'I received handwritten death threats over playing Terry on Glenroe' - Kate Thompson
Writer Kate Thompson talks about letting go, living life and changing her name
Published 01/07/2015 | 09:17
When writer and actor Kate Thompson, who is back with a new book under the pen name Kate Beaufoy, came around to the dedication of her latest historical novel - her 15th book to date - she was running out of names on which she could bestow the honour.
Then, a little old lady she used to know very well sprang to mind: her childhood alias Mrs Patterson.
"I insisted on being called Mrs Patterson always - my mum even had to call me that in public," Kate laughs.
Kate's childhood, was largely spent in the midst of her imagination, playing games as Mrs Patterson in her parents' garden, where she had a playhouse under a pear tree and a baby called Rock. "I had two older sisters and a younger brother, but my sisters were eight and six years older, so I would have lived very much in the world of my own imagination," she smiles.
However, this extensive imagination was to inform the rest of Kate's life, bringing her many wonderful opportunities. "I think imagination is a hugely important thing in the rearing of children. I am a huge believer in that, to the extent that when my daughter was born - this will sound really hippy-dippy - but I read to her in the womb and would tell her stories all the time," Kate tells me.
Kate grew up in Belfast where she attended Victoria College, before going on to study French and English at Trinity College Dublin.
"My parents divorced in 1974, which was quite unusual in those days," Kate explains. "And my sisters had already left because they were that much older. My brother was in boarding school and I then left for Trinity. I never went back to Belfast after that.
"My mother stayed until my brother finished school and then she took herself off as well, so I had no family left in Ireland and Dublin became my home from a very young age."
For Kate, Dublin is something of a very fond and old friend at this stage. She shares a home in the Liberties with her husband, fellow actor Malcolm Douglas.
Kate with her husband Malcolm Douglas
"I have been very lucky that I have always, since living here, lived within walking distance of the city centre," Kate says. "I feel I am a lot more Dublin now, than Belfast. I rarely go back there."
Kate's days at Trinity were relatively carefree and fun-filled. She knew she was going to become an actress, so her degree, she explains, was more about pleasing her mother than anything else.
"It was just party central the whole time," Kate laughs. "I see myself as one of the last generation who really had fun at college because we didn't really care about jobs; I knew I was going to go into the theatre one way or another.
"Looking back on it, I am very glad that I have that knowledge to look back on because now that I am writing historical, it is very useful."
Kate with her daughter Clara
Kate went straight from college into the theatre. She landed her first job with the BBC on the day she graduated and from there, her career took off.
The acting scene in Dublin at the time was a tight-knit community.
"Back in the day, the theatre community in Dublin was very small. Everybody knew one another and what gigs they were going to. There were no such things as mobile phones or having an online presence," Kate explains. "We had a handful of pubs in the city centre and Bewleys on Grafton Street, where the actors always congregated.
"You just knew that if you wandered into Sheehan's, for instance, you would see Liam Neeson in there, or if you wandered into Bewleys, you'd see Ciaran Hinds there. You would be guaranteed to meet people you knew. Everybody knew what gigs were next and everybody shared information and I happened to be very lucky I worked solidly once I graduated and had a very, very pleasant life."
Kate even met her husband Malcolm on stage. "We were both actors. I was still at Trinity and he was at LAMDA (London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art) in London. He came back to do a production of Macbeth and he was playing McDuff and I was playing Lady McDuff," Kate smiles.
"We fell in love, but at that stage, he had one more year to complete in LAMDA and I had one more year at Trinity. I was 20 when I met him. So we have been together an awfully long time."
The couple married in 1985 and, in 1987, they welcomed their daughter Clara into the world. Two years later, Kate won the Best Actress Award at the Dublin Theatre Festival for her role in The Trial of Esther Waters, her first gig since she had been heavily pregnant with Clara.
A short time later, she landed the controversial part of Terry Killeen in Glenroe.
"I was nine years in Glenroe and I didn't want to make it a decade, so I got out," Kate explains. "I remember walking into a studio one day to do a voice over and the receptionist looked up and she said 'Oh! My mum hates you!'" she tells me.
"It's a horrible thing because it kind of chips away at you. You see people at the checkout in the supermarket giving you dirty looks. I remember getting handwritten death threats. It was not pleasant.
"People were always writing bad-girl roles for me and I could never understand why, because I always thought I was quite a nice person. I think I must have 'bitchy resting face' or something," Kate laughs.
Kate knew that her acting was coming to an end. "My acting years were mostly very happy, but I was pragmatic enough to know I'd have to pay the mortgage some other way," she explains.
"I was hitting a really dangerous age for an actress and I knew that the parts were going to dry up because they just don't have parts for older women. You always get the wonderful Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Judi Dench arguments, but they are the only names they can ever come up with.
"In order to put bread on the table, I had to come up with another way of making an income and I thought if I could write a novel, it might have a better chance of rising to the top of the slush pile because my name was in the public arena."
The gamble paid off in spades and Kate is now one of Ireland's most celebrated female writers, writing more recently under the pen name Kate Beaufoy.
"It wasn't a cynical exercise per se because it was something that I realised as I was writing that I actually loved and I wished I had started earlier," Kate explains.
Kate's pen name came about as a result of a number of factors, a change of agent, a different outlook on life and a very separate area of interest than with her previous writing.
"I wrote 13 books as Kate Thompson and I got a cancer diagnosis four-and-a-half years ago and I went through a year of really unpleasant treatment. I did the whole slash, poison, burn thing," Kate says. "Even a year after the treatment you are still struggling through, but I did have a new agent and I did have an idea for a book and I wanted to change my name.
"So the first historical book I wrote was called Liberty Silk and it was based on letters that my grandmother had written in 1918 from France where she had been working and had met my grandfather.
"I went through the letters and I put together the story of what would have happened if my grandmother and my grandfather hadn't lived happily ever after and her maiden name was Beaufoy, so it seemed like a good fit."
It has been three years since Kate finished her cancer treatment and she is the picture of health - vibrant, lively and beautiful. "It was, I think, another year before I was able to re-emerge properly," Kate explains, admitting that she also suffered terribly during this time from empty-nest syndrome, pining for her daughter Clara, who had moved away from home.
The entire experience culminated in Kate taking a more proactive stance on her health and wellbeing.
"We either do it ourselves, and keep the machine of our bodies going or we'll have to resort to aids and drugs. So I just thought, 'I am going to take myself in hand now'," Kate says with a triumphant smile. "I have always been a big swimmer and I swim in the sea when I am down on the west coast, but I have an allergy to chlorine so I cannot swim in pools anymore. So I tried various types of exercises, but I hated the gym. Then I was in Australia with my daughter a year or so ago and she took me to my first Bikram yoga class and I just absolutely fell in love.
"I found a studio when I came home very close to me, so on a good day I get up and I get in there for 6.30am and do an hour and a half."
Kate also loves to spend time writing and relaxing on the west coast.
"We are really lucky because we have a mobile home down in Clew Bay and it is one of the most beautiful spots in the world," she tells me. "It belonged to my mother-in-law and she put a mobile home on it about 45 years ago and that mobile home is still there, so you can imagine the state it is in, but it is just perfect," Kate smiles. "It has acrylic carpets, crimplene curtains and it is falling down, but it is the most peaceful place. I was down there for three weeks on my own recently during the nice weather.
"I was meant to be working, but I just swam and ate and read other people's books."
'Another Heartbeat in the House'[ by Kate Beaufoy, published by Transworld Ireland will be available nationwide from tomorrow