Monday, May 08, 2017

Ann Cleeves at The Poisoned Pen!

Have you ever had an hour or two when you could swear everyone was conspiring against you? Well, I had one of those the afternoon I was trying to get ready to head to The Poisoned Pen to see one of my all-time favorite authors, Ann Cleeves

Monday is always a laundry day for me, and I wound up being a bit behind when it came time to get gussied up for The Pen. Just as I started putting mascara on my eyelashes, the phone-- which seldom rings-- chose that moment to do so. Not only did I jump about a foot off my chair, I jabbed myself in the eye with the mascara wand. It concerned the biopsy I need, so I answered it. Just about had the thing scheduled when the person at the other end learned that my insurance doesn't like them performing biopsies. Okay. Hang up the phone, start working on the eyes again. Just enough time elapsed for me to get good and focused on the task at hand. The phone at my elbow rings again. Son of Jump, and my other eye gets it with the mascara wand. *sigh*  I was very happy to make it to my favorite bookstore in one piece (and not looking like a red-eyed raccoon)! 

L to R: Ann Cleeves, Barbara Peters

Just before Cleeves made her entrance, host Barbara Peters told us the good news that there would be fourth seasons of both Shetland and Outlander. (I'd seen Diana Gabaldon earlier, so I was aware of Barbara's source.) Shetland is the BBC series based on Cleeves' Shetland Island mysteries. It's excellent, with absolutely wonderful Shetland scenery, so if you get a chance to watch, I highly recommend it.

Barbara had just introduced her as this year's Diamond Dagger winner (the highest honor that can be given in the UK to a mystery writer), and Ann had just taken her seat when she was asked if this was her first visit to The Poisoned Pen. "It's my first time as a writer. I've been here several times as a reader. I've come to your part of the world several times with my husband on birding trips." (I've told you folks that people come from all over the world to watch birds here!) 

Watching a scene from Shetland.

Although there were a few technical difficulties, they were soon sorted out, and we were treated to a short scene from an episode of Shetland. Many in the audience were familiar with this series, but many more were fans of the series Vera based on Cleeves' mystery series featuring police detective Vera Stanhope. The popularity of this series starring Brenda Blethyn and how it came to be is nothing short of miraculous.

The publishers absolutely loved the first book in the Vera Stanhope series, The Crow Trap, but by mistake it was left out of their catalog. With no real publicity, The Crow Trap made scarcely a ripple in the publishing world before sinking its way down to secondhand bookshops and charity shops like Oxfam-- which is where ITV Studios exec Elaine Collins found a copy that she decided to buy and read on her vacation. She loved it, campaigned for it, and Vera became a hit TV series.

When asked if she knew Academy Award-nominated actress Brenda Blethyn, Ann Cleeves said that she did, "but I work most with the writers who create the screenplays. I'm happy to say that one of their screenplays for an episode of Vera is nominated for an Edgar Award this year! 

Ann Cleeves
"The writers tour Northumberland [where the series is set], and when they come back from their travels, my husband cooks his famous curry for them. Actually, Brenda always comes for a curry when she's in the area."

When people learned that Cleeves lives in Northumberland, they wanted to know where, and Ann said, "I live in a seaside town called Whitley Bay."

One of the reasons why Cleeves believes Northumberland is a wonderful setting for her books and the television series is that it's wild and beautiful and sparsely populated, with lots of history and hidden nooks and crannies. "It also has a strong history of mining," the author said, "and when all the pits [mines] were closed, the economy became quite depressed with many communities hanging on desperately for their very lives

"I'm happy to say that these communities are making a comeback. They're not trying to regenerate through building more shops and trying to grab people's money that way; they're regenerating through culture.  South Shields is a very depressed area of Tyneside. What they've done is to build a library everyone calls The Word. It's the National Centre for the Written Word, and thousands of people flock to the library. There's also a new music center that's another huge draw. Building shops isn't going to improve the economy. People shop online now. It's the creative industries that are really beginning to make their mark-- to the tune of eight million pounds per hour."

Barbara took this moment to mention something that she loved about the UK: that country's public lending rights. Ann agreed. "These public lending rights may only mean a couple of pennies each time a book is checked out of the library, but it really encourages new writers." And Ann's favorite Crime Writers' Association of Great Britain award? "The Dagger in the Library because it's given to the writers who are popular with people who check books out of their libraries."

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Barbara wanted Ann to mention an extra little tidbit about Elaine Collins, the woman who found The Crow Trap at an Oxfam shop. Ann smiled and said, "Yes! Elaine is married to actor Peter Capaldi so I can say quite honestly that Doctor Who has cooked my tea." This tidbit was a hit with the Doctor Who fans in the audience, let me tell you!

Ann then told us that the actor who portrays Jimmy Perez in the television series Shetland, Douglas Henshall, does attend book festivals with her, but "he can get very grumpy because so many people tell him 'You don't look like Jimmy Perez!'" Those of us who have seen the series agreed with Cleeves that, although Henshall may not look like the character in the book, he's perfect in the role.

The first time that Cleeves went to Shetland and saw the house that became Jimmy's house in the TV series, she knew it was his. The owner of the property lets them film exterior shots of his house, but he won't let them inside. With the way fans can be, I totally understand. He might even regret allowing the exterior shots by now. (As for interior shots, those are filmed in Glasgow.)

Ann received plenty of hate mail when Cassie's mother died, and she also receives mail about Jimmy's daughter, Cassie, being older in the TV series than she is in the books. This is because the producers wanted her older for dramatic effect: an emotional teenager with two dads is much more interesting than a very young girl. 

