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Berlie Doherty facts
Hello! The main thing I want you to know about me is that I always wanted to be a writer, that I love writing, and I’ve written over 60 books in all kinds of genres and for all ages. I also write plays for theatre, television and radio, short stories and poems. But here are some other facts:
- Most popular book is Dear Nobody around the world, but in the UK it’s Street Child, with Treason second.
- First book was How Green You Are!, and was published in January 1982. I’ve been a full-time writer since 1983. (To celebrate 40 years since How Green You Are! was published, I compiled a list of my 40 all-time favourite books for an anniversary blog post.)
- My books have been translated into 23 languages, I think. Dear Nobody and The Girl Who Saw Lions have the most translations.
- I was born on 6 November 1943 in Knotty Ash, Liverpool, youngest of three. See if you can work out how old I currently am!
- I went to Upton Hall (Convent) School
- I studied at Durham University (Hons. English); Liverpool University (Dip. Social Studies); Sheffield University (Post-graduate certificate in Education)
- I lived in Sheffield until 1993
- I have three children and seven and a half grandchildren. I now live in Edale with second husband Alan Brown. Learn more about them further down the page
- I prefer to pronounce my surname as Dougherty, I like Doherty (short o, aspirated h) but I’m not keen on Dockerty at all. Though we used to have a hamster which we called Hickory Dickory Dockerty. Most people say Dorty.
- See further down this page for excerpts from my short autobiographical essay
Did I tell you I love writing? I’ve always written. My first stories and poems were published on the children’s pages of the Liverpool Echo and The Hoylake News and Advertiser. My dad used to type them up for me. I used to win things like paints, chocolates and fireworks.
My first ‘grown-up’ story was broadcast on BBC Radio Sheffield in 1978. I was paid £8.
I was a social worker for one year, in Leicester. After my three children were born I became a teacher.
1979 I was seconded to Radio Sheffield for two years to write schools programmes. I was being paid to write!
In 1982 my first book, How Green You Are! was published by Methuen and serialised on BBC TV, and my first radio play, The Drowned Village was broadcast on Radio 4. I stopped teaching and became a full time writer for the rest of my life.
Linked work and posts
I have been Chair of the Arvon at Lumb Bank management committee and a member of the Council of the Arvon Foundation.
Writing residences include Calderdale libraries and Quarry Bank Mill and Reading Champion for Derbyshire Libraries.
Awards and honours
My books and plays have won several awards, shortlists and nominations.
I’ve won the Carnegie Medal, the most acclaimed of all children’s book awards, two and a bit times.
The first time was for Granny Was a Buffer Girl, and when my editor phoned to tell me I had won I refused to believe it, so she put the phone down and got someone else to tell me.
My daughter came with me to the ceremony and when they called me up to receive my medal I was so nervous and still sure that they’d made a mistake that I stood rooted to the spot and she had to push me onto the stage.
The second time was for Dear Nobody, and this was a huge surprise and joy for me. Now I really did feel like a writer! It was translated into 21 languages and won several more awards, including the prestigious Boston Globe-Horn Honor.
The bit of a Carnegie medal was for Willa and Old Miss Annie, which was runner-up (Highly Commended).
Many of my other books were nominated for the Carnegie Medal.
Among other major awards are the Writers’ Guild Award (twice, for the dramatisation of Dear Nobody, and for Daughter of the Sea), and The Phoenix Award for Jeannie of White Peak Farm.
I was shortlisted for the Astrid Lindgren award, the world’s largest award for children’s and young adults’ literature.
I’ve received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Derby.
And in 2022, I also won a Sheffield Star Inspirational Women of Sheffield award, in the Marti Caine Entertainment category.
I love working with musicians, and here are some of the major commissions I’ve received:
Sheffield Music in the Round
Peter Cropper, Leader of Sheffield Music in the Round’s world renowned Lindsay string quartet (sadly disbanded), commissioned three stories to be performed during their concerts at the Crucible Theatre. I wrote The Midnight Man, Blue John and the Spell of the Toadman specially for them.
