An interview with Ann Cleeves


Interview by Margaret Murphy (aka Ashley Dyer)

Ann Cleeves is famous worldwide as a bestselling, multi-award winning crime writer. She is the author of two hugely successful series of novels, both of which have been adapted for TV: VERA (returning for its tenth season in 2020) and SHETLAND, the fifth season of which ended in March 2019 with fans clamouring for more of the Scottish BAFTA winning drama. Which is reason enough to be proud of this British crime writing phenomenon—but Merseyside has a special reason to be proud, for it was on Wirral’s Hilbre Island that Ann began her writing career.

Ann came to Merseyside via Fair Isle: her association with the Shetland Isles goes back more than forty years. In the mid-1970s, Ann had dropped out of university and was working as a childcare officer in London, enjoying the work, but not city living. ‘I like to see the edge of places,’ she explains. A friend had landed the job of assistant warden at the Fair Isle observatory and rang to say there was a job going as assistant cook. ‘I couldn’t cook, and had little interest in birds,’ Ann says, with dry understatement. ‘But when you’re nineteen that doesn’t matter much. Luckily, birders aren’t usually fussy eaters; they like their food hot, and plenty of it.’ And she soon had a repertoire of wholesome recipes to hand. (From first-hand experience, I can attest that Ann is now an excellent cook and has been known to take North East specialties such as ‘Singin’ Hinnies’, hot from the griddle, to the cast and crew of VERA on location.)

She fell in love with Fair Isle, its people—and a young ornithologist named Tim Cleeves. Tim became RSPB Observatory Warden at Hilbre in 1977, after they married, and they lived there for four and a half years. During that time, Ann trained (in Liverpool) as a probation officer, had Sarah, her first child—and wrote her first novel. Ann describes, ‘Tramping across the mud of the Dee from Hilbre to West Kirby at low tide, heavily pregnant, dressed in oilskin and wellies.’ She was given permission to stow her gear in a council workers’ tool shed near (or possibly under) the sailing club, changing into office dress for college, and—after she qualified—for work. ‘It’s no coincidence that my first novel is about a birder who has his brains bashed in,’ she adds with the ghost of a smile.

Coincidentally, during the summer of 1981, I was a ‘Ranger Interpreter’, taking guided walks on Wirral Country Park. I knew that Ann and Tim Cleeves were on Hilbre, and that Ann had written a novel. I’d also heard some tales from the other rangers of Tim’s hair-raising escapades—but Ann and I never crossed paths during that time. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that we met at my first crime convention; I knew nobody and walked into a publisher’s drinks party absolutely terrified. With typical warmth and kindness, Ann scooped me up and we stayed in touch, so that later, when I founded Murder Squad (a roving band of northern crime writers), I invited Ann to join us. This was year 2000, and she was still an unknown. Clearly, that’s all changed, yet despite having achieved the kind of world fame most respectable crime writers would kill for, Ann continues to work with Murder Squad, attending, promoting, and even facilitating events, including a 20th anniversary party  for Murder Squad at WH Smith Chester in March.

Ann made the decision early in 2017 that Wild Fire would be her last Shetland novel but she held off making the announcement until this year. ‘There are 23,000 people in the entire Shetland isles,’ she says, ‘and I’ve killed a fair few of them.’ Tragically, just as she’d completed Wild Fire—her farewell to Jimmy Perez—in December of 2017, Ann’s husband died suddenly. Shetland is so bound up in her relationship with Tim—he proposed to her on Fair Isle in 1976, and it was on Fair Isle that she had the inspiration for the first Shetland book—that ‘It would be too painful to do more,’ she says.

Family and friends were on hand to help, and there were well over 200 mourners at Tim’s funeral—Murf and I were among a sizeable overspill who stood in the snow outside the chapel, listening via a PA system to the readings and music and funny remembrances of this big-hearted bear of a man. Reading helped Ann through that dark period, as did writing. ‘I needed to run away, not just from the memories of our life together, but from the sympathy of the people who’d known us as a couple.’

Her place of escape was Devon: ‘I grew up in North Devon and was very happy there.’ She visited an old school friend, taking long walks on the beaches and visiting the small towns of her youth. She found solace there, and also the setting for a new series: ‘The Long Call features Detective Inspector Mathew Venn. He grew up in a small evangelical community as the beloved only son of doting parents. When he was eighteen, he lost his faith, and was cast out.’ This brutal process breaks all ties between the community and the ‘unfellowshipped’ person, leaving them bereft of friends and even family.

The novel starts with the discovery of the body of a man with the tattoo of an albatross on his neck. ‘He’s found on Crow Point, an eerie bit of beach that points into the Taw and Torridge estuary,’ Ann says. We first encounter Matthew Venn at the funeral of his father: he has returned to North Devon after living in Bristol for some years, and this is his first case in the Two Rivers region.

Why this particular location? I ask. She likes the complexity of the location. ‘I know it quite well; I like the cosiness of cream teas and thatched cottages, but it’s much more rugged and “left behind” than people realise,’ she says. ‘The big hotels in Ilfracombe have become hostels for the homeless—places where drifters come and go. Add in weekend and holiday visitors—families as well as wealthy teenagers who come to surf or celebrate exam results with beach parties—and you get a mix of very different people, and really interesting interactions.’

The Long Call made it onto The Times and New York Times bestseller lists within the first week of publication, and the ‘Two Rivers’ series has been snapped up by Silverprint Pictures, the TV production company responsible for both VERA & SHETLAND on TV, so hopefully, we’ll be seeing Matthew Venn on TV soon.

This article first appeared in the 2019 Christmas edition of Heswall Magazine

Ann will be taking part in our special online event on Saturday 14th November 2020.

Ann will be appearing in Liverpool at Perfect Crime on Saturday 13th November 2021.