Crime author Ann Cleeves on losing her husband, what she makes of TV series inspired by her work and how commercial success hasn't changed her
Her novels have inspired the hit TV dramas Vera and Shetland and won her millions of fans, but Ann Cleeves only started writing out of boredom as a young newlywed living on a remote island
She may be an international bestselling author but Ann Cleeves, whose novels are the inspiration for the top TV dramas Vera and Shetland, succeeds in staying below the radar when it comes to celebrity. Softly spoken and refreshingly open about her life and career, you don't doubt her for a second when she says success hasn't changed how she lives.
Speaking ahead of a trip to Belfast this weekend, she insists: "I don't have to worry so much about a hole in my roof or my car breaking down any more, but really nobody recognises me and I just go into town as normal and do my shopping in Morrisons as usual.
"I do travel more for work now and this week I have events every day in different towns, but life otherwise is pretty much the same with me sitting at my kitchen table, writing."
Part of that busy itinerary will see her visit Belfast this weekend as one of a plethora of leading crime writers taking part in the NOIRELAND International Crime Festival.
It isn't her first time visiting these shores as she has been invited here on several occasions to events by her good friend and fellow fiction crime writer Brian McGilloway.
As part of this weekend's festival, Ann (64) will be talking to Brian about her life and career in crime fiction in an hour-long session tomorrow afternoon.
She arrives in the city today and leaves again tomorrow, and seems to be genuinely disappointed that she won't have more time here.
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
She says: "I have been to Belfast before for an event at the No Alibis bookshop to chat to people and I have been to Derry/Londonderry to visit my good friend Brian McGilloway, who I am looking forward to catching up with this weekend.
"I've also done a lovely libraries event on the north coast. I find Northern Ireland very friendly and in that respect it feels very much like home.
"I know the province has come through the Troubles, and as an outsider coming into Northern Ireland you do feel the weight of the sense of history that we don't have to the same degree in England. I hope it is moving on for the sake of the people there.
"Unfortunately my trip this time is only for one night and I always say to my agent when I go to Northern Ireland that I must arrange to spend more time there."
Certainly, the trajectory of her career would be inspirational to any would-be writer. Her tenacity to succeed never flagged even though she was writing for 20 years before she hit the big time. Two years ago, however, she reached a significant landmark when she published her 30th book in a 30-year period and today her work has been translated into 20 languages.
Her life changed when she was awarded the prestigious Crime Writers Association Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award for Raven Black, the first novel in the Shetland series in 2006.
The prize money of £20,000 allowed her to quit her day job (she was working in a library at the time) and focus on her writing full-time.
Raven Black's success prompted her to expand that novel first to a quartet, and then to an ongoing series featuring Shetland Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez, who is played by Douglas Henshall.
Ironically, Ann's own story reads like the plot of a novel too - though her characters are now watched by millions of TV viewers, she first put pen to paper to craft her crime fiction characters out of boredom when as a newly-wed she found herself alone with only her husband Tim on a remote island with no electricity or running water.
Ann grew up in the countryside in Herefordshire and dropped out of university to take up a number of temporary jobs - child care officer, women's refuge leader, bird observatory cook, and auxiliary coastguard - before going back to college and training to be a probation officer.
It was while cooking in the Bird Observatory on Fair Isle that she met her husband Tim, a visiting ornithologist.
She jokes that she was attracted less by the ornithology than the bottle of malt whisky she saw in his rucksack.
She says: "On Fair Isle, which is one of the Shetland Islands, you could get very good beer and that was it. I couldn't help but spot Tim's whisky as I showed him to his room.
"I was 21 when I met him and we married when I was 22 and were together for more than 40 years."
Sadly, Tim died suddenly in December 2017 after being admitted to hospital for a heart condition.
Heartbroken, Ann has kept busy with her writing and stayed focused on the good times they enjoyed together.
She says: "It was a terrible loss. It was sad and so unexpected but we had so many adventures together and we travelled a lot and had two children together and six grandchildren."
One of those adventures happened just after they married when Tim was appointed warden of a tiny island nature reserve, Hilbre, in the Dee Estuary.
They were the only residents, there was no mains electricity or water and access to the mainland was at low tide across the shore.
If a person's not heavily into birds - and Ann isn't - there's not much to do on Hilbre and that was when she started writing.