They also commissioned a libretto (the words) for an opera based on my children’s novel, Daughter of the Sea. The composer was Richard Chew. It was first performed in July 2004 at the Crucible Theatre Sheffield and was a Music in the Round production, with a cast and orchestra of professional singers, The Lindsays, and local children.
The opera has also been performed in the Coming Out Festival in Adelaide, Australia.
In November 2014, I took part in a series of short films celebrating Sheffield’s Music in the Round. You can see my contribution on YouTube, with a reference to the opera.
Welsh National Opera
I was also commissioned by Welsh National Opera (WNO) to write a concert opera – that is, a small-scale opera with minimal set and movement. They asked me to use the music of four composers; Dukas, Saint-Saens, Liadov and Julian Philips, and I wrote a libretto called The Magician’s Cat. It was toured in England and Wales with a very large orchestra (60 piece!) and a very small cast – two singers! Children from different schools sang as well, and also helped to create the back-projection of images that flowed throughout the production.
Wild Cat is my third opera. It was commissioned by WNO Max in November 2006, to have its first tour in Wales in April and May 2007. It is a chamber opera (which means it has a small cast of singers and musicians, so it can play in small theatres).
Wild Cat is the third part of the WNO MAX Earth, Sea and Sky trilogy, and lasts 45 minutes. There are three soloists from WNO: Mark Evans, Elisabeth Toye and Claire Turner, and two soloists and choruses are chosen from the primary schools located in each of the six venues. The composer is Julian Philips, who partly composed the music for the Magician’s Cat concert opera, and the director is Nik Ashton.
The libretto is the story, which is all sung. Writing a libretto is a mixture of writing a play and writing a poem, and the only way I know of writing one is to sing it! Of course my music would be nothing like the wonderful music of the composer, but singing it helps me to give the story speech patterns that aren’t like prose, and to give the lines metre and, where I think it needs it, rhyme. When I send it to the composer it’s all laid out in words of songs (arias), choruses (for the choir or group of singers) and recitative, which is the narrative sung links. Then the composer asks me to add verses, reduce bits, develop bits, etc as the ‘real music’ begins to develop. It’s a wonderfully exciting way of working and I feel really privileged to be asked to write for such talented musicians.
Wild Cat was part of a trilogy which won the Royal Philharmonic Award for Music in Education.
A Sheffield Song Book
In 2009, along with composer Richard Chew, I was invited to write a song-cycle, A Sheffield Song Book, for the Sheffield Young Singers. The conductor is Helen Cowen. The world premiere of the cycle was accompanied by the famous Ensemble 360.
How, where and when do I write?
How: I write my first draft by hand, in a large hard-backed notebook. Most of these notebook drafts are now archived in the National Centre for Children’s Books (Seven Stories) in Newcastle.
Where: When I’m writing this early draft I can and do write anywhere – on the bus, in bed, in the garden, by the fire… I take it with me wherever I go.
When the time comes to transfer it to computer I work in what I call my writing room, which is the upstairs of a small barn attached to my house. I look across farm fields towards the Pennines as I’m working.
When: Again, the first draft is done at any time of day or night – I just pick up the notebook when I feel I know what’s going to happen next in the story, and scribble away. It might be for five minutes, it might be for a few hours.
I’m more disciplined when it comes to building up my story on the computer. I probably work every morning then. In the afternoons I prefer to walk and think! Thinking takes more time than writing. At the end of every day I print out or read through what I’ve written, always trying to make it better. My agent is always the first person to read the completed story.
Films, TV, theatre and plays
Have any of my books been made into films?
Not yet, though I’ve had four or five offers!
Yes. BBC 1 serialised White Peak Farm (later titled Jeannie of White Peak Farm). I was lucky enough to be invited to write the dramatisation.
I also dramatised Children of Winter for television, as a two part series, and Zzaap and the Wordmaster originated as a six-part TV series.
Dear Nobody was also serialised on BBC1, dramatised by Richard Kavanagh.
