Berlie Doherty is one of our foremost fiction writers for children and young adults. She is a double recipient of the Carnegie Medal with her novels Granny was a Buffer Girl (1986) and Dear Nobody (1991). She is also the author of the popular middle-grade novel Street Child and its sequel, Far From Home, which are read extensively in primary schools.
Berlie has written many more books for children and teenagers, from picture books, young fiction, retellings of fairy stories and Bible stories, and YA novels.
Her most recent book, The Haunted Hills is published by UCLan. Berlie returns to her Derbyshire home for the setting of this evocative ghost story.
In this episode, she talks to Nikki Gamble about the importance of music and landscape in her stories and the paradox of finding beauty in derelict places.
About The Haunted Hills
When Carl visits the Peak District with his parents to try and recover from the fallout of a horrific accident, he becomes caught up in the mysterious tale of the Lost Lad. Are the hills actually haunted or is Carl being chased by his own demons? As past and present collide, Carl must learn to come to terms with the loss of his best friend, Jack and find a way to move on.
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In the Reading Corner is presented by Nikki Gamble, Director of Just Imagine. It is produced by Alison Hughes.
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ikki Gamble, presenter of In The Reading Corner, a podcast about writing, illustrating and reading books for children and young people.
My guest today is Berlie Doherty, one of our finest writers of fiction. She's a double recipient of the Carnegie Medal for her novels. Granny was a Buffer Girl, published in 1986, is a family saga that looks at the changing fortunes across generations as the city of Sheffield starts its transformation in a post-industrial age. And also for Dear Nobody published in 1991, is a groundbreaking young adult novel that sensitively explores the impact of an unplanned pregnancy on the lives of the affected teenagers and their families. Burley is also the author of the hugely popular novel Street Child, and its sequel far from Home Street Chart is set in the 1860s. And it tells the story of Jim Jarvis and his encounters with Dr. Barnardo, who then goes on to establish his homes for destitute children. Berlie has written many more novels for teenagers and children, including younger fiction picture books and retellings of fairy stories and Bible stories. Her most recent novel is The Haunted Hills, and I started by asking Berlie what had inspired this evocative story.
Berlie Doherty (01:34):
The story is set in Derbyshire, and the actual setting of the story is, is a real place called Derwent Edge. And it's an amazing structure hill, which has a long spine of a hill with incredible rock formations on it. And they've got wonderful names like Hurkling Stones and Coach and Horses. And at the very end of them all, there's one that's called Lost Lad Hill.
And I've always been fascinated by that reference to something I didn't know about. I wondered who was the lost lad. I discovered that there is a local legend or historical incident about the Lost Lad. People don't seem to know whether it really happened or not. But the story as I heard is that a shepherd boy went onto the hills to bring the sheep back down during a snowstorm.
And the snow got so bad that he took shelter in the stones, in the rocks in one of these formations, and he couldn't get out again. But he managed to scrawl on the rock. The words 'lost lad' in case anybody passion would find him, which was unlikely. When he was eventually found, it was too late. So that's the story that I heard and was really intrigued by.
When you go up there and it's a very, very windswept desolate sort of place, you almost could believe that his presence is there somehow. That's what set me off and that's why the landscape has such a powerful part.
The Salt Cellar, a weathered rock formation high up on Derwent Edge in the Peak District National Park in Derbyshire
Nikki Gamble (03:31):
Was that the starting point for this story?
Berlie Doherty (03:34):
Yes, it was absolutely the starting point. I thought originally when I wrote down the story of the Lost Lad in my own words that it was going to be a series of short ghost stories set in Derbyshire. But I abandoned the idea and decided to move on to a full-length novel in which that legend was the inspiration but isn't the main part of the story.
Nikki Gamble (04:09):
So let's tell listeners a little bit more about the story of The Haunted Hills. Perhaps we can start with your main characters, Carl and his friend Jack. Carl is visiting the Peak District. Because something that's happened and Jim, his parents think it's going to be good for him to get away.
