'Writing about Maggie Muff kept me sane when I had cancer so I owe her a happy ending'
As the search for our Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year continues, playwright and author Leesa Harker, who penned the best-selling Fifty Shades of Red, White and Blue, tells Stephanie Bell how winning an award in 2015 helped her overcome the trauma of her illness.
Leesa Harker is sitting at her desk putting the finishing touches to the eagerly anticipated final play in her phenomenally successful Maggie Muff trilogy, when suddenly she is forced to pause as tears start to flow.
The Belfast mum, who produced her second play at the Grand Opera House while battling cancer and the horrific side effects of chemotherapy, is momentarily overwhelmed with gratitude as she works.
It is now three years since the shock diagnosis that she had breast cancer, when she was just 35, and the trauma of what she went through has given her a new appreciation of life.
Looking back, she believes a major turning point for her, in terms of her recovery, was the boost she got from winning the 2015 Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year in the Arts Award sponsored by Allianz.
Coming at the end of what she describes as an "horrific" year she saw it as a symbolic step towards putting her battle with cancer behind her and looking forward to a new future for her and her family - Leesa has two children, Lola (8) and Lexi (5).
"I nearly didn't go to the awards because my hair was just starting to grow back and it was sticking out all over the place - it was terrible," she recalls.
"I knew there would be photographs and I didn't want to be the object of pity. In the end I decided to go for my mum. She had been through so much too. As a mum watching your daughter go through such a terrible time is not easy and it give mum a real lift to go to the awards and see me win.
"I got a hair band with feathers on the side to try and dress it up and I'm so glad I went as the whole night was just the most amazing thing.
"Getting the award, it felt as though it was recognition for everything I'd done - getting the play out and producing it while I was ill. It was fantastic and they played my favourite song Rule the World by Take That when my name was called out - and I was so thrilled I danced up the whole way up to the stage.
"I couldn't describe how delighted I was at getting it." One year on and she is still holding onto the euphoria as she works on her latest play, Maggie's Feg Run, knowing that this time she will have her health to enjoy producing it when it makes its debut at the Grand Opera House in July.
Leesa went from being unemployed and having no money to becoming a best-selling author and playwright after starting her first book - Fifty Shades of Red White and Blue - as a blog on Facebook.
A spoof of EL James' 50 Shades of Grey it became an instant hit with thousands reading it online - and it wasn't long before Leesa was signing a book deal.
She went on to adapt it for stage and followed it up with a second book, Dirty Dancin in Le Shebeen, and her third and final, Maggie's Feg Run.
She also launched her own production company and has successfully taken her first two plays on the road in the UK and Ireland.
The best-selling books feature the much-loved "tart with a heart" character Maggie Muff.
Now working on bringing the final book to stage this summer, tickets which went on sale just 10 days ago without any publicity are already being snapped up.
"I am determined there will be a happy ending for Maggie. She has saved me during a horrific time in my own life," Leesa says. "I was able to step into Maggie's world and it took me away from everything that was going on in my life at the time.
"It is quite emotional sitting here finishing the script and I just sat and cried for 10 minutes because I'm just feeling so grateful to be healthy. When I was diagnosed in 2013, I had just signed a contract with the Opera House for Dirty Dancin in Le Shebeen and I felt as though I was up the creek without a paddle.
"I was in the middle of chemo which I had a severe reaction to when the play was on and, thankfully, I had a brilliant director and an amazing team who kept things going.
"It was crazy, I was so ill and I had all this worry hanging over my head.
"As soon as you hear the word 'cancer' you think you are going to die and I had two young children who were only two and four years old at the time.
"As a single parent I had that worry as well as having the production going on at the Opera House.
"Now, looking back I wonder how I got through it.
"I just feel so lucky that I checked myself and found it early.
"I feel lucky that I survived as there were other girls the same age as me with young kids, too, who didn't survive.
"It does change you but for the better."
Maggie's Feg Run opens in the Opera House for a two-week run on July 28 before embarking on a Northern Ireland tour.
Leesa is excited as she will be producing it herself this time.
She describes her final book on Maggie as the best yet.
"It is going to be two hours of mayhem and fun and is the best out of the three," she says.
"I think by the time I was writing it I had more experience and knew what worked and I knew the character better.
"I'm really excited about it as it is my first production since I was ill and I will be able to enjoy every second of it."
Leesa's talent has also brought her to the attention of programme makers in the BBC in London.
And she has been in talks to write a series featuring Maggie for television.
After Maggie's Feg Run she hopes to concentrate on writing her very first script for television. "I've always wanted to get into TV," she says.
"I have got the recognition for the books and the plays and people know me now, and people in London in the BBC talk about me.
"It is amazing to think that my name is being talked about in the BBC.
"I have to come up with the goods now. It might not be Maggie, as I've been struggling to get the balance right - toning Maggie down for TV without losing her character - which is the challenge.
"TV is a different medium and everything moves so slowly, someone actually said that the motto in TV is 'hurry up and wait', so it is not something that I am expecting to happen any time soon, but it's definitely what I hope is next for me.
"I have the interest and the ball is in my court, so that's what I will be working on next."
A word from one of the Woman of the Year sponsors
Global financial services provider Allianz is the sponsor for our Woman of the Year in Arts Award.
The company, which has more than 85 million customers in 70 countries worldwide, has been operating in Northern Ireland since the Thirties.
Allianz offers a comprehensive range of services and insurance products across the spectrum for both retail and corporate customers who rely on their knowledge, global presence, financial strength and solidity.
Across the island of Ireland, Allianz is a leading provider of insurance solutions across both personal lines and commercial lines products.
Helen Hutchinson, business development executive with Allianz insurance, based in Belfast, explained why the company is happy to be part of this year's Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year Awards.
Helen says: "Allianz has been operating in Northern Ireland since the Thirties and during that time has witnessed how much the arts have, and do, contribute both to society and to the local business community.
"It has been proven time and time again that creativity can expand a business' horizons and help to profile and promote products, new initiatives and productivity in the workplace.
"Allianz already has several arts and cultural commitments in the Northern Ireland, notably the engagement of local ballerina Melissa Hamilton, a first soloist with The Royal Ballet and Allianz brand ambassador. Additionally the company has been title sponsors of the annual Allianz Arts & Business NI Awards for the past 10 years.
"It seemed particularly fitting then that they should avail of category sponsorship of Woman of the Year in Arts as they already have such a strong footprint in this sector with first-hand knowledge of the innovative and collaborative work that is produced."
Helen, who will be presenting our winner with her award at our glittering ceremony in the Culloden Hotel, adds: "There is no doubt whatsoever about the transformational power that a vibrant arts sector brings to society and communities. Equally there is no doubt about the outstanding calibre and passion of many arts individuals working within their respective fields. We look forward to seeing the nominations in this very prestigious award category."
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