Yes, Dear Nobody became a theatre play commissioned by Sheffield Crucible Theatre. It was also produced in The New Vic theatre in Newcastle under Lyme. I was the dramatist.
Street Child was toured throughout the country by Cotton Grass Theatre.
Yes. Dear Nobody and Granny was a Buffer Girl, were both dramatised by me and broadcast on BBC radio 4.
Have I written other plays?
Yes. Lots of short stories and plays for radio. Three of my Radio 4 plays were adaptations of classics: Heidi; The Water Babies and The Snow Queen.
My theatre play, The Sleeping Beauty of the Forest, was commissioned by The New Vic.
Why write plays?
I absolutely love writing plays. Why? – because I enjoy just being a small part of a huge team – the actors, director, producer, sounds, and in the case of theatre and television – set designer, costume designer, lighting, music etc. And the audience! It’s tremendously exciting! When I write a novel I’m on my own – I have to be. It’s a very different experience.
Do any of my family write, or have creative hobbies?
Yes. My father, Walter Hollingsworth, was a railway clerk, and in his spare time he wrote comic poems and stories which were sometimes published in the Liverpool Echo or the Railway magazine. His love of writing was a great inspiration to me.
My daughter Janna illustrated two of my books: the first editions of Tilly Mint and The Dodo, the second edition of Walking on Air.
My son Tim cycled solo round the world, and wrote a book about his journey called This Breathtaking World. He also wrote Travels With Verena.
My daughter Sally is a singer songwriter who has produced many albums. She and I collaborated on a short musical version of Daughter of the Sea, adapted from my novel.
Daughter of the Sea, read by the author and set to music by the Sally Doherty Quartet, is available to download or stream from my daughter Sally’s Bandcamp page.
Q What was your favourite book when you were a girl?
A My favourite book as a child was Emily Climbs, by L.M. Montgomery. Emily wants to be a writer.
Q Which is your favourite book, of the ones you’ve written?
A My favourite book of my own is Requiem. For children, it’s Deep Secret. But they’re my children. I’m fond of all of them.
Q How long does it take to write a book?
A Requiem took me ten years to write! I also wrote six books for children and several plays at the same time. Children of Winter took me about two weeks – the story just fell out of my head on to the paper! Usually, one or two years, But that doesn’t take account of the years spent thinking.
Q Where do you get your ideas from?
A Everywhere. Where do you get your dreams from? Things people say, newspaper articles, I just seem to bump into ideas. I think I can remember the starting point for every single book, and they’re all different.
Q Why do you write?
A As a child I was always writing, and knew that I wanted to be a writer. I was encouraged by my father, who used to type up my poems and stories and send them to the local paper, the Liverpool Echo. Before long he taught me to type for myself! I think writing was a compulsion and still is – whatever new experience I have I feel a need to write it down, and my writing will include the physical description of the place where it happened, the emotions I felt, the people I met, even the conversations I had. Other people take photographs or paint pictures, but I need to write everything down.
Q Where do you start?
A Sometimes I start with an image, like a curled up stone that looks like a snake (The Snake-Stone) and that picture won’t go out of my head for months until I’ve found a way of releasing it. Sometimes it will be a situation – a young couple forced to think about their futures, together or apart (Dear Nobody) or a character, a destitute child coping on his own (Street Child). With all of them the story is the last thing to come, but the germ of the idea floats around until I know it won’t go away and I have to write about it. Sometimes I despair halfway through and think there’s no way of bringing the story out, but even so I can’t leave it alone and it won’t leave me alone until the book is written.
Q How do you pick the names for the people in your books?
A Sometimes the characters are called after friends and relations, but often I change the name as the character develops.
Q What advice would you give to people who want to become writers?
A Try lots of different things – poetry, stories and plays. Try to write something every day, even if it’s a diary. Try to describe a place, or a person, or an event every week. And never imagine for a moment that it’s going to be easy!
Q Would you recommend any of your books for a ten to twelve year old boy, because I love reading. (David Walker)
A Street Child, Children of Winter, Treason, The Sailing-Ship Tree.
