Sunday, 25 July 2010

pd james interview

PD James interview: 'I have lived a very happy and fulfilled life': She’s a life peer, a best-selling crime novelist, and last year, the BBC’s scariest interrogator. As she approaches 90, PD James reflects on death, family − and the husband she couldn’t save.
- Daily Telegraph, 21 July.

Extracts:
Added to all this, her best known hero, the detective Adam Dalgliesh, is a man. When I ask her what it has been like being, as it were, inside his head for the past 47 years she chuckles and says: ‘Well, he is a male version of me. Brainier than me but his emotions are mine. The empathy is mental rather than physical. I never describe Dalgliesh getting up and getting dressed.’ So is she, like her hero, unsentimental? ‘Yes, I’m very unsentimental. Very.’
Her most recent Dalgliesh novel was published in 2008, might there be another one? ‘I’m not sure yet. Life has been so busy I have only done 10,000 words in six months. I don’t want the standard to drop and I don’t want a reviewer to be saying: “It’s a remarkable book, for a 91 year-old.” And I don’t want them to say: “It’s not vintage PD James.” If I’m not doing it as well as I have done it in the past, then there is no point in my doing it at all.’
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She knows whereof she speaks. Before the Home Office, which she joined in 1968, she worked as an administrator in the NHS, having had some experience of health care working for the Red Cross in the Second World War. That was what she was doing when she had her first novel published at the age of 42. ‘I remember thinking: the years are slipping by and if I don't make a start soon I’m going to be a failed writer. There was never going to be a convenient time to get on with it.’ So she had to be selfish and find the time? ‘I did a lot of plotting on long journeys to work but I was also doing evening classes and visiting my husband in hospital, so I didn’t have much spare time. I certainly didn’t tell anyone I was writing a book, apart from my husband, and he was encouraging.’
During the Second World War, her husband was a doctor in the Royal Army Medical Corps, but he suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a psychiatric hospital. He wasn’t given a disability pension because it was claimed his mental illness had not been caused by war service. ‘So I had him and two daughters to support, and did evening classes in hospital administration to get my qualifications. Then I was put in charge of psychiatric units and I got two books out of that.’
It was at this time that she saw an advertisement for the civil service and decided to take the examination. Though she hadn’t had the chance to go to university, for financial reasons, she came third in the country. ‘I’ve still got the pre-printed letter which says: “Dear sir” and “sir” is crossed out and “Madam” has been written in by hand. It was so rare for women to take the exam.’
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How does she get into the mind of a killer? ‘I think when you create a character you become that character for as long as you are writing about them. So when I am writing about a killer, I am that killer. I am in his mind, which is probably why I don’t have sadistic mass murderers as characters. They terrify me as much as anybody and I wouldn’t want to be in their minds. And, anyway, most mass murderers are mundane.
'The Cumbrian gunman killed in a random way. He was determined to die and make sure everyone took notice, but his case is not very fascinating to a crime writer. The same is true of psychopaths. They don’t interest me as much from a crime writing point of view because they kill without recognisable motives. What is fascinating is when you have an educated, law-abiding person who steps over a line.’
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There is, she reckons, an element of selfishness to writing, because of the space you have to create. ‘There is also what Graham Greene called the splinter of ice in the heart. If I had a friend in distress I would have no hesitation in putting my arms around her to comfort her, but part of me would be observing. That happens. With some of the most difficult things that have happened in my life, part of me stands aside and watches me deal with it. In that sense my life has been a continual narrative.’
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She mentioned earlier that there were ‘differences’ in being 90, meaning physical. But what about social? How is the world of 2010 different from the world of 1930, say, when she was a 10 year-old? ‘It is a different world. When I was young our house was lit by gas. No telephone. No car. A Victorian child could have moved in with us and felt at home. Whereas if a Victorian child moved into a modern day household he would be utterly lost,’ James says. ‘Life today for a young person is all about computers and being in constant communication, with blogs and tweets, and so on. Not that that makes them any wiser.’
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Though she has a graceful and precise prose style, James was once described by Kingsley Amis as ‘Iris Murdoch with murders’; her age and her conservative world-view can make her fiction seem dated at times. Her conversation, too. She says ‘golly’ and ‘my dear’, but doesn’t swear.
In a review of one of her recent novels the critic Mark Lawson wrote: ‘When reading PD James you do become nostalgic for crack cocaine, anal sex and people calling each other mutha.’ ‘Well it’s not part of my world,’ she says with a laugh when I quote this to her. ‘I try to keep away from it. I can write about it if I have to but mostly my murderers are respectable, upper-middle-class people. They don’t go in for a lot of crack.’
Her characters do have sex though. ‘Yes, they sleep together and some have been gay but I mostly leave the details to the reader’s imagination. Dalgliesh sleeps with his girlfriend and is unmarried but I don’t think you need to describe sex in detail. Same with television. All these heaving buttocks. It’s not erotic – perhaps it is for a 12 year-old, but not to an adult.’
To mark her 90th birthday, Faber and Faber have brought out a new paperback collection of her crime novels, and very handsome they look too, with their brooding covers. Needless to say, there isn’t any swearing in them. ‘Oh, I know all the swear words, my dear,’ she says, ‘and use them myself sometimes, in private. But I see no need for them in my books.’