Ann grew up in the country, first in Herefordshire, then in North Devon. Her father was a village school teacher. After dropping out of university she took a number of temporary jobs - child care officer, women's refuge leader, bird observatory cook, auxiliary coastguard - before going back to college and training to be a probation officer.
While she was cooking in the Bird Observatory on Fair Isle, she met her husband Tim, a visiting ornithologist. She was attracted less by the ornithology than the bottle of malt whisky she saw in his rucksack when she showed him his room. Soon after they married, Tim was appointed as warden of Hilbre, a tiny tidal island nature reserve in the Dee Estuary. They were the only residents, there was no mains electricity or water and access to the mainland was at low tide across the shore. If a person's not heavily into birds - and Ann isn't - there's not much to do on Hilbre and that was when she started writing. Her first series of crime novels features the elderly naturalist, George Palmer-Jones, and are all now available from Bello, Pan Macmillan's digital imprint.
In 1987 Tim, Ann and their two daughters moved to Northumberland and the north east provides the inspiration for many of her subsequent titles. The girls have both taken up with Geordie lads. In the autumn of 2006, Ann and Tim finally achieved their ambition of moving back to the North East.
For the National Year of Reading, Ann was made reader-in-residence for three library authorities. It came as a revelation that it was possible to get paid for talking to readers about books! She went on to set up reading groups in prisons as part of the 'Inside Books' project, became Cheltenham Literature Festival's first reader-in-residence and still enjoys working with libraries.
Ann's short film for Border TV, Catching Birds, won a Royal Television Society Award.
In February 2016, Ann was delighted to be appointed as a National Libraries Day ambassador for 2016. She found time in her busy schedule because, she said: "Libraries matter. If we believe in equality of opportunity we must fight not just for the buildings but for the range of books inside and the skilled staff who can promote reading in all its forms. Not only do libraries encourage us to be more tolerant and better informed, they contribute enormously to the wealth of the nation." In the same year, she was the first recipient of Iceland Noir's Honorary Award for Services to the Art of Crime Fiction.
In 2006 Ann Cleeves was the first winner of the prestigious Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award of the Crime Writers' Association for Raven Black, the first volume of her Shetland series. In addition, she has been short listed for a CWA Dagger Awards - once for her short story The Plater, and twice for the Dagger in the Library award, which is awarded not for an individual book but for an author's entire body of work.
On 26 October 2017, Ann was presented with the Diamond Dagger of the Crime Writers' Association, the highest honour in British crime writing, at the CWA's Dagger Awards ceremony in London. Presenting Ann with her award, Martin Edwards, Chair of the CWA, said: "It's a lifetime achievement award, and above all it recognises excellence in writing. But it also recognises a significant contribution to the crime writing world. And nobody can deny that Ann Cleeves' contribution has been magnificent."
Ann Cleeves was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by the University of Sunderland on Tuesday, July 8th, 2014, in recognition of her outstanding achievements as a crime writer. In December 2018, this was followed by an honorary award of Doctor of Letters (Hon DLitt) from Robert Gordon University (RGU) in recognition of her contribution to the world of literature and crime writing.
Ann's books have been translated into twenty languages. She's a bestseller in Scandinavia and Germany. Her novels sell widely and to critical acclaim in the United States. Raven Black was shortlisted for the Martin Beck award for best translated crime novel in Sweden in 2007. It has been adapted for radio in Germany - and in the UK where it was a Radio Times pick of the day when it was first broadcast Radio adaptations of Raven Black and White Nights have both been repeated. Ten series of Vera, the ITV adaptation starring Brenda Blethyn, have been shown in the UK and worldwide, and series eleven (delayed because of the coronavirus) is currently in progress; there have also been six series of Shetland, based on the characters and settings of her Shetland novels, with a seventh currently in production. A television adaptation of The Long Call, the first in Ann's new series set in North Devon, was also broadcast in October 2021.
In the autumn of 2016, Ann celebrated the publication of 30 novels in 30 years. Her latest book is The Heron's Cry the second in the 'Two Rivers' series.
On Sunday 17th February 2019, Ann was the castaway on BBC Radio 4's iconic Desert Island Discs. The programmre remains available to listen online, or download.
She was awarded an OBE in the 2022 New Year Honours List, "for services to Reading and Libraries."