Q Do you like using similes? (Evie)
A Well, yes I do, Evie. When I can visualise something in my head I want the reader to be able to see it too, so I try to think of ways of bringing my mind-picture to life.
Q How did you first become interested in writing for children?
A Way back in 1978 I was invited by the local BBC (Radio Sheffield) to write some stories for use in schools. I eventually began to send these to publishers and they became my first books.
Q Do you have any particular objectives in writing for children?
A My first is to entertain. I want children to be fascinated or excited or moved by what I write. But I also want to write about something that matters both to them and to me.
Q Who are your target readers?
A First I must please myself, but it is the self of four, or nine, or fourteen, or whatever happens to be the age of the central character in my book.
Q How is writing for children different from writing for adults?
A The difference lies largely in the subject matter. There are also layers of emotional and intellectual intensity in a novel for adults which may not be appropriate in most writing for children, except in teenage fiction. I don’t temper my use of language or imagery.
Q What different linguistic and structural strategies do you employ for different age groups?
A You must never confuse your reader, so young children should have a simple structure to follow. Older readers can be invited to work a little, so I may use two or more narrative voices, or employ flashback, or invent an original way of speaking, as in Spellhorn.
Q How do you collect data?
A It depends on the novel or play. Sometimes I interview people to ask them about their work or particular knowledge or experiences. Sometimes I use reference books for historical or political information. Sometimes the whole thing comes out of my head.
Q What are the ethics of writing for children?
A When it comes to writing for teenagers, there don’t seem to be any taboo subjects, though the way in which they are handled would be subject to editorial sanctions.
Q How does the topic of multiculturalism contribute to young people’s understanding of the issue? (Question in Indonesia)
A Greatly, I would hope, as we would want children to allow themselves to ‘become’ the character they are reading about. In Tough Luck my Asian character, Nasim, had typical problems to cope with, and literature is one way of exploring these problems. However, Ruthlyn, the black girl in Dear Nobody, is simply Helen’s best friend, and that is another important way of representing our multicultural society. And The Girl Who Saw Lions is one of my most important books, and introduces readers to issues about illegal immigrants, as a young black child is brought from Africa and treated as a house slave.
Q I am also very interested in your use of different voices to create a broader picture of the family as well as the structure of the books. Do you fit the stories into a specific structure or do they lend themselves to a particular form as you write?
A I don’t think I’ve ever set off with the idea of writing a novel in different voices and fitting characters or stories into them, I think the matter of how to structure a novel is completely intuitive. As soon as I began writing Dear Nobody I knew that the story had to be told by both Helen and Chris, in their own voice. The Sailing Ship Tree needed to be told in the individual voices of the four children (and I very much enjoyed giving Tweeny her own accent!). I include stories within stories sometimes, as they are intrinsic to novels like The Famous Adventures of Jack (Hodder) and my second novel for adults The Vinegar Jar (originally Penguin, but recently expanded, improved and available to preorder as the ebook Rose Doran Dreams – published 31 March 2022.). With any other cases the idea of writing in this way came as a result of trying to find the most appropriate way of developing a particular character or story line. You may be interested to know that I write plays too, and maybe this desire to include more than one voice in the narration stems from that.
Q What is your favourite poem? (James Carter)
Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
the blue and the dim and the dark cloths
of night and light and half light
I would spread the cloths under your feet
But I, being poor, have only my dreams,
I have spread my dreams under your feet
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
It’s the poem that Chris sends to Helen in Dear Nobody.
Extracts from ‘I Remember and Let’s Pretend’
Whenever I talk about the process of writing I call it a mixture of ‘I remember’ and ‘Let’s pretend’, so when I was asked to write an article about myself for Something about the Author, an autobiographical series (Volume 16) published by Gale Press USA, I decided to call it I Remember and Let’s Pretend. Here are some extracts:
I am a baby in my mother’s arms. She is carrying me into a noisy room full of children, and I’m afraid. The children are painting and drawing; all playing. One of them runs up to me and reaches up to put a necklace round my neck. It is made of plasticine, and I can smell it, rubbery and sharp. It is cool against my skin.