Berlie Doherty (04:35):
Well, he's, in a state of shock and grief and guilt. He's been taken to treatment therapy, but his parents think that it is best to bring him away from home. To be in a place where there's no television, no interruption. To see if nature can help to cure him; to let him heal himself in a way.
They're very, very anxious about him and I try to portray their anxiety and care for him. At times, he is aware of how much they're trying to help him. And at other times, their care protection is more than he can handle and he doesn't want it. He wants to be on his own. He wants to be with his things back home. So there is this pull of affection and loyalty and love and disaffection. Just being a teenager, a 13 year old who is lost.
Nikki Gamble (05:52):
Another lost lad.
Berlie Doherty (05:54):
Yes, exactly. The original title for the book was Lost Lad, and then I wanted to call it Lost, and then I just hit on The Haunted Hills. And that stuck,
Nikki Gamble (06:09):
The tragedy that we are talking about. It is gradually revealed through the story. But Carl had a very close friendship with another boy Jack.
Berlie Doherty (06:19):
Yes. He and Jack have known each other since birth because their mothers both had difficulties. So they ended up in the special care ward in the maternity ward. And so they've known each other all their lives. I've got a grandson who is so close to his best friend. It's a lovely thing to see. You see it in girls, a very close friendship. But I don't think you see it so often in boys. There's usually a gang of boys or a crowd. He does have other friends, but he and his best friend are inseparable. And I was so affected by that, that closeness that I wanted to try and portray it with Carl and Jack.
Nikki Gamble (07:13):
You've already talked a little bit about Carl's relationship with his parents. Along with closeness and a loving family comes tension. Sometimes you kick out against the people you love the most and you feel the closest to mm-hmm.
One of the things that you capture so well in this friendship is the irritation. And when that friendship appears to be breaking down, they're sort of uncertain about their feelings towards each other.
Berlie Doherty (07:43):
Yes, that's right. There's the distraction of this older boy two years older than them who tries very, very hard to break them up. Jack is kind of taken with this other boy and perhaps flattered by the attention he's getting and, this is awful, for Carl. So a lot of the story is about what happens to the friendship they're growing up. They're pulling apart, but pulling together as well - and how complicated it is when you're that age.
Nikki Gamble (08:22):
I enjoyed the way that you structured the story, the moving backwards and forwards from Carl's present in the Peak District and his reminiscence of his friendship with Jack. So gradually we come to understand their relationship and the mystery of the tragedy is revealed. How early on in the process did you settle on this organization of the narrative?
Berlie Doherty (08:43):
Oh, I don't know. This story's been, been going on for a few years. <Laugh> When I first knew what I was going to write about, I went to the local secondary school, Hope Valley College, and talked to a group of 15-year-old boys. And I met one of them again just yesterday, by chance at his mother's house. And he's now 20, I couldn't believe it. It's taken that long to write the story. So it's, it's been through three major drafts. So at what stage that occurred, I can't quite remember.
Nikki Gamble (09:24):
You've already mentioned that Carl's parents are trying their hardest to support him, but sometimes help has to come from outside the family. Carl is taken under the wing of a local farmer, Al, who looks out for him. And I found the scenes between Carl and Al particularly moving and tender. There's one scene where Al is teaching Carl the old craft of dry stone walling. I got a sense of your appreciation of tradition and perhaps even a sense of grieving for the things that are being lost.
And then there's Al's backstory, and he too has his own ghosts.
Berlie Doherty (10:03):
Well, yes, Al's friend. Al is, a typical farmer. I live next to a farm, surrounded by farmers and farmland, which is wonderful. And so it's great for me to watch what happens on the farm. I see it every day. Alan is gruff but not at all heavy-handed. He's incredibly sympathetic towards the boy. And tries to help them in his own way because of his own experiences.
Nikki Gamble (10:36)
So up in the Peak District near Edale, which is a gateway to the
Berlie Doherty (10:42):
Nikki Gamble (10:43):
So you must have abandoned stone houses. I remember when I used to do those walks up to Kinder Scout and how otherworldly it is. And when you come across a stone building that's in a state of decay and you've got trees growing in the centre it's so evocative.
