2017 - Bring it on!
A lot happened last year. Politically, it seems as though there's been a shift in the way many of us see the world. Suddenly, it's OK to be rude about people we dislike, to dismiss the views of experts, to be taken in by news stories so outrageous that they're unlikely to be true. There's always been a tendency to give moral value to our own prejudices, to choose to read the papers that make us feel comfortable rather than those that challenge our world view. But this is on a different scale, disagreeable and dangerous. I hope for a kinder, more reasoned, more open-minded new year. I know I rant about the importance of libraries, but these places house impartial information as well as stories that give us glimpses into lives very different from our own. In 2017 we will need them more than ever.
Personally, 2016 was so busy that it seems a bit of a blur. There was travel - to book festivals in Phoenix, Arizona, Dubai, Reykjavik and throughout the UK. To libraries and bookshops and prisons. There was the Big North Book Run, sponsored by Pan Macmillan, and bringing together libraries in the north east, writers, readers and the fabulous Forum Books, based in Corbridge. This collaborative model of reader development seems to be something that could be rolled out throughout the country. After all, we all need more readers! I celebrated my 30th year of being published and my 30th book. It was an honour to be Libraries Champion for World Book Day.
Now it's time to look forward. There will be more travel - a US tour starting in Seattle and leading up to Malice Domestic in Bethesda, Maryland, a Canadian tour after Toronto's Bouchercon and a visit to Estonia for the Tallinn Literature Festival. There will be a new novel - The Seagull, featuring Vera Stanhope and set in my home town of Whitley Bay. And I'll be writing my very last Shetland book. VERA will be on our screens again and a new series of SHETLAND will be filmed. Exciting times!
So a huge thank you to the readers, booksellers and library staff who have supported me throughout 2016, to the team at Pan Macmillan, to Sara my agent and Maura my publicist. There are unsung heroes, like the Pan Mac reps who chauffeur me about and Roger and Jean who look after my website. And my Murder Squad mates, who turn out for gigs and provide a bed, gossip and beer. I can't wait for 2017 and look forward to working with you all again.
I love islands - that's probably already clear from the setting of my books, my travel writing and this blog. After such a hectic October really I should have had a quiet time at home, but islands tempt me; I'm lured back to them. I was lured back to Iceland Noir by the chance to meet up with wonderful friends and a strange, wild but somehow intimate landscape. I was still deciding whether or not to go when I obtained an Icelandic publisher, the small press Ugla (which means Owl) and Hidden Depths was shortlisted for the Ice Pick award for best translated novel. Then I felt I had to be there to support Jakob, my new publisher.
I'm so glad that I went - despite one sleepless night when the music in the night club next to the hotel continued until 5 in the morning. It was cold, with flurries of sleet and ice underfoot, snow on the mountains that surround the town. But in the Nordic House, there was the warmth of greeting old friends - Icelandic, British and Scandie - of bookish conversations and a shared sense of adventure. Jakob had worked as a journalist and arranged interviews with radio and TV as well as newspapers and magazines. It felt as if every encounter was a real conversation, rather than an interview. In Iceland, it seems, books still matter. Marion Pauw won the Ice Pick Award for her crime novel translated from the Dutch. It sounds a fascinating novel and a real challenge for the translator -Ragna Sigurdardottir - and I look forward to reading it in English.
I was at the first Iceland Noir and it's grown in scope and popularity, but some traditions remain the same, and that's what makes it a friendly and informal festival. A few of us gathered at Ragnar's house for an Icelandic Christmas supper and then everyone was invited to Yrsa's home for a party. Celebrations went on well into the early hours. On Saturday night there's always a Gala Dinner; at our table Iceland's first lady chatted crime fiction with a bookseller and an agent.
Then came the surprise ending, the unexpected twist to the tale. Ragnar announced that I'd been given an honorary award for Exceptional Contribution to the Art of Crime Fiction. I was astonished and delighted. There was a plaque and a beautiful Icelandic woollen blanket. I will treasure them both and of course I'll be back in two years time. If you love books, the company of readers and writers, and a landscape to take your breath away, you should be there too.
30 years on...
There's been a big gap since the last entry. That's partly because I've been struggling to complete the new Vera novel THE SEAGULL, but mostly because life has been a bit mad in the past couple of months. COLD EARTH, the latest and penultimate book in the Shetland series, was published at the beginning of October and I spent the first three weeks of the month touring - starting in Shetland and ending up in Dorset. This was a very special tour because COLD EARTH marked my 30th book and my 30th year of publication. So my lovely publicist Maura decided that we should do 30 events to celebrate.