I am about two or three, and the sun is shining. The tar on the road is sticky. I am sitting on the front door step with a little boy called Johnny. He asks me to kiss him, and I do. We laugh a lot.
I am three or four. I stand at a tram stop. The wind is cold on my legs. My father is holding my hand. When the tram comes he puts me on it and I start to cry. “Don’t cry,” he tells me. “You’ll be all right.” He waves goodbye. I cry until someone lifts me off the tram and tells me she is my cousin. She takes me to my aunt’s house and tells me I am going to live there. At night my aunt loosens her plait and brushes her hair in front of the mirror. It is very long and very grey. There are cobwebs dangling from the ceiling above my bed, and I think they are her hairs. My cousin has a pot-faced doll that someone sent her from America. It is bigger than a baby, and very beautiful. She keeps it in a drawer, and I’m frightened that it will die in there.
My aunt takes me on a tram to the ferry, and there is my father waiting for me. He doesn’t look like my father. The ferry takes us across the brown river from Liverpool to Birkenhead, and the spray is salty on my lips and in my hair. Gulls are screaming round us. The wind is so strong that I can hardly stand up. We go on a train that takes forever and my sister is waiting at the other end. She doesn’t look like my sister. We walk to a big house in a garden full of trees and my father holds me up to a window. There are lots of beds lined up. He taps on the glass and someone waves from one of the beds. “Sing for Mummy’, he tells me. “Is that Mummy?” I ask. I tap on the glass and sing “Woody woodpecker! It’s the woody woodpecker’s song…” and everybody laughs. When the nurse isn’t looking my sister takes my hand and we run into the ward together, and when the nurse turns round she hides me under my mother’s bed. That night I am taken back to Liverpool and put back on the tram. I cry. “Don’t cry”, my father says. “It will be all right.”
Somewhere in the world I have a big brother called Denis who can fly and who sends me picture postcards. I don’t know what he looks like.
I am four. I am living with my father and my sister Jean in a house in the country. There are geese in a field at the bottom of the garden, and I think they are calling my name. I run to them, and when they hiss round me I am frightened.
I am nearly five. We have moved to another house, a little terraced house near the sea. My sister is there, and my father, and my mother. Jean is happy because she has a new job and a new boyfriend and she has found a shop that sells chocolate biscuits. I am happy because we are together again, and my brother knows where we are because he sends me another postcard, and my mother is better.
We lived near the sea, and my shoes were always lumpy with sand and my knees sparkling with it.
We lived in a small house in a street of identical houses.
…On good evenings we’d sit on our steps gossiping, doing the veg for tea, and our mums would stand leaning in the doorways with cups of tea in their hands, calling across to each other and waiting for the bread cart to come round. It was driven by an elderly chap called Wallo and pulled by Peggotty, his horse. Peggotty and my mum got on really well together – I don’t know why, because she never liked animals in the house, never even let me have so much as a jar of caterpillars. If there was any bread over from the day before Mum would put jam on it and save it for Peggotty, and the horse would come to expect this little treat, and though she was pretty slow at getting about she would gallop past the last few houses on the street up to ours, and stamp on the step. If she didn’t get what she wanted soon enough she would come right in, or as far as the cart would let her, snorting and tossing her long head back until she got her slice. I didn’t like to be the one who gave it her, though – I didn’t like to feel the flat slap of her wet mouth across my hand, or to hear the solid chomping of her enormous teeth.
Sometimes she’d leave a payment for the bread and jam in a big steaming dollop on the pavement outside, and I’d have to shovel it into a bucket and put it into the back yard for Dad to take to his allotment. I didn’t mind doing that…
(Extract from ‘The Making of Fingers Finnigan’)
My friends and I used to play out in the street till dusk, when the lamps were coming on, and we would skip and play ball, or have concerts in the entry, and our chanting voices would bounce off the walls of the yards. Our mothers would call us, and in bed we would hear the older children still playing and shouting. I longed to be old enough to do that. I longed even more to be as old as Jean, and to wear high-heeled shoes and skirts that swirled out when you danced. She had a jar of perfume on the dressing-table and I drank it to see what it tasted like. When Jean had stomach cramps my mother would bring her warm milk with rum in it, and Jean would give it to me. I looked forward to being old enough to have stomach cramps of my own, and to have my mother’s attention and warm milk and rum.
