Article published on October 4, 2017.
When I got an email from my local library advertising a talk by Ann Cleeves, the well-known crime writer, I booked a ticket straightaway. I love her books, especially the Vera series, which is set in my home territory of Northumberland.
Ann is currently touring to promote her new Vera Stanhope novel, The Seagull.
A slight woman with short steel-grey hair and a warm smile, Ann is also a natural speaker with a great sense of humour. Her early jobs included bird observatory cook, child-care officer and probation officer; it was only when she was living with her ornithologist husband on a tiny island nature reserve that she began writing. Incredibly, she has now written thirty books in thirty years, with The Seagull being the eighth Vera novel.
Ann told us how the huge success of ‘Vera’ on television came about. The character of the female detective was introduced in a standalone novel, The Crow Trap, in 1999, but the novel didn’t do well. By pure chance, a woman who bought a copy in an Oxfam shop turned out to be a commissioning editor for ITV – and the rest, as they say, is history.
The character of Vera herself is based on the middle-aged spinsters from Ann’s childhood – strong confident woman with little concern for their appearance. Apparently, Brenda Blethyn, who plays Vera on television, knows a lot more about the character than Ann herself – for example, Vera’s shoe size and birthday, as Brenda completely identifies with the part and makes it her job to know her inside out.
Ann was asked about her writing habits. She writes best in the early morning, getting up at 5.30 and working in the attic with a cup of tea and the fishing forecast. She uses a laptop but finds pen and paper useful if she hits a block. I was fascinated to hear that she does very little plotting, starting with an initial scene and then seeing where the characters take her. As a strategy, it obviously works extremely well for her.
I was also delighted to learn that The Seagull is set in Whitley Bay on the north-east coast, where I spent my summer holidays every year as a young child. Ann lives in Whitley Bay now and admitted she gathered a lot of research by ‘ear wigging’ in her local pub.
This time, the initial scene was inspired by a visit Ann made to a prison unit for elderly and vulnerable prisoners. She read us the beginning of The Seagull, where Vera arrives at the unit and is faced with an inmate, a former colleague who she helped to convict of corruption. Now he has a favour to ask and a bargain to strike.
Ann also talked briefly about her Shetland series, which is based around the character of Jimmy Perez, and said that the next novel will be the last in the series, news that brought murmurs of dismay from the audience.
But I have my copy of The Seagull and I can’t wait to start reading!
The Seagull by Ann Cleeves
Macmillan 9781447278344 hbk Sep 2017
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