Ann and fellow 'Killer Women' Gaby Chiappe and Douglas Henshall
There were some amazing moments. There was the tea in the Bigton Community Hall in Shetland - a beautiful sunny day, terrific homebakes and the first airing of Bannocks and Blood, a murder mystery available free to libraries and bookshops through the Pan Macmillan website. More teas in Elgin, Perth and Oswestry (I did eat lots of cake on this trip...) A brilliant fundraiser for the Variety Club in Liverpool. Being interviewed by the magnificent Minette Walters in Dorchester and by Clare Donoghue and Chris Ewan in Yeovil. I did book festivals in London with Killer Women, and in Manchester, Sheffield and Chester, but the big one was Cheltenham. I was there with the team behind the TV drama SHETLAND - the scriptwriter, script editor, executive producer and the two lead actors. The panel was moderated by our friend Alison Graham from the Radio Times. It was lovely to catch up with everyone again and despite the audience of a thousand people in a very big tent, it felt as if we were just chatting and reliving the process of bring the characters in the books to the screen.
Since the tour ended it still feels as if I've been on the road. With my fellow murder squaddie Martin Edwards, I explored the nature of classic crime with the interviewer Mark Lawson in the perfect setting of the British Library. There have been two prison visits - to Thameside in London and Deerbolt in Co Durham - and last weekend I was in Orkney talking about reading and libraries to Cerys Matthews for Radio 6 music. This afternoon I'm at the Write Idea Festival in Tower Hamlets. Next week I fly to Reykjavik for the Iceland Noir Crime-Writing Festival. HIDDEN DEPTHS has been shortlisted for best translated crime novel and it'll be a chance for me to meet Jakob, my Icelandic publisher. Afterwards I fly back to Glasgow and immediately to the Western Isles for events in Benbecula and Stornaway Libraries, as part of Book Week Scotland.
Then it's home. A chance to rest and relax in the run up to Christmas. To spend a bit of time with my husband and family. And to think about writing the next book.
To the Mountain
I'm an island person. There are a lot of us about. Some were born on islands, some live on them for a while and some fall in love with the idea as soon as they experience the magic of a place with entirely fixed borders. A place surrounded by the sea and dependent on tide and weather. It started for me when I was a teenager and living in North Devon. From my bedroom I could see the beam of both lighthouses on Lundy and the idea of living there seemed unutterably romantic. I went on to be a cook on Fair Isle and to spend the first four years of our marriage on Hilbre - that was tidal so a little bit different but an island all the same. We spent our honeymoon on St Agnes in the Isles of Scilly and once we moved to north east England celebrated family events on Holy Island. I've put together a collection of short stories set in islands called Offshore.
I'm writing this on Bardsey, off the Lleyn peninsula in North Wales. There's no internet so the piece won't appear on my website for a while. It's bank holiday Monday and the sun's shining but all I can hear is water, gulls calling, seals crying and the hum of insects - it's very hot. Sometimes day-trippers are brought to the island by Colin the boatman, but if they've already arrived this morning they're making no noise.
We first came to Bardsey nearly 40 years ago to spend some time with our friend Peter who was warden of the Observatory. We'd met him first in Fair Isle and now he lives on Islay (island people often seem to shift islands in a strange kind of dance). The weather was atrocious then, wet and foggy, and the observatory accommodation seemed gloomy and damp. A mountain runs down the east side of Bardsey - the observatory sits on its lower slope - and then it seemed to suck all the light from the place. In the mist and rain I never felt the attraction of climbing to the top to see the view back to the Welsh mainland. The hill became almost a mythical obstacle in my mind, impossible to conquer.
Now things are very different. Cristin, the observatory, is light and attractive. The facilities are basic but the kitchen is wonderfully equipped and in the evening you can sit on the terrace and watch the sun setting over the Irish Sea.
This morning I climbed the mountain. The task that had grown in my mind into a major expedition was hardly more than a steep stroll through heather and bracken. Halfway to the top there was already a fantastic view to the south end, past the boathouse to the lighthouse and beyond. From the top the Welsh mainland with its bank holiday traffic jams and packed beaches and cafes seemed close enough to touch, but half a world away.