Over the railway lines were fields, and there my father and I would walk, or on the hills that were covered with gorse and sandy tracks where lizards darted. My mother never walked with us. If I have inherited anything from her it is my love of daydreaming. She loved to sit in the firelight and watch the flickering of flames and the shadows they made on the walls. Years later she gazed at the television set in the same way, watching the flickering patterns there, for hours on end, daydreaming.
From my father I inherited stories.
When I didn’t cycle to school I went on the bus, and wrote stories or read for the whole journey. When I was ten there was a teacher whom I loved. Almost every day he used to save my life. In school assembly I used to faint, often, and he would scoop me up and carry me outside for air. “Did you die?” my friends would ask me, awed. “What was it like, dying?”
“One day,” this teacher told me, “You’ll be a writer.”
I think he was the gentlest person I have ever met, in a school where I witnessed frightening cruelty.
…How clearly I remember the day Mr Devlin nearly murdered Angelo Caravelli in class: Angelo who had the looks of a cherub on a holy Christmas card, and who had no sense at all about keeping still at his desk. I remember my particular terror because Angelo was my friend and because he sat in front of me, which meant that I saw the look in Mr Devlin’s eyes just before he did. Like a cat he pounced as the boy turned round to talk to me, and all our chatter flew away up and into silence like birds scattering into treetops, and in shock we watched as the boy was lifted from his chair and flung on to his desk-top and pummelled many times: and all the while this was going on we could only stare, locked in terror, till Mr. Heaney* from the next classroom came through and spoke quietly and released us all…
In my last year at that small school it was quiet Mr. Heaney who committed a terrible act of violence against himself. He killed himself. Some said he did it by slitting his wrists in his bath, till the water was cold and crimson with his own blood. So it wasn’t he who gave me the news but Mr. Devlin. He made me stand up in class while he told me that I had passed the scholarship to go to the convent school…
(Extract from ‘Requiem’)
I went to the convent school by two buses or by bike. When I went by bike the chain always came off and I would arrive with my hands smeared with black oil. I was the only child in the street to go to the convent school. I wore a green uniform, which our parish priest paid for. There was no way that my parents could have afforded it, but my father hated accepting charity from a priest (he wasn’t a Catholic himself) and in fact never came in to the school, not even when I had the lead part in a show in my final term.
At school I was a relatively poor child among many very rich girls. I had to lose my Liverpool accent in order to survive. I had to keep my nails clean, and have my hair tied back in plaits. And at night, instead of playing out, I had homework to do. To my friends in the street, who all went to a local school, it was the ultimate betrayal. They never forgave me for it.
…Kevin said, “I bet you’d like to be an Indian princess, wouldn’t you, Julie?” Her eyes lit up. The star part! We looked at him in disgust and just stood there popping our bubble gum while he explained to her that she had betrayed her tribe and would have to be tied to the totem pole. …We began to march round her, chanting very softly ‘How green you are, how green you are, how green you are..how green…’ and then louder and louder as we danced away from her still in our long Indian file, till we got right to the top of our street where we played another game altogether, totally ignoring the yells of fury from the lamp-post, and when our mums called us in to tea we all ran in and forgot about her…
(Extract from ‘How Green You Are!’)
The convent school had beautiful gardens, a nuns’ burial ground, a forbidden glen, an overgrown pond, and the ghost of a drowned nun. I loved it. I loved the orderliness of it, the quietness of the nuns, the sound of their singing. Most of all I loved the chapel, with its sweet smells of polish and incense and flowers, and the jewelled patterns of light cast by the stained glass windows, the tiptoings of the nuns as they came and went, the susurrations of their prayers. I must have spent hours there, at peace with myself and daydreaming, and I understand now that it must have looked like prayer, and that my natural love of solitude and introspection must have made me seem a very holy child.
