Interviews

P. D. James, The Art of Fiction No. 141

Interviewed by Shusha Guppy

P. D. James is one of Britain’s most admired and best loved writers. Long considered the queen of crime and the doyenne of detective novelists, she has a large and varied readership beyond the confines of the genre and is praised by critics in such literary journals as the Times Literary Supplement and the Literary Review.

James was born in 1920 in Oxford and educated at The High School for Girls in Cambridge, where her family settled when she was eleven. Upon leaving school at sixteen, she started work, and in 1941 married Dr. Connor Bantry White with whom she had two daughters, Clare and Jane. Her husband returned from World War II mentally damaged and unable to work, and James was forced to earn a living for her family. She started working in the National Health Service and later moved to the Home Office, where she ended up as a principal in the Police Department. She published her first novel, Cover Her Face, in 1962, at the age of forty-two.

In the three decades that followed, James wrote eleven more novels, achieving critical acclaim and increasing popularity. She “hit the jackpot” with her eighth novel, Innocent Blood, which shot to number one on the American best-seller list and brought her worldwide fame and fortune. To date she has sold over ten million copies of her books in the U.S. and tours regularly to publicize her novels and give lectures.

P. D. James’s first mainstream novel, Children of Men, a futuristic moral parable set in England in 2007, also gained considerable success. Her thirteenth and most recent novel, Original Sin, is set in the London publishing world and features detective Commander Adam Dalgliesh, the most famous detective since Sherlock Holmes and a protagonist of many previous novels.

James was awarded the Cartier Diamond Dagger in 1987 for lifetime achievement, and the Silver Dagger of the Crime Writers’ Association for her fourth novel, Shroud for a Nightingale. In the United States she has won the Edgar Allan Poe Scroll for the same novel, as well as for An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. Eight of her novels have been serialized on television. She is an associate fellow of Downing College, Cambridge, has won honorary degrees from four universities, and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and of The Royal Society of Literature. In addition, James has served as the chairman of the literature panel of the Arts Council and as a governor of the BBC. In 1991 she was ennobled by the Queen and sits in the House of Lords as Baroness James of Holland Park.

P. D. James lives in an elegant Regency house in Holland Park, London where this interview took place in April of 1994. Her drawing room is furnished with comfortable armchairs and sofas, gilt mirrors, Staffordshire figures, and a fine bookcase containing the complete bound volume of Notable British Trials, “fascinating to read.”



INTERVIEWER

You did not start writing until you were in your forties, yet you say that you always wanted to be a writer. How did you know and how did you think you would go about it?

P. D. JAMES

I think I was born knowing it. From an early age I used to tell imaginative stories to my younger brother and sister. I lived in the world of the imagination and I did something that other writers have told me they did as children—I described myself inwardly in the third person: She brushed her hair and washed her face, then she put on her nightdress . . . as if I were standing outside myself and observing myself. I don’t know whether this is significant, but I think writing was what I wanted to do—almost as soon as I knew what a book was.

INTERVIEWER

Were your parents interested in literature? Did they read a lot? What books did you have in the house?

JAMES

I was the eldest of three children, and my father was a middle-grade Inland Revenue tax official. My parents’ marriage wasn’t particularly happy, partly, I think, because of their very different characters. My father was essentially reserved, highly intelligent and unemotional; my mother was warmhearted, impulsive, and much less intellectual. I was rather frightened of my father in childhood, as I think were my younger sister and brother, but when he reached old age I grew greatly to value his qualities of courage, intelligence, and humor. I think I have inherited characteristics from both my parents, and I remember both with love. Neither of my parents wrote or was particularly interested in literature, but they took great pleasure in my success.

INTERVIEWER

What did you read at school? Was English your best subject?

JAMES

Yes. I was educated in the state system at an old-fashioned grammar school in Cambridge. In those days state education was very good, but I had to leave at sixteen because university was not free and my family could not afford to pay for me. I would have loved to have gone to university, but I don’t think I would necessarily have been a better writer, indeed perhaps the reverse. Looking back I feel I was fortunate: we had dedicated teachers who were attracted to Cambridge, which is a very beautiful and stimulating city, and stayed. They were women who would have been married but for the slaughter of men in the First World War. Only one had been married and she was a widow. They gave us all their dedicated attention. When I left school I had read more Shakespeare and other major poets than many a university graduate today. It astounds me how narrow and limited their reading is compared to ours.

