Given the milestone that is my 500th interview I’m taking the weekend off – normal transmission will resume on Monday evening with post-weekend poetry, so without further ado…
Welcome to the five hundredth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with crime novelist Ann Cleeves. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Ann. Please tell us something about yourself, and how you came to be a writer.
Morgen: It’s funny you should say that, despite being an avid Stephen King fan (buying every book as they came out) in my teens it didn’t twig that writing was a career.
Ann: My husband is an ornithologist and when we were first married we spent four years on Hilbre, a tiny tidal island in the Dee estuary. We were the only residents, there was no mains water or mains electricity, and there was nothing much else to do. So that’s where the first book was completed.
Morgen: Wow. Most writers would pay a fortune (and probably do) to have a location like that. You’re best known for writing crime fiction, have you considered other genres?
Ann: When I was a student I thought I’d write a great literary novel. But crime fiction has always been my comfort reading and it made sense to write the sort of book that I enjoy reading.
Morgen: I love that you call crime fiction “comfort reading”.
Ann: I’ve written short stories that are more experimental and a short film, but I like the structure of the detective novel. It liberates me to concentrate on place and character.
Morgen: I’ve done the opposite; write short stories then move on to novels (whilst still writing short stories) and back again, and I love getting to know my characters. You’ve had over 20 novels published, do you have a favourite of your books or characters?
Ann: RAVEN BLACK holds a special place in my affections. I suppose it was my breakthrough novel and Shetland is such a wonderful backdrop for any story. I do love the character of Vera Stanhope though.
Morgen: Speaking of Vera, Brenda Blethyn and David Leon starred in the TV series of the same name (http://www.anncleeves.com/vera/index.html) how did that come about and how involved were you?
Ann: The ITV series came about through an amazing piece of luck. The books executive for ITV studios bought THE CROW TRAP in an Oxfam shop close to her home in North London and liked the character. I have no legal involvement, but very much feel part of Team Vera. I brought the scriptwriter up to Northumberland and showed him round the region before he started writing. That was the start of a great friendship. The adaptation has been a positive experience for me, but I suspect not every author is so fortunate or so included in the process.
Morgen: I’ve heard many say they had a rough experience… or no experience at all. BBC has commissioned a two-part drama entitled ‘Shetland’ (http://www.anncleeves.com/shetland/index.html) featuring your Detective Jimmy Perez, you talked about Shetland itself, how important is location in your books?
Ann: The location is at the start and at the heart of everything I write, I think. People grow out of the places where they live. Northumberland is a brilliant setting because of the variety and texture of the landscapes. We have coast and hills and post-industrial communities, and the city of Newcastle just on the doorstep. And in Shetland we have our own Nordic bleakness and beauty.
Morgen: I’m not sure I’ve ever been to either (wouldn’t I remember?) but they’ve always come across as bleak, which of course is perfect for crime. Have you ever self-published anything?
Ann: No! I’m a technophobe. I wouldn’t know where to start.
Morgen: It’s not that hard (I’ve done it six times and lectured on it) but having publishers do it for you is always going to be a bonus. Every writer I’ve spoken to has said they’d like more time (usually because of all the time spent on marketing, social networking etc) to write. It’s what we do, after all. Your books are available as eBooks, how involved were you in that process? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Ann: I have had nothing to do with it and I only read on paper. I’m looking at a screen all day to write, so I like books for pleasure and relaxation.
Morgen: Your Wikipedia page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ann_Cleeves) doesn’t say much about you. Firstly, is it accurate and have you ever been tempted to go in and tweak it?
Ann: I’ve never looked at it.
Morgen: Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Ann: I choose a title and then discuss it with my agent and editor. Sometimes they come up with something better. Once I was so stuck for a title that I had an on-line competition to choose one. I have little say with jacket designs. That seems to be a decision for the marketing department. It’s a bit of a nightmare with the US Shetland titles. They keep sending images of trees and there are very few trees in Shetland.
Morgen: Everything has to be accurate doesn’t it. Apart from it representing your books there will always be readers who know the area and will point out inaccuracies. We met at the recent St Hilda’s Crime & Mystery Conference in Oxford, and one of the discussions was on translations (http://www.anncleeves.com/translations.html). Your books are translated into a variety of languages, can you please tell us about that process and if anything memorable has happened in relation to the translations.
Ann: It depends really on the translator and the publisher. My French translator came to Shetland (at her own expense!) because she wanted to get a feel for the place before she started work. Occasionally I get an email from a translator who can’t quite understand a piece of dialect, or who needs some clarification, but usually they just get on with it.
Morgen: And hopefully make a good job of it. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Ann: I’m working on a new Vera Stanhope book. The first novel in a new Shetland Quartet, Dead Water, will be published in January.
Morgen: How exciting. Being so prolific, do you manage to write every day, or ever suffer from writer’s block?
Ann: I try to write every day. It’s not a matter of writer’s block, but of having to fit it around everything else that goes on – book festivals, meetings, travelling and responsibilities closer to home.
