Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

Michele Forbes: made of the write stuff

She may receive fan mail from Trekkies addressed to her near-namesake American star, but it won't be long before letters for Michele Forbes land in the US, writes Ivan Little

Michele Forbes: 'I'm proud to have taken part in a drama about the Omagh bomb
Michele Forbes: 'I'm proud to have taken part in a drama about the Omagh bomb

She's starred in a George Best biopic and won awards for a movie about the Omagh bombing but Belfast-born actress Michele Forbes permits herself a smile as she talks about the fan letters she receives from all over the world for her work on Star Trek – even though she's never appeared in any of the sci-fi series.

"That's Michelle Forbes," says Michele, who sees the funny side of the global adoration. "There's only one letter out in our Christian names. But I am confused with her quite a lot."

However, the chances are that the American Michelle Forbes may soon be getting fan mail meant for the Irish Michele Forbes who is now enjoying another role – as a novelist.

And her first book Ghost Moth has been getting five-star reviews and glowing endorsements from famous writers including Roddy Doyle and Frank McGuinness.

"I'm still pinching myself at the response from people whom I admire hugely. It is wonderful and I would be a fool not to take that in and enjoy it," she says.

And that's especially true because for Michele it hasn't exactly been a quick or easy transformation from saying other peoples' words on stage and in films to writing her own.

She's 53 now and one of her publishers on the other side of the Atlantic was so surprised at her late metamorphosis into a writer with Ghost Moth that they double checked her birthday on the fact sheet she sent them thinking she'd made a mistake.

Michele was born in the Castlereagh area of Belfast and went to school in Holywood where she was bitten by the acting bug. "I had a wonderfully inspiring English teacher called Angela McGrath and when I was playing Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion the audience laughed at one of my lines and that was that. I was hooked on acting."

The theatre was in her genes anyway. Her grandfather Ernest Edgar Forbes was the manager of the old Empire Theatre in Belfast from 1919 to 1921 before moving to a similar job at the Gaiety Theatre where he collected autographs from musical hall stars in a little book – a treasured gem which has inspired Michele's second as yet untitled novel.

Her father also called Ernest Forbes was an equally intriguing character. For he combined 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 penning comedy books.

Michelle was only nine years old when her mother Eleanor Bryce died of cancer. She had been a full-time hairdresser and part-time singer who performed with amateur musical societies in Belfast and it was in one of the groups she met her future husband.

As for Michele after her schooling in Holywood, she went to Trinity College in Dublin to study English and psychology and dabbled with drama there before going on to set up a small company outside the university putting on plays in small venues above pubs.

That led her into the professional theatre at the Abbey in Dublin and a varied career which has taken her to famous stages like the Sydney Opera House and the Moscow Arts Centre and to those TV and film roles like Mrs Fullaway, George Best's landlady, and Patsy Gallagher the mother of Omagh bomb victim Aidan in the Paul Greengrass drama about the massacre.

"I was really proud to have been associated with that. To meet the Gallagher family and spend time with them was very special," says Michele, who won a number of best actress awards for her work on Omagh.

But Michele says that for much of the time she was acting she had an itch which wouldn't go away. And that was writing, though not initially, as might have been expected, for the theatre.

"I wanted to test out my own voice with a book. Which was why I put my words down on paper in the first place. I wanted to investigate the singular voice as opposed to the collaborative one of the theatre. I enjoyed myself so I kept going, though I didn't know where the story was going.

"Basically I didn't have any real idea about how to write a novel and it was a daunting process."

It took Michele three years to complete Ghost Moth because she was combining her writing with her acting and she would often scribble ideas down on the back of shopping lists, on medical prescriptions or even on her arms.

Her confidence soared after one of her short stories won the prestigious Michael McLaverty and Bryan McMahon awards but the highs were followed by the lows of rejection after no fewer than 38 agents and publishers in the British Isles turned Ghost Moth down.

But remembering her father's resilience in the face of set-backs in his writing career she persevered.

"I used to find his rejection letters in the coal shed where the postman had left them. But my father simply put his work into different envelopes and posted them to someone else," says Michele, who was also buoyed by the determination of a writer she encountered in Dublin two years ago.