INTERVIEWER

What about novels, did you read the major novelists as well?

JAMES

We didn’t have many books at home, so I got most of my books from the Cambridge Public Library. I read widely—from adventure stories to Jane Austen. I came under her spell early on, though she usually appeals to older people. One of my first loves was the Book of Common Prayer—I loved its beautiful language and the sense of history, of timelessness, it gave me.

INTERVIEWER

What in particular attracted you to Jane Austen?

JAMES

Her irony and control of structure. One’s response to literature is like one’s response to human beings—if you asked me what appeals to me in a certain person, I might say his courage, or humor, or intelligence. In Jane Austen it was her style and her irony, the way she creates so distinctive a world in which I feel at home. I called my second daughter after her. She was born during some of the worst bombing in London. I went from Queen Charlotte’s Maternity Hospital to a basement flat in Hampstead because I thought it was safer being underground, and we could hear the flying bombs overhead and the guns trying to shoot them down, and I just read Jane Austen for the hundredth time!

INTERVIEWER

Did you read George Eliot as well, and with the same relish?

JAMES

I came to her later. Like most people I believe Middlemarch to be one of the greatest English novels, but I don’t have the same affection for George Eliot as for Jane Austen. I read Dickens and recognized his genius, but he is not my favorite. I find many of his female characters unsuccessful—wonderful caricatures, wicked, odd, grotesque, evil, but not true. There isn’t the subtlety of characterization you get, say, in Trollope, whose understanding and description of women is astonishing. Jane Austen never described two men talking together if a woman was not present—she would have thought that was outside her experience. In Trollope, by contrast, you get continual conversations between women—for example Alice Vavasor and Lady Glencora Palliser in Can You Forgive Her—without a man there, and he gets it absolutely right. This plain, grumpy looking man had obviously an astonishing knowledge of women’s psychology.

INTERVIEWER

Trollope has become a hero of the feminists, especially his The Way We Live Now in which he proclaims women’s rights before anyone else did.

JAMES

I tend not to think of books in terms of contemporary issues and passions; it diminishes them. But that particular book is a kind of contemporary novel. The main character was a sort of Robert Maxwell, a monster. Trollope describes women’s lives at a time when marriage was the only possibility for personal fulfillment.

INTERVIEWER

Did you read foreign novelists, the great Russians, the French?

JAMES

I read the obvious ones: War and Peace, Anna Karenina. I didn’t have time to read enough writers of my own language as I went to work after school and kept working. I read some American novelists: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, John O’Hara, and the crime writers like Dashiell Hammett and Ross MacDonald. I think American crime writers have had a profound influence, not only on the genre but on the course of the novel as a whole.

INTERVIEWER

In what way?

JAMES

By the vigor of their language, its imaginative use—the wisecracks, the one-liners. It is a distinctive style that has influenced the mainstream American novel.

INTERVIEWER

This brings us to the genre you chose for yourself. Did you choose it because you were aware of having a talent for it?

JAMES

I don’t make a distinction between the so-called serious or literary novel and the crime novel. I suppose one could say mainstream novel. But I didn’t hesitate long before I decided to try to write a detective story, because I so much enjoyed reading them myself. And I thought I could probably do it successfully, and the detective story being a popular genre, it would have a better chance of being accepted for publication. I didn’t want to use the traumatic experiences of my own life in an autobiographical book, which would have been another option for a first attempt. But there were two other reasons. First, I like structured fiction, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. I like a novel to have narrative drive, pace, resolution, which a detective novel has. Second, I was setting out at last on the path of becoming a writer, which I had longed for all my life, and I thought writing a detective story would be a wonderful apprenticeship for a “serious” novelist, because a detective story is very easy to write badly but difficult to write well. There is so much you have to fit into eighty or ninety-thousand words—not just creating a puzzle, but an atmosphere, a setting, characters . . . Then when the first one worked, I continued, and I came to believe that it is perfectly possible to remain within the constraints and conventions of the genre and be a serious writer, saying something true about men and women and their relationships and the society in which they live.

