A Conversation with Michèle Forbes on Ghost Moth

Q: Set in Belfast, Ghost Moth alternates between the 1940s and the period leading up to what came to be known in Northern Ireland as “The Troubles,” the late 1960s. What interested you in these time periods?

A: Belfast in the late 1940s was a very different city to the one in which I grew up. I remember hearing stories about that time from my father. Although still recovering as a city in the aftermath of the Second World War, Saturday nights would see the city bustling with crowds, with people queueing for cinema tickets and dancehalls, lively couples in busy cafés, and families happy to stroll the streets and window-shop late into the evening. As a teenager growing up in Belfast in the ’70s this seemed to me a strange and exotic thing, that a city could be vibrant, exciting, and safe.

This contrast in how I experienced  growing up in Belfast with the idea that a very different city could and had existed was important to me. As a writer I wanted to explore that difference. I knew I couldn’t ignore the fact that by the end of the summer of 1969, Northern Ireland was on the brink of a civil war—no writer writing about that time can—but I also wanted the narrative to remain insular, to be able to focus on the protected world of the child, the family, the home. I believed that even in the face of such impending political turmoil, smaller stories still had their place. That was a difficult tenet to hold on to. But I held onto it, and still do.

Q: You grew up in Northern Ireland and have an active life in the theater. How much of this story parallels your own background?

A: My mother was a hairdresser and had sung in amateur musical theater. My father was a fireman and had been interested in writing for theater. Both joined an amateur theater group and fell in love. In a similar vein I met my husband when I attended acting classes in Dublin having left Belfast to study English Literature at Trinity College. (Subsequently, I became an actress). Also my paternal grandfather had been Theater Manager of the Gaiety and the Empire Theaters in Belfast during the early 1920s. So theater was, as they say, “in the blood” and was a perfectly obvious choice for the novel’s backstory. I knew the territory and loved the artifice. This setting gave me room to give color, literally, to my writing. It necessitated a heightened sense of language, it suggested sensuality, love, betrayal—drama.

This world also brought me a little closer to my mother, who died of cancer when I was nine.

I think even after talking as to how and why the book came about, Ghost Moth remains less about what I know and more about what I don’t know. Writing does that. It takes you places you never expected.

Q: What inspired you to write a novel?

A: In my work as an actor, I have read, re-read, assimilated, learnt, played with, interpreted, and delivered other people’s words to a wide and international audience for a considerable number of years. The writers I have worked with during that time in rehearsal have all played their part in my love-affair with language and I continue to be enriched by the process of interpreting them. I know the worth of their words and how they can support and sustain an actor night after night and delight and move audiences. As an actor, then, it would seem that the most natural thing for me to have done, the most appropriate thing perhaps, would have been to write a play, not a novel.

But that’s not the way it turned out.

Although I didn’t question my motives at the time, my suspicions now are that it may have had something to do with me wanting to investigate the singular voice as opposed to the collaborative one. One of the great seductions of theatre is the exchange of many creative energies and ideas before the final offering is made. But I suspect somewhere, at some stage, I may have asked myself, “What would I sound like alone?”

Q: As a mother and an actor, was it hard to find the time to write?

A: It took me three years to write Ghost Moth. The writing happened in chunks, mostly, between acting jobs. Finer details were tidied up while waiting for my children at their swimming or basketball classes, or while waiting in the car when I picked them up from school. I wrote longhand mostly. When I didn’t have my notebooks to hand I wrote on scraps of paper, on the back of shopping lists, or on doctor’s prescriptions, or on my arm. I walked a lot. I wore a grey woolly hat when I walked and when I returned to my desk with what I thought was a good idea, I became superstitious about the hat and so I always wore it when I walked.

Then I lost the hat.

Q: John Banville praises you for not being “afraid to address the so-called ordinary lives of real human beings.” Was that your intention?

A: Yes, I knew in the writing of the novel that I wanted to pay attention to life’s detail, to champion the everyday, the ordinary—to find the extraordinary in that. I also knew I wanted to enjoy the words I was using, their musicality, their poetry, as I hoped the reader eventually would too. I knew I wanted a lyrical intensity to the language, something of the kind that I had enjoyed in other writers such as Isabelle Allende, Colm Toíbín, Irene Némirovsky, Arundhati Roy (my short stories have tended to be more hard-edged and more rooted in the here-and-now). But the bigger themes of the novel were not apparent to me straight away. Only much further along in the process of writing the novel did it become in any way clear to me how much I was exploring the relationship between memory and need, the ambiguities which surround loss, and how the absence of a person in someone’s life can become hugely present.

Q: In a beautiful and tender scene from the novel, Katherine relates a tale about ghost moths to her daughter Elsa. Is this common folklore?

A: Halfway through my first draft I was watching a television program about Edward James’ surrealist garden “Las Pozas” in Xilitla, Mexico. The story had it that James arrived in the Mexican jungle with his friend and guide Plutarco Gastelum. They found some natural pools where Gastelum stripped off to swim and then lay sunbathing on the rocks. As he lay, a cloud of beautiful blue butterflies descended on him and covered his whole body. James took this as a sign that this was the place for him to create the surrealist garden he had always dreamt of.

The image of this young man’s body being covered in butterflies stayed with me. Later I came across the description of the ghost moth in a small encyclopedia of butterflies and moths—a moth which is common to Ireland and Britain. The ghost moth is so called because the male of the species is pure white and hovers and dances in the dusk to attract females, a movement known as “lekking.”  The ghost moth has no mouth parts with which to feed so its sole purpose in life is this nuptial dance. These two ideas fused for me into one and created a perfect combination of the earthly and the ephemeral. The idea that ghost moths were actually the souls of the dead waiting to be caught was something I added myself.

Q: As an Irish writer, how did you come to first be published by New York-based Bellevue Literary Press?

A: It had never dawned on me to send my debut novel Ghost Moth to America, but in 2011 as part of The Dublin Writer’s Festival I attended a workshop with American author Paul Harding.  In the workshop Paul Harding talked about the difficulties he had experienced in trying to get any commercial houses or agents interested in his debut novel Tinkers until a friend of a friend handed it to Erika Goldman at Bellevue Literary Press. Tinkers was published by BLP and then went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. That story was very heartening and kept resonating with me. So, after I’d notched up some 38 rejections from agents in the UK and Ireland I thought it might just be time to send my debut novel sailing off across the Atlantic. A short time later Bellevue Literary Press offered to publish it.

Q: What kinds of questions do you hope Ghost Moth will raise among its readers?

A: Do secrets hurt or protect? Do women still sacrifice their dreams for family or is that a thing of the past? How do people cope in a prejudiced society? How do people cope in a violent society? How can we more fully understand the process of dying? Would this understanding help us allay our fears of death? Should we let the dead go? How should we live a good life? How do we prepare our children for the difficulties in life? How do we live meaningfully with ambiguity? In life, how do we pay better attention? Is love enough to heal?