…Mother Mary Joseph, hovering and beckoning from the doorway of her study. A spider. Her hand came across and closed, cold, over mine…
“It’s been quite apparent to us for a long, long time. We’ve been watching you, my child. Don’t turn your heart away. We will all welcome you.”
Mother Imelda’s gown was caught up in one of the bushes. She worked stiff fingers to free herself. Mother Agnes had come out into the garden now. Laughing, she went over to the old nun and leaned over to release her.
“You must not be afraid, child. This is a most wonderful gift.”
…I still couldn’t look at her. Outside now there were more nuns receiving the sunlight in their walled garden. Sparrows and finches were playing about on the dusty paths, lifting themselves up with sudden bright wingbeats as the nuns approached them. House martins darted along the eaves of the convent house, swinging and drifting across to the fields beyond. The spider voice went on, and again the cold hand closed over mine.
…“Oh Mother Joseph.” Helplessness flooded over me. “Please don’t make me.”…
(Excerpt from ‘Requiem’)
But indeed nobody made me, and it must have soon become very clear that I had no vocation to be a nun, because the matter was never referred to again. My commitment was to other things. I wanted to write, and I wanted to sing. My life has turned out in such a way that it has been possible to do both, and I know how lucky I am, though I never became the singer of my dreams, and my writing had to wait a long time before I put my mind to it properly.
It wasn’t always so. We had a local paper called the Liverpool Echo and on Saturday it had a children’s page. If you submitted a story or poem and it was accepted you received ten shillings and sixpence or a box of chocolates or paints or fireworks. It was wonderful to receive these presents and I thought it must always be like this for writers. My father used to type out my stories and send them in for me. He wanted success for me. You see, he was a writer too, in the sense that he loved writing and was compelled to do it. He occasionally had stories and poems published himself in the Railway Magazine (he was a railway clerk) and in the local paper. I grew up with the belief that writing was an everyday thing, the habit of a lifetime, that the typewriter was part of the furniture of the house, and that the next step after daydreaming was writing the daydreams down.
It came as a great shock to me, on my fourteenth birthday, to receive a letter from the editor of the Liverpool Echo telling me I was too old now to be published on the children’s page. I had to retire from writing, and it seemed to me then that my writing career had come to an end. I know that I withdrew into myself at this time, that my writing became secretive and experimental, that I despaired of my ability. Maybe this was the beginning of my seeking sanctuary in the school chapel. I was rescued from my introversion by two lay teachers, both of whom came in my last few years at school. One taught English, the other, music.
I don’t think anyone could have been happier than I was when I got married and my three children were born. I loved the creative side of motherhood, and set myself to make the most of their babyhood. I knew I wanted to have a different kind of relationship with them from the one I’d had with my own mother. Loving though she had been, her frequent illnesses had driven her inside herself. I don’t ever remember her playing with me or reading to me, or doing much beyond the absolutely necessary in any sphere. In many ways my sister Jean had more to do with my childhood than my mother had – she was thirteen years older than me and I idolised her.
And yet there was that ghost, waiting in the wings. Part of me stood on one side and watched and waited, and I was aware of her all the time. I was never frustrated or unhappy at that time. I just felt there was something else to come. And then, one day, a Welsh Gypsy knocked at the door…
…One day when I was at her cottage a Welsh Gypsy came to the door and told her she should have been a writing lady, and Gran laughed and said that information was worth two yards of lace, provided there was no nylon in it, but when she came back in her voice was scarcely steady enough to tell me that I should never listen to a Welsh Gypsy, ‘They trap the particles of your soul’…
(Extract from ‘White Peak Farm’)
But it wasn’t my gran she was talking to. It was me. I had three small children and every minute of my day was accounted for. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. When I did come to write it was just by chance. It was about six years later. I often wonder what would have happened if that chance hadn’t presented itself, and whether I would be writing now. I needed it to fit in with my children’s school hours. Teaching was the only thing I could think of. I applied for a one year post-graduate course at Sheffield University, and was interested to see that there was an option to do some creative writing. I took it, remembering how I had loved writing at school. From the first time I joined the group I was nervous and excited. I was doing something that was very important to me, just me.
