Ann Cleeves – author of Vera & Shetland books

Festival review by Bridget Osborne

September 2018

Where books and TV series meet

When you start reading Ann Cleeves’ latest book Wild Fire it’s slightly discombobulating. Cassie, step-daughter of the main character, detective Jimmy Perez, is still a child. In the TV series Shetland, developed from Ann’s books, Cassie has already been to university in Glasgow, dropped out and has come back to Shetland to figure out what to do with her life.

Does it bother her that her characters have been taken from her? Not a bit of it she told her audience at the 2018 Chiswick Book Festival. “It’s lovely for me that Jimmy Perez can continue without me having to write him.” The TV crew are now filming series five and only the first two series were taken directly from her books. Her character Jimmy has ‘wild black hair and a hooked nose’ which couldn’t be more different from the sandy haired actor Dougie Henshall who plays him. She says “I feel the books don’t belong to me once they’ve gone out into the world”. She sees reading as an active process not a passive one and feels that handing over a finished book to the public is “like handing a child over for adoption”. Once you’ve done that, you have no further say in their development; you just hope that others will care about them as you have done. The directors and writers of the TV series “might consult you but they don’t take any notice” she says, and she genuinely seems not to mind even though in one of the Shetland episodes they even changed who did the murder.

Ann has sold some five million books around the world which have been translated in to 30 languages. She is credited with increasing tourism to Shetland by more than 40% and also for bringing tourists to Northumberland, where another of her heroes turned TV stars, Vera is set. Both Shetland and Vera appear in the top ten best British dramas in a recent Radio Times poll.

Her success has been a long time in coming. She has published 32 books in 32 years and most of the time she says she “just bumped across the accountant’s line”, just enough for the publisher to commit to publishing the next one. For most of her career she’s also had another job, so she doesn’t hold with writing being hard work. “I worked in the probation service in Liverpool. That was hard work” she says “sitting at my kitchen table in my pyjamas making stuff up is pure joy.” Her breakthrough novel was Raven Black, the first of the Shetland series, which won her the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger, regarded as the Oscars of crime writing. But she says she wouldn’t achieve such success if she were starting out now. “The publishing world is much more ruthless” she says. If you don’t succeed straight away you’re branded a failure and you don’t get a second chance.

Love of Shetland

She first went to Shetland 40 years ago. She had dropped out of university and was looking for something to do when a chance meeting in a pub in south London led to a job as a chef on Fair Isle. Despite the thirteen hour journey by ferry from Aberdeen (apparently even the crew themselves are regularly sea sick) and her lack of culinary skills, she survived the experience, made friends and has gone back each year ever since. She arrived in spring when the wild flowers were out, there were birds wheeling in the up-drafts by the cliffs, the whole community turned out to meet the mail boat and she just fell in love with the place. When she met her husband and they lived together in Northumberland he had no objection to visiting the islands as he was a keen bird watcher. She herself is not. “In my first book I killed off a bird watcher” she says with feeling. The weather can be a problem. When she went there recently with the Swedish crime writer Arne Dahl he opened the car door in ‘a bit of a breeze’ and the door just blew right off.

Some of her characters would definitely be considered odd balls. One she remembers fondly, a great fiddle player who lived on his own in a croft on Fair Isle, never married and was fond of a dram, has found his way into the character Magnus. “I think we need to be a bit more open minded and open hearted about people who are a bit different” she says. When she first went there it was at the time that the oil industry was being established and there were islanders who’d never been anywhere else meeting incomers from all over the world, with plenty of potential for drama. Ironic now to think that Raven Black was going to be a stand-alone novel because her editor thought it would stretch credibility to have more than one murder in such a small place. (Had she never heard of Midsummer Murders?!) She created Jimmy with his dark good looks because she wanted a central character who was a Fair Islander who wasn’t. Jimmy had been away and come back and that marked him out as different.

Thanks to a charity shop in Crouch End

Her career picked up when TV producer Elaine Collins found one of the Vera books in an Oxfam shop in Crouch End. She was looking for something to read on holiday and ITV were looking for something a bit different, with a female lead, to replace Frost. Vera Stanhope, played by Brenda Blethyn, is a Geordie DCI who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. On first introduction Vera is described as bursting in, looking more like a bag lady than a senior policewoman. “She’s based partly on my daughter’s French teacher … I grew up in a small town post war where there were some formidable spinsters – teachers, hospital matrons, competent women who didn’t care what they looked like.” On first read through she says Brenda got half way through the script thinking she wasn’t in it. “I thought I was supposed to be the star!” Ann says Brenda now owns the part so much that “I hear her voice when I’m writing… what she does beautifully is those witty put downs… Her accent wasn’t quite right at the beginning but it’s very sharp now.” Ann gets invited to the wrap parties and the two have become good friends.

Ann thinks we’re in a new golden age of crime writing . There are younger people coming through and we’re being influenced by translated fiction. “Emma Flint in Little Deaths does stuff in crime which I wouldn’t have thought possible”. Ann is now working on a new series with a detective based in north Devon, which is where she grew up. Her father was the village school teacher, which she says imposed on her a certain detachment. She describes the area around Ilfracombe as “another marginalised community,” a transient community which people come to in order to work in the big hotels or where old hippies have developed communities around art and music. So we have this to look forward to, and more episodes of Shetland and more from Vera.

Ann Cleeves, thank you so much!