Interview with Ann Cleeves

In this interview we chat to Ann Cleeves about The Darkest Evening, her writing process and how writing can help with personal wellbeing. Ann is also our Big Read author for Durham Book Festival, with the free short story Written in Blood. With Durham County Council we’ll be distributing 4000 copies of Written in Blood across Durham this year. You can read it for free online and can also catch Ann in discussion with Steph McGovern on 17 October. Read your free copy and book your free ticket here.

In this ninth instalment of the series we really get a deeper insight into Vera’s dark past and her estranged aristocratic family. Was it your intention from the start for the book to have such a strong focus on family dynamics?

I don’t have any plan when I start any novel. Perhaps because of my social work training, I’m always fascinated by families, the ones that work well and support each other in times of crisis and the ones that fall apart. In my head, I always knew about Vera’s background – her black sheep father, a member of the rural landed gentry – and this story gave me the chance to share her history with the readers.

There is something so refreshingly authentic about Vera. As readers, I think we enjoy seeing the criminals underestimate her because of her appearance. Was it important for you to present a detective who doesn’t fit the typical mold?

Again, I didn’t set out with any objective in mind when I first introduced Vera. She appeared almost fully formed into the first book, The Crow Trap. I did see her as an antidote to those glamorous stars of US TV shows like CSI. I love the fact that she’s a loner, completely satisfied with her own company. I love the fact that sometimes real detectives come up to me and say: ‘We’ve got one just like her in our team.’

The title of the book references the Robert Frost poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. What is the significance of this?

I love Robert Frost. His poetry manages to have both clarity and ambiguity. The poem marks the setting of the novel, but it also features as part of the plot. I hope it adds to the atmosphere, the darkness of midwinter, and the strangeness of a snowy landscape.

Is there a typical writing process that you follow, are your endings always set in stone before you start?

Nothing is set in stone before I start! I write like a reader; once I’ve written the first scene, I need to know what happens next, so I write the next. I work best early in the morning and I don’t usually write more than 1500 words in a day. After that, I start to lose concentration and I need to be able to fix the world that I’ve created in my mind to share it with the reader.

Whilst reading this, I found it hard not to picture Brenda Blethyn trudging through a field in her signature trench coat and hat. How does your idea of Vera compare to the television version and has it changed at all?

I think my Vera has mellowed a bit over the years, and that’s very much down to Brenda’s portrayal, I think.

The Durham Book Festival Big Read is all about encouraging people to discover the joy of reading. Do you think that reading can benefit your wellbeing?

I do, very much, and that’s why I’m sponsoring a pilot, properly evaluated, project to look at how reading for pleasure might provide escape for people suffering from mild to moderate anxiety or depression. I think it might provide an escape for people suffering chronic pain too. I’m delighted that five local authorities in the north east are supporting us.