INTERVIEWER

Alain Robbe-Grillet once quoted Borges saying that all great novels are detective stories from Crime and Punishment down to Robbe-Grillet’s own Jalousie. Do you agree?

JAMES

I hadn’t thought of it that way, but now you mention it, I think there is some truth in that; it is an interesting observation. It is true because the novel is an artificial form and the detective novel especially so, as the writer has to select events and arrange them in a certain order, making use of his or her experience to reveal a view of reality. The problem solving, too, is characteristic of both genres. For example, Jane Austen’s Emma is a remarkable detective story in which the truth of human relationships are inserted into the narrative in a very cunning way—for instance, Frank Churchill arriving in Highbury already secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax. She needs a piano and Frank goes to London to have his hair cut and a few days later a piano arrives. The novel is full of this kind of clue to the truth of relationships. There is no murder or death in the book, yet it is a novel of deceit and detection.

INTERVIEWER

That makes the definition of the detective novel too general. What we understand by the term is a specific genre with its conventions and rules, and it requires a special talent, a particular cast of mind; there is usually a corpse, and the corpse has come to be there in mysterious circumstances that the novel sets out to discover. It sounds a bit morbid, yet most detective novelists I have met are perfectly sane! Was your experience of working in the Health Service influential in your choice of material?

JAMES

No. I didn’t come across corpses because I was an administrator, a bureaucrat, not a doctor or a nurse. But I had an interest in death from an early age. It fascinated me. When I heard, Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, I thought, Did he fall or was he pushed? But if I could get back to what you first said, that a detective story needs a corpse, I don’t think it necessarily does. For example Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night is without a corpse. But you are right, it is rare. On the whole the story is centered around a mysterious death, which gives it an extra emotional punch—“who killed the canon?” has more impact than “who stole the diamond ring?” Perhaps the people who write these stories have a human interest in death and they feel that by fictionalizing and intellectualizing it, turning it into a puzzle, they can diffuse their atavistic fear of death and violence.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find the corpse first and build the story around it?

JAMES

No, although that is one way of doing it. A naked body wearing a pince-nez started Dorothy L. Sayers’s Whose Body? Certainly one of my books, Shroud for a Nightingale, started with a particular idea for killing somebody. It came to me when I saw a patient being fed through a tube into the stomach and I thought you could use the same method to kill somebody—by pouring in poison instead of milk. And I did—in the story I mean! But usually what sparks off my imagination is the setting.

INTERVIEWER

How do you get the setting? By chance or by imagining it? Do you ever go and look for it the way a film director looks around for possible locations?

JAMES

I never deliberately look for it. I have never taken the view that as soon as I have finished a book I have to start a new one. I wait, however long it takes, for inspiration. Of course I keep my mind and my imagination open to receive inspiration, but I don’t rush around looking for places in the hope that they can provide me with a setting. It is always fortuitous. To give an example: Devices and Desires is set on the east coast of England in Norfolk. I was visiting Suffolk, the county to the south, and one day I was standing on a shingly beach looking out over the cold, dangerous North Sea. I saw two boats pulled up with a few nets drying and I thought I could have stood there for a thousand years and seen the same things—boats, nets, shoreline. Then I turned my gaze to the north, and towering over the whole headland was the stark outline of a nuclear power station. I thought of the ruined abbeys I had been visiting in the area, which were the symbol of a decaying faith, the ancient windmills turned into houses, and the other artifacts of today that were a sharp contrast to that timeless scene. I decided that my next book would be set on a lonely stretch of the East Anglian coast under the shadow of a nuclear power station, and that I would deal with some of the issues of nuclear power. That spring of inspiration is a very exciting moment, because it is then that I know I have a book, however long it takes to produce it.

INTERVIEWER

A number of modern novelists and playwrights admit that they have trouble inventing plots. I remember Tom Stoppard saying this one day. Many dispense with plot altogether and write novels in which nothing in particular happens. In the detective story the plot is all. How do you plot your stories after you have got the setting? Do you start writing immediately?

JAMES

No. Not for months. I think many people don’t know how to plot and can’t tell stories anymore. Some writers could do it but don’t want to, they wish to be different. But there is a tradition of strong narrative thrust in English fiction and all our great novelists of the past have had it. For myself I believe plot is necessary, although it would be easy to write a book without it. In the thirties, the so-called golden age of the detective story, plot was everything. Indeed what people wanted was ingenuity of plot. You couldn’t have an ordinary murder; it had to be done with exceptional cunning. It was the age when corpses were found in locked rooms with locked windows and a look of horror on their faces. With Agatha Christie ingenuity of plot was paramount—no one looked for subtlety of characterization, motivation, good writing. It was rather like a literary card trick. Today we’ve moved closer to the mainstream novel, but nevertheless we need plot. It takes me as long to develop the plot and work out the characters as to write the book. Sometimes longer. So once I’ve got the setting, I begin to get in touch with the people, as it were, and last of all the clues. With Devices and Desires I had fifteen notebooks—I went back to the original setting and took notes about the sky, the landscape, the architecture, the local people . . . It is a curious process—I feel that the characters in the story already exist in a limbo outside my control, and what I’m doing over the months of gestation is getting in touch with them and learning about them.

INTERVIEWER

For that reason novelists say they don’t know what the ending will be. With the detective novel you must know, since it is there at the beginning—the corpse.

JAMES

That is true, but there is a distinction between a crime novel and a detective novel. The latter has a very ordered form, as it depends on ratiocination and logical clues for solving the mystery. It is a cerebral form of literature. Since your solution must be logical, you must know the ending at the beginning.

INTERVIEWER

Can you elaborate on the difference between the crime novel and the detective novel? Since in both cases a crime, usually a murder, has been committed?

JAMES

The crime novel covers a wide spectrum from the cozy certainties of Agatha Christie and her little English village, which despite its above average homicide rate never really loses its innocence, through Wilkie Collins and Trollope (The Eustace Diamonds), Dickens (The Mystery of Edwin Drood), Graham Greene, to novels of espionage, and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamazov. So I see the detective novel as a sub-species of the crime novel. The Americans call it the mystery novel, which I think is an apt description. In the crime novel you might know from the start who committed the crime, but the interest is in whether the criminal will be caught and in the effect of the crime on him, the people around him, and the society in which he lives. You can say Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock is a crime novel, but it contains no mystery. It is the relationship between Pinkie and his mistress and the theological aspect that matter. So the detective story is more limited.

INTERVIEWER

Once you start the story, do you go from alpha to omega? Or do you write the murder scene first?

JAMES

It depends. I sometimes write the major, decisive scenes first, then fill in the rest. You could get into trouble with continuity, but I usually get it right.

INTERVIEWER

We come to the central character, the detective. He returns in novel after novel, which is rather handy, since having created him, you can watch him change, age, fall in love. Your detective is Commander Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard. How did you find him? Where did you get his name? Is he a male version of you?

JAMES

My English teacher was a Scottish lady called Maisie Dalgliesh. I wanted a name that was not too unusual and yet not too common. What is interesting is that I called him Adam and years later my teacher said that her father was also called Adam Dalgliesh. But I don’t think he is a male version of me. Certainly he has characteristics I admire in a human being, because if you create a character who is to come back in subsequent books you have to like him and be able to live with him over the years. Then there is a lesson for all of us in the novels of the thirties: Agatha Christie must have regretted this funny little Belgian with his waxed mustaches. But she was stuck with him. Dorothy L. Sayers had the same trouble with Peter Wimsey, who began as somewhat a silly young man-about-town in Whose Body?, but is a very different Lord Peter Wimsey in Gaudy Night. So I thought I would create someone who has the qualities I respect—generosity, compassion, intelligence.

INTERVIEWER

The very qualities everyone ascribes to yourself! Then one day you dropped Dalgliesh and brought in a woman detective—Cordelia Gray. Was it the feminist wave catching up with the detective novel?

JAMES

No. It was the need of that particular story. I wanted to set the book in Cambridge, a city I love. A particularly horrible murder of a student had taken place, which looked like suicide, and it required a young detective. Suddenly I thought it could be a woman. It is a mystery how these ideas suddenly occur to one. Cordelia is lovely, courageous, independent. She inherits a run-down agency from her boss, which she has to build up again, hence the title, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. The first case she gets is the death of an eminent Cambridge scientist’s son. The inquest gives a verdict of suicide, but the father feels it is murder and wants to know why. So in comes Cordelia and she finds that the suicide was faked and that the death was indeed a murder.

INTERVIEWER

There are a number of other famous women detectives, particularly in America. Unlike Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, they are not amateurs but highly professional—they carry guns, eat take-out food, and are not domesticated—not an awful lot of anima around them!

JAMES

It is true, particularly with the American women writers, you get professional private eyes. They operate in a violent world and they carry guns just as men do. But in this country private eyes are not allowed guns, and anyway Cordelia is an older creation—I wrote her twenty years ago. In Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler the detective is a loner, often working against the police. Indeed the police are as much of a danger to him as the criminal, since if they don’t approve of him he might lose his license to practice. But in my book it would have been unrealistic if Cordelia were a gun-toting licensed private eye.

INTERVIEWER

Do you suppose feminism has something to do with the emergence of the female detective?

JAMES

Probably. But also these are realistic novels, and private eyes have to be professional if they are to work successfully in that society.

INTERVIEWER

You are, as you say, of an older generation. Would you describe yourself as a feminist?

JAMES

Oh well . . . that is just a label. I am a feminist in so far as I want a fairer deal for women, equal opportunity, equal pay, a more just society. And I have a great affection for members of my own sex. But it seems to me that some radical feminists today are against men and they dislike being women and I can’t go along with that. The truth is that there are no easy answers to some fundamental questions; we are biologically designed to bear children and the children have great need of us, especially in their early years. This makes it more difficult for women to pursue careers on equal terms with men. Paradoxically women today have a much harder life than had our mothers and grandmothers, although there is more equality between the sexes. In the past, women had extended families and good reliable nannies. Today we don’t have such help and careers are open to women at the very time when it is difficult to pursue them without risk of damage to their children. As a result women are stretched physically and emotionally, working hard to hold down a job and have a family. Somebody has to run a household, and the woman is the heart of the family, however good the husband may be at sharing the chores. It may be that women have to make difficult choices, give up work and stay at home for a few years until the children go to school. So often this so-called independence means that you are paying someone else to do your work—you go out to work in order to earn money to pay the woman who is looking after your children. She is enjoying your children instead of you!

INTERVIEWER

Do you find it hard to air such views in the politically correct atmosphere of certain establishments, such as universities where you often lecture?

JAMES

I went to Somerville College, Oxford the other day, and in the cloakrooms there were notices about a help-line for this and a help-line for that, the harrasment help-line and the date-rape help-line . . . I thought of those splendid women who were the first to graduate from the college and whose portraits are hung on the walls, and I thought life could not have been easy for them. If they came back today, they would be horrified to see what kind of society we live in. I believe that political correctness can be a form of linguistic fascism, and it sends shivers down the spine of my generation who went to war against fascism. The only way to react is to get up in the morning and start the day by saying four or five vastly politically incorrect things before breakfast!

INTERVIEWER

To go back to your work: which detective novelists did you relish most before you started writing?

JAMES

I read mostly women detective writers: Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, well, the sisterhood. I don’t read many crime novels now, they are not my favorite reading.

INTERVIEWER

What about contemporaries like Ruth Rendell? And younger ones, of whom quite a few have achieved success?

JAMES

I like them. Ruth Rendell writes detective stories under her own name and crime novels under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. I admire and prefer the latter.

INTERVIEWER

You have already alluded to several predecessors—Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Hammet, Chandler . . . I would like to ask you about two of the all time greats. Let us start with Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective.

JAMES

Every crime writer has been influenced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, even if only subconsciously. He bequeathed to crime writing a respect for reason and a nonabstract intellectualism, the capacity to tell a story and the ability to create a specific and distinctive world. He is also, of course, the creator of one of the first and certainly the most famous of all amateur detectives, Sherlock Holmes. Probably his greatest contribution to crime writing was that he made the genre popular, a popularity that it was never subsequently to lose.

INTERVIEWER

And Georges Simenon? Did you read him much?

JAMES

I have a great admiration for his work; he is a very good novelist by any criteria, with a remarkable understanding of human psychology, particularly that of the criminal mind. He worked in what I think must be a unique way for the crime novelist in that he has told us that his books weren’t carefully plotted in advance. What he did was to choose the names of his characters from the international telephone directory and then put them in a certain situation and let them take over. This, of course, would not be a reasonable method of working for a detective novelist, since it isn’t really comparable with the careful clue-making that classical detection requires. Georges Simenon, in my view, was a crime writer and a very fine one, not primarily a writer of detective stories.

