I Am Not Interested In Creating Monsters: British Crime Writer Ann Cleeves

Ann Cleeves

She has the most coveted literary prizes in the genre of crime to her name, had her work adapted for television and her books have been translated into twenty languages. Such is the popularity of British author Ann Cleeves, that her critically acclaimed book Raven Black was also adapted for radio in Germany. With her latest book The Long Call, Ann has now ventured into writing LGBT crime-fiction. The 66-year-old bestselling author, who has Shetland Island and Vera Stanhope crime series to her name, speaks with SheThePeople.TV on what keeps her hooked to writing crime, why she created a middle-aged detective who is not conventionally beautiful and how winning the Duncan Lawrie Dagger made a big difference to her career.

Take us through your journey from being a cook at the Fair Isle bird observatory to becoming a best-selling author. What drew you to writing crime fiction?

Crime fiction was always my comfort reading, what I turned to when I was miserable or had the flu, or been dumped by my boyfriend.

I became a cook in Fair Isle, because I’d dropped out of university and I needed work. I’d been reading English and I’d always been a reader; in the bird observatory, I continued to read as widely as I could, and I started writing there too, scraps of prose and diary pieces. I met my husband on Fair Isle. He was a visiting ornithologist and our first home as a married couple was a tiny tidal island nature reserve. We were the only residents, there was no electricity or mains water. It was there that I started writing seriously. Crime fiction was always my comfort reading, what I turned to when I was miserable or had the flu, or been dumped by my boyfriend. I understood the form and the structure. I was published relatively quickly but it took twenty years for me to be commercially successful.

What is your writing process like? Are you a plotter? Or do you go with the flow and modify your manuscript as you progress?

I’m not a plotter at all. I write like a reader; I create the first scene and then have to write the second to find out what happens next. Of course that means I have to modify the manuscript as I progress. I have some idea how the story will end when I’m halfway through, but no real detail.

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Do you think women writers face bias from readers, especially in genres like thrillers and mystery?

I think within the English tradition, we’ve always had strong women in the genre, the stars of the Golden Age of mystery, like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. In one sense, this is a very domestic form. There are some men, who refuse to read books by women, but I hope things are changing slowly.

One of your most popular character; Vera Stanhope is a middle-aged detective, who isn’t conventionally beautiful (the kind we have been fed most in the genre of crime). What made you write such an unconventional protagonist?

Ann Cleeves

Author Ann Cleeves

Vera is certainly not conventionally beautiful; she’s overweight, has bad skin and refuses to worry about her appearance. She’s a single woman without domestic responsibilities, competent and respected by her team. I created her, I think, because she reminded me of the formidable spinsters I knew when I was a child, women who chose financial and emotional independence over marriage.

Is there a difference in the way female and male authors write crime, according to you?

Traditionally, women have written quieter, more domestic books and men write thrillers, faster paced and more plot-driven. I think that’s changing though.

What are the major challenges of writing a recurring protagonist? How do you ensure that your readership doesn’t lose their interest in the central character? Also how big is the role of a good protagonist according to you, in ensuring the success of a series?

I love writing a recurring character. It gives me a chance to explore the personality over time, to watch the individual develop. Readers always need to care about the central character in a novel, and that’s even more important over a long series.

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You have won the Duncan Lawrie Dagger– the richest literary prize in the genre of crime, did you ever expect such an appraisal for your work?

Absolutely not! I’d been writing for twenty years before being given the award, now known again as the CWA Gold Dagger. It made a big difference to my career.

Traditionally, women have written quieter, more domestic books and men write thrillers, faster paced and more plot-driven. I think that’s changing though.

You continue to write in this genre. What keeps you hooked?

I love it! I find the form liberating. For example, in my most recent book, I’ve created a gay detective. I’ve enjoyed exploring a marriage very different from my own, yet within a very traditional structure.

The representation of women in crime novels has always been a subject of debate. These days we see female characters subjected to gory torture and sex crimes, in a quest to create a more chilling experience or to create a monstrous villain, giving readers a sense of justice when he/she is caught. What do you think of this merger of the slasher genre with crime?

I dislike these books as a reader and I would never write them. I’m not interested in creating monsters and prefer to describe characters with whom my readership can empathise. I see it as a sort of psychological archaeology, when I dig into my characters’ past to explain the stresses and secrets of the present.

Who are the female authors whose work you admire the most?

There are so many great women writing within the genre. I love American author Sara Paretsky, who created a wonderful feminist private eye. The Scottish writer Denise Mina is brilliant on character and she explores important social issues in her work.

Credit For All Images Used: David Hirst

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