on they are farmed out all over the place with my family while I work like crazy."
Leesa is full of chat about the plays and life as a single mum but the one subject which isn't on the agenda is her battle with breast cancer two years ago.
"I got it, I dealt with it, I had treatment and I am over it," she says.
"Over the last two years I have spoken about it at length and said all I want to say. I just want to put it behind me now and concentrate on my future."
So what does the future hold for Leesa now Maggie Muff has had her happy ending?
"Some time out after this run which is a month long and then I just want to see what my brain comes up with next. I'd love to see Maggie on television. I think there is a real niche for a Northern Irish comedy on our screens at the moment.
"Unfortunately I haven't had any success with scripts in Northern Ireland but I have had several productive meetings with production companies in London and one has signed up Maggie's story.
"Sadly though it now probably won't be based in Belfast."
With the bright lights of London calling she reveals that she turned down Miranda Hart and David Williams' production company to go with another one who also made her an offer.
"They seemed to get me more and are more up my street. Of course I have had to tame Maggie down a bit for television but she will be on our screens - so watch this space," she promises.
One things for sure her days of selling cars are certainly well and truly behind her.
- Maggie's Feg Run is on at the Grand Opera House until August 28