‘It’s an inspiration to any writer’ – how Sheffield is firing the imagination of novelists

Think Hardy; think Dorset. James Joyce and Ireland. Orwell and Teeside. English literature has a rich heritage of associations between classic authors and their environment. Now a new group, ‘Sheffield Authors’, is trying to get in on the act. Katy Sandalls reports

“Sheffield is a city of great contrasts: huge views and tiny, hilly claustrophobic streets, and all set in a framework of glorious countryside,” says Carnegie medal winning author Berlie Doherty. “It’s an inspiration to any writer.”

Doherty, who spent much of her life in Sheffield and now lives just outside it in the Derbyshire village of Edale, is very familiar with the city’s landscape and made it the centre piece of more than one of her internationally acclaimed works.

For Doherty it’s Sheffield’s ability to be at ease with nature – and not always not in a picture postcard way – that has made her return to it time and again.

“There’s still a colourful and welcomingly familiar scruffiness about the place as you walk the towpath; yellow weeds head high, buddleia dipping into the water, poppies and butterflies.”  

Beyond the scenery itself Sheffield has also had a very practical impact on Doherty’s work allowing her to interact with her characters and inspiring a few of them directly.

Doherty’s internationally acclaimed novel, Dear Nobody, follows the lives of two teenagers, Chris and Helen, who are growing up in the city. The book is written in a series of letters penned by Helen as she goes through an unplanned pregnancy with Chris’ reaction to events making up the bulk of the story.

Given the very delicate storyline it was important for Doherty to understand and be familiar with where her characters lived intimately. For her there was only one place in which her characters could live: Sheffield.

I needed to know the geography, how long it would take to walk there from Chris’s house in Hunter’s Bar; where Helen’s school is in relation to her house in Ecclesall; how Chris would hurl himself on his frantic bike ride to Stanage Edge when he’s in despair of losing everything they have together.  For all the relationships within the two families to work I had to make the setting work; I needed to be familiar with the streets they walked.” 

Doherty is the most high profile member of the Sheffield Authors group, who try to promote the literary values and qualities of the city whilst supporting those who already live in and write about it.

Sheffield’s canals were a major inspiration to Berlie Doherty. Image Credit: Philippa Willitts


The people of the Steel City

Not all of the writers in the group are as established as Doherty. Many of the people who write about the city have lived in or near it at some point in their lives. Personal memories and general nostalgia about Sheffield penetrate deeply into their work.

The Tuppenny Hat Series by Brian Sellars, is set in the 1950s and describes itself as “Sheffield’s Own Detective Story.” Sellars is a former steel worker and has never had his books formally published. Despite this his work, which follows the investigations of young Billy Perks in the city, has received nearly 500 positive reviews on Amazon. Sellars chose Sheffield as the location for his stories because “that’s simply where they lived.”

“I love the place, and miss it,” says Sellars who now lives near Bath. “In particular, I miss my childhood here.”

For him the residents of the Steel City have a reputation that makes them particularly suitable for literary adaptation.

“Sheffield’s citizens are widely known to be good humoured, tolerant and creative; the very stuff of fiction. After all, their determination and courage preserves the city’s purity of purpose, even despite losing much of its traditional industry. There are many more great stories in Sheffield than there are shoes on its streets.” 

Mystery is also the genre of Scholar’s Mate, a novel penned by John Foster who has spent most of his life residing and working in Sheffield.

Foster  takes this idea of tolerance further, suggesting that the openness of Sheffield’s people is another feature which makes them particularly attractive to authors.

“People from Sheffield will talk about family and feelings. That’s not usually seen as very British, but people here are very different.”

Sellars and Foster both think that Sheffield’s people are what sets the city apart. Image Credit: Monika


“It’s not for us”

For Steve Kay from Sheffield Authors, the future of Sheffield’s story writing  can be summed up in one word: promising.

That’s not to say though that times are easy for local authors.

Speaking to members of the group there is often a common obstacle in getting more works about Sheffield out to the general public: Publishers.

Potential agents are often very quick to praise local author’s work but even faster to politely say it’s “not for us.”

Having to pitch your story to agents is never the easiest prospect for any author but if your story is not based in London or aimed at a London audience then the challenged is often doubled.

“If it can’t be read by a young girl on the tube on her way to work then publishers aren’t interested. They want books that will shift tens of thousands through Tesco,” says Kay.

As an author himself Kay believes that a great many more hurdles face local authors and that Sheffield needs to do more to highlight it’s rich literary talent similar to the way it already promotes its musical links.

“We wanted to highlight what is being done locally,” he says.

“You don’t have to come from Edinburgh or London. There is good stuff being written here.”

Kay believes that the work of more locally based and independent publishers are the key to bringing more of Sheffield’s stories to the wider reading public.

“Small independent publishers are making some headway and might challenge the big publishers to become more fleet of foot.”


Ancient appeal

The final word should perhaps go to Brian Sellars whose analysis of the city links its appeal to a far more ancient time.

“Set on seven hills, like Rome, and surrounded by great natural beauty, it has a long and vibrant history in which the keen researcher can delve to discover – who knows what?”

Sheffield or Rome? Image Credit: Huw Loaring