Ann Cleeves is the author of more than 30 novels, among them the series that inspired the hit U.K. TV series Vera and Shetland. Her many honors have included the Crime Writers’ Association’s highest accolade, the Diamond Dagger, and, recognizing her work as a champion of literacy and of the library sector, an OBE.

What are you looking forward to in your Author of the Day role?

I’m very much looking forward to being back at the London Book Fair. I love the buzz of publishers, agents, and scouts all talking about their passion for new books.

This is one of many demands on your time–for example, you’re patron of the Shetland Noir festival, and there’s your Reading for Wellbeing project in the North East. Is it sometimes hard to reserve time for writing?

It is sometimes hard, but I write best very early in the morning, so it doesn’t compete much with other things. Shetland Noir will be great fun, and planning meetings gave me the excuse for a couple of trips to the islands. Reading for Wellbeing is important to me, but most of the hard work is done by other people. I attended a Health Inequalities Conference just before lockdown and threw out the sponsorship idea as a way of celebrating Vera’s 21st anniversary. By the end of the day, we had a group of medics, library staff, and people from the voluntary sector working as a committee to make it happen. We now have nine project workers in six local authorities with three more either committed or trying to sort out funding. Almost the whole of the north-east will be covered then.

Shetland was orginally intended to be the setting for a single novel, then for a quartet. You ended up writing eight. Does this often happen: that the lure of a character and a place tends to subvert first notions?

It does, though it was my editor at the time who thought that it would stretch credibility to have more than one murder in such a small community… After Raven Black started selling so well, the publisher decided it might run to a series and commissioned three more. I’d never been paid in advance before, so it was a lovely surprise.

A related question: there’s often pressure from fans to write particular kinds of books–more Jimmy! more Vera! How much does this influence you?

That is a pressure, but I try not to let it influence me. I write the books I enjoy writing. It took 20 years before I had any real commercial success, so it always had to be fun. After eight Shetland novels, I decided I didn’t have anything else to say about the islands, though I’m delighted that the BBC has decided to film another series of the drama. I had enjoyed alternating between characters and places though, which is why I started the Matthew Venn books, set in North Devon where I grew up. The most recent in that series, The Raging Storm, will be published in the autumn.

Ruth Rendell said that when she wrote her Inspector Wexford novels she came to picture George Baker, who played him on TV. Does this happen when you think of Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall in Shetland) and Vera Stanhope (Brenda Blethyn in Vera)?

I didn’t see or hear Dougie when I was writing Shetland. Jimmy is dark and scruffy with a Shetland accent. But more importantly, Dougie captured absolutely Perez’s character. He’s strong and authoritative, but with that baseline of kindness, which means that he has too little compassion left for the people he loves. Brenda, even in costume, is much more attractive than the Vera of the books, but I always hear her voice when I’m writing dialogue. She inhabits the character entirely.

You’ve said that you don’t plan your novels. Do you ever find yourself going up dead ends, or does your subconscious usually guide you in the right direction?

Because I read a lot–and most writers do–I have the sense of a story’s structure as I write. I think it’s like a stand-up telling a joke. A good comedian will know how to pace it and when the tagline should be. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of dead ends. And even more re-writes.

In conversation with the Author of the Day: Ann Cleeves will be talking to Alison Flood, culture editor and reviewer, New Scientist and Observer, on the Main Stage from 1 p.m. today.