Berlie Doherty (11:03):
Oh, yes. Incredibly. And it's very sad and wonderful at the same time to, to walk around some of these ruins. There's one very near to where I live. And it's like a haunted house really. You can just feel the presence of people who worked there and who had their homes there for hundreds of years. And now it's just empty and crumbling. There are lots of barns, lots of unused barns, which fortunately are inhabited by barn owls<laugh> more often than not. And yeah, the fields are scattered with them and some are maintained dwells occasionally in use, but some aren't. Some are just sinking into the, into the earth.
Nikki Gamble (11:51):
Do you think there's something about an old building that hasn't been restored that sparks the imagination that can take you back to the past so much easier than if it has been restored to what it might have looked like.
Absolutely. Yes. and you get that in old castles, don't you? It's, it's much more exciting and dramatic and atmospheric to look around an old castle with a crumbling keep than a restored one., You really do get a sense of the past. And there's something about the desolation of it all.
Nikki Gamble (12:33):
So let's talk about ghosts,
Berlie Doherty (12:35):
<Laugh>. Oh, right.
Nikki Gamble (12:37):
It's not the first time that you've written a ghost story.
Berlie Doherty (12:39):
No, it isn't.
Nikki Gamble (12:41):
What, what do you think is the enduring appeal of the ghost story?
Berlie Doherty (12:47):
I don't know if I've ever seen a ghost or if I actually believe in ghost, although I have felt a, an extraordinary presence once in a place. But I think the appeak is the same with fairy stories, with magic and myths and legends that come from the past. There's this sense of, of not just being ourselves, but of being part of something, part of history, part of hundreds and thousands of years. We're not on our own.
I don't like to call it a spiritual awareness, but it's maybe simply the imagination. I think we all really do have it. but perhaps some of us nurture it and enter into it more readily than others.
Nikki Gamble (13:43):
Robert Westall once wrote about the ghost story and its connection to landscape. Which is what I feel your ghost stories have.
I sometimes tell a story about my godmother who had a farm near Settle in Yorkshire. She was renovating her farmhouse and took down some of the internal walls. And in those walls they fpund some amll objects a shoe and a mirror and a hairbrush, a lock of hair, that kind of thing - as they used to do in the days when the house was built. She used to say that after that they removed themwhen the weather was bad on the moors, she would always see figures walking towards the house and then they would just disappear.
Berlie Doherty (14:35):
Yeah. That's rather lovely, isn't it? So I think with The Company of Ghosts and The Haunted Hills, my two ghosts, if you can call that are not malevolent. tI wanted a sense of, of a real person. So you, in both stories, you get to know the, the complete history, those two characters.
Nikki Gamble (15:09):
You've got some wonderful artwork on the jacket.
Berlie Doherty (15:11):
I certainly have.
Nikki Gamble (15:13):
We should talk about Tamsin Rosewell's artwork. How does this reflect your story?
Berlie Doherty (15:18):
Well, the covers are absolutely gorgeous. The house is amazingly similar to my house <laugh>. But she hasn't been here, but it is a very typical Derbyshire stone house. So as soon as I saw the cover roof, I thought, yeah, that's home. The setting's quite right and the beautiful touches that she's made, apart from the color, which is stunning - the ghosts that you can see but can't see and - they're there and yet your, your eyes drawn to the house and the glow, that should be a warm, friendly house. And then there are the hills, the crow, which appears a lot in my book and the skylark is up there too.
Nikki Gamble (16:14):
Anyone who's heard the liquid warbling of the skylark as it rises and then falls back down to the moor, will I'm sure have the sound imprinted on their auditory imagination. The sky kark is an important bird in this story. Al teaches Carl to identify its song. And in one of Carl;s memories, we learn is of Vaughn Williams Lark Asscending really moves his friend Jack.
Musicality is a quality that I associate with your writing. Music is often referenced in the stories but I also think that your prose is very rhythmic.
