Berlie Doherty interviewed by Angela Harding, Joanne Moorhouse and Jennifer Morris from Newfield School, Sheffield. Preliminary research for the interview was done by Stephen Yollen and a team of Y10, Y9 and Y8 pupils.
It was a chilly, autumn afternoon when we went to talk to Berlie Doherty. As we travelled across Sheffield packed in our English teacher’s Panda, at least one of us nursed the illusion that all writers live in mansions, so we were surprised to find Berlie in the front room of her comfortable semi-detached house in a Sheffield suburb.
Pictures on the walls included the original painting for the Spellhorn cover, a print of the cover of Granny Was a Buffer Girl, scenes from Children of Winter (which were used for the Jackanory special), and a horse who is soon to be featured in a picture book called Snowy, and others that we recognised from Berlie Doherty books. We took photographs of Berlie sitting in front of her son’s painting for the television series of White Peak Farm.
We were welcomed by Berlie with chocolates (a recent birthday present!) and then we began the interview. We had tried out our tape-recorder that morning, but it behaved completely differently in the afternoon. We learnt that interviewers have to be totally familiar with any technology they use and be able to function without it!
Born in Knotty Ash, Liverpool, Berlie was the youngest of three children. Her older brother and sister (Denis and Jean) seemed like adults to her, rather than brother and sister: `they were 16 and 13 when I was born, so I looked to them as being other adults’.
When Berlie was four she moved to Hoylake, `where my first books were set. I lived in a house very much like the one on the front cover of How Green You Are. In fact it was that exact street. Five minutes’ walk away was the sea. It was really nice. I was very lucky,’ Berlie commented. `I always wanted to be a writer most, but I can remember when I was little I had a list which I carried everywhere with me in my pocket. I wanted to be a writer, a singer, a ballet danger (I never had dancing lessons, but I fancied myself as a dancer!), a swimming-pool attendant, an air hostess, or a librarian. I have done some singing, so I’ve achieved two of the things on my list. But I prefer writing.’ Behind her chair, resting against the wall, was her folk guitar, so we knew the kind of singing she does.
`My serious writing started at a university course I went on to train to
be a teacher. We were invited to write a story as part of the course. It was the first real thing I’d started. It was called Requiem. After finishing it recently, I didn’t start writing again for ten months. I’ve actually been working at it for ten years, on and off.
`My first job was as a social worker, but writing had been part of my life since childhood. I used to write for the children’s page of the Liverpool Echo which was our local paper. My dad certainly used to encourage me to do that.’
Berlie gets on well with her publishers. They’ve liked everything she’s written. Only when she was writing Children of Winter did she get a query –
“‘What’s it about?” asked the publisher.
“It’s set in the plague,” I replied.
“Children don’t like books about history,” said the publisher. ..’
`Don’t quote me on that,’ said Berlie.
Children of Winter proved to be very popular and was made into a Jackanory special.
`My experiences come very much into How Green You Are and The Making of Fingers Finnegan: they were my first two books. In Granny Was a Buffer Girl there’s a whole chapter about my mum and dad, called ‘Bridie and Jack’. It’s about how they ran away to get married and came back to live with their parents.’
When she actually finishes a book she’s sad. `It’s usually a matter of making myself stop writing, rather than making myself start. After I have finished I feel terrible. I feel grieved that I have lost someone close; a great deal of myself is in my books.
‘I like to read all kinds of books. It’s important to keep up with what’s been written. I don’t like to read escapist books though.’
Berlie’s ideas come from just about everywhere. `All kinds of things can give you an idea as a starting point. For instance, the idea for Granny Was a Buffer Girl came from a painting in Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield. It was a painting of two buffer girls and it was the idea of these girls trapped forever in a painting, at the age of 18, which made me try to imagine what it would be like for them to step out of the painting and live real lives.
`My problem is not what to think of to write about, it’s what to write next, because I’ve usually got lots of ideas in my head.’
About her writing habits, she said,
`I start writing quite early after posting my letters, up until around lunchtime. I never write in the afternoon; I’d fall asleep if I tried.
`I’ve got two favourite places. One is upstairs in my attic, which is where I usually work, and the other is Burbage Edge, where there is a big rock where I like to sit and write. If it’s cold I just stay in the car and look down the valley. It doesn’t always give me ideas, but it releases me. I just find it very relaxing to be there.
