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INTERVIEWS

Philip Ardagh
Malorie Blackman
Kevin Brooks
Robert Cormier
Cormier & Burgess
Sharon Creech
Joseph Delaney
Berlie Doherty
Anne Fine
Jack Gantos
Sonya Hartnett
Michelle Harrison
Tanuja Desai Hidier
David Levithan
Graham Marks
Chris Mould
Anant Pai
Mal Peet
Philip Reeve
Chris Riddell
Marcus Sedgwick
John Singleton
Robert Swindells
Nick Ward

Berlie Doherty

interview by Adele Minchin - published by ACHUKA January 2004

Berlie Doherty’s new book Deep Secret is a powerful and haunting novel based around the real events of the flooding of the small villages of Derwent and Ashopton in north-west Derbyshire. The flooding of the villages made way for the building of the Ladybower reservoir supplying water to Sheffield, Leicester, Derby and Nottingham. In 1934 the villagers and farmers of Derwent and Ashopton were informed that their land was to be flooded and work commenced on the reservoir. The huge project which involved the building of the Ladybower dam and two viaducts was completed in 1945. The villagers were rehoused, but two close-knit communities were lost forever. Berlie Doherty is a distinguished voice in children’s literature. She is twice winner of the prestigious Carnegie Medal which she won for Granny was a Buffer Girl in 1987 and Dear Nobody in 1992. She has also written for adults and writes plays for radio, theatre and television. She says, ‘My mother used to tell people I was a terrible reader. I wanted to stop her and say that it didn’t mean that I couldn’t read but that I couldn’t stop. I used to love Little Women, Heidi, the Katie books, Dickens, L M Montgomery – those where you got involved in the characters more than the plot.’
Born in Liverpool, Berlie has since lived in the Peak District for many years. Her books have been translated into over 22 languages.

The dramatic flooding of the village in Deep Secret is based on real events in the area close to your home? Can you tell us more about the historical detail behind the story and why you chose to write about these events.

Over twenty years ago, when I first became a writer, a friend suggested I should write a novel about the building of the Ladybower reservoir. I thought it would be too hard for me, though the idea immediately interested me. Ladybower is situated in the Derwent valley in north-west Derbyshire, and is crossed by the Ashopton viaduct on the A57, running between Sheffield and Manchester via the Snake Pass. Underneath it lie the drowned villages of Derwent and Ashopton. This reservoir links up with Howden reservoir and Derwent reservoir, supplying water to Sheffield, Leicester, Derby and Nottingham, and it differs from the other two dams in that it consists of an earthwork embankment with a clay core. The decision to flood the Derwent valley was originally proposed in 1900, subject to the purchase from the Duke of Norfolk of Derwent Hall and the adjoining land. In 1934 the villagers and farmers were informed, and work commenced. The huge project, which involved the building of the Ladybower dam and two viaducts, was completed in 1945, when King George VI unveiled the memorial tablets. The villagers were offered accommodation in a specially constructed housing development at Yorkshire Bridge.

The technical details discouraged me from embarking on a novel at the time, but I was fascinated by the idea of lost villages. I wrote a radio play called The Drowned Village (BBC RADIO 4, 1980) in which the ghost voices of drowned children are heard. But I continued to be interested in the idea of the reality of such an engineering project, and its effects on a living community. Ladybower and its connecting reservoirs are beautiful, serene stretches of water in the glorious Derbyshire countryside; the whole area is a haven for walkers and cyclists, and I have visited it many times and absorbed its beauty. In the late eighties a series of droughts drained the entire Ladybower reservoir, revealing the remains of the drowned villages. I walked among the stunted ruins of the farmhouses, the school, the church, the magificent Hall, and was deeply touched by a sense of irreversible loss. I live in just such a valley in Derbyshire.

It wasn’t until 2001 that I finally committed myself to writing Deep Secret. I was sitting in the café of St Pancras station with my agent, Jacqueline Korn, and she asked me if I had any thoughts for a new novel, and I said, well, I’ve had this idea in the back of my mind for about twenty years, but I don’t know if I can do it. It’s about a drowned village. “Yes,” she said. “I’ve got shivers up and down my spine. Write it.”

In Deep Secret the loss of a close village community is heartbreakingly described. You come from Liverpool but have chosen to live in a small village community in the Peak District. How do you think this has influenced your writing?

I was born in Liverpool. It might be a major city, but all I was aware of for the first four years of my life was that little community of the street where we lived, in a council estate in Knotty Ash. Later we moved over the water to Hoylake, in the Wirral, to a street of terrace houses (Newton Road), where the same sense of community existed, and there I spent my childhood. Subsequent homes were in bigger houses, big cities, but now, since 1992, I’ve been living in Edale in the Peak District, in a very similar valley to Derwent. In 1949 it was proposed that Edale, too, should be dammed to make a reservoir. Luckily, a geological fault made the project unworkable, but it is distressing to think that my chosen home might have disappeared forever.

Why did you choose twins as the central characters of Deep Secret?

The idea of writing about identical twins came some time after I began researching. I had already decided to fictionalise events, to change the place names and to free myself from the actuality of Ladybower, Derwent and Ashopton. This is hard to do, and I’m very grateful to Jacqueline Korn, my editor Jane Nissen, and my partner Alan Brown for constantly reassuring me and for reminding me that it was a work of fiction and not an historical document that I was writing; if you like, they gave me permission to desert the truth! But I was still thinking about the physical truth. If you go to Ladybower now, on a calm day, you will be stunned by the beauty of the reflected images, the world turned upside down. Somehow, and I can’t remember the exact process because such things are intuitive to a writer, I transferred that image to that of the perfect reflection of totally identical twins, and the loss of a way of life to the loss of life itself. At that moment the drowned village ceased to be the subject of the novel, but became a metaphor.

Your Carnegie medal-winning novel Dear Nobody, first published in 1991, was a compelling and convincing story of two teenagers in love who discover they are having a baby. Dealing with such sensitive teenage issues in novels specifically for teenagers was relatively new in 1991. How do you feel about the way writing for teenagers has developed since then?

The death of a sister, and especially a sister so close as to be identical, is a deeply sensitive subject to write about and to invite a reader to contemplate. I think I’ve always touched on raw emotions in my writing for teenagers. Since Dear Nobody was published in 1991 (and was considered by some to be dealing with a subject that was unsuitable for a children’s novel), the landscape of children’s literature has changed considerably, and the demarcation line that separates adult fiction from young adult fiction has become fuzzy, and sometimes invisible. No subject is taboo, but I still maintain, though not all writers do, that a sensitive subject requires sensitive handling.

What books are on your bedside table at the moment?

As it happens, a very cosmopolitan selection: Four Meals, by the Israeli novelist Meir Shalev, Ruby Holler, by the Canadian Sharon Creech, and Paso a Paso, a teenage novel by the Columbian Irene Vasco.

     


© ADELE MINCHIN 2003

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