Morgen: Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Ann: I never plot in advance.
Morgen: Most authors I’ve spoken to say the same and it works for me. Do you have a method for creating your characters and making them believable?
Ann: I don’t have any method at all. It’s about concentration, I think. You need to know your characters so that thinking about them is like memory rather than imagination.
Morgen: Absolutely. They should be real people to us, and therefore to the readers. Do you do a lot of editing or have you found that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Ann: Because I don’t plot in advance I have to do lots of re-writing.
Morgen: Do you have to do much research?
Ann: I have a very good friend who was a senior crime scene manager and now teaches on the policing course at Tees-side Uni. She’s my main research tool!
Morgen: How very handy. I went to my local police station’s open day recently (and last year’s) and had a great chat with some of the CID, very inspiring. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Ann: Never tried second person. My most natural voice is third person, but I have written one novel (Burial of Ghosts) in the first.
Morgen: Second’s fun and great for short dark pieces. You’ve also written (and had published) a number of short stories (http://www.anncleeves.com/short.html), apart from the obvious word counts, do you feel differently about them, or have differing writing methods? Have you been tempted to issue a collection of short stories?
Ann: Short stories are very difficult to get right, because you can’t have a wasted word. I see them as a chance to try something different, so I will write in the first person.
Morgen: They are great practice for tight prose, they’ve helped me realise when I waffle. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Ann: One novel was rejected a long time ago. It deserved to be.
Morgen: Do you enter and/or judge competitions? Are there any you could recommend?
Ann: I don’t enter competitions and rarely judge them these days – I’m just so busy. I’d recommend any new crime writer enter the CWA competition – I think it’s called the Debut Dagger. Some huge selling novelists have been discovered from the shortlists.
Morgen: They have indeed. I see from your website that you have an agent, can you tell us how the two of you first made contact and the sort of things that she does on your behalf.
Ann: She was assistant to my first agent and when he retired she set up on her own. Now she’s more like a friend. She negotiates contracts, sells books to overseas publishers, and is also the first person to read and comment on my novels.
Morgen: What a great asset. You also have UK and US publicists, what’s your working relationship with them?
Ann: Publicists work for the publisher so they swing into action just before publication, getting review copies out and generating press interest. They also set up events in bookshops and at literary festivals.
Morgen: With such a supportive team behind you, how much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Ann: These days I’m lucky and my publicist sets up most interviews and events. In the past I’ve had to organise things more myself. That was why I was so happy to team up with fellow writers in the co-op Murder Squad. It’s much easier to sell the group than yourself as an individual.
Morgen: How important are events like St. Hilda’s?
Ann: St Hilda’s is very unusual because it’s not the slightest bit commercial. Writers are discouraged from plugging their own books and that’s why I enjoy it so much. Festivals like Harrogate and Bristol give authors a chance to talk about their books and to meet readers.
Morgen: Some authors I’ve come across online do little else but tout their books, and wonder why they get defollowed / defriended, and whilst I feel empathy towards them because we’re all competing in a huge market, there are ways and means. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Ann: My favourite part is writing. I love the days when I have nothing else to do. But these days there aren’t many of those.
Morgen: What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Ann: Don’t do it if you don’t enjoy it. You’re unlikely to make any money from it.
Morgen: But if you enjoy it then any money is a bonus. If you had to choose a single day from your past to re-live over and over, what day would it be and why?
Ann: An ordinary day, cooking in the observatory on Fair Isle. A time of great peace and relaxation.
Morgen: With some writing. Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Ann: As I explained I’m a technophobe. And I enjoy the craft of writing, but I don’t want to analyse it to death.
Morgen: Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Ann: I tweet, but that’s a glorified form of gossip.
Morgen: It is and isn’t it great, although incredibly time-consuming so used with caution. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Ann: I have no idea! But there will always be stories.
Morgen: There will. A page on your website is called ‘Valia’s Fund’ (http://www.anncleeves.com/vaila.html) can you please tell us a little more about that.
Ann: Vaila was a young Shetland girl who had cancer and died. Her parents are friends and set up a
fund in her memory to allow Shetland kids to travel. I auctioned a character name in Blue Lightning and made lots of money.
Morgen: And the person who your character is based on very happy. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Ann: I’ve been shortlisted for the Bestseller Dagger and I need people to vote on-line for me. The link’s on the website and I’d be very grateful if you could mention it. I’m up against a lot of big hitters!
Morgen: Absolutely. The link is http://www.crimethrillerawards.com/bestseller-dagger-vote. I did go and have a look (and vote, of course!) but couldn’t find a closing date but do hurry folks, as the awards ceremony is 18th October! Thank you, Ann.
Ann’s website is http://www.anncleeves.com, you can follow her on Twitter (https://twitter.com/AnnCleeves), buy her books on Amazon (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Ann-Cleeves/e/B001IOF9MG) and ‘like’ her Facebook author page (http://www.facebook.com/anncleeves).
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