In an era where everything that’s exciting is new, it’s no mean feat to have your earlier work republished for a new audience, but that happens to Berlie Doherty, a lot.
This year, three of her books have been given brand-new looks, which is testament to their enduring popularity. First, Dear Nobody, which we revisited recently, is a Penguin Original. Street Child has a new look in Collins Modern Classics (it sits alongside Spellhorn on that distinguished list), and Classic Fairy Tales makes a welcome appearance in a new edition. Street Child is so popular that her fans (and publishers) begged for a sequel which Berlie wrote, over 20 years later – Far From Home. Next year, Blue John, a picture book text, will be reissued in a new edition from Barrington Stoke, who have published Berlie’s newest book, Joe and the Dragonosaurus.
Readers and publishers love Berlie’s books, but which of her many titles mean the most to her? Here are her answers to my questions.
- What was the first book you wrote?
How Green You Are! It was published in 1982, and was originally serialised on Radio Sheffield and Radio Merseyside schools programmes. Every story/chapter begins with a real event and then becomes something that never really happened, and it was this style of writing that I began to call ‘I remember and Let’s pretend (the title of my memoir pages in Something About the Author, published by Gale). In How Green You Are! I’m remembering my childhood through a group of children who are in and out of each other’s houses and in and out of each other’s stories. The same children appeared in the next book, The Making of Fingers Finnigan. Although this was also written as linked short stories (again initially for radio) it developed into more of a novel that How Green You Are!
- For which book would you like to be remembered?
Requiem. This was my first adult novel, but it began as a short story which I sold to Radio Sheffield in about 1978 for £8, and effectively began my writing career. Novels poems, plays and stories began pouring out as a result of such riches! Some years later I developed Requiem as a play which was broadcast on BBC Radio 4, and later still, in 1990, I completed it as a full novel. Although it is set in Ireland and is about a family that is nothing like my own, it is very much driven by my personal experience of Catholicism and its effects on adolescents and was a novel that I felt I needed to write. I still feel it’s my best book. It was published initially by Michael Joseph in hardback and Penguin in paperback, and more recently by an independent publisher, Cybermouse.
- Is there a book you abandoned partway through?
No. I always finish a book once I’ve actually started to write it down, but I sometimes don’t get beyond the stage of thinking about one! However, I did get very stuck halfway through The Snakestone and felt I would never be able to bring it together, I just needed a few weeks away from it and then it all fell into place. The Snakestone is about an adopted boy who, at fifteen, leaves home to go in search of his natural mother. My hiccup in it was in trying to develop his character, to understand what drove him to act so independently, and I ‘found’ him when I talked to a young high board diver who focussed all his spare time on diving.
- Is there a book you know you’ll never write?
Horror. I have seen The Company of Ghosts referred to as horror but to me the ghost story is a different genre altogether. I think there are very few taboos in children’s fiction, and I’m prepared to tackle most, but I don’t read horror fiction and don’t want to take children into that nightmare.
- Which book do you believe should have fared better?
Abela. It’s about a Tanzanian child whose parents die of AIDS and who arrives in England as an asylum seeker, and becomes a house slave. I felt it had and still has a lot of important and relevant things to say, and I’m very fond of the central character and of the way in which she forges her own future. It sold to a lot of different countries but it never really took off here, although Klaus Flugge of Andersen Press valued it very highly.
- Have you been surprised by readers’ reactions to a particular book?
Dear Nobody. I was amazed that it touched so many people, and that it continues to do so. It was published in over 20 countries and also became a radio play, stage play and television play.
- What book do you wish you’d written?
The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley. The central character, Leo, is so well realised as a child in a dilemma, caught in the adult mesh of intrigue which he hardly understands, and whose innocence and love is betrayed. I’ve read it and seen the film many times and I think it’s just about perfect in its sense of time, place. plot and character.
- What are you writing now?
It’s a novel about two young teenage boys and the way an older boy manipulates them and finally destroys their lives. It’s a book about grief, identity and deep friendship. It’s a bit of a ghost story too. It’s a very difficult subject for me to write about and I’m nervous about it. I just hope I can make it work.
For more about Berlie’s wonderful books, visit her website.