Monday, October 27, 2008

Interview with Ann Cleeves

Ann Cleeves has become a favorite author. While I really enjoyed her Vera Stanhope novels, her Shetland series has made me a devoted fan (and others, judging from the success of it). In the Shetland books, she writes of a place bleak yet beautiful, with characters whose families go back generations in an insular community, and so secrets are often kept for years -- in short, a perfect setting for murder.

Cleeves graciously agreed to answer some questions about her novels and writing. Below is my interview with her:

Q. Your latest series, the Shetland quartet, is set on the remote, isolated Shetland Islands. Can you tell us how you came to set your series there?

I first went to Shetland more than thirty years ago. I'd dropped out of college and a friend got me a job as assistant cook in the Bird Observatory on Fair Isle, one of the more remote islands in the group. I couldn't cook and knew nothing about birds... but I loved it. And my cooking must have been OK because I went back the following year as head cook! I met my husband there and we've been back to the Isle and to Shetland mainland many times since. In fact I'm writing this on the train south after a visit to friends there. RAVEN BLACK was conceived after a visit in mid-winter. The place was beautiful - very cold, snow and ice and a big orange sun. There were three ravens, very black against the snow. I thought if there was blood too it would be a stunning image. And primitive, like a fairy story. I wanted to explore what it is to be an outsider - the islands provide a great background for that.

Q. You’d been writing for about 20 years before the publication of Raven Black (the first in the quartet and winner of the Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award for the best crime novel of the year) brought you greater success. How does it feel to achieve such success after you’ve been writing for so long?

Absolutely wonderful! And very lucky. It's hard for mid-list writers to be recognised late in their career. There are lots of good writers who haven't received the recognition they deserve, so I hope publishers will look again at their established lists and look at new ways to promote the authors already there. I don't take anything for granted. This is a precarious business. All you can do is write the best possible book and hope that readers enjoy it.

Q. From the very beginning, your books have featured birds – and birdwatchers in the Palmer-Jones series. How did this come about?

My husband is a passionate birder. I started writing seriously when he was warden of Hilbre, a tiny tidal island nature reserve in the Dee estuary on the west coast of England. We were the only residents and lived in an old telegraph cottage. There was no mains water or electricity and there wasn't much else to do. I met lots of birders through him. Most of them were great people, but definitely obsessed! Obsession is a good subject for a crime novel. I killed off a birdwatcher in the first book. The fourth Shetland book returns to the world of birding and is set in Fair Isle. Almost like going back to where it all started.

Q. How do you create your characters? Do they pop up in your mind unannounced, or are they based on people you know?

When I started off I was a very lazy writer and the characters were based on people I knew. Now they're all made up. I think about them all the time when I'm writing. They're lurking in the back of my brain somewhere, so when they come out on the page, it's as if I'm writing from memory not imagination.

Q. Your third Shetland book, Red Bones, is scheduled for publication in February. What’s next after the Shetland series? Will you return to another of your series or start something new?

I'm working on the last book in the Shetland quartet now - one reason for spending the last week there. After that I'll write a Vera Stanhope novel. She's a cop based in Northumberland and I enjoy writing her. Also, HIDDEN DEPTHS, one of the books in which she features has just been optioned for TV here, and it would be good to have a new book out to coincide with a possible film! After that? I'm not sure. I haven't definitely given up on Shetland though.

Q. You recently toured the East Coast of the United States and attended Bouchercon in Baltimore. What were your impressions of the U.S. during this trip?

I always enjoy visiting the U.S. I love the space and the energy and the hospitality of the people. This time I sensed a lack of confidence, a questioning of accepted values. I don't think that's a bad thing. I admire the way people seem to be engaged in politics again - the people on the street checking that residents are registered to vote, kids talking about policies and politicians. It was certainly an interesting time to be there.

Q. Who are the authors you love to read?

A. My favourite authors in the UK are Andrew Taylor and John Harvey, but my real reading passion is translated crime fiction from Scandinavia and mainland Europe. I enjoy Dominique Manotti's work and was delighted when she won the International Dagger this year. Her translators are magnificent! For something light and witty I go for Andrea Camilleri who sets his books in Sicily: you get a wonderful sense of the heat and the food - and the absurd nature of Italian politics. He's brilliantly translated too.

Q. My 10-year-old stepson recently decided he’s going to write a book, and he’s considering two genres: either mystery or science fiction. He asked for my opinion, but now I’ll ask you: why mystery? What’s so special about writing in the mystery genre?

Mystery works for me because I don't have to worry about the plot. If you write in the English tradition - as I do - the plot is really set out in advance. There's a murder, a limited number of suspects, some resolution at the end. That leaves me the space to explore the stuff I really enjoy: relationships, families, the influence of place on people. I like playing with the rules of the form. And I am a real sucker for the cheap thrill of the surprise ending.

Photo courtesy of Duncan Lawrie Private Bank. For more information on Ann Cleeves, visit her website.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

White Nights by Ann Cleeves

White Nights by Ann Cleeves
Protagonist: Det. Jimmy Perez
Setting: Shetland Islands
Rating: 5.0

This is Cleeves’ second book in the Shetland quartet, and where the first one left us with the haunting image of black ravens against white snow, this one is set in the summer, where the nights are long and white, because the sun hardly sets. Amid the isolation of the Shetland Islands (very much a closed community), a strange thing happens at a gallery art opening where Perez’s friend Fran is exhibiting. A man starts sobbing, and falls to the floor. When Perez takes him away, the man claims to have amnesia, and has no identification on him. The next day, he’s found dead. Throughout the book, there’s constant mention of another man who went missing years ago, so you know he will soon play a part in the plot. Cleeves cleverly weaves a story about a close-knit community and long-kept secrets. While I figured out who might be the murderer, there was still a shocker at the end.

As murder mysteries, the Shetland quartet is superb. But I also enjoy it for the setting. As Cleeves has said herself, hardly anyone has set stories in this part of the world. While part of Scotland, Shetland has a Norse past that is still celebrated in the annual Up Helly Aa festival, featured in the first book. Cleeves continues to let us look into the lives of Shetlanders in this book, from the fiddle music (to hear it, go to YouTube and seek out Shetland fiddle music) to the shearing of the sheep, described in a beautiful little passage.

White Night was recently released in the United States. The third in the quartet, Red Bones, will be released in the U.K. in February. I highly recommend this series!