In the tradition of the very best of overnight sensations, Ann Cleeves, author of the Shetland Island and Vera Stanhope novels, was an overnight sensation. It’s just that it took 20 years. labored away in relative obscurity for a long time before being recognized as one of crime fiction’s leading voices.
Cleeves’ first novel, A Bird in the Hand, was published in 1986, so she’s been at the game a very long time. The Seagull, her 31st book, was published in 2017. That adds up to 31 books in 31 years: a good record for anyone. But for 20 of those years, Cleeves points out, “I had very little commercial success. So I’m one of those writers with an overnight success after 20 years.”
That success, however, has been complete. In 2006, Cleeves was awarded the inaugural Duncan Lawrie Dagger, the richest crime-writing prize in the world. The award came to Cleeves for Raven Black, the first novel in her Shetland Island series. The award focused enough attention on the book that Cleeves’ work began to sell in Europe and overseas. Then, in 2013, the third book in that series, Red Bones, was adapted for BBC television which led to Shetland, the television series based on the books and starring Douglas Henshall as Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez. The eighth book in that series, Wild Fire, will be published late this year.
January Magazine: I understand that The Seagull is your most personal book.
Ann Cleeves: Yes. Because it’s set in my hometown, Whitley Bay, which is a faded seaside town in Northern England.
I know that the nightclub the book is named for is a fictional nightclub. But there were real clubs in that area too, I think.
Yeah, there were clubs. There still are clubs. They’re mostly shut now. But when my kids were young Whitley Bay was where young people went to try many things for the first time. It’s not like that anymore. It’s quite shabby. But it’s coming back. It’s being regenerated now.
Is that what makes it the most personal book for you? Is that it’s set in your hometown?
I think that, but also because it takes Vera back in time so, for Vera, it’s probably one of her most personal cases because it starts off with her being offered a deal by a corrupt superintendent who is in prison. If she will look after his daughter and her family, then he will tell her where a body is buried. Vera really doesn’t have a maternal bone in her body, but I quite enjoyed writing the relationship between Vera and Patty — the daughter of the superintendent.
And more personal stuff: it tied into things with Vera’s own father.
That’s right. I think it’s quite a lot about fathers and daughters.
So it’s definitely personal to Vera. We have a lot of personal stuff going on with this one. That makes me wonder: of your protagonists, would you say Vera is the most personal to you?
I think she probably is now. She’s been with me a long time and I know Brenda Blethyn, who plays her, very well. And Brenda read the book and said: “Well, I did love it. But it was kind of weird. Because it was like reading my own past.” She’s become so much the character now.
Shetland, also, is also very good.
Yes, it is, isn’t it? They’re both made by the same production company. But I think the production values and the cinematography is beautiful in both. It’s beautifully done. Shetland won two BAFTAs last year for the most recent series.
Reading the books it makes me wonder if you have a special affinity for the region?
I live in Northumberland where the books are set and where they’re filmed. So yes. It’s where I live. I wasn’t born there, but I’ve lived there for a long time. And I do love it because of its emptiness I think. And because it’s a place where people are struggling but there’s still such a strong community and a sense of warmth and friendliness. I mean, it’s bit of a cliche: north easterners are friendly, but it’s true. When we first moved in in the mid-1980s, there were people there with cups of tea and wanting to help us in any way they could and it’s still just like that. It’s very beautiful, and unlike many places, it’s not packed with tourists because people just drive straight through up to Scotland. They don’t really know it.
At what point did you decide to set a book there?
A long time ago. When we first moved there in the 1980s I did one series there. The Stephen Ramsay series, which is an old series that’s only available as e-book now. But that was set in the Northeast. And then The Crow Trap, which was the first Vera novel, was set there. It was going to be a standalone suspense novel about three women who were doing an environmental survey in the hills. And so I started writing this book. And about a third of the way through I got very, very stuck. And it was never supposed to have a detective in it at all. I never plot in advance and I really wasn’t sure where the book was going. I think Raymond Chandler had the trick you know: if you’re stuck in a book, have a guy burst through the door with a gun.
Bring in the detective!