Berlie Doherty (16:50):
Thank you. That's, that is something that I aim for. when I, I speak to children about writing, I always have advise them to read their work out loud. At the end of every working day, I read aloud to myself what I've written, because I want to hear the music of the line. And if it doesn't have a melody to it, I stumble over the words and It hasn't got the right cadences then it's not right. I think that might come from when I first started and was writing radio stories and plays for radio. And I think that out loud voice has remained very important feature even if the book is going to be read silently.
Nikki Gamble (17:43):
I certainly feel when I read your stories aloud that it's effortless. The text supports me.
Berlie Doherty (17:50):
have written libretti for operas. I don't do the music, but I write the, the songs and then it goes to the composer. I sing it to myself, even though I have no idea what their melodies will be.
Nikki Gamble (18:18):
I'm guessing it's an intuitive process rather than the one that is worked out.
Berlie Doherty (18:23):
It is totally intuitive.
Nikki Gamble (18:25):
One character that we haven't talked about is April. farmer, Al's enigmatic farmhand. What can you tell us about her role in the story?
Berlie Doherty (18:35):
She's a strange character, isn't she? I don't know how or why she developed in the way she did, but I, I grew very fond of her. I don't like walk on parts at all, so I try to, to introduce a character and develop them in some way. April, is a mystery really.
Carl thinks at first that she, she lives on the farm. She's a farmer's daughter, but she's not, and she doesn't want to talk about her past. The farmer doesn't know about her past. She just turned up one day. But she knows the countryside, she knows the hills. She has this kind of affinity with nature and she cares for Carl, although she has her own kind of abrupt way of seeming to mock him. She really, really wants to help him. She's a few years older than him, but not much older than him. But in a sisterly sort of way, she tries to protect him and tries to help him. And I just try to bring that across. And yet at the same time, she scares the life out of him sometimes or makes him really annoyed because of the way she behaves.
Nikki Gamble (19:54):
There's something about these characters who are not instantly likable, but do the right thing and don't make a show of it.
Al is like tha. He allows April to sleep on the sofa. He says at one point there's a room for her here, iff she asks for it, but we are not going to tell her because we don't want to frighten her away. I'm paraphrasing, but basically that's what he's saying. What a wonderful, sensitive response from somebody who on the outside who is...
Berlie Doherty (20:30):
Is pretty gruff and just gets on with life.
Nikki Gamble (20:35):
You seem to like those characters.
Berlie Doherty (20:37):
I do. <Laugh>
Nikki Gamble (20:41):
It's not the first time as well that you've written about places that are local to you. Do most of your stories arise out of what's around you?
Berlie Doherty (20:52):
Not necessarily, but certainly I have written a lot of books set in Derbyshire - not always defined as being books about Derbyshire. Sometimes they're set here in my valley, but I don't always name. The Snake Stone. is actually set in this valley and Holly Starcross., fo instance And quite a few of the farming stories for children are set very firml here
It is an inspirational area. I mean, why write about anywhere else when you got here? I do go elsewhere in my imagination, but this, it's usually somewhere that I know, I usually like to feel familiar with the place. And then I think perhaps the, the reader will also feel familiar and at ease within the pages.
Nikki Gamble (21:44):
Which reminds me that there's another place that you write about in The Haunted Hills, which is Cornwall. Yes. I felt that possibly you had a passion for Cornwall.
Berlie Doherty (21:53):
Well I go there a lot. Yes. And I know the area of Cornwall as I was writing about very well indeed. There's something about the colour of the sea there. It's just incredible.
Nikki Gamble (22:06):
Well, we're not going to reveal what happens in the story because we really want people to read that for themselves.. But what they can expect is a fine eye and a fine ear for the natural world. A wonderful classic storytelling voice, characters that we care deeply about, authenticity in the relationships between characters and a story that is going to tug at the heartstrings too. So thank you so much for joining me In the Reading Corner, Berlie. Such a pleasure to talk to you.
Berlie Doherty (22:46):
Oh, thank you very much. I've enjoyed, I've enjoyed talking to you.