Ann Cleeves: on the Shetland Islands
Excerpts from the interview by Lynn Kaczmarek in the October/November 2008 issue of Mystery News
It was June 29, 2006 -- the day that everything changed for Ann Cleeves. For over twenty years prior to that day Ann had been writing mystery books. The first published in 1986. Consistently being published, consistently being read, but never reaching much beyond the euphemistic "mid-list." With each book, the writing became tighter, the plots more complicated, the characters more fully developed and the setting more lyrically described. And then came Raven Black and at age 52, after 17 books, Ann Cleeves won the Duncan Lawrie Dagger for best crime novel together with its £20,000 check.
And that morning, she couldn't speak This from her on-line diary "On Thursday morning I woke up not being able to speak. Really. Nothing. A strange series of squeaks and croaks whenever I opened my mouth. The result of a heavy cold and a day hectoring the library staff of Wokingham. But I went " Sarah, her editor accepted the award for her.
How must that have felt after all those years, all those books, to finally be recognized? "I did feel very good about winning the award," Ann told me during our conversation in mid-August, "not just for me, but really it did feel like the fight-back of mid-list authors."
It had all started thirty years before when at the ripe age of 19, Ann took a leap of faith and accepted a job on remote Fair Isle, one of the Shetland Islands north of the coast of Scotland. "I was a cook in the bird observatory. I had dropped out of university and somebody just said they're desperate for a cook in the bird conservatory I thought it would be great fun to go. Couldn't cook; didn't know anything about birds. Learned. Just went. Wasn't even very sure where Fair Isle was I had to get a map out and find where it was. But loved it from the minute I got there."
I was curious about the process that Ann goes through to create these wonderful books and was slightly surprised when I heard her answer. "I start with an image or an idea. So that image of the ravens in the snow is very much how it works. Just starting with that and then just writing. I just start and in the writing the ideas develop and the characters develop. So I never plot in advance. I never know ahead of time who the murderer is. That means quite a lot of rewriting. By the time I'm about a third of the way through, I've got this fairly hazy idea about more or less how it's going to end, but sometimes that changes right at the last chapter "
So no outlines, no plot summaries, no character biographies "No. I think it's about concentration, though. Because you need to create in your head a consistent world that you're writing about and I think if I wrote anything down, I wouldn't feel the need to keep it in my head. I might lose that intensity of concentration that I think you need to write. It's there in the back of my head whether I'm picking the [grandchildren] up from nursery or whatever else I'm doing, it's still there. I need to keep it there. And so the characters are growing and developing even when I'm not writing. Whereas, I think if I'd written lots of notes, I would just feel that I could leave it and forget about it."
Read the complete interview in the October/November 2008 issue of Mystery News