Well, I didn’t know it would be a detective. But I was writing a funeral scene in a small chapel of rest in a small town and I just had the door burst open. And in came Vera Stanhope, fully formed. I looked back at my notes the other day: she came in looking more like a bag lady than a detective and I had the name and I could see her absolutely.
That’s stunning. That’s very cool.
Well, it was sort of miraculous. And then I got very fond of her and I wanted to write more stories about her. I think, where she came from into my subconscious was I was I was born in the mid-1950s, so I grew up not very long after the War. And there were a lot of formidable spinsters in the small town where I lived who’d either lost their husband in the War or had come into their own during the War and had been able to take on responsibilities and roles that they otherwise wouldn’t have been allowed to. And I think they chose to be single and independent rather than to become 1950s housewives. Because, don’t forget: if you were a teacher or a civil servant, once you were married, you had to give up work. You couldn’t be married and work. And very soon after that it changed.
So you’d have to make a definite choice.
Yeah. Between being single or being able to work. And she, I think, would have left school early, would have become a police cadet. So that was a choice, but the women that I knew were hospital matrons, teachers. There were lots of communities where those women were so competent. But they didn’t care at all what they looked like. And people didn’t judge them on their appearance, because they were so good at what they did.
That’s an interesting thought now.
I know. We still judge. Yeah, you would think that things would have developed since then, but I don’t think they have. If you think of politicians, senior police officers, if they’re doing a media call, you can tell that they’re all shiny and someone’s done their hair and their makeup. They don’t do that for men. And so, maybe I didn’t think about it at the time, but I think that’s where Vera came from. Those very strong women.
The Seagull is your 31st book in 31 years, correct?
That’s right. Yes. But for 20 of those years I was published, but I didn’t do a book every year. I had very little commercial success. So I’m one of those writers with an overnight success after 20 years.
Okay, then when did overnight success happen? Because you’ve had a lot of success for a number of years.
Yes. For the last ten years, really. I suppose the first thing that happened was that Raven Black, which is the first of the Shetland books, won the Gold Dagger, which is like Oscars of crime writing in the UK. And that made a huge difference because it started selling overseas. It didn’t sell terribly well in the UK immediately, but I picked up all sorts of overseas contracts and I was published in Germany and Scandinavia. And so I was able to give up the day job at that point.
What was the day job that you gave up?
I was looking after reader development for public libraries. So I was setting up reading rooms, promoting books, running events.
That stood you in good stead. You know what it should look like, in any case.
I know what makes a good event, and how to engage with readers, I hope. So that was the first thing. And then I guess after that was the television. Though again, it took a little while for people to link the television with the books. If you’re not a very well-known author, people might enjoy the TV but don’t link it with the name that comes up with, “based on books by.” I think, in the last five years or so, yeah, people have made the links between the TV show and books. And more and more readers have come to the books without the TV show, so it works both ways now. I think people read the books and then watch the shows, or they see the shows and then read the books.
What year did Shetland begin? The series. The television series.
Series Three was last year, so I guess it was four years ago. Something like that.
And Raven Black was, you said 2007?
That was when it came out. 2006.
Well congratulations, that’s wonderful. For many years you labored in relative obscurity, and then …
Yeah. But that was brilliant, because it gave me a chance to get better at writing, I hope. I think it would be very hard to be a new young writer, who gets a huge advance, is expected to do all this media stuff, to do the events but isn’t really used to it. Gets caught up with the hype, maybe. A lot of money is thrown at a first book, not so much money is thrown at a second book. And it’s not unusual to be labeled a failure. Even though you’re selling relatively well, if you don’t meet the promise of the first book’s sales. And then it’s quite hard to get a new contract, because, she’s a failure, she didn’t make it. People give up jobs, buy houses, buy cars, and don’t realize that it’s so precarious. There’s no guarantee that what’s happened for the first book is going for another.
Is another Shetland book next?
Yes. The next Shetland book is Wild Fire. Which, it will be the last of the Shetland books. I think I said all that I can about Shetland. It’s got a population of 23,000, it’s very small. The islands themselves are quite big, but there aren’t very many people there. So, I think I would rather leave it while people are still enjoying it rather than carry on writing when I’ve lost my passion for the place, or just not having so much to say about it. Wild Fire is out in September.
