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.’
in Liverpool, Berlie has since lived in the Peak District for many
years. Her books have been translated into over 22 languages.
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.
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.”
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
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.
did you choose twins as the central characters of Deep Secret?
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.
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?
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.
books are on your bedside table at the moment?
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