Ann Cleeves can’t escape her most famous creation. She was recently on holiday in Tanzania, admiring the spectacular scenery (while her husband, a very keen ornithologist, admired the variety of birds that fluttered around the area) when a group of Australians walked into the lodge.
It sounds like the set up to a punchline, and in a way it is. Ann had travelled for thousands of miles to Tanzania; they had travelled a similar distance, and they got talking. ‘They were really big Vera fans,’ she says. She explained she was the author of the books. ‘They said they got Vera on the television there. Sitting in the sun in Tanzania, talking about Northumberland to a group of Australians, was quite bizarre.’
She’s become used to this kind of conversation as her creation has become a worldwide phenomenon, both through the best-selling books and primetime Sunday evening drama. Ann’s still befuddled by the scale of the success of the take-no-nonsense investigator, but has been able – over the years – to consider some reasons for its popularity.
‘I think it’s partly Northumberland,’ she says. ‘The TV show has that beautiful cinematography and captures the variety of places we have in the North East.’
It’s that same scenery and surroundings that inspire her to continue writing the books. ‘The landscape and place and the people who grow out of the place help me write,’ she says. ‘You can’t imagine Vera having grown up in a city anywhere – and I think lots of people relate to her.’
Authors’ creations often include a little more of their creator than they’d like to admit, but Ann’s inspiration for DCI Vera Stanhope comes instead from the people she knew (and admired) growing up.
‘I was born in the mid-1950s and grew up not long after the war,’ she explains. ‘There were women who were spinsters, single women, who’d either lost men during the war or had come into their own during that time and were free to take on responsibilities they might not have been able to otherwise. There were some pretty formidable women in the community back then.’
Among the most formidable was her infant school headmistress. ‘A spinster with a very firm mind. She was very competent,’ Ann says. ‘She knew exactly what she was doing, wasn’t going to let any man boss her around and managed the school extremely well.’
Strong female characters are still popular – and provide inspiration – today. ‘I think it still is relatively unusual to have a woman in authority who isn’t bothered by her appearance and is fairly uncompromising in the way she deals with her colleagues,’ Ann says.
The author writes her novels in an unstructured way in contrast to the highly intricate way crime plots usually intertwine and interweave. ‘I don’t plan in advance,’ she admits. ‘I literally don’t know what’s going to happen when I start the story.’
Ann sees it as writing like a reader: ‘You write a chapter and you want to know what’s going to happen next, so you have to write it,’ she explains. ‘I go chronologically: if you’re not a planner I think that’s the way you have to do it. I know PD James used to plot in real detail in advance and so if she didn’t fancy writing chapter two she could write chapter 18 instead, but I wouldn’t have a clue what was going to happen in chapter 18 until I got there!’
Northumberland provides the best environment for Ann to write, but as her works have grown more popular and the number of literary festivals she travels to has increased, she’s had to adapt the way she works, tapping out chapters on her laptop on trains and in airport lounges. One rule remains strict: ‘I can’t work in the evening. I write much better in the morning.’
She takes it all in her stride, grateful for success after 20 years of hard work. She took up writing crime fiction in 1986, for fun. She’d enjoyed crime novels, and decided to try to pen her own. ‘It had to be fun, because for the first 20 years I didn’t make much money out of it.’ She juggled a day job with jotting down plotlines; her husband helped her with encouragement and by bringing home an income too.
Then in 2006, 20 years after she first put pen to paper, she struck it lucky, winning the prestigious Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger award. At the time it had associated prize money of £20,000. It was pretty much what Ann earned in her day job the year before, so she figured this was as good a time as any to take the plunge and write full-time.
Soon after she hit another seam of good fortune. Elaine Collins, Books Executive at ITV Studios, was rifling through the shelves of an Oxfam bookshop for a novel to take on holiday to read. She came across one of Ann’s Vera novels. At the time the production company was looking for a crime show with a strong female character to replace Frost on Sunday nights. ‘That’s how Vera got optioned,’ says Ann, ‘just by chance.’
Now the show is in its seventh series, and Ann is happy with the television adaptation, handing over Vera to a series of television writers who come up to Northumberland every year before filming begins. The writing team join Ann and her husband to discuss storylines and characterisation for the upcoming series.
‘It’s not that odd,’ she says. ‘That’s what happens when people read your books. People have their own ideas, their pictures in their minds. They bring their own prejudices and their history to the story and handing it over to a director is just one stage further.’
Ann will be appearing at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, which returns to Harrogate on 20–23 July.
Quickfire queries with Ann Cleeves
Where’s the best view in Northumberland?
I love Craster out to Dunstanburgh Castle. It’s very dramatic: that skyline and the castle.
Where do you go to relax?
We walk along the beach along Druridge, to the pools that form the nature reserve behind it.
Where’s the best meal?
I like the Broad Chare pub on Newcastle Quayside.
If you could live anywhere else, where would it be?
Shetland. There’s something about solitude I like.