Ann Cleeves
There's one character in the TV series that isn't in the books, and that's the young female police officer called Tosh. I recently watched the episodes in which Tosh is attacked, and you can believe Cleeves kept a close eye on how the episodes were written. "I don't like to write or read about women being chased, raped, or tortured," Ann said. "We asked the Rape Crisis Center for advice in the writing and filming of these episodes, and the one thing they couldn't stress enough was 'Do Not Show the Attack!'"

The attack is not shown, and I think it's even more emotionally gut-wrenching as a result. There's some absolutely marvelous writing and acting in those particular episodes.

"There's only going to be one more Shetland Island book after Cold Earth," Cleeves said to groans from the audience, and then she went into a bit of the reasoning behind her choice of title. "When I think of earth, I think of digging, of things being buried, of things being uncovered." When asked about her writing process, Cleeves admitted that "I like to start off not knowing. I write like a reader, with no outline."

The audience was eager to ask questions, and one of the first was about Shetland itself and the Shetland Bus-- the small boats going to and from Norway with resistance fighters and supplies during World War II. 

When oil was discovered offshore, the people in government in Shetland were very canny, insisting on amenity, sports, arts, education, and welfare trusts to be set up before allowing any drilling. This means that the Shetlands are better off financially than almost any other place in the UK.

Ann Cleeves
Another person wanted to know if Aberdeen was the closest mainland city to the Shetlands, and the answer is yes. Most maps are distorted and don't show exactly where the islands are. And many people don't know that they were owned by Norway until the fifteenth century.

Like the third season, the fourth season of Shetland will be an original story written this time by Gaby Chiappe, who wrote the screenplay for the movie Their Finest. Filming has also begun on season eight of Vera

A disappointed fan wanted to see if Ann would change her mind and continue the Shetland Island series of books. She shook her head. "Eight is enough for a small community of 23,000," she said. "I feel as though I've run out of subjects to explore." She's finishing up the last Shetland book, then she'll be working on the next Vera book... and then she has an idea for something new. I can't wait!

More tidbits from fan questions:

Ann doesn't sleep well when she's on tour, but she's found that this helps her with any problems she's having in her writing.

Ann Cleeves
When asked how she comes up with her plots and the specialized knowledge that she needs, Ann replied, "I make it up-- I am writing fiction!" When the laughter died down, she went on to explain that one of her previous jobs was as a probation officer, and she does have a good friend/expert whom she can call with any questions she may have.

She recently celebrated her fortieth wedding anniversary. She met her husband on Fair Isle (one of the Shetlands) while birdwatching.

Ann Cleeves had written twenty books before the first Shetland Island book, Raven Black, won her the Gold Dagger Award for Best Crime Novel of the Year in 2006. "So yes, I was an overnight success after twenty years," the author laughed. "I basically survived through the library system buying my books because they were only released in hardcover for quite awhile." (See how important those public lending rights can be?)

Barbara Peters asked her if she thought it was better to win awards after having written several books, and Ann said yes. "I've known authors who've won awards for their first books, and it seems to have frozen them," Peters said.

Ann Cleeves
Ann Cleeves believes herself to be a very fortunate woman. Going to the Shetland Islands with her husband and getting the idea for a book that turned into a series. Elaine Collins finding a copy of The Crow Trap in an Oxfam shop. "This is such a precarious business," the author said. "So much can hinge on luck. There's one lesson that I believe in very strongly: Be kind to everyone on your way up because you will meet them on your way down!"

What books would Cleeves recommend? She's a tremendous Sara Paretsky fan and would definitely recommend Fallout. She greatly enjoys crime fiction written around the world and told us that reading Georges Simenon started the whole thing. Another favorite author? Andrea Camilleri.

The all-too-brief evening ended with Cleeves mentioning that one of the producers of Midsomer Murders moved from that television series to Vera. Barbara commented, "I loved the original Caroline Graham books; I thought them quite subversive." Ann agreed, adding, "I find the TV series quite silly." (So do I, although I do enjoy the cinematography!)

Ann Cleeves is one of those authors whom I will go to see whenever she's within reach. She's fascinating to listen to, and she's passionate about topics like libraries, books, wildlife, and bringing life back to economically depressed areas. She is so small and soft-spoken and polite that you could be forgiven for thinking she'd be easily overlooked. Now that I've met her twice, I just know there's steel in that spine of hers. I can see Ann Cleeves skillfully commanding troops with very little fuss. It's a mistake to overlook either her or her books.


  1. Oh, my, what a treat, Cathy!! I'm so pleased you got the chance to see her! I really do like her series.

  2. What a terrific write-up! Ann Cleeves is great. I've only read one book by her, "The Moth Catcher," but watch the Vera TV series faithfully. And I haven't seen Shetland.

    But she is a fascinating person. I noted in one Vera episode that the character is very pro-miner and that came up with regard to the miners' strike in the 1980s.

    I wish I had been at this event, but your summary is very thorough. I get a flavor of the evening and admire Ann Cleeves even more.

    1. The 1980s were devastating for mining in the UK, and one of the major reasons why not everyone there liked Margaret Thatcher.

  3. I hope that you win that battle with the insurance company. More and more people I know of are having such problems.

    1. Oh, I'll win. I just wish it didn't take so much time.

  4. If you want to see a wonderful, heart-warming movie about the miners' strike in 1984, see "Pride." I loved it so much I bought myself a copy of it.

    It tells the story of a lesbian and gay organization in England that did fundraising for the miners and then had to find miners who would take their funds, given that in those days the gay community was not understood or supported.

    So, they find a mining town and a few representatives visit and the miners meet gay people and vice versa -- and a huge friendship begins and continues to some wonderful moments of solidarity.

    And it is full of British wit! I was laughing so hard at points and then crying because the film was made in the days of the AIDS epidemic. But everyone I know who has seen it loved it.

    1. I've just ordered a copy. Thanks for telling me about it!

  5. Hope you like it as much as I and my friends do!


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