Ann Cleeves: An Exclusive Interview at The Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival 2015

Ann Cleeves: An Exclusive Interview at The Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival 2015

Hi Ann, thanks for speaking with us! And congratulations on chairing such a fantastic festival. What has been your favourite event so far?

Oh goodness that’s really tricky. Sara Paretsky has been a huge favourite of mine since I started writing. I loved the V.I. Warshawski series, I really admire the way that Sarah Paretsky stands up for what she believes in still and is still fighting for what she believes in. And so just getting Sarah here at the festival, although I couldn’t listen to all of the conversation between her and Val because it’s just been so busy, just having supper with her the night before and chatting to her before she went on with Val was really the highlight of the festival for me.

And what are you looking forward to?

I’m really looking forward to going to see the forensics panel, I’ve got two mates on there. One of the great things about being program chair is that you can twist arms and call in favours, then really persuade people that they would really love this weekend. And luckily they usually do. I’ve just been sat with Brenda Blethyn who has been signing books with me, you think “this is a double Oscar nominee and she’s giving up filming time on Vera to come to be at Harrogate and people are just loving her and telling her how they love her work. Just how amazing is that.” It was a long time writing without any sort of success and it still seems really weird to be sitting there next to Brenda who has become such a good friend and is lovely and such a protector of my character.

It’s such a nice thing to see that everyone at this festival genuinely seems to be friends.

I think we are. I think crime writers are usually very friendly. And perhaps it’s writers in adversity because people have always been a bit snooty about crime fiction and think ‘oh it’s not real literature’ so we’re very happy to be shunned by the literati and still feel very comfortable in our own company.

The theme this year is ‘strange lands’ and offering something unfamiliar about places. Where did that theme come from and why do you think it’s particularly relevant this year?

It came from me I suppose because the programme chair does get to choose the theme or a vague concept to give the festival some cohesion, and for me it’s because I love travelling. And I’ve always thought that if you can’t afford to travel then books can take you there. Even from being a very small girl, I don’t mind sitting in trains for hours, I don’t mind airport lounges, I still, even now, have that excitement about travelling. I love the sense of moving. And part of that, I think, is being an observer, and I think a lot of writers enjoy feeling a bit ruthless. When I was about 15 or 16 and going through an intense introspective phase, I remember writing on my bedroom ceiling ‘I am the cat that walks alone, all places are alike to me’ from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, and just thinking that I believed it, that it didn’t really matter where I was as long as I had a few books I’d be fine. And I do still feel that. I’m not rooted in a way that my husband is for instance. Home is where I have a pen or a laptop and I can carry on telling stories.

You’ve mentioned that a lot of your ideas come from observing people, and I suppose if you’re travelling that you’re constantly meeting new people.

That’s right. I think all writers are parasites really, we use the experience that comes to us. And sometimes when things are going really wrong, even family tragedies and dreadful things, a bit of you is thinking ‘one day this will make a really good book’. Graham Greene talks about the sliver of ice in the heart of a writer. And it’s dreadful when people are going through real emotional turmoil, and part of me is thinking ‘that’ll make a book one day’. We are quite ruthless, I think.

So do all your characters come from real life observations?

I think there has to be emotional truth, and that’s rather different. So the reader has to believe that that character actually feels what they’re feeling, and engages with them. And they’re not just there as a function of the plot, to move the action on. So they might not be somebody that you’ve met, but you have to write them as if you’re writing from memory rather than imagination, that you’ve met these people and you know them and engage with them. So it is a bit different.

How did your conversation with Lisa Gardner go this morning?

I thought it went fine. We met briefly yesterday and I’d read several of her books. I really admire her style, the way she can really pull you in to the action very, very quickly. And she is very easy to talk to, she’s a writer who is obviously used to talking about what she does and enjoys it, enjoys meeting readers. So it was a doddle.

It seemed to me that you were actually quite similar in the way you work.

In that we’re not plotters? Yes. Although I suspect that Lisa is slightly more organised than I am, despite her saying that she doesn’t plan. She did say that she knew 50 pages ahead, and I certainly don’t know what’s going to happen 50 pages ahead!

You mentioned in the panel that when helping with TV adaptations of your work, you would take people around the places in your stories. Would you say that place is quite an important part of starting a story?

It is for me, I always know where it’s taking place. And it might be a fictional place. In The Moth Catcher – my new book that’s out in September – the place is a Northumberland valley which isn’t real, and in fact may be closer to a valley in mid Wales where we lived when we first married. But it has to be real for me. And it has to be quite specific, because I think people grow out of the place they are born, but if you live all your life in a small Northumberland valley it’s very different to if you grow up on the mean streets of Leeds. So I think place is very important. I write quite traditional crime fiction, I would struggle to write a city story because I like the idea of people who care about their neighbours and care about the people they live with, and quite often city living is quite anonymous, and even suburban living is quite anonymous. So choosing places like the places where I live, where the people know you and care about you or dislike you, who know the secrets that you have hidden but don’t speak about, that’s interesting material for crime fiction.

And I suppose that adds to the tension, when a secret can exist in a community like that, it’s quite unsettling.

Yes, and thinking about some of the smaller Shetland Islands, there might be secrets that absolutely everybody knows but nobody talks about, not because of any sense of sensitivity but because if you didn’t have some privacy you would go mad. If everyone talked about everything it would be so claustrophobic. If you were somewhere like Fair Isle with maybe 50 or 60 people, you would go slightly bonkers if people were talking about each other all the time. So they don’t, they really don’t. They keep a sense of each family having its own privacy.