So Shetland done after Wild Fire. How is Vera’s future looking then?
Vera, I think, will continue, because people love her. And ITV has sold her series to 130 territories, around the world. So you can see Vera wherever you go, you can see Vera on the television.
So, on television she’s more popular than the Shetland series?
Yeah, I think so. She’s certainly sold more widely. I think Shetland has a sort of word-of-mouth following, certainly in the States. It’s available on Netflix and it’s quite a cool show to be watching I think. It has a young girl audience, and it was a New York Times Pick of the Week when Series Three came out, so …
Wow, that’s great. I had the distinct pleasure of asking Kazuo Ishiguro how he felt about the film version of Remains of the Day. And he gave a terribly interesting answer. He said that, at first, while they were filming, he was like, “That door is in the wrong place! And that person looks wrong!” And then he released that. And he said it was like different creation. It wasn’t like his creation, but he really enjoyed it. Does any of that resonate for you?
Yeah. I think you have to let go. Otherwise you just go crazy. If it were a completely faithful reproduction of the book it would be very, very bad television.
And very, very long.
I think it’s a bit like handing a child over for adoption. You don’t give it to somebody that you don’t trust. But once you’ve handed it over, I don’t think you’re able to meddle, I don’t think you should meddle.
Do you have any involvement with the television series?
I do. I’ve had informal involvement. With Vera, because it’s all filmed very close to where I live. The writers come up, I’ll go out with them on a minibus and we’ll have a look at possible locations. Because they’ve run out of stories pretty well, quite a lot of the shows are original stories. And then they all come back to our house and my husband cooks them a curry, and we drink television beer and wine that they’ve provided, and just talk really.
That sounds really enjoyable.
So we’re good friends. And then, I’m always welcome on set, I get invited to the wrap party. Brenda Blethyn is incredibly generous. She comes to book festivals with me, she’ll sign books for readers with me. So yeah, we get on very well. Shetland is a bit the same. Not so much for Series Four. I didn’t have quite so much involvement with that, but with Series Three I knew the writers very well. And, again, took them up to Shetland. They had a list of things that they wanted to see and people they wanted to meet. And over a few days I was able to do that. So, introduced them to the local funeral director, and we went to see the power plant. And I always take them to have a meal with some Shetland friends of mine, so that they have [sources] that they can talk to about anything really.
Are any of the Vera television episodes based directly on the books?
They are. They started off that way. But when they ran out of … because they do four episodes every season, they’ve finished filming Season Eight, so that’s 32 shows. And there are only eight books. So, they do. If a new book comes out they’ll probably film it, adapt it.
They’re like: Ann! Write faster!
Brenda is a bit like that, yeah. But the original stories are very good, and I think that what they do, both shows actually, is capture the essence of the books. Dougie Henshaw, who plays Jimmy Perez, doesn’t look like my Jimmy Perez, but he does that strong male who can also be kind, that is at the heart of the books, I think.
So, again, 31 books in 31 years. You’re incredible prolific. Do you give that down to discipline, or inspiration, or what would you attribute that to?
I just like doing it. I can’t imagine coming to an end of a book and thinking, “Well that’s it, I’m not gonna write anymore.” Because there are so many stories out there. You overhear snatches of conversation that [make you think]. Just today on the plane there was a guy that got booted off because he was just so tense and so angry, and was shouting at everybody.
Yeah, in Canada. Because he couldn’t get an aisle seat, because they shrunk … Because there were too few people to fill a big plane, so they took everybody and put them on the small plane, and he couldn’t get an aisle seat so he just [got very upset]. And he had to be taken off. Why was he so angry? I know it’s a long flight and some people really don’t like flying, and they like aisle seats, but, to get so angry that you’re thrown off the plane? That’s a story, isn’t it? And there are those stories that you meet every day. ◊
Linda L. Richards is an author and journalist and the editor of January Magazine.
Tricia Barker is a personal trainer and budding politico.