INTERVIEWER

It is often said that women are particularly good at detective stories. Why do you think that is? Are they more intuitive, or observant of details, or sympathetic?

JAMES

It is certainly true that women do excel at the carefully clued, traditional detective story, although less successful with the hard-boiled, fast-action, and violent crime novel, which is still largely the domain of male writers. One reason why women are good at writing detective stories may be our feminine eye for detail; clue-making demands attention to the detail of everyday life. George Orwell said that murder, the unique crime, should raise only strong emotions, and we are interested in those emotions rather than in weaponry. It may also be that women find that the ordered structure of the form is supportive, enabling us to deal with horrific events that we might find distressing outside the constraints of the genre.

INTERVIEWER

When you finally wrote your first novel, were you surprised it was accepted?

JAMES

No. But I was delighted. I always felt that if I managed to get the book written, it would be published. As it happened, the first publishers to whom I sent my manuscript, Faber & Faber, accepted it. I have been with them ever since. I was lucky; there are very good novelists whose desks are full of rejection slips.

INTERVIEWER

So the success of that first book encouraged you, and you went on. Then after eleven detective stories, last year you produced Children of Men, which one could describe as a futuristic moral parable?

JAMES

Yes, that’s a fair description, because I don’t think of it as science fiction, as some have claimed. I didn’t set out to write a moral fable, but it came out that way. This time it was not a setting that inspired it, but the review of a scientific book drawing attention to a dramatic drop in the sperm count of Western men—fifty percent in as many years. I asked some scientists about this and they said that it was perhaps due to pollution. But the article drew attention to another factor: that of all the billions of life-forms that have inhabited this earth, most have already died out, that the natural end of man is to disappear too, and that the time our species has spent on this planet is a mere blink. So I wondered what England would be like, say, twenty-five years after the last baby was born and then for twenty-five years no one had heard the cry of a baby. I sat down and wrote it. There is murder, but it is not a detective story. As you said, it is a moral parable, very different from my other books.

INTERVIEWER

The greatest problem of the world is overpopulation, not the drop in the sperm count of the Western man. The drop of the sperm count could be a blessing, don’t you think?

JAMES

I know. India can’t cope. They say the Chinese are curbing their population, but at what price! In Africa AIDS and famine are the main causes of death. But in the West the birthrate is dropping. So either man uses his knowledge to regulate his fertility or the species is doomed.

INTERVIEWER

What about your new novel, Original Sin? Adam Dalgliesh is back. Did you decide to go back to your old genre because some critics said they preferred it? Or did your public reclaim Dalgliesh?

JAMES

Children of Men did well—it reached number six on the best-seller list. People wrote encouragingly about it, but said that they missed Dalgliesh and hoped I had not discarded him for good. However, that is not why I brought him back. The book is set in London, in the publishing world.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you set it in the publishing world?

JAMES

I decided to set it in London, on the Thames, in a mock Venetian palace, and I thought why not the publishing world?

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a little more about it?

JAMES

The river runs as a unifying theme through the novel. Dalgliesh is again helped by my professional woman detective, Kate Miskin, who first appeared in A Taste For Death. Henry Peverell has just died and his partner, Jean-Philippe Etienne, has retired. Gerard, Etienne’s ruthless son, has taken over as chairman and managing director. He has already made enemies—his discarded mistress, a rejected and humiliated author, his colleagues, and threatened members of the Peverell staff. When he is found dead on the premises, his body bizarrely desecrated, there is no shortage of suspects.

INTERVIEWER

Why Original Sin? Are titles important to you?

JAMES

They are very important and it is difficult to find the right one for a book. In my case the title comes either very early on, with no problem, or takes a long time and is found with difficulty.

INTERVIEWER

Does anyone help you if you get stuck for a title? Your editor?