You don't have to be a birdwatcher to stay here. It would be a great place to come to write. There's no internet, though you can get mobile signal from some parts of the island. And if you climb the mountain you might see your story with a completely new perspective. It worked for me.
Hi from St Hilda's
I'm writing from St Hilda's College Oxford, sitting at a desk in my room, with a glimpse of garden and the river. There's gentle English rain, the sound of bells chiming the quarter and I'm ecstatic because I've just finished the first draft of my new Vera novel. Though it's a very untidy draft and there's still a lot of work to do, it's always reassuring to reach the end of a story. I never plot in advance and I wasn't quite sure how it would be resolved.
I'm in St Hilda's for the crime and mystery conference, an annual gathering that celebrates traditional writing in congenial company. I've been a regular attender for nearly ten years and more recently I've come to Oxford a week early so I can write. It's a treat to concentrate on work without the usual distractions and then to have a chance to be sociable when everyone else arrives for the conference weekend. This year the theme is: The Question of Genre: What is Crime Fiction? and I look forward to hearing papers that consider my chosen genre, sharing bookish gossip over wine and dinner and renewing old friendships. St Hilda's is open to anyone with a passion for crime fiction and new people are always made to feel very welcome, so do check us out.
Recently, prompted by my very efficient webmistress to add a diary entry, I was shocked to see that I haven't written anything since the end of April. The spring seems to have slid past without my noticing, perhaps because in my head I'm in the Whitley Bay of the 80s and 90s, writing a new Vera novel. The discovery of a pile of bones at St Mary's Island takes Vera back to the time when she was a young detective. We first moved to the north east in the 80s and it's been fun recapturing MY time as a new crime writer, getting to know the place that's become our permanent home.
CrimeFest has become an important event in our calendar. It's been a while since I attended, and I enjoyed catching up with old friends and meeting new ones. A panel chaired by James Runcie on violence against women was thought-provoking and I had dinner with Lori Radar-Day, an American writer whose books I admired when I first read them at Left Coast Crime in Arizona. On the way to Bristol for CrimeFest I spoke to the women in Drake Hall prison, and then stopped in Herefordshire for a couple of nights for events in Ledbury and Leominster.
The most exciting jaunt of the period was to Hay. I'd never been to the festival, but I was born in Hereford, the nearest station, and there was a strange atavistic sense of belonging as we drove through the lush countryside past orchards and hop fields to the town. I recognized village names and even glimpsed the cottage where I think my grandparents had once lived.
Our Hay panel was based on SHETLAND and it was a delight to get together with exec producer Elaine Collins, script exec Clare Batty and actress Alison O'Donnell. The panel was chaired by the wonderful Alison Graham from the Radio Times. We had a fantastic audience in the tent that night, with lots of great contributions, so thanks to everyone who came.
NYC and BNBR
The theme of travel continued later into the spring. Just as well I enjoy being on the move - I was about 8 when I discovered the word 'wanderlust' in a library book and thought with a wonderful sense of recognition - 'I've got that!' Both VERA and SHETLAND are now aired in many states in the US on the public broadcasting service and it seemed a great time to visit New York. I'm not a city person at all, but there's something about New York that's addictive. This time I travelled with my daughters and that made it extra special. While I caught up with my editor and new marketing person at Minotaur, and met some old friends and new readers in the Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca, the girls walked miles, went for runs, took a yoga class and generally left me exhausted. They did join me for a tour round the Flatiron building, which houses St Martin's Press, Minotaur's parent company. The biggest thrill was chatting to the concierge in the hotel where we were staying and discovering (without any prompting from me) that he was a huge Vera fan and loved Brenda Blethyn.
I arrived back to the run-up to the Big North Book Run. This was a libraries festival sponsored by Pan Macmillan, culminating in a party for library staff and readers' groups to celebrate World Book Night. Five authors travelled round eight boroughs in north east England and took part in more than twenty reading events! We spoke in tiny branch libraries and to packed theatres. It was an exhausting three days but fantastic to meet readers from all over the region and for authors to reach places that had never before attracted writer visits. My Quick Read book, Too Good To Be True, was one of the Word Book Night titles and I was absolutely delighted that actress Alison O'Donnell (Tosh in the BBC drama Shetland) could join us at the party to read a short piece from the book.
Now I'm hoping for a quieter and more settled period so that I can work on the new novel, though May will see me in Bristol for CrimeFest and I look forward to seeing some of you there.