The LitVox Author Interview: Ann Cleeves
Ann Cleeves is one of the UK’s most popular and prolific crime writers. Her Vera Stanhope and Shetland thrillers have acheived worldwide acclaim and a dedicated follwing amongst crime readers. Ahead of the publication of her brand new novel, The Heron’s Cry, Cleeves speaks to LitVox about the inspiration behind her new work, her favourite books, and reading as an act of self-care.
Detective Inspector Matthew Venn is back this month in The Heron’s Cry, the second novel in the Two Rivers series. It’s a relatively new series. Had Venn been in your thoughts for a long time before starting the series? Or was it borne of a desire to set an investigative series in Devon where you grew up?
Matthew Venn grew out of a trip to North Devon to stay with an old school friend. My husband had died unexpectedly and I was running away from memories of our time together in the north east and the sympathy of people who were close to him. I knew that I’d finished the Shetland series and I was already exploring other options. North Devon was a place where I’d been very content and I realised that I could happily spend time there in my imagination, and in reality.
Conversations with a friend who’d grown up in a tight evangelical community helped me to develop the character of Matthew. It seemed to me that someone who’d grown up within the tight boundaries of an enclosed religious group might turn to the police service as somewhere he’d find the same sense of duty, honour and redemption.
The Vera Stanhope series come in for frequent mention from our crime reading customers, they have a very loyal following. Do you have a favourite in the series, or is it akin to blasphemy for you to try and choose?
Impossible to choose! It’s like asking parents to choose a favourite child. I love writing both. I think I might be bored with just one series. When I come to the end of a book I very much look forward to exploring somewhere very different. Returning to the central character is like catching up with an old friend.
A motto for us here at LitVox is “literature is medicine”. You’re a big advocate of reading as an act of self-care and wellbeing, and you’ve spearheaded projects in the UK with this in mind. Would you care to tell us a bit about it?
At times of stress or discomfort, there’s nothing like an enthralling read to provide distraction and escape. I gave a lecture to a Public Health England conference on health inequality just before lockdown, and threw down a challenge to the professionals and academics in the room. I’d sponsor a couple of project workers within the social prescribing system to see if reading worked its magic for other people too. Now we have seven workers attached to libraries and GP surgeries in five local authorities and a substantial research fund so we can do a proper evaluation. I’m so grateful to the team who made it happen!
What are you currently reading? Is It any good?
I’m reading Chris Hammer’s new book Opal Country and it’s fabulous. There are some terrific Australian crime writers. Chris takes us into the searing heat of the interior and introduces us to people struggling to make a living in the most difficult circumstances.
Is there a book you always recommend to people? Why?
I recommend all Simenon’s Maigret books to aspiring crime writers. His work is so tight. In one sentence he can sum up a character, give us an immediate sense of place and move on the plot.
You’re a prolific and bestselling crime author, but is there another genre that you read regularly?
Well I suppose, you’d call it general fiction, though I’m not sure these labels are helpful. I’ve been rattling through Ali Smith’s Seasons Quartet and loving them. I’m so full of admiration at her writing and her ability to explore the personal and the political in the same work and her way of pulling us in. I’ve never read anything quite like them. I’m saving the last – Summer – because I don’t want them to end.
What’s the most important thing one needs to write well?
Curiosity. I’m endlessly intrigued about people and places and I’m a dreadful eaves-dropper. Also, of course, it’s impossible to write if one doesn’t read.
Was there ever a movie or series that was better than the book? Or anything that came close?
I’m not sure about that. They’re completely different forms. Most important to me is that the production company captures the essence of the books, the atmosphere, rather than details of plot.
The Heron’s Cry has just been released. What have you got planned next, or is that a secret?
I’ve nearly finished a new Vera – it can take a year between the delivery of a manuscript and publication. But I have to focus on Matthew Venn now, as I’m about to start The Heron’s Cry tour. There will be virtual events and some socially distanced in-person gigs too, which will be very exciting after all this time. It’ll be great to introduce the book to readers. I do hope they enjoy it.