If any crime writer can be said to be ‘of the moment’ then surely it is Ann Cleeves. Ann is a prolific writer of some of the best crime fiction, and winner of several prestigious awards, but as the writer behind the recent successful Vera detective series, she’s become even more in demand. So it felt like a real coup when she agreed to speak to this month’s Berwick Book Group and it was a fantastic start to what will be our fourth year.
Ann started off the evening by telling us how she got published, which she very modestly put down to a large element of luck, and how the Vera series was picked up by ITV (because their books executive picked up a second-hand copy of the first novel in the series in an Oxfam shop!). Then we were treated to a gripping reading from one of the televised novels, Hidden Depths, before Ann took questions. We were interested in the process of writing and it was surprising to hear that Ann never plans ahead, but creates the stories scene by scene. This is what Janet calls a “pantzer” – writers’ jargon, apparently!
Ann explained how the character of Vera “blew in looking like a bag lady” and how it’s important that she is a spinster who’s never had a romantic involvement. We chatted about the characterisation – it’s refreshing to have a female detective who isn’t glamorous! – and whether Brenda Blethyn lives up to the role in the TV series. For Ann, she’s a great choice, although there was some discussion about how the North-East accent is not always note perfect. Reader Anne R praised the dialogue in the books, which she found convincing.
Landscape is very important to Ann, not just in the Vera novels but also in the series set in Shetland. It was great to hear how filming for the Vera series has brought alive the redundant Swan Hunter yard in Wallsend and created jobs for local people.
We had a sneak preview of the cover for the next novel in the series, The Glass Room. Paula asked what makes a good editor and Ann said it was someone who can point out what needs changing or adding to, when the writer themselves has become too close to the work.
On research, Ann quoted John Mortimer, who advised writers to write the book first and do the research later. Of course she is able to draw on her own former experience as a probation worker, which may be why the episodes in Silent Voices with the social workers were so plausible.
Janet asked about social networking, as Ann is followed by many on Twitter. She admitted “it doesn’t come naturally” and can be distracting – but she’s trying it out.
Ann’s own reading background? She started like so many of us with Enid Blyton’s mystery stories, progressing to Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown and Dorothy L. Sayers. Her first attempt at a novel had an upper-class sleuth with a double-barrelled name! (It didn’t get anywhere – reassuring to know that even maestros like Ann have first attempts they’d rather forget!)
Ann’s written a diary piece which gives Berwick a mention – check out her website on www.anncleeves.com
For a further dip into Ann’s work, listen to Radio 4 on Saturday September 17th at 2.30pm, when Raven Black, which won the inaugural Duncan Laurie Dagger award in 2006, is being broadcast.
Finally – mention must be made of the chocolate cake, which was another star of the evening – thanks Kim! Doolallys also has the book list in stock.
Next meeting: Tuesday 4th October, Doolally’s, Marygate, Berwick upon Tweed. The Possessions of Dr Forrest by Richard T. Kelly.