So yesterday we found out that Sarah Hilary has won the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Book of the Year Award with her debut novel. And there were quite a few debuts on the longlist this year. Do you think people were searching for fresh voices this year or are there just a lot of particularly talented debut authors emerging at the moment?

I don’t know. Certainly as judges we just looked for the ones that were the best books, and the fact that it was a debut was remarkable but it didn’t influence it in any way. We just thought it was very strong, you start off thinking it’s one thing because, although it’s very finely written, it starts off sounding very campaigning, in a way predictable, and then it turns into something completely different. I also liked that although it was a deeply disturbing book, the violence wasn’t explicit, it was actually either reported or the writing stopped just before the violence was going to happen. And in a sense that’s more disturbing because it’s in the reader’s head then and you recreate it. It was very unusual because of that, I thought it was very restrained writing.

Would you agree that the crime genre is quite diverse and how does that relate to the stories we’re reading at the moment?

I think it is at the moment and a lot of that is to do with the translated crime that came in. I guess at first with Henning Mankell originally and then Stieg Larsson, because they sold well then publishers were more willing to try other translated authors, and because of that the rules of the genre kind of changed. Henning Mankell very political and Stieg Larsson very political, and with a very strong central character, and that allowed us to look at crime fiction in a different way, much as when John Harvey and Ian Rankin first started writing, we looked at crime fiction in a different way, you know “oh yeah, no it doesn’t have to be women writing about small country villages and posh people it can be valid, exciting, even quite conventionally formatted, but about poor people living in cities.” And that was very interesting too. I think next year’s festival is going to be fascinating because Peter James is going to have an international theme, and is looking at pulling in not just Americans and Europeans but Asian writers and African writers, and I think that will be really interesting. But it’s something that we should’ve done a long time ago. And I hope that will again widen the field and make the genre even broader than it is now. And that’s the great thing about changing the programme chair every year, each year you get a different flavour. My taste is much more domestic and quiet, and that’s probably reflected in the panels, but it’ll be great to get a new take next year.

What do you think it is about crime authors that makes them so approachable and so willing to discuss ideas and have their own works discussed?

I don’t know. I think they always have been. A friend of mine Martin Edwards has written a really brilliant book called The Golden Age of Murder which I don’t know if you’ve seen, a non-fiction book about the Detection Club and crime fiction between the wars which I think is very interesting setting a social context. And even then in the 30’s, people like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, John Creasey were coming together to share ideas to raise the profile of crime writing that it was a kind of co-operative venture with the Detection Club still going which is lovely – and so it’s very interesting. I think it’s the fact that we don’t take ourselves too seriously, we’re quite relaxed, we know that we’re storytellers, we don’t pretend to be great artists or great metaphysical poets, we hope we’re saying something a bit more widely about the world but mostly we’re writing to entertain and because of that, I think even the finest of crime writers is very open to chatting and to meeting.

Even on the panels there’s a lot of sharing ideas. And the response is never “I’m the writer, I’ll write what I want”, it’s usually “oh, that’s interesting”. Crime authors always seem willing to learn and share.

Yes, Lisa especially, the fact that she puts on Facebook: “What do you want me to write next?” – I don’t think I would go that far, but she’s obviously really open about what her readers want.

I find that quite interesting because, speaking to other people, they’ve said you know “characters reveal themselves to me” and “I sort of have a journey with the character” but for an author to say “well actually what do you want? Tell me what my character should be doing?” that’s a really interesting way to work.

It is but she obviously loves doing it I think, so… yeah I don’t know, I don’t think I’d do that but I do love the fact that readers engage so easily with the characters, that’s great. I was chatting down at the reception desk and the lasses there were saying that they’ve all pretty well sold out of accommodation here for next year.

Already? Wow.

Yeah, all the single rooms have gone.

That is quite shocking!

It’s brilliant though, because people enjoy it so much that they want to come year after year. I think for some people it’s their treat.

I spoke to a lady at the bar yesterday actually. This is the highlight of her year, every year she is desperate to find out who’s coming, who is interviewing. Her year revolves around coming here, it was really interesting.

I think part of that is the generosity, in the fact that authors do go down and mix with readers. At big literary festivals like Cheltenham and Edinburgh, there the authors really don’t move out of the green room. They come out of the green room, they do their bit on stage and then they go back to the green room. We don’t allow that – if authors want a drink they have to come out to the bar and that way they have to mix.

I think they enjoy mixing as well.

Yes, of course they do.

It’s been absolutely lovely catching up with you Ann. Just to finish our conversation, could you tell us a little about what you’re working on at the moment?

There’s a new book a new Vera book called The Moth Catcher, which is out in September. So I’m just working on a new Shetlander which is called Earth to Earth. It’s part of the Shetland Quartet so it had to have an element in the title. So I did water and then air, then Earth to Earth. The theme really, I thought I would start off with a landslide. There was a big landslide in Shetland a few years ago. It just rained and rained and rained and the hill started slipping, covered the road and just missed the house. In my book of course it hits the house and somebody dies in there. But of course they didn’t die in the landslide they were already dead when the landslide happened. It’s about trying to discover who this woman is, because nobody knows her. What was this exotic dark-haired woman in a red silk dress doing in an isolated croft in Shetland in Feburary?

It’s something I personally – not worry about – but if I were to be murdered, god forbid, would my life be picked about in the way that characters’ lives seem to be? So you’re in a situation that is bizarre, unusual circumstances, and you need to go all the way into their past and everyone they have met. And especially with social media now, police would trawl through who you spoke to for something suspicious. Sometimes I find myself sending a message to someone and thinking ‘if I died tomorrow, what would they think about that?’


Click here to find out more about the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival