Interview: Ann Cleeves, Shetland/Vera

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frenchphoto1As we said yesterday, this week is a big week for new, homegrown crime drama with two series starting up. One of them – the BBC’s Shetland – gets a full, six-part series, and features the crime solving adventures of Jimmy Perez, played by Douglas Henshall (go here to read an interview). The stories are based on the novels of award-winning crime writer Ann Cleeves, and we’re thrilled she took the time to have a chat with us about the new series.
It’s not overstating things to say that Ann Cleeves is a bit of a legend. After winning both a CWA Dagger Award and a Dagger In The Library Award for her short story, The Plater, in 2007 she went on to garner more critical acclaim four years later when her debut novel – Raven Black, which started her Shetland series – won the prestigious Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award. In 2012, thanks to her work on the Shetland series, the Vera series and the Inspector Ramsay series, she was inducted into the Crime Thriller Hall Of Fame, alongside the likes of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle.
With her Vera series already a huge hit on ITV (and due to return for a fourth series soon), a two-part Shetland pilot aired on BBC1 last year. Now it’s back for a full series.
The Killing Times: When you first wrote Raven Black in 2006 did you ever imagine it would be adapted for the screen?
Ann Cleeves: When I wrote Raven Black I wasn’t even sure that it would be published and certainly had no idea that it might be adapted for TV. I still have to pinch myself to believe that so much has happened in the past eight years. Raven Black was an important book for me and marked a break-through in my career. For the first time I could give up the day job and write full-time and it’s probably sold more widely than any of my other novels. The Shetland setting had a lot to do with that, I think.
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TKT: Many fiction readers often build up a mental image of a character in a book… what was your reaction to Douglas Hensall’s casting and how do you think he’s settled into the role?
AC: Well, Dougie Henshall doesn’t look like my Perez – in the books he’s dark and Mediterranean – but he’s a tremendous actor and he absolutely captures the spirit of the character. In the book someone describes Perez as ’emotionally incontinent’ and Dougie has that compassion mixed with an edgy authority too. I hope viewers can get past the fact that he isn’t black-haired and olive skinned… Gaby Chiappe, the scriptwriter of Raven Black, makes a little comment about that in the first episode. A bit of fun. I was lucky enough to be invited to the read-through of the pilot and knew immediately that Dougie would be fantastic. The same went for seeing Brenda Blethyn as Vera. I’ve been so fortunate with both series.
TKT: Jimmy Perez (and Vera to an extent) buck against the trend for tormented/tortured/obsessive police men and women. Your leads tend to be good, (mostly) mild-mannered people. What draws you to characters like these?
AC: I write the sort of books I enjoy reading. I don’t create villains or cops who are monsters. I’m more interested in building characters who are believable even if they’re troubled, people with whom readers can identify.
TKT: You’re listed as co-writer on the first two episodes that were aired last year. What input have you had in this new series?
AC: Umm, not sure where the information that I co-scripted the pilot came from, but it’s not true! It’s a very different skill writing for TV and much more stressful. I have a whole year to write a novel. My only involvement [in the TV series] was that I went with the scriptwriters to Shetland and introduced them to my friends and showed them parts of the island where the books are set. For Raven Black for example we spent an afternoon in the Anderson High School in Lerwick chatting to students about what it’s like to be a teenager in a community where everyone knows you. And we met the crew of The Good Shepherd, the mail boat that goes out to Fair Isle. I hope that helped the writers to understand a bit more about the place and its people.
TKT: We’re interested in Shetland as a whole – the atmosphere, the small communities, the climate, the geography, the festivals and legends. How did you come across the Shetland Islands and why did you decide to base the Quartet there?
AC: I first went to Shetland in the mid-1970s when I dropped out of university and took a job as assistant cook in the bird observatory in Fair Isle. I loved it, went back the following year as a cook and still have friends that I made at that time. I was delighted that the BBC took a small cast and crew into Fair Isle to film Blue Lightning (episodes five and six). I think the folk that went in had an amazing time there. The islanders put them up and drove them around.
TKT: What kind of research did you do on the islands?
AC: Although I knew Shetland well it didn’t occur to me to write a novel set there until I went up at mid-winter.  It had snowed and the winter light is very dramatic. I go up three or four times a year now and always launch my new books there. Any research I do is talking to people, drinking tea in croft house kitchens. Even if my friends can’t help, they know people who can. Local people have been incredibly helpful to the production team too – the police inspector is lovely and the council archaeologist prepared the dig that appeared in the pilot. Another friend who’s a poet advises on dialect.
TKT: How has the series gone down with the locals?
AC: The locals’ response to the pilot was mixed. Some people didn’t seem to realise that it was fiction and not a documentary. They wanted the characters to speak in dialect and of course some of the action was filmed in the mainland. But most enjoyed it. I think they’ll like the new series; it feels very authentic to me.
TKT: With both Shetland and Vera (series four coming end of April) both hugely popular, you must be delighted… Are there any more Shetland/Vera books in the pipeline? 
AC: Yes, it’s been a pretty amazing year, with two mainstream dramas using my stories airing this spring. The first episode of Vera series four is based on Harbour Street, which was published in January. The new Shetland novel – Thin Air – will come out in September.
Shetland: Tuesdays, 9pm, BBC1

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