Thursday, October 19, 2017

Ann Cleeves reads and chats at the Vancouver Writers Festival

"Crime is the most popular genre in the prison library." So says Ann Cleeves. A trained social worker and a prison visitor who leads reading groups, she ought to know. One incarcerated writing student inspired a story featuring a brass belt buckle with a ship on it.

The author of the books behind the popular Shetland series discussed the creation of Jimmy Perez, who is both an outsider and an insider. He was partly constructed based on the story's dictates, and he partly evolved. His surname alludes to an obscure bit of Shetland history, when a ship of the Spanish Armada sank off its coast.

Ms. Cleeves is also behind the Vera TV crime series. Once, while stuck in a story, the author followed the first half of Raymond Chandler's suggestion, to have a door open and a guy with a gun come through. Being British, she doesn't "do guns," but when the door opened, there stood Vera Stanhope, fully realized and ready to begin her detective career.

"I never plot in advance," says Cleeves. "If I knew what was going to happen, writing wouldn't be fun." Her life has been governed by luck, surprises and astonishing coincidences. Her publisher left an early novel, The Crow Trap, out of the print catalogue by mistake. The sales were poor as a consequence. Then a remaindered copy was found by a woman seeking material for a TV series featuring a woman detective, and Vera's TV career was born.

Another example of her luck was to be offered her first chance to visit the Shetland Islands as the result of a chance conversation in a Putney pub. She loved the islands, and got her inspiration for what became the Shetland novels. Later, she married a man she met on that first trip.

Now she resides in Whitley Bay, a Northumberland town on the North Sea. Flanked by Hadrian's Wall, the Scottish border and a lovely national park, this town is quiet today, though its past history has been rather more boisterous. Cleeves gets story ideas by listening to the old folk in her local pub, telling stories.

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