"I went to hear the American author Paul Harding at a writers' workshop in Dublin in 2011. He said that his manuscript had been rejected by a series of publishers but after it was picked up by a small publishing firm in New York, the book, Tinkers, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction."

Michele sent her book to the same Bellevue Literary Press firm and they offered to publish it. "Since then it has been amazing," says Michele. "It has been published by Orion in the UK and Ireland and by Penguin in Canada and I have just heard that it's going to be translated into French for the market there."

The book has been nominated in the best debut novel category in the Irish book awards and has also won a series of awards on the other side of the Atlantic.

The storyline book opens in Belfast in 1969 at the start of the Troubles but it also delves back into happier times two decades earlier when the city was a different place with a different pace.

The plot concerns a married couple who are struggling to come to terms with a dark episode in their past.

Michele says the narrative was born out of her desire to re-connect with the city where she grew up and which she left in her teens.

"Geographically I started the story in the back garden of our house in east Belfast and built on things that I remembered," she says. "Initially I began from the perspective of a nine-year-old girl and there was a little bit of me in that character but as the writing process went on I became more fascinated with her mother and her life in the late 1940s.

"The Belfast I remembered from the seventies was a city under siege. But I was always intrigued to hear my father talking about the Belfast of his youth. It sounded so exotic, so vibrant and it was a thriving city with cinemas, dance halls, shops, restaurants and cafes which were all open and busy with couples and families enjoying their evenings out.

"I know that Belfast is now alive and has come into its own. But I wanted to capture the city as it was in the younger lives of the central figures in the book."

Michele has immersed herself of late in writing the follow-up to Ghost Moth which also starts in Belfast but includes snapshots of her characters' lives as they travel across the globe. And her grandfather's old autograph book from his Gaiety Theatre days is an ever-present by her side.

"It was signed with dedications to him by all the music hall acts who passed through the Gaiety," says Michele who wanted to explore their stories.

The only name which she instantly recognised was Chesney Allen who's best remembered for his double act with Bud Flanagan but the rest of the signatories in the autograph book weren't A-list performers.

"I'm really curious to find out about the lives they lived and how difficult it was to work the arduous circuit especially as they had to give two performances every evening," she says.

Veteran English stars like Barry Cryer and Roy Hudd helped Michele with her research for the new book and she's also been trawling newspapers like the Belfast Telegraph for information about the music hall era at the old Empire Theatre in the city.

Even though Michele has been devoting so much of her time to writing novels she hasn't turned her back on her first love, the theatre.

She recently co-wrote a play called Postscript with an actress colleague Noelle Brown which tells the poignant story of her friend's often difficult and painful search to track down her birth mother.

"A lot of the information about her birth parents had been withheld and it took Noelle years to find some sort of truth there," says Michele. "Many people who were adopted here appear to have had similar experiences and it seems to have struck a chord."

The play proved so successful on its first outings in the Republic that it's being revived and Michele will be stepping into one of the roles because of the unavailability of a member of the cast in March.

"It will be the first time I'll ever have performed my own words on stage which will be interesting experience to say the least," adds Michele, who just a few weeks back read the audio recording of Ghost Moth in London.

"It was very intense because in one section of it I had to do seven different characters who were roughly the same age and from the same area," she says.

"I was wondering why I wrote it like that at all. It has taught me a few lessons for the future."

Michele, who is one of four children, is married to the well-known TV and theatre actor Owen Roe who played Arthur Griffith in Liam Neeson's movie Michael Collins and was one of the stars of the popular series Ballykissangel.

Owen and Michele, who met at evening classes in Dublin, were married in 1984 and they have two teenage children, Megan and Ethan. Given their pedigree, one might assume that the children's succession in the footsteps of their parents into the world of acting would be inevitable.

But Michele says: "Our 19-year-old daughter is studying science at Trinity and wants to specialise in zoology and my 15-year-old son is very much into his music.

"But we wouldn't discourage either of them from any artistic endeavour."

Ghost Moth is published by Orion, price £12.99 hardback, £7.99 paperback

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