Author Ann Cleeves, creator of the Vera Stanhope books and television series Vera, was living in Huddersfield when she won a literary prize that changed her life. About to release a seventh Vera novel, Ann reveals what it’s like to see her character on the small screenThe Vera Stanhope of Ann Cleeves’ detective novels is a shambolic, vastly overweight, middle aged woman. In Ann’s own words ‘a bag lady’.
She follows a long line of literary detectives who, despite personality flaws and physical peculiarities, have razor-sharp minds and an ability to think outside the box.
Vera first appeared in the 1999 novel The Crow Trap. Fast forward more than a decade and in 2011 Vera became a television series starring Brenda Blethyn. The fifth series was aired earlier this year and regularly attracted audiences of between 6m and 7m.
Until that time the character of Vera had only existed in the pages of Ann’s books and, as she points out, in the minds of readers. So what was it like to see the Vera of her imagination actually in the flesh?
“It was a bit weird,” admits Ann. “But Brenda is very much as I imagined Vera to be. Not in appearance, because Brenda is much more glamorous off set. She isn’t the huge woman of the books. But she is brilliant at those malicious put downs in the books and captures Vera’s essence.”
Ann, who lived in Shelley, Huddersfield, until moving to Northumberland in 2006, has become an admirer of Brenda’s acting skills and says: “She researches a lot and had read all the books before she started. She even told me when Vera’s birthday is, which is something I didn’t know.”
The series is set in Northumberland, a place that has always been dear to Ann’s heart. She loves the wild Northern coastline - almost as much as she loves Shetland Isles, the backdrop for another of her successful crime series.
Although she is originally from the South of England, Ann says she feels drawn to the North and couldn’t contemplate moving from the Whitley Bay area where she and her husband Tim now live in close proximity to their two daughters and six grandchildren.
Setting her Vera books in the North East has meant that she’s been more involved with the production of the television series than most authors. Ann says she was also fortunate to forge a good working relationship with the producer of the series right from the start.
“She picked my book up in an Oxfam shop and decided she wanted to make a series,” said Ann. “The directors and scriptwriters come up to Northumberland to do a recce before they write. There might be places they want to see or they have ideas for locations. We drive around and come back to our house for a curry afterwards. I have been very lucky with the team. I get invited to read-throughs and can go on set.”
Ann’s own life story, often recounted in interviews, almost reads like a novel in its own right - although it fortunately lacks the murder mysteries that have been her stock in trade. A university drop-out, Ann took a number of temporary jobs (child care officer, women’s refuge leader, auxiliary coastguard and bird observatory cook) before going back to college to train as a probation officer. However, it was while cooking in the Bird Observatory on Fair Isle that she met her husband Tim, a visiting ornithologist. And it was his subsequent posting to an isolated tidal island nature reserve in the Dee Estuary that prompted her to start writing (she wasn’t particularly interested in birds). To date she has had 29 books published.
It was Tim’s job with the RSPB that brought them to Huddersfield in 1999. During her time here she continued writing and secured a post as writer in residence for the area’s libraries. In 2006, just before Ann and Tim decamped back to the North East, she scooped the much-coveted Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award for the best crime novel with her book Raven Black, the first in a quartet of novels set in Shetland. With the award came prize money of £20,000, enough to allow her a year out to write full time.
“It was brilliant timing,” says Ann, “and winning the award really got my name out there.”
It was a turning point that transformed her career from part-time writer of modestly-successful books into an author with an international reputation. Her books are now translated into 20 languages and she is a best-seller in Scandinavia and Germany. The Shetland novels, of which there are to be two more, have also been transformed into a television series.
Crime has been kind to Ann, who says she began reading the genre as a young woman. “I started with Agatha Christie and the Golden Age writers, but actually I prefer people like Dorothy Sayers to Christie. The genre is doing so well at the moment, I think people are looking for something traditional when times are hard.”
However, in a departure from fiction, she is currently working on a book about Shetland “explaining why I love it so much”.
And in the meantime Ann has been globe-trotting - to America and around the UK - to promote her latest Vera novel, The Moth Catcher. On Thursday, September 17, she is returning to Huddersfield to attend the 10th anniversary celebrations of the reader’s group at Skelmanthorpe Library that she helped to found. “I still have a lot of friends in the Huddersfield area,” she says, “so I like to drop in from time to time and meet up with people.”
* The Moth Catcher is published on September 10 by Macmillan in hardback at £16.99. The novel takes Vera into an idyllic countryside community where a double murder has taken place and the residents are harbouring many secrets. In it Ann demonstrates her talent for compelling storytelling coupled with clear, concise writing.