GROSSMAN: Good evening, and thank you for coming to tonights
program featuring P.D. James and Bill Link. I am Andrea Grossman,
the founder of WritersBloc, a non-profit author lecture series
dedicated to bringing to Los Angeles my favorite writers.
would like to thank a few people who have made tonight's program
possible. To Cheryl Rodin and the Board of Directors of the Writers
Guild of America, West for making the theatre available for us
tonight. Thanks to my volunteers, and to Debra Frankel. Thanks
also to P.D. James and to Bill Link.
for tonight. There's no question that mystery and detective fiction
give us some of our absolute best literature. From Wilkie Collins
to Michael Connelly and P.D. James, we can see into the nastiest
and creepiest parts of our nature. Great mystery stories enable
us to dig out of our darker nature and can restore order and logic
to our fractured lives. I know that I am most drawn to mystery
and detective fiction with its unusual locations, great villains
and the greater cops who unravel it all. And even if it is
an illusion, the detectives always keep evil at bay.
why the minute that Adam Dalgliesh is called to the scene of the
crime, we know that all of England is in great hands. P.D. James
has created a cop who is as complex as the mysteries he's saddled
with in her books. He's a tortured guy, himself having suffered
a terrible personal loss that occasionally makes him depressed
but still empathetic. He's a struggling but respected poet, whose
striving for understanding, makes him vulnerable and utterly decent.
It's his brilliance and gentleness that disarms the bad guys.
It's his process and complexity that draws us, along with the
villains, to him.
all of P.D. James' stories, whether with Cordelia Gray or Adam
Dalgliesh, the psychoanalytic motivations of the characters is
what sets her work apart from the rest. In her new book, Death
in Holy Orders, Ms. James gives us a very full plate of rotten
behavior: incest, murder, deception, just to name a few. We've
got the neo-gothic location of a cliff-side theological seminary,
a bunch of eccentric priests who run the place, who have either
too much or not enough to keep themselves occupied, and students
who manage to get themselves into trouble by getting murdered
in fabulous and grotesque ways.
suspense chills you, because you know that the bad guy is almost
every bit as smart as our guy Dalgliesh, and his occasional college,
Kate Misket. This book is a trilling ride along with one of the
smartest detectives in England, who is clearly facing the biggest
challenge of his career. Great stuff I love this book.
Link knows that it takes more that divine intervention to solve
a crime. Bill is responsible for some of the most successful and
favorite TV characters who just happen to be detectives. With
his late writing partner, Richard Levinson, Bill created two detective
TV shows whose classic characters, Columbo and Jessica Fletcher,
are everyday folks whose intelligence, perseverance and wit help
them to solve murders, despite the confusing red herrings that
always pop up.
these two detectives have a lot of practice in the murder department.
In Jessica's case, she just happens to be in the right
or wrong place every time she goes out the door. In Columbo's
case, he's a detective with a great gift of irony; it's all in
the details that only he can see, and his noodgy personality
teases the truth out, no matter what.
not just a compulsion for crime that keeps Bill Link happy. Levinson
and Link won Emmys and Edgar Awards for their mysteries, but they
are respected for other works as well. Perhaps you remember The
Execution of Private Slovak, a much-talked about TV movie
about desertion from active duty, and there's That Certain
Summer, a groundbreaking movie about a young man who confronts
his father's homosexuality, that earned a number of awards as
what will happen tonight. Bill Link and P.D. James will talk about
bad guys and good cops, murder and crime. When they're through,
the audience can ask questions. Skylight Books has copies of Ms.
James' great book, Death in Holy Orders, and she'll sign
them in the lobby. Ms. James does not get to Los Angeles often,
so this would be a great opportunity. Remember, Mother's Day is
right around the corner. What could be a better