Saturday, 13 February 2010

Ann Cleeves on Blue Lightning

As I mentioned the other day, I've invited Ann Cleeves to contribute a post about her new novel. And here it is.

'I first went to Shetland more than 30 years ago. I’d dropped out of university and was offered a temporary job as assistant cook in Fair Isle bird observatory. At that point I wasn’t even sure where Fair Isle was. In fact, it’s Britain’s most remote inhabited island and part of the Shetland group, which is closer to Bergen in Norway than London. Fair Isle is a long way from anywhere – 13 hours overnight by boat from Aberdeen to Shetland mainland and then three hours by mail boat into the Isle.

So I arrived on a stormy spring afternoon to be assistant cook in the bird observatory on Fair Isle, knowing nothing about birds and not being able to cook! I was twenty years old and looking for adventure. That summer changed my life. I met my husband there. I had the space and the time to read more widely than ever before. And I learned to cook. The next year I went back – only this time I was in charge of the kitchen.

Fair Isle is three and a half miles long and a mile and a half wide. It has a permanent population of about 50 people, an airstrip, a natural harbour and a hill covered with heather. The cliffs provide homes for puffins, kittiwakes and gannets. Because of its position it attracts rare birds from east and west. The people live in a scattering of croft houses in the south of the island and are warm and welcoming to incomers. I spent my time off in gossip and listening to stories. I learned to hand milk a cow, clip a sheep and even to knit – never did quite get the hang of the intricate steps of the dances though!

In Blue Lightning, the fourth book in the Shetland quartet, I go back to Fair Isle, where my passion for the islands started. I found it a remarkably easy book to write, because the landscape of the island is fixed in my imagination. I’ve created a fictional field centre in the lighthouse and one of my characters is the cook there. The autumn gales mean that no planes or boats can reach the place, and when a body is found, Jimmy Perez, on holiday with his parents, has to work the case without any technical support. I wanted a dramatic climax to the series and I hope I achieved that.

Will I return to Shetland in my writing now that the quartet is complete? There’ll be a gap certainly because I want to concentrate on Vera Stanhope for a while. But Shetland is such a special place that I’ll certainly be back.'


Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Thank you for opening up your blog to a guest. Ann, your post on Fair Isle is fascinating and evocative. It's easy to see why the place captured you. May I say that it's also good to hear that you're planning to share more of Vera Stanhope's cases with readers; she's a fantastic character.

Maxine said...

Thank you, Martin and Ann, for that post. Having read Blue Lightning, I loved reading this post, as it really set the book into context for me. How fascinating to read that part of your history, Ann.
I loved Blue Lightning and I hope that many other people will read it and enjoy it as much as I did. I do recommend reading the other three books in the quartet first, though.

I am going to catch up on Vera as soon as I can - I have read The Crow Trap but not the others. A treat in store, I am sure!

Dorte H said...

Ah! A great post about the background of the Shetland series, but more Vera Stanhope is ALSO good news!

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

It sounds like an amazing place. I'd love to see a puffin in person. 50 people ppm Fair Everyone would hopefully get along or else--murder might happen! :)

Mystery Writing is Murder

Deb said...

Sadly, our library does not carry Ann Cleeves's books. Perhaps a generous man with whom I have been affiliated for over 20 years will see his way clear to an Amazon gift certificate for Valentine's Day. I know what I'll purchase with it!

Paul Beech said...

Martin – A terrific guest appearance from Ann. She’s such an intoxicating writer, you can almost hear the crashing waves and the cries of the birds in the background as she talks about the summer that changed her life on Fair Isle.

Yes, like you, I’m a sucker for islands – probably something that goes back to my childhood in the 50s, reading Enid Blyton’s ‘Island of Adventure’! And I especially like mysteries where the scenery, history and even the weather are integral to the story. So I’m very pleased that with the conclusion of the Quartet, Ann is not saying goodbye to the Shetlands for ever. But will she revisit Jimmy Perez to see how he’s getting on, as you did Harry Devlin in ‘Waterloo Sunset’, or will it be something new?

The broader question, I suppose, is when should a series end?

The author running out of steam or simply fancying a change doesn’t quite justify a “never again” ending with a popular character, surely? Afterall the author might discover a fresh head of steam after a break. But what if the series was conceived thematically as a cycle and this is now complete? Or if the character’s personal goal is achieved – a relationship (Daniel Kind / Hannah Scarlett), reconciliation with a daughter (John Harvey’s Frank Elder), etc. Is it then time, regretfully perhaps, to move on?

I’ll leave that one with you!



Minnie said...

Thank you, Martin - I really enjoyed reading your background info on the Shetland series. No wonder there is such a wonderful sense of place/culture/landscape in this series. I've never been; but almost feel as if I know the place, at least a little ... Now looking forward even more to catching up on the latest novel. More power to you (&, of course, Martin)!

Martin Edwards said...

Many thanks for these comments.
Paul, the question you pose about when a series should end is fascinating. A suitable subject for a future post, methinks!

Anonymous said...

My wife is a regaular reader of Ann's books and when I saw the new one advertised I asked my local library to get it asap. I am reading it myself at the moment so have not got to the dramatic climax but am finding it fascinating both as a "whodunit" but also as a reminder of my many visits to Fair Isle. It was good to see real locations mentioned and even Dave Wheeler, the lcoal metorologist gets a mention. I shall look at the island in a new light when I return in September to try out the new "obs".


Martin Edwards said...

Greetings, David. I'm sure you'll be impressed by the quality of the book's finale.