Michèle Forbes | "I wanted to explore memory and relationship to memory and the need to hang onto the past"

Michèle Forbes | "I wanted to explore memory and relationship to memory and the need to hang onto the past"

There was one thing that Belfast-born Michèle Forbes was keen to avoid when writing her début Ghost Moth: “If I got it published, I didn’t want people to pick it up, roll their eyes and think: ‘Oh, god, here’s another novel about the Troubles.’”  

Well, Ghost Moth takes place during the Troubles, but it is far from just another book about them. Lyrical and beautifully written, it uses the outbreak of the Protestant/Catholic struggles and IRA bombings in the Sixties as a backdrop, but it is more of a character study and riveting family drama—concerned with the secrets, lies and hidden torments between those one is closest to, and the heartbreak of lost love.

The book opens in 1969. Mother of four Katherine is swimming in the sea off Northern Ireland, but after encountering a seal she begins to drown. She is rescued by her husband George, but the strange episode continues to resonate with her. As tensions in Belfast escalate, so too does the turmoil in Katherine and George’s marriage. Katherine finds little consolation in her family, and the action alternates between her life in the late Sixties and 20 years earlier, when a young Katherine is trying to make her way in the theatre. She meets tailor Tom and begins a passionate affair with him, even though she is betrothed to George.

Ghost Moth

Forbes now lives in Dublin and has done so since she left Belfast for Trinity College in the late Seventies. She didn’t necessarily set out to write about the time and place depicted in Ghost Moth, it just happened. “In retrospect, it was obvious as it was something I knew and it had resonance. I was born there, grew up there, and I felt I had to reconnect with the place. I guess there is something of a preoccupation because I left; there is almost a guilt. When writing about that time it’s hugely difficult to avoid the Troubles, and I wanted to introduce other narratives, other stories. I didn’t want politics to be the statement at all.”   

The 1940s part of the narrative shows Belfast as a carefree city with buzzing pubs, crowded theatres and cinemas, and little concern about bombings. As a device, it underscores the optimism of Katherine’s youth, contrasting with the despair of her later years. “I wanted to explore memory and relationship to memory and the need to hang onto the past,” Forbes says. “Is that a useful or damaging thing? I also wanted to write about the sense of absence of someone, and how that can continue to affect your life for decades.”

Holby City

You may recognise Forbes. She is an actress who has had a lengthy career in British and Irish theatre, television and films, ranging from working in a string of productions at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre during the Eighties and Nineties, to stints on “Holby City” and starring in the Channel 4 film “Omagh”. She is, however, not Hollywood’s Michelle Forbes, a favourite of SFF fanboys for her work in “Star Trek: Next Generation”, “Battlestar Galactica” and “True Blood”. Forbes smiles. “I do get a lot of nice fanmail that says: ‘Dear Michelle, I really love your work in ‘Star Trek’.”

Theatre runs in the family. Forbes’ grandfather was a music hall manager, her father a comedy writer (he wrote skits and jokes for the Two Ronnies and Les Dawson among others), and she met her husband, the actor Owen Roe, when the two were in the same play at Trinity.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that some of the more affectionately drawn parts of Ghost Moth are during Katherine’s foray into theatre. Forbes says: “I met my husband in amateur dramatics. I have a great fondness for those early days; there is the pressure of performing but it is not your bread and butter, so it’s not really that pressurised. And I love that sense of people coming together—some who probably shouldn’t have been cast—to create something.”

Forbes has turned to writing for a very practical reason (“I can tell you the cliché that parts dry up for older actresses is true”), but also a desire to stretch herself. “Acting is a very collaborative process. With this story, I didn’t want to sacrifice my autonomy. I wanted to discover what I could create on my own and whether it could stand up.

Dublin Writers Festival

Ghost Moth was certainly not a hot property at first, having been knocked back a soul-sapping 38 times by UK and Irish publishers. “I’m an actress; I’m used to rejection,” Forbes shrugs.

The breakthrough came when Forbes went to the Dublin Writers Festival to attend a workshop run by American author Paul Harding, whose Tinkers won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. Afterwards she and Harding were chatting and he recommended she try his then-publisher, Bellevue Literary Press. She did and Bellevue snapped it up, publishing it in April to lavish reviews. “I think the Americans might have been more accepting of it initially because they don’t have all the baggage we do about the Troubles.”

This led to a bidding war in the UK, won by W&N. Forbes shakes her head. “I was just thinking that it was lovely that anyone was interested. But this was all just by chance. If I hadn’t gone to the workshop and happened to talk to Paul, who knows what would’ve happened?”

Personal file
1960 Born in Belfast
1979 Moves to Dublin; studies English and Psychology at Trinity College
1984 to present Works as an actress in film, television and theatre
2012 to present Book reviewer for the Irish Times

Book data
Publication 26/12/2013
Formats HB/EB
ISBN 9780297870449/ 9780297870463
Rights sold Through Bellevue Literary Press
Editor Sophie Buchan
Agent Peter Straus, Rogers, Coleridge & White