Today was World Book Day. Instead of dressing up as a book character, I celebrated by attending a talk by Ann Cleeves at Bolton Library.
The library is fortunate to have lecture theatre and as we all threaded our way into the tiered seats I noticed that I seemed to be the youngest person there. That doesn’t happen very often! I don’t know why the audience was predominantly older people as I’m sure her books and the TV series appeal to a much wider age range than that which was represented.
Ann was relaxed and informal, inserting snippets of humour into her stories. Although she was stood at a lectern her style was more that of a friend having a chat over coffee than a professor delivering a lecture. She read an excerpt from Raven Black, the first book in the Shetland series and followed this with a reading from the latest addition, Thin Air.
She started by telling us a bit about her early life; how she had dropped out of university, believing she didn’t need an English degree to read books, and found a job in London. She didn’t adapt well to the hectic pace of the city and found her escape when she met a man who was about to leave for Fair Isle. He was to take up the position of assistant warden at the bird observatory there and wasn’t particularly enamoured by this opportunity, describing it as a bleak, windswept island in the middle of nowhere. Ann thought it sounded great. Fortunately the observatory was in desperate need of an assistant cook and so Ann travelled north to take up with the role, despite not knowing where Fair Isle was or being able to cook.
Over the next two years she got to know the island and the islanders well. Magnus, the eccentric elderly man in Raven Black, was based on one of the local characters she had shared many a dram with. It was during her time in Fair Isle that she also met her husband, a keen bird-watcher. Over the following years she had a variety of jobs culminating in her training to be a probation officer. Her varied life experiences have supplied her with material for her books.
Ann comes across as much a great storyteller in her speaking as she is in her books. She didn’t have notes, just let the stories unfold, and explained this is much the same way she writes her books. She doesn’t plot in advance, but rather starts with her basic idea and sees where it takes her chapter by chapter. Before she was able to write full-time, she would write for pleasure after a full day’s work. Her motivation was not knowing herself what was going to happen next and being just as surprised as her readers are today as the story unfolds.
The Shetland books came about when her husband wanted to go to Shetland to see a rare bird and she took him on a crazy day-trip as a birthday treat. Crazy because most day-trips don’t involve a long drive and a 14 hour ferry journey at either end of the day. As he went in search of the bird she wandered about noticing the stark contrast of black ravens against the white snow. Being a crime-writer, she mentally added blood to the scene to a create an even more powerful contrast. From this idea the first book was born; first as a short-story, then as a novel, then as a quartet and now as a longer series.
Shetland is one of the safest places I know. Ann knows this too and originally planned the book as a one-off thinking it would be too far-fetched to have so many murders in a placid archipelago of 22,000 people. As positive feedback poured in she realised that when it’s a choice between credibility and a great story, reviewers and readers will usually cast doubts about likelihood to the side and go with the story. And so the book became a series.
Ann shared some of her inspirations for the other books in the series and explained how she had chatted to a former policeman in Lerwick as part of her research. She was surprised to find out that in the case of an actual murder, the serious crimes squad from Inverness would not be flown in on a specially chartered flight, but would have to take the scheduled flight along with everyone else. Even if this meant waiting 3 days for the fog to lift before they could reach the islands. Bodies needing to be shipped to Aberdeen for autopsy travel on the ferry. An anonymous looking transit van is used to protect the sensibilities of passengers who may otherwise be perturbed to know they are accompanied by a corpse.
This is only a tiny part of what Ann shared with us. She spoke for the best part of an hour and then answered questions. One topic she was particularly vocal about is her support for libraries. She has never taken part in any writing courses and, as mentioned above, didn’t complete her degree. Instead, avid reading has taught her all she needs to know about writing. Libraries give people the chance to read no matter what their budget. They give people the chance to read authors and genres they might not be prepared to try if they had to pay for the book. She pointed out that the combined creative industries bring £8.8 million an HOUR to the UK economy. That’s nearly £80 billion a year. I struggled to get my head round this, but it’s true: the figures are there on the government’s own website. The creative industries which include, not only publishing, but also film and television programme making (all of which rely on writers), provide 1.7 million jobs and make up 5% of the total economy. With these facts in mind, government cuts to libraries and the creative industries seem not just misjudged, but downright foolhardy.
Following the talk everyone moved to another room for tea, biscuits and book signings. I filled in the feedback form, still flabbergasted by the statistics and with a head buzzing with all stories Ann had told. This was a far better way to celebrate World Book Day than merely dressing up as Harry Potter or Where’s Wally.