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Interview: 'Shetland' Author Ann Cleeves

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Ann Cleeves
Ann Cleeves | Photo by Malcom Younger, Millgaet Media

British author Ann Cleeves’ critically acclaimed mystery novels are bestsellers worldwide and translated into 20 languages. One of her most beloved mystery series is "Shetland," which landed Ms. Cleeves in the hallowed Crime Thriller Hall of Fame -- alongside such all-time greats as Colin Dexter, Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Shetland was produced as a television series in 2013 by BBC One. Now for the first time, Southern California public media audiences will get a taste of life and death in the remote -- and hauntingly beautiful -- Scottish islands when KCET premieres the first season of "Shetland" on Sunday, April 3 at 9:00 PM followed by the start of Season Six of "Vera" at 10:00 PM, another popular TV series based on novels penned by Ms. Cleeves.   

Winner of the prestigious Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award of the Crime Writers' Association, Ms. Cleeves spoke with KCET by phone from her home in Northern England about Shetland and its debut in Southern California.

What do our viewers have to look forward to with the "Shetland" television series and how do you think those who’ve read your books will experience it versus those who haven’t?

I think the people who read the books will get the same atmosphere and the same sense of who Jimmy Perez is. He’s a strong man, but he has that edge of compassion and I think “Dougie” Henshall, the actor, captures that beautifully because he never comes across as a softy or weak. He’s very authoritative. He’s very masculine. But still he’s kind. And I think there are so few male actors who can do “kind” in the way that he can.

We’ve noticed that the television series doesn’t necessarily follow the characters or plots specifically. For instance, D.I. Jimmy Perez as described in the books looks nothing like Doug Henshall who plays him in the "Shetland" series.

I think it is more important to get a fine actor than to get someone who looks right.

And now, when you’re writing "Shetland," who do you see in your mind – the character you first described or Doug Henshall?

I still see my dark-haired, dark-skinned Mediterranean character. And, in a way, that’s quite useful because it means that I can separate the Perez of the book from the Perez on the screen.

As you probably know, the name “Perez” is not all that uncommon here in Southern California, but for Scotland, it’s pretty exotic. Why did you decide to name your lead character “Perez” and give him that back story?

When I wrote "Raven Black," which is the first of the books rather than the first of the TV series, I wanted (Perez) to be part of the Shetland community but also to be quite outside of it. I made him a Fair Islander because Fair Island is one of the more remote of the Shetland archipelago, and I gave him a strange name to make him even more of an outsider. There had been an Armada shipwreck off Fair Isle called El Gran Grifón which left only 60 survivors. So it’s not outside the bounds of possibility that one of those Armada mariners married a Fair Island girl and that the name is still there.  

Both the books and the "Shetland" television series have been described as “Scottish noir.” Do you agree with that?

Yes, I think I do, really! We’ve had lots of popular Scandinavian drama here -- I don’t know if you have those in the U.S. And they’re known as “Scandie noir.” So I think having "Shetland" as part of “Scottish noir” or “Shetland noir” is fine. We’d be very happy with that.

So you’re saying that Shetland as a location could be considered “noir?”

I think it’s because of the bleakness. There aren’t any trees in Shetland. When my American publisher first published the book they kept sending me jackets with trees on the cover and I kept saying “No. There are no trees in Shetland.” Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration -- there are a few.

I think I like writing about secrets that some people know about, but aren’t talked about. To have that very open landscape where you can see as far as you can, but to know that there are secrets that are hidden as well, is a nice contrast to write about.

Then would you say Shetland itself is a character?

I think so. Shetland is very much a character. There is nowhere like it in the U.K.  It’s a long way north.  It’s on the same line of latitude as bits of Greenland and Alaska. So it does get dark at night. In the winter, it’s very dark and in the summer it’s very light.  You can read a newspaper outside at midnight and the birds are still singing.

One of things that strikes us so much is how isolated – not just physically, but emotionally – the characters are.  Do your characters become isolated by virtue of living in Shetland or do they live in Shetland because they want solitude?

I lived in Fair Isle for a couple of years with a population of 60 people on a very small island about 3 1/2 miles long and 1 1/2 miles wide. I think if you lived in a small community like that, privacy would be incredibly important. There were secrets that people had about each other that they never spoke of because you needed to keep that distance. There needed to be some things kept personal for you and yours. And I think that’s also true for the Shetland mainland. I try to use that sense in the books.

