Attended this event last night at Brighouse Library with my fellow CWG member N. Ann Cleeves bagged the much desired Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger for best crime novel and now has a successful TV series in Vera, so we were very interested to see what information she might have for the aspiring crime writer.
Ann started by telling the group that a new series of Vera (the third) begins filming on Monday and it will be broadcast next year. She informed us that she had been milling about as a mid-list author (according to her, publisher-speak for bottom of the heap) for many years selling and getting into libraries, but not enough to give up the day job, when in 1989 her agent and publisher asked her to write a big stand-alone psychological novel. So she wrote about three women alone in the hills doing an environmental impact study (her husband has knowledge of this in his work) from a small cottage.
She told the gathering that she never plots in advance (music to my ears, as that is how I normally work) and that she was stuck in this novel and she thought a door should open and see who comes through it, to go on with the writing. It was during a funeral scene in a small church in the hills, when the door opens and in blows Vera Stanhope, more bag lady than detective. She had not planned her, but she liked her, so she stayed. Her agent and editor liked it and saw 'The Crow trap' as her breakthrough novel but they forgot to put it in the catalogue and it ended up having quite a number of unsold copies (of which, more later).
Ann likes Vera because she was an antidote to the detectives that were being written about at the time (i.e. good-looking enough to get a man and fit enough to run after the criminals). She wanted to write a protagonist that real women could identify with - middle-aged, unift and not good-looking. Ann was born in the 50s and knew a lot of fearsome spinsters (because of the war) who didn't dress well, but they were respected because they were good at their jobs and Vera is very good at her job. Vera came back in the book 'Telling Tales' which is set in Spurn Point. Ann loves small, remote places and she thought a miscarriage of justice would work well in this (Ann worked as a probation officer for a while and she thinks it is hard to say you're not guilty when you are stuck in a high security prison). Her character is accused of murdering her lovers teenage daughter and is convicted. Thinking that her innocence will never be proven, she takes her own life only for a a witness to come forward who proves she couldn't have committed the murder.
Ann said that she is a very nosy person (most writers are) and that she knows all the conversations in a room. She is also very curious about other people's jobs and believes it is the tiny details that bring a scene to life, i.e. when she spoke to a pilot of the ships for the novel, she told her that he learned enough Spanish and Russian to be able to be sure that the sailors of the ships were understanding the directions and that when he went aboard these ships, the sailors wanted Argos catalogues that he could swap for cheap vodka.
Ann loves hidden depths, i.e. crimes in translation like the nordic novellists because of their strong first scenes (e.g. 'Sidetracked' has the field of yellow rape and a young girl running through it, who then sets fire to herself). She admitted that all authors nick ideas from other people and she wanted a strong first scene, so she had a recently divorced woman come back from an evening out to find her beautiful soon dead in the bath with flowers scattered around him. Then a teaching assistant is found dead with flowers surrounding her and she has to make the connection. She likes male friendship as an underlying thread - hidden depths.
Ann then read the beginning of 'Silent Voices.' Ann agreed that Brenda Blethyn OBE captures Vera's mixture of malice and wit, but does not look like her, but she does wear layers and layers of clothing to look bulked up.
She loves the idea of setting a book in a writers residential retreat (like Arvon) and when one of them dies, Vera can meet the slightly pretentious creative writing teachers. One of the extra copies of 'The Crow Trap' was for sale in an Oxfam in Crouch End and it was bought by a woman to take and read on holiday. The woman was Elaine Collins, book scout for tv productions and she read it and wanted to make it for tv. Ann's daughter is friends with Ben, who kept asking if the rights to Shetland/Stanhope were available and it turned out he was Elaine's assistant. Tv companies buy options, but many don't get made but after the option was sold, Ann was called into a meeting on the South Bank with Elaine (who she now thinks of as her fairy Godmother) , Kate Bartell and Julia Walsh of ITV. Ann was more than keen for it to be made and she invited Paul, the scriptwriter up to Newcastle so that he could really 'get' her Vera.
Ann is really pleased with the tv series, though she thought the pilot was too dark and confusing, and she loves that the Old Swan Hunters Shipyard is used for production as it is making something again and employing a lot of local people. Ann has a friend Helen Pepper, who is crime scene manager with County Durham police to answer questions and she and Ruth McGrath advise on the Vera show, Helen has even appeared as a CSI on one episode. Sub-plots do get cut out because it is a 2 hour show and she feels some adaptations work better than others. The wild swimmer episode was her favourite as she felt she projected the 'emotional drowning' of Vera and Jo's surrogate son relationship.
Ann feels that 'Raven Black' was her breakthrough book as is won the Dagger and she could give up the day job. 'Red Bones' is to be a BBC show at the end of November or beginning of December. It will be the third book in the series, which is very different as there will be no Frances and they use the climax to 'Raven Black' in it.
Ann informed attendees that she wrote stories as a child, but never thought she'd make a living out of it, but she just loved it. Writing is her indulgent time as she had small children when she first started. All her novels are crime, she said she was going to write a great literary novel, but her comfort novel was crime, so she can be freed up to look at what you want to, e.g. 'Red Bones' archaelogy and the past. She is half-way through writing a new Vera novel and there will be a quartet of Shetlands out in November.
Finally, when Ann signed our books, she advised N and I that we should just really enjoy the writing as no one ever makes money from it, it's for the love of it.