She recalls: "It was fun. We were only young and in our 20s and we had a great time. There was such a sense of space and being cut off and I started to write my first book in which I killed off a birdwatcher. Maybe I was getting all my aggression out in that book!"
In 1987 Tim, Ann and their two daughters moved to Northumberland and in 2006 they settled in the seaside town of Whitley Bay, which has been home ever since. The north east provides the inspiration for many of her books.
She has sold millions of copies worldwide and is best-known for her series of novels which led to the TV dramas Vera and Shetland.
It was a chance discovery in a second-hand book shop that led to the screening of Vera on ITV.
The station's producer Elaine Collins was poking around her local charity shop on the hunt for a strong detective character to replace television's popular A Touch Of Frost, which was winding up after a 20-year run.
She found a second-hand copy of Ann's 1999 novel, The Crow Trap, a murder mystery set in Northumberland featuring a gruff but brilliant detective named Vera Stanhope.
Vera, the television series starring Brenda Blethyn, aired in 2011, with Shetland's DI Jimmy Perez hitting the small screen in 2013.
Nine series of Vera have now been shown in the UK and worldwide, and it has been confirmed that a 10th will follow.
There have also been four series of Shetland, based on the characters and settings of her Shetland novels, and a fifth is currently showing on BBC 1.
Both series have twice been ranked in the top 10 of the Radio Times best British crime drama of all time.
Ann confesses that she enjoys sitting down at night with everyone else to watch both dramas even though she gets tapes sent to her in advance.
She believes both of her characters are perfectly portrayed by the actors cast in the roles and is thrilled that her work has created such fine dramas for TV.
"It would be anybody's dream to get a good adaptation of their work done for TV," she says.
"For 20 years I had no commercial success and when my first book was published in 1986 it went straight to the libraries, they weren't even sold in bookshops.
"When Shetland won the Gold Dagger Award my books started selling overseas. I think I would much rather have had it that way as I think having a big success with your first novel would have meant that you had so much to live up to and I was able to write for 20 years with no stress at all.
"I feel so fortunate that Brenda Blethyn has become Vera. She is so close to the character and so respectful of her. Her vision of Vera is the same as my vision of Vera.
"Also Douglas Henshall who plays DI Perez is such a fine actor and so charismatic and very strong.
"He does 'kind' better than any strong actor I know and that kindness was a big part of my character.
"They do send me the tapes in advance but I don't watch them.
"I like to make sure I am at home to watch them as they are shown on TV as I like the idea of watching with everyone else."
Ann has just published Wild Fire, the last of her Shetland book series, although she assures viewers that the TV series will continue.
"They have really taken it and expanded it and it is very well done. They have a great writer, David Kane, and it will keep going."
NOIRELAND takes place today and tomorrow at the Europa Hotel, Belfast. Ann Cleeves in Conversation, Sunday, 2.30-3.30pm. For full programme details visit: http://www.noireland.com
Ann Cleeves says she loves reading crime fiction as well as writing it. Recent favourites include new talents Louise Penny, Emma Flint, Caz Frear and Abir Mukherjee.
In October 2017 she was presented with the highest honour in British crime writing when she was awarded the Diamond Dagger of the Crime Writers' Association. Presenting Ann with her award, its chair Martin Edwards said: "It's a lifetime achievement award, and above all it recognises excellence in writing. But it also recognises a significant contribution to the crime writing world. And nobody can deny that Ann Cleeves' contribution has been magnificent."
Officially the best of the best, she is nevertheless impressed by the big names who will be joining her in Belfast this weekend for the NOIRELAND International Crime Festival, which will play host to an amazing array of crime fiction talent from page and screen: award-winners, bestsellers, the biggest debuts and rising stars.
This year sees the launch of a new event - Jack-aNOIR-y, a bedtime story for grown-ups. The renowned local actor and star of BBC's Line Of Duty Adrian Dunbar will be reading an exclusive extract from John Connolly's A Book Of Bones. Other highlights include the award-winning novelist and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz; Belinda Bauer whose bestselling Snap was nominated for the 2017 Booker Prize; Number one bestseller Stuart MacBride; the multi-award winning novelist Denise Mina and the team from RTE televisions hit series Love/Hate and Taken Down.