Your stories are wonderfully character-driven. In "Raven Black," for example, it seems that any one of the residents could have committed the murders because you never tip your hand when writing their dialogue or inner thoughts. How much attention do you have to pay to ensure you don’t drop an inadvertent clue? Or that you provide the right one?

As a reader I love that cheap thrill of a surprise ending.  (LAUGHTER). So I love if I can give that to the people who read my books as I did with "Raven Black." There was one reviewer who said he knew right from the beginning who had done it, but I think there are very few people who actually can work out who the murderer is.

Do you know ahead of time?

No. I don’t know anything ahead of time. I don’t even know who the victim is when I start writing. I just like to tell the story.  So I start with, perhaps, the opening scene.  With "Raven Black" I’d gone to Shetland in mid-winter with my husband who is a passionate birdwatcher. It had snowed, which is quite unusual in Shetland, and the top of the snow had frozen. There were ravens on top of the ice, very black against the snow, and I thought,, “If there were blood as well, it would be like a fairy tale, quite mythic.” It just started with that scene: a young woman  -- dead in the snow. And I didn’t know who she was or what was going to happen until I started writing it.

It’s a different season in the television series.

(Laughs) Yeah, it’s very difficult to film in Shetland. I think the scriptwriter (Gaby Chiappe) was quite disappointed because she had in her mind “cold, bleak.” But because there’s so little light in Shetland in the winter, it would be so expensive to film there. Both the executive producer Elaine Collins and I were determined it should be filmed in Shetland, despite the fact that (the location) makes it very tricky logistically if you’ve got a 13-hour boat trip to get your crew and all your kits up. They need to film in the summer; winter can be quite difficult to travel. If it’s stormy, maybe the boat doesn’t go, so it’s not easy.

You seem to have embraced the television series for both "Vera" and "Shetland." How do you feel about the translation of your stories to a different medium?

I think I’m very happy. Partly because the books don’t belong to me once the reader reads them. When a reader reads them they have their own images and they build their own pictures. That usually depends on their own history and their own prejudices as well as the time of year that they’re reading it. So they interpret the books in their head in a different way and see it differently from me. Giving it to a director to interpret again is just one stage further. I’ve known novelists who have become so anxious and so angry it’s almost led to a nervous breakdown. They’ve been so worried about their adaptations, I decided it just wasn’t worth it. I have a lovely relationship with the actors and with the crew that whenever I go on set it’s like catching up with family again.  I’m very happy with the way it’s been handled..

You’ve written a non-fiction book about the Shetland Islands. Tell us about that.

It’s been 40 years since I first went to Shetland. I first went there when I was only 19 or 20. We thought it would be fun to do a celebration of the islands, so we got some beautiful photographs taken mostly by a Shetlander and I just tell the stories I learned when I was living there. I talk a bit about where the books are set and a bit about where the filming takes place, so it’s a nice companion piece to the novels, really. And it just shows how beautiful the islands are.

As a writer, you seem to travel a lot – the last few months you’ve gone to Nevada and Dubai.

It’s a part of the irony of becoming more successful. It’s brilliant, and I don’t have to have a day job anymore, which I used to do for most of my writing career. I had to earn a living doing other things.  It means you get the opportunity to speak to readers all around the world. I love that but it does eat into the writing time a bit. I quite like now to have a bit of time at home!

Any chance that your characters are going to go traveling? Will we see Vera in Dubai?

(LAUGHS) I think she would hate it. I can’t imagine her there! If I travel I tend to write short stories because I don’t send postcards and I don’t take photographs and the way I remember places is by writing short stories about them. There might be a short story set in Phoenix or Dubai, but I don’t think Vera would like either of those places.

And Jimmy Perez is not going to look up any Perez’s in Nevada?

I don’t think so; I think that’s very unlikely.

Is there anything that you’d like to leave our viewers with?

I think it’s great fun that these outposts -- these wild places in the UK -- are going to be watched in Los Angeles and I hope people love them as much as I do.

Find out more about the locations featured in the "Shetland" series by clicking here.

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