Ann Cleeves shares the secrets of crime writing
The bestselling author, genius behind TV series Vera and patron of Whitley Bay’s Bay Tales Live chats festival star turns, the allure of the North East, and life-changing books.
If you’ve read any Ann Cleeves books, you’ll already know that location is just as important as characters and plotlines to this renowned crime writer.
A certified workhorse within the literary world with a cool 46 books published in just over 30 years, it was two of Ann’s more popular series – Shetland and Vera – which catapulted her into the national spotlight, spawning TV adaptations, a wealth of award nominations and an ever-growing fanbase.
And what stands out in both series is the strong sense of place she creates in her writing.
Although born in Herefordshire, Ann Cleeves has called the North East home since the 1980s. And whether it’s a landscape that can dance from coast to country through thriving cities, or it’s our renowned propensity for hard work, straight talking and good humour, the region has inspired her to literary greatness.
So much so that, now, when anyone ask us where we’re from, we’re just as likely to be met with, ‘oh, like Vera?’ as we are, ‘oh, like Newcastle Brown Ale?’
But having seemingly conquered the ability to taking a slice of the North East to the masses, Ann now has her sights set on bringing the masses to the North East – with a little help from a book festival in her hometown of Whitley Bay.
Bay Tales Live held their inaugural event last year: a one-day, crime fiction-filled extravaganza which saw Ann headline a programme of more than 15 of the UK’s bestselling crime and mystery writers, each sharing humour, wisdom and sneak previews of new releases with their live audience.
Around a third of that audience was made up of visitors to the region – bringing a huge and much-needed boost to local businesses in the seaside town, following the prolonged slump of the pandemic.
Now, the festival is back and it promises to be bigger and better than before. Not least because Ann Cleeves is now officially its patron.
We asked Ann what we can expect from 2023’s festival, why the North East is such an endless source of inspiration for her, and what books have shaped her into the author she is today…
Bay Tales Live is back by popular demand! What do you think makes the festival so special?
I think last year was special because everyone was there to have a good time. Some book festivals can be quite daunting. I still feel like an impostor in some of the smarter ones, even after all these years of being in the business! There was nothing of that in Whitley Bay.
People who came on their own soon found friends. There was a real mix of people – lots of locals, but many more who had made the trek to the North East to join us from all over the country.
You’ve taken on the official role of patron. Why did you want to play a bigger part in getting the festival off the ground this year?
It’s the organisers, Vic and Simon, who do all the work! But I’ve been knocking around for a long time, so I have lots of contacts within publishing and I’m friends with a great many crime writers, so that helps.
I suppose, in a way, I represent the town. This is where I live and work, and I love to welcome visitors and show the place off.
Both reading and writing can be seen as solitary occupations. What do festivals like Bay Tales Livemean for the industry?
Bay Tales is great because it’s sponsored by publishers. That means they can bring not just their bestsellers – though we attract a lot of those – but also the new authors they’re excited about, too. Festivals like this mean that readers can be introduced to brilliant people at the start of their careers.
2023’s Bay Tales Live promises more community engagement. How important is it to our society for the public to read, write and engage with literature?
As you said, reading can be considered a solitary occupation, but I think it’s also an antidote to loneliness. A book is full of characters to meet and places to explore. And now, most libraries have reading groups: places where we can share our passions and affectionately disagree about books.
The North East has a particular pull for crime fiction writers. What is it about the region that you find most inspiring?
It’s the variety of landscapes, I think. I can set a novel in rural Northumberland, in a faded seaside town, in a former pit village, or in the city. Each community has its own values and preoccupations, and each place informs the characters.
You’ve been a staunch champion of literature in your hometown of Whitley Bay for a while now. What would you love to see next for this nook of the North East?
We’ve got more than our share of delights as it is! Lots of great indie shops, cafés and bars, our own little cinema and, of course, the beach. Bookshop the bound is the icing on the cake.
You’re crime writing royalty – what three ingredients does every good crime novel need?
All my favourite crime novels have a strong sense of place. That’s what I start with. Then, of course, we need interesting characters. We don’t have to like the people, but we have to believe in them. Lastly, a strong individual voice with an important story to tell.
Can you name five books that have impacted your life in some way?
Enid Blyton’s Island of Adventure probably turned me into a crime writer. Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes (translated into The Lost Domaine) still haunts my imagination.
Love in Amsterdam by Nicholas Freeling expanded my notion of what crime fiction can do, and any of the Simenon Maigret books provide a lesson in clarity and in flawless storytelling. More recently, Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These will stay with me forever.
Who or what are you most looking forward to seeing at Bay Tales Live 2023?
I’m lucky because I get to choose an author to chat to, someone perhaps whose books should be better known. So, I’ll be interviewing the brilliant Brian McGilloway, who lives on the Irish border. He writes books that are dark and often deeply shocking, but also very compassionate. He’s also a lovely man.
And what would you say to encourage anyone on the fence to come along and check the festival out?
What a fantastic opportunity! A chance to hear some of the best writers in the UK talking about their books, to buy them and to get them signed. And you’ll have the warmest welcome. I’ll be there on the door to meet you, I can promise you that!