`When writing I always start off with a hand-written draft. I love that closeness to the page and the noise of the pen on the paper. I write on every other page and every other line. So I have lots of space for new ideas or to ask myself questions. Last of all I-go to the word-processor and then it feels like a proper, posh book. It’s like a tapestry with all the threads woven in.’
At about this time we were struck by the stunning pictures and photographs on the walls. We asked her about them: `In the hall is the cover picture of Spellhorn. My daughter drew some illustrations for a TV feature of it. Janna illustrated Tilly Mint and the Dodo for me. Sally did a little bit of illustrating in Spellhorn and she did the music for it when it went on the radio. Tim did the pictures for the White Peak Farm TV series.
`I bought the original artwork of Spellhorn because it’s my favourite book – it’s very different from anything else I’ve written. It’s a fantasy, I was literally taking steps in the dark because it’s about blindness. I wrote it with children from Tapton Mount School for the Blind.’
`I’d love to be Tilly Mint because anything could happen to her. The other person I’d like to be is Laura in Spellhorn.’
About Tilly Mint and the Dodo, Berlie says: `I care very much about the environment. I think it’s important. The challenge was to write about such an issue in a style acceptable to younger children. I don’t think books should give messages; I don’t think that’s what novels are about.’
Berlie can have ideas for new stories in her head for months – even years! But eventually she will write them down. She can have one or two ideas in her head while writing another book!
About 12 years ago she began to write professionally. She was working as an English teacher at Ecclesfield School, Sheffield, at the time and gradually went part-time as writing took over her life.
She began to test out her stories and ideas on her classes and her own children, who were still fairly young. `Although at the time they didn’t know it, the pupils from Ecclesfield School were a great help when I was writing How Green You Are. Later I wrote the book called Tough Luck with a whole class of Year 9 students at a school in Doncaster and Spellhorn with a group of blind students. I wrote Dear Nobody after talking to Year 10 and 11 students. Collaborating with my potential readers released me and got lots of ideas going in my head.
`It seems a bit of a cheek to think that I can write for 12-year-olds, say, if I don’t know how 12-year-olds think.
I made a promise to myself that I would always involve children at one stage or another when I was writing.’
Her most recent book is Dear Nobody (published in November 1991 and winner of this year’s Carnegie Medal). It’s a book she’s wanted to do for a long time. `Dear Nobody is a novel about a teenage pregnancy and I’m looking at the effect on all the various members of the family back to the grandparents.’
The next question arose when Cosy the cat sauntered into the room. We’d never realised that Paddiwak and Cosy were real! Paddiwak unfortunately died
a while ago. Was another collaboration with Teresa O’Brien going to happen we wondered? (She illustrated the book Paddiwak and Cosy.) `I’d love to work with Teresa again. She’s a, wonderful artist, but at present I don’t have the right kind of idea.’
Berlie recently finished a picture book all about a horse called Snowy which is due to be published this autumn. She has the idea for a new children’s book in her head, but is currently working on a play for adults.
‘The right time to stop writing is when people stop reading your books. I still enjoy writing. When I don’t enjoy it then I think that would be a good time to stop.’
As we came to the end of our stay, we all had our Berlie Doherty books signed and then we reluctantly left – saying goodbyes and thank-yous to Berlie and Cosy, of course.
How Green You Are, Methuen, 0 416 20940 8, £7.95
Children of Winter, Methuen, 0 416 51130 9, R£7.95; Lions, 0 00 672583 X, £2.50 pbk
The Making of Fingers Finnegan, Methuen, 0 416 02882 9, £7.95
Granny Was a Buffer Girl, Methuen, 0 416 53590 9, £8.95; Lions, 0 00 672792 1, £2.75 pbk
Spellhorn, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 12624 X, £8.99; Young Lions, 0 00 673500 2, £2.99 pbk
Tilly Mint and the Dodo, Methuen, 0 416 04622 3, £7.95; Young Lions, 0 00 673250 X, £2.25 pbk
Tough Luck, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 12016 0, £8.50
Paddiwak and Cosy, Methuen, 0 416 23610 3, £6.95; Mammoth, 0 7497 0299 0, £2.50 pbk
Dear Nobody, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 13056 5, £8.99
Snowy, ill. Keith Bowen, will be published by Collins in October 1992.
Berlie’s adult novel, Requiem, is published by Michael Joseph (0 7181 3465 6, £13.99) and Penguin (0 14 015690 9, £5.99 pbk).