Writers & Company

P.D. James at 100: The thrills and mysteries of her life as a crime writer

Aug. 3, 2020, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of P.D. James, one of England's most celebrated crime writers. Writers & Company revisits Eleanor Wachtel’s 2000 conversation with the author, who died in 2014 at the age of 94.
Phyllis Dorothy James, known professionally as P. D. James, was an English crime writer. (Quim Llenas/Cover/Getty Images)

Aug. 3, 2020, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of P.D. James, one of England's most popular and celebrated crime writers. James died on Nov. 27, 2014, at the age of 94.

The author of more than 20 books, James won nearly every major crime fiction prize in England and the United States. Best-known for her affable sleuth Adam Dalgliesh, her novels have been adapted for television and film — including her dystopian story The Children of Men, which was made into Alfonso Cuarón's 2006 movie, starring Clive Owen and Julianne Moore. 

In 2000, James came out with something different. Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography is part diary, part memoir, recording the events of her life between her 77th and 78th birthdays. In the book, James reflects on her difficult childhood and her role as the sole supporter of her young family — working in criminal policy and forensic administration, while writing mysteries on the side. 

In 2000, James spoke to Eleanor Wachtel for a second time, shortly after Time to Be in Earnest was published. 

Fragments of my life

"I had never wanted to write an autobiography. I later thought it might be a good thing to leave at least some personal record of my life — and maybe this will be of interest to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

"I conceived the idea of not writing an ordinary autobiography, but of writing a diary, or at least a partial diary, of the year between my 77th and 78th birthday. I'm using the diary entries, as it were, to remember things that had happened on that day in the past, or things that came to mind because of the diary entry. 

"For example, the diary entry for my younger daughter's birthday reminded me of her birth in Queen Charlotte's Hospital in London during the worst of the V1 bombardment — and what it was like to give birth during the Second World War. A thousand people were killed in the square mile around that hospital during the week she was born. 

I'm using the diary entries, as it were, to remember things that had happened on that day in the past or things that came to mind because of the diary entry.

"It is a fragment of autobiography, combined with a fragment of a diary."

An unhappy childhood

"I don't think my childhood was particularly happy. But I was very happy at school. It had moments of great happiness because I think healthy children do have moments of great happiness.

"It was not the best time of my life. But I don't feel that I should complain about it. With three-quarters of the world's children going hungry, I haven't a lot to complain about. But it was quite a traumatic one.

"Someone said that a writer should have as much trauma in childhood as they can bear without breaking. I have a feeling that an unhappy or a less than perfect childhood is very good for a writer.

"I don't come from a literary family. I have quite a number of teachers in the family, but no one else has been a creative writer. It is totally mysterious because I knew from very early childhood that I wanted to be a writer. I knew that, almost as soon as I knew what a book was.

I have a feeling that an unhappy or a less than perfect childhood is very good for a writer.

"When I was very young, I used to tell stories to my brother and sister from a very early age. I learned to read long before I went to school. 

"There was never a moment in adult life when I thought, 'I would like to be a writer. It is time I began.' It was simply a question from childhood: 'When shall I begin?'" 

What makes for a good mystery or crime novel

"What I'm trying to do, primarily, is to write a very good novel. At the same time, I do want it to be an honest and credible mystery: I do want there to be clues. I do want people, who are interested in following the clues, to feel at the end that I haven't cheated.

"I want them to feel at the end that, given that character's past history, they could see that he or she did do it, and why. 

"I want it to be a good mystery, but I want to write a good novel. I want there to be psychological subtlety. I want the characters to come alive.

"I want to experiment as far as I can, both with the passing of time — going backwards and forwards, entering into different characters, changing viewpoint — and I want the writing to be distinguished. 

I want it to be a good mystery, but I want to write a good novel. I want there to be psychological subtlety. I want the characters to come alive.

"I dislike very much the distinction between so-called literary novels and other novels. I think the novel is either well-written or just not well written. It's either superbly written or badly written. I want to write superbly well. I want to do the very best I can with the talent I've been given.

"That's what I feel I'm in the world to do."

The intense need to write

"We become writers because we need to become writers. It is a psychological need. It was an intense need on my part. 

"I would not have lived a happy and fulfilled life if I hadn't written. It was quite separate from the wish to gain money, or to gain prestige or to gain fame. It was a psychological need to be a writer and fulfil myself in that way. 

I would not have lived a happy and fulfilled life if I hadn't written.

"For people who write mysteries, we may need to distance our own fear of violence to make an ordered world, to solve puzzles and to affirm the sanctity of life — to affirm our own belief that we live in a rational and comprehensible universe and that we can bring justice out of injustice. 

"The fact that it appeals to me means it must meet psychological needs — in a way that I don't want to write science fiction or romantic novels."

A fascination with death

"I've always had my doubts about Humpty Dumpty. 'All the king's horses and all the king's men?' What were they doing on the scene?

"I don't think I was morbidly fascinated by death, but from quite early childhood I was always intensely aware of the fact of it. It always seemed to me that life was fragile and that death was there.

I don't think I was morbidly fascinated by death, but from quite early childhood I was always intensely aware of the fact of it.

"I can see myself writing a book which isn't a mystery — in fact I have written novels which aren't — but I can't see myself writing one in which there was no death. 

"It seems to me so inseparable a part of life."

P.D. James's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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