Literature of the North: Ann Cleeves talks all things Vera and explains the creative process behind her bestselling novel The Seagull

February 11, 2021 5 min read

A long and peaceful summer meets an abrupt ending when crooked ex-colleague John Brace declares he knows the location of a dead body, descending Vera and her team into chaos. When not one but two bodies are uncovered at St Mary’s Lighthouse Vera and her team must work out who to trust and who to suspect. A town and its residents desperately try to detach from a history of crime and violence, becoming entangled in a web of lies, spun only to protect themselves from the truths of the past. Amongst it all, Vera must battle her own demons and fight through the deceit of the town to unveil her killer.

 In our most recent Book Group, we were lucky enough to be joined by the amazing Ann Cleeves, the author of the iconic Vera series. Ann is such an amazing part of North East history and has put the area on the map with her chilling crime fiction and powerful descriptions of the landscape. 

 The Seagull novel is set in Whitley Bay, the home of our wonderful Spanish City shop so, naturally, we couldn’t wait to get our teeth into it. Ann creates her own version of Whitley Bay in the novel to such an extent that it could be read as another character. Whitley Bay has several elements of truth in the novel and the outrageous nightlife of the 1980s and 90s is explored alongside the more recent regeneration of the coastline in the last ten years. Whitley’s regeneration in the novel could also be read as a metaphorical reflection of the many of the characters within the plot who also face their own ‘regeneration’.

 In the second part of our Book Group, we had the opportunity to grill Ann with all our questions about the novel and the rest of the franchise. It was so interesting to hear about her thought process, but don’t worry if you missed it because we’ve put all of her answers into words in a thrilling Q&A. We’ve tried to omit as many spoilers as possible from this blog post but please read with caution if you’re wanting to read The Seagull with fresh eyes! 

 

You’ve written so many thrilling plots surrounding the Vera franchise, how do you begin to piece together this kind of story? 

My novels always start with the place. My writing is predominantly concerned with setting and place and that’s where the story stems from, once I know where Vera will be in each book, I’m ready to delve deeper into the story. For The Seagull, the redevelopment of Whitley Bay in the recent years offered a great starting point. The redevelopment subplot is important because it demonstrates that change is possible, something which we can see in a number of characters within the novel. 

 More generally, my writing process is quite spontaneous. I don’t ever script or plan a certain plot, I just sit down and start writing. I always say I tend to write like a reader, I start with my setting and a set of characters and I get so immersed in the story that I need to know what is going to happen next. 

 In the book, The Seagull is a glamorous, exclusive spot and it stands out against the rather bleak backdrop of prostitution and drug misuse. The Seagull is unlike anywhere that we have ever seen in Whitley Bay, was there anywhere that inspired it? 

The Seagull restaurant and club in the novel is entirely fictitious. Though I use real place names and take inspiration from the reality of 1990s Whitley Bay, there are elements that are totally made up. 

 Vera is such an iconic character and is arguably even more lovable thanks to her unconventional appearance and attitude. Before your novels, readers had never engaged with an older, ‘unattractive’ woman as a protagonist in a position of power, what was the inspiration behind her? 

I grew up in post-war Britain, in a time where women were gaining more freedoms in the employment industry. 1950s women were allowed to take responsibility for themselves for the first time in history and Vera’s independence and strength stem primarily from that. Women were beginning to perceive being a single ‘spinster’ as a better alternative than becoming a housewife and being forced to leave work. 

 The character of Vera really just appeared in my head one day, but when I think about her origin, I believe she grew from the powerful women who surrounded me during my childhood. Women like librarians and teachers who were formidable but incredibly stern and powerful women. 

 Alongside Vera, her father Hector plays a huge role in the novel. Did Hector’s character evolve as the Vera franchise grew or did you always have him in your mind? 

I never really plot in advance, but Hector was always lurking in the back of my mind. Vera’s father is very much a part of her both literally and figuratively and he functions to explain more about her personal life outside of her work. In The Seagull especially, he offers space for the reader to see Vera in a softer way, rather than that tough exterior we’re used to.

 We love Vera and we don’t want her to go anywhere, please say she won’t have to retire!

Hahaha, no, my version of Vera doesn’t age in real-time so I can’t see her going anywhere any time soon- plus I’ve just signed to do another few books so she’s definitely staying put until then. It helps that our TV version of Vera, Brenda Blethyn barely ages too!

 You’ve been working with libraries as an ambassador, could you tell us more about that? 

Libraries have always been a huge part of my life. I was a regular at my local library when I was about 6 or 7 and the librarian would always keep books aside for me that she thought I’d enjoy. Her name was Gwen Gregory, and I will always remember her.

 Since then, I’ve always worked closely with libraries because I feel that reading is a right that everyone is entitled to.  In a world where there is so much sensationalist and ‘fake’ news we need a neutral environment where the truth can always be kept impartially, this is the role libraries play. 

 I’m sponsoring a project with Reading and Health where books and groups at the library can be prescribed to help with things such as depression and anxiety (alongside other medications and therapy). I want reading and libraries to be accessible to everyone and I think everyone should be offered the right to read. 

 

 If you enjoyed this and want to know more about The Seagull click on the link below to purchase your own copy: The Seagull, Ann Cleeves.

 

 

 

Amelia Dunn
Amelia Dunn


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