Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Berlie Doherty

Photograph of Berlie Doherty

Berlie Doherty is an English novelist, poet, playwright and screenwriter. She is best known for her children's books, for which she has twice won the Carnegie Medal.

When you start to write a book, do you know how it will end?

Sometimes. My first draft is in my head, and I spend weeks, months or even years thinking about the story. When I know how it’s going to end I start to write it – but very often then things change, and the ending comes as a surprise to me!
Do you base your characters on real people?

Again, sometimes!  The Sailing Ship Tree is based on my father and his twin sister Dorothy, but as I never knew them when they were ten years old they’re really made up.  Great Uncle Gilbert in Granny was a Buffer Girl is obviously my Uncle George, but I didn’t realise it at the time. It was my sister who pointed it out to me! Sometimes I write about real historical figures – Jim Jarvis and Dr Barnardo, for instance, in Street Child, but so little is known about Jim that he is essentially made up. Again, King Henry V111 is an important character in Treason, but his behaviour is as much guess work as factual. Sometimes I base minor characters on people I know (like Molly in Abela, and several of the suspects in A Beautiful Place for a Murder ), but by the time I’ve finished the book and developed the characters I don’t think they’d be recognisable even to the original person!

Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do about it?

Yes. I was blocked for a whole year in between writing my adult novel Requiem and my teenage novel Dear Nobody. I think I was exhausted, having written compulsively for ten years. I spent the block time doing things for the Arvon Foundation, so I was working with and for writers rather than writing myself. Now, if I get a block, it’s often because I can’t solve a plotting problem. I leave the book I’m working on and work on something very different, say a play or a story for a different age group, and all of a sudden everything falls into place. The thing is, you never really stop thinking about it, because you can’t take your head off, but at least you can concentrate on something else for a time.

What is the hardest thing about being a writer?

I never fret about not having an idea, but when I do get an idea I’m sometimes worried about whether I can handle it. Deep Secret and Treason both made me feel very anxious because I had to get the research right in order to make the stories work. It’s much easier to write a piece of fantasy than it is to write a novel that is set in a particular time or place. I enjoy the research, but it’s very confusing and time consuming sometimes because you don’t really know what you need to know. It’s important to throw away the research, too – otherwise you spoil the story with too much fact!

What is the best thing about being a writer?

Loads of things! Being published, meeting readers, meeting other writers, getting a lovely new idea, working out how to make your story shine – I love it all!

What inspired you to write?

I just always knew I would write. I was always writing as a child.

At what stage in your writing process do you use a computer?

Stage 3. Head draft, hand written draft, then computer draft, always.

How much does your editor change what you write? What relationship do you have with your editor?

An editor never changes anything. They can make suggestions, and you can discuss them, but you don’t have to follow them. I’ve been given very good editorial advice at times, and have been very pleased to consider it and follow it, but an editor mustn’t change a word of a writer’s story!

What do you think you would be if you weren't an author?

I had a list, when I was a child, of things I would do if I didn’t make it as an author. They were singer, ballet dancer, swimming pool attendant, librarian and air hostess. Actually, I think I would have liked to work in radio drama as a producer if I didn’t write.

What is your attitude to Kindles and e-books?

Go with the flow. We have to...  So far two of my books – Dear Nobody and Requiem -are available on Kindle, and I’ve recently bought myself a Kindle because I own too many books. Sometimes you know you want to read something, but not keep it, and it’s not available when you need it at the library. A book that is needed for research purposes is a good example of that. So that’s when a kindle is useful. A book is a beautiful object and it will never be replaced by a kindle for me, but it’s the story that matters, after all, not the jacket that it’s wrapped in.

What were your favourite books when you were a child?

Heidi, Little Women, Emily Climbs and Nicholas Nickleby


What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Always write. Keep a notebook with you, jot down all kinds of things in it – what the rain sounds like, why you wanted to cry, a description of somebody sitting opposite you on the bus, an unfinished conversation. Keep the writing muscles going. And practise writing in different forms – a poem can become a short story, the story can be written as a play, and they all help to make you think about the music of the word, the importance of the plot, the way dialogue creates characters. And always write to please yourself. Enjoy it! 

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