Interview with Ann Cleeves
Author and creator of TV’S Vera, Ann Cleeves, talks about books for prisoners, the Probation Service and writing Pre-Sentence Reports
Recognised as one of the leading crime writers, Ann Cleeves has won every award going. In 2006 she received Crime Writers’ Association, Lawrie Duncan Dagger for Raven Black, her first novel in the Shetland series. She is a two-time winner of the Dagger in the Library for her entire body of work, and in 2017 she received the highest honour in British crime writing – the Diamond Dagger. Her Vera Stanhope novels, adapted for television and portrayed by Brenda Blethyn, are read all over the world.
The Crime Hub caught up with her…
Vera Stanhope is like no other crime fiction heroin, overweight and lacking in the fashion department. Did you set out to break the mould in crime fiction – create a more realistic heroine?
Not at all. It wasn’t that clearly thought out. I don’t plan my plots or characters in advance. Vera appeared fully formed in the middle of The Crow Trap. I think she grew out of some of the formidable spinsters I knew as a child.
I was born in the mid-fifties and in our small community there were a number of single women who’d either lost sweethearts during the war, or who had been given responsibilities that they might not otherwise be allowed. These women were competent and authoritative, but they didn’t care at all what they looked like. They worked as teachers, librarians or hospital matrons. I hope Vera is a realistic heroine. Certainly, one serving detective said: ‘We’ve got one just like her in our team.’ She’s more realistic, certainly, than some of the American female cops on TV; it would be a struggle, I think, to fight crime in high heels.
Before you became an author you trained as a probation officer. Have you drawn on your experiences of the prison system in your writing?
I wasn’t a probation officer for very long! But during my training, I did one placement in an open women’s prison and once I was qualified, I visited remand prisoners and offenders who would be released on licence. The murderers I’ve met have been rather inadequate, pathetic men.
I wouldn’t have found them interesting to write about. More recently, I’ve run writing and reading groups for offenders in a variety of institutions. Most of my work for the probation service was to write pre-sentence reports to help the courts decide on a suitable disposal once guilt had been established.
This was brilliant experience for an aspiring crime writer, because I had to explore the influences that had led to the offences being committed. It also gave me access to homes, which I’d never otherwise have the chance to visit.
There have been various attempts by ministers over the years to ban books in prisons, perhaps most famously by Chris Grayling in 2014 – a decision later quashed in the High Court. You have been involved with the Inside Books Project – setting up reading groups for prisoners. Is this something you feel strongly about?
Of course. Reading helps us see the world through other people’s eyes. Through fiction, we can travel vicariously and explore new ideas. Some crimes are committed just because offenders can’t make the imaginative leap to understand the consequences of their actions, or because opportunities are so limited that there seems to be no other option.
The collaborative nature of a reading group means that enthusiasms can be shared and ideas can be discussed. There is no right answer when we talk about our reactions to a novel. People who have only before come across books at school find that their opinions are valued. One young woman loved a book we were reading so much that she read it aloud to the other people in her dormitory.
There is now an acceptance that the policy of privatisation for the probation Service was flawed. Do you support the decision to move back to a nationalised service?
Absolutely. I find it distasteful that a profit should be made out of the supervision of offenders, but practically, the new system always made little sense to me. Even prisoners who have served short sentences might need intensive work with well-qualified and experienced staff; many have mental health or addiction problems.
If we’re serious about the notion of rehabilitation, the service we provide must be flexible and responsive and more than a tick-box exercise. It will save us money in the long term. I think the probation service has changed a lot since I trained. We took a social work qualification in university and our role was to ‘assist, advise and befriend.’ We were social workers for the courts, so occasionally part of my caseload involved being a Guardian Ad Litem in an adoption case, or providing a report in complex divorce cases when children were involved.
My sense is that probation officers have become much more part of the system of control of offenders now. I certainly wouldn’t enjoy that role.