JAMES

No. Except once, for Innocent Blood, which was my first best-seller in America, and which is a novel about a girl who has been adopted and is trying to discover her parents. The original title was “Blood Relation,” but we found that it was the title of another book in America. There is no copyright for titles, but on the whole it is better not to repeat something recent, and we decided to change it. The book was in proof form already and we were desperate. I thought of “Blood Tie,” but wasn’t very happy with it. Then a Catholic friend of mine told me that if something is lost and you pray to St. Anthony, you find it. I’m not a Catholic, but I did pray to St. Anthony and the next morning when I woke up the first thing that came to my mind was Innocent Blood, which is a very good title.

INTERVIEWER

Are you already thinking of the next book?

JAMES

No. Not yet. It may come or it may not come. As I said, I don’t worry; I wait and see what the Good Lord will send me by way of inspiration. Meanwhile I’m busy with proofreading and then with promotion, here and in the United States.

INTERVIEWER

I would like to take up another point, to which you alluded earlier: the preoccupation with death. Apart from your professional interest, so to speak, are you personally concerned with it? I mean some people live with a constant awareness of death—including your interviewer—while others never give it a thought.

JAMES

I always see the skull beneath the skin, which, incidentally, is the title of one of my books. I have always been preoccupied with death and nowadays I think of my own death often. But as Shakespeare said “the readiness is all.” I don’t fear death; what I fear is loss of mind and limb, a long protracted painful dying. At seventy-four I have had my biblical three score and ten. I feel I have been privileged with a long life. Those of us who lived through the last war, or have watched younger friends die of cancer or heart attack, are particularly aware of being lucky. My father used to say, I’m on borrowed time now. I’m grateful for every extra day I have. But I do love life, and as long as I stay healthy I hope I’ll go on for a long time.

INTERVIEWER

I believe you are religious, so perhaps you believe in an afterlife?

JAMES

I certainly believe in God. As a Christian one is supposed to believe in “the resurrection of the body,” but I don’t think I do. I hope the soul is eternal. I am rather attracted to the Buddhist idea of reincarnation, that we are on the up and up!

INTERVIEWER

Reincarnation is meant to be a process of purification—we get better and better until we achieve nirvana, which is void, nothingness. I have never understood what is so great about that. I mean isn’t it what atheists believe?

JAMES

I rather hope that reincarnation will mean that a future life will get better and better!

INTERVIEWER

Joking apart, the truth is that we don’t know and that we can’t know. But we have lost the ability to accept and live with mystery.

JAMES

I absolutely agree. I think we are not meant to know. You are so right; religion devoid of mystery and beauty is nothing. One only gets an intimation of something beyond this world, but we are not meant to know more than that. I do believe in redemption through love. That is my religion and Christ is showing us the way to love. But I don’t believe Christianity is the only way; that no one comes to God except through Jesus Christ. Most people on this planet haven’t even heard of him! To damn the great majority of the human race is absurd. Perhaps I have a simplistic view of these things, but I think different spiritual disciplines are like so many paths all leading to the summit of the mountain, where God is. We each choose our own way. The scenery and the track that is the Christian faith and that I have chosen is quite different from a Buddhist’s or a Muslim’s, but I hope we will all get there, eventually.

INTERVIEWER

Let us talk about your method: when do you write?

JAMES

When I first started writing I got up early and wrote from six to eight, as I had to go to work. The habit has stuck and I still get up early and write in the morning. When I’m writing a book, I get up before seven, go down to the kitchen and make tea, listen to the news on the radio, and have a bath, then I settle down to work. I find that after a few hours I can’t go on and I stop around twelve. The rest of the day is given to all other matters.

INTERVIEWER

Where do you write?

JAMES

I don’t write in a particular place, and I can, in fact, write anywhere provided I have absolute peace and privacy. A favorite place is here (in the kitchen of my London house), since I can easily walk out into the garden when I feel inclined to a break in the fresh air, or make myself a coffee. It also has the advantage that the kitchen table is large enough to spread out my notes, dictionary and reference books. When I am writing a novel I never go anywhere without carrying a notebook in which I can jot down descriptions of places, impressions of the people I may meet, snatches of dialogue or a new sophistication of plot. I prefer writing by hand but my handwriting is so bad, particularly when I am writing quickly, that I can barely decipher it myself the next day. What I do is almost immediately to transfer the handwriting to tape, which my secretary types out to provide the first draft. I write the books out of order, rather as if I were shooting a film, and then put the story together at the end before sending the manuscript to a professional word-processing agency where it is put on disc. Then it is done.

Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.