An Interview with Ann Cleeves
By Sarah Morgan
Think of a crime writer and what image springs to mind? Probably somebody who looks rather hard-bitten, who seems as if they’re no stranger to the dark underworld and all its machinations.
However, Ann Cleeves couldn’t be less like that if she tried, and yet this slender, bird-like woman is one of the biggest names in the genre at the moment thanks to the success of her two series – Shetland and Vera.
She was at the recent Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate recently to discuss the latter, which has been turned into a hit TV drama; the eighth series is currently in production.
“They thought detective series were old hat”
With around eight million viewers an episode, Vera is one of ITV’s biggest hits – but if Cleeves’ publisher had had their own way, she would never have made it into print, never mind onto the small screen.
“They thought detective series were old hat and nobody wanted to read them any more!” laughs Cleeves now. “They asked for a story without a detective.
“But I got stuck and did the old Raymond Chandler thing of having somebody burst through the door and seeing who it was. And it was Vera Stanhope.”
Cleeves believes the secret of the series’ success – both in print and on TV – is simple: “I think it’s because it features a woman of a certain age who is competent. There are so many TV shows with young women with long hair who work in high heels, which isn’t possible if you’re running after criminals. But it works if she’s older, wiser and doesn’t scrub herself up.
“I grew up in the 1950s where a lot of women had come through the war, lost husbands or taken charge of their own lives. They were defined by how good they were at their jobs rather than their roles as a wife or mother or how they looked.”
“I love hearing businessmen shouting to their wives on the phone”
Another key ‘character’ in Vera’s world is Northumberland, where the stories are set: “It plays a huge part,” says Cleeves. “Not just the moors and countryside, it gives me a wide variety of landscapes; post-industrial, ex-pit villages, shipyards… Which is why I’m still committed to writing Vera because there are so many stories that can be told in that region.”
Cleeves is also proud of the fact that filming takes place on location in the county, and has brought jobs to the local area – particularly as she lives there herself. Some of the dialogue is genuine, too.
“It’s mostly picked up from conversations while earwigging,” she smiles. “I can’t believe you can be a writer without using public transport. I love hearing businessmen shouting to their wives on the phone and then working out what they’re up to!”
Here’s hoping Cleeves continues to travel by bus or plane, because we don’t want her to give up on Vera for a long time yet.
Images: Charlotte Graham/CAG Photography Ltd