The tutor asked us to write a 1500 word story, and he said the subject was to be Black and White. My thoughts flew to the black and white habits that the nuns at school had worn. I thought about how the colour of the habit reflected the philosophy of their teaching – evil and good, sin and sacrifice, punishment and reward, hell and heaven. I wrote a short story called Requiem, about the death of the nun who had taught singing at my convent school. I had written many essays during my three university courses, but this one meant more to me that any of them. I was feverish with a new kind of thrill at the thought of writing it. I knew what I was doing. I wrote it as if I was in a dream, the way I had written when I was a child. I didn’t have to think about how to structure it or what kind of language to use. It was as if it had already existed, and was only waiting to be written down. It meant more to me than anything I had ever written, and it still does.
I felt quite anxious about handing it in. It was only a short piece. It would hardly contribute more than a fraction towards my final grade. Yet I lay awake at night thinking about it. Writing it had unlocked something in me, and it was a kind of emotional truth. The story was about coming through a psychological barrier; so had the writing of it been. I called it Requiem. It was indeed a way of laying to rest one part of my life, and discovering a new kind of peace. Twelve years later it became a full-length novel for adults, and a Radio 4 play, but a great deal was to happen before then.
The tutor liked the story, and recommended I should try to sell it. I was very excited. I showed it to a friend, a playwright, and he said, whatever you do, don’t push this back in a drawer. I had no idea where to send it, but I knew they sometimes broadcast stories on our local radio station, so I took it there. The producer, Dave Sheasby, bought it for eight pounds. Nothing, in the whole of my writing career, seeing my work on television and on the stage, winning two Carnegie medals, nothing has given me more joy than that first letter of acceptance gave me. I was away. I knew exactly what I was doing, and nothing could stop me now. I was writing feverishly, every night, drawing on my memories, on the journey of my own childhood.
None of the stories were about me, and yet they were all about me. When I talk to children and explain the process of writing I describe it as ‘I remember and let’s pretend.’ ‘I remember is where you start, it’s what gives the story vitality and truth. Let’s pretend is what the imagination does with it, the lies that a story-teller is allowed to tell. In How Green You Are! I was doing it on purpose. Now I can’t help it, and I know that every minute of the day something happens to me in real life that has its place in the story or poem or play that I’m writing – there’s no distinction between the real world and the world of the imagination – everything distils down into images – but the absolutely crystal-clear skill of the writer is in the process of selection and rejection, knowing what should go in and what should not, and how to wring the essence out of an image until it is almost beyond recognition, yet it’s there.
I had taught for eighteen months, during which time I had written How Green You Are!, reading it chapter by chapter to one of my classes. In a very real sense I was writing it just for them, anxious to know how closely it related to their lives and whether they liked it as a set of related stories. I didn’t tell them, of course, that I was the author! After two years with schools radio I was obliged to return to the school to fulfil my contract. I desperately didn’t want to be there. All I wanted to do now was to write. With no doubts at all in my mind I gave up my secure teaching job at the end of the year to make my living as a writer. I was supporting my three children and paying my mortgage. It had to work. I was writing every second of the day and night.
I don’t need to write in that feverish way now, but I still do. I love to have several things on the go at once – plays, novels, stories, poems. Always, always, my children have come first. But the spare minutes, the early and late hours, the quiet day-time hours, were all writing time. I’ve never worked so hard, nor felt so creatively fit.
Sometimes children say to me, ‘What would you do if you didn’t write?’ and the answer, now, is that I don’t know. I can’t imagine doing anything else. And I feel as if I’ve only just begun, experiencing everything with all my senses raw, like the baby in her mother’s arms…
Main photo: Richard Harland Photography