Ann Cleeves in Conversation at Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival
By Sarah Morgan
“I’m not made for city living,” claims Ann Cleeves. And if you’ve read any of her books, you can probably tell that’s the case.
The writer tends to avoid the bright lights, preferring to set her tales in the windswept landscapes of Northumberland, Shetland or Devon. It’s a formula that’s worked so far, garnering her plaudits around the world, although many of her fans perhaps know her work best via its TV adaptations.
The Vera books, set in the north east, have been turned into a massively successful series starring Brenda Blethyn, her Two Rivers tales have also ventured onto the small screen, and although she no longer writes Shetland novels, a new run of the drama inspired by them has been filming recently, with Ashley Jensen set to star as the new detective taking over from Douglas Henshall’s Jimmy Perez.
And although it was the Vera TV series that really put her on the map and transformed her fortunes, Ann prefers to pay tribute to something else close to her heart.
“Libraries bought the hardback editions of my books”
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for libraries,” she explains while speaking at the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate. “We didn’t have that many books in the house when I was a child, but we did do the Saturday morning ritual of going to the library, where a wonderful librarian would recommend books for me to read.”
This perhaps explains her involvement in the Reading for Wellbeing project, more info on which can be found here: readingforwellbeing.org.uk
“And people forget, they think libraries are just for readers, but they’re not,” Ann continues. “It took me 20 years before I had any commercial success, but I was able to keep going because libraries bought the hardback editions of my books. So they’re great for writers too.”
Ann has often told the tale of how TV producer Elaine Collins picked up a copy of a Vera novel in an Oxfam shop in Crouch End, and immediately saw the potential in it. But it seems that her own path to writing about her most famous character came accidentally too.
“When I first started writing I thought I was going to write a great work of literary fiction,” she smiles. “But it was so boring! I realised that if I thought it was boring, everyone else would. So I killed someone off in it, and I was away!
“The first Vera book wasn’t going to have a detective in it because my editor at the time didn’t like that kind of crime novel. I would do anything to get published, so I started writing what I thought they wanted. But I got to a point where I was stuck, so I followed Raymond Chandler’s advice to have someone burst in – and that person was Vera Stanhope.”
As for Vera herself, the no-nonsense detective was inspired by a variety of real-life figures.
“I was born in the mid-1950s, so not that long after the war,” reveals Ann. “There were a lot of women around who may have lost a man during the war, or had decided to live without one. They were formidable figures, matrons, teachers who would have had to give up work had they married. They wore sensible shoes, they didn’t care what they looked like, so Vera comes from them.”
All three TV shows based on her creations have been hits, something Ann is pleased about, although she has no input into them.
“I try not to get involved. It’s the same company who’s made all three. They’re doing well, and they know more about making good TV than I do. All I stipulated is that the scriptwriters spend time in the places the books are set. Other than that, I don’t meddle.”
“A little project in mind”
Instead, she throws herself into her work, something her fans appreciate and which led to her receiving the Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction gong at the Theakston’s event on Thursday evening. Her most recent Vera novel, The Rising Tide, set on Holy Island, is now out in paperback, while the third in the Two Rivers series, The Raging Storm, is set for release in the autumn.
And although there will be no more Shetland books, she does have something else up her sleeve: “I have a little project in my mind that might be a standalone. Not a Shetland one, but a Northern Isles standalone.”
As for further inspiration for stories and characters, Ann believes that real life is the key.
“Most writers are observers rather than participants. We use that to create our stories, so in a way that makes us parasites. I never use a whole person, but I might steal small details, and it’s those small details that make things interesting.
“Sometimes something I’ve read in the newspaper makes me grumpy and I want to explore that. But the murder itself isn’t what the books are about, they’re about the stresses that have led up to that point.”
Her tales are always intricately woven, so it may surprise some people to learn that she never plans them, they reveal themselves organically to her – it’s almost as if she’s solving the case herself as she goes along.
“If I knew how it was going to end, I wouldn’t see any point in writing it,” she smiles. “I think because for 20 years I had no commercial success, it had to be fun. So I still write as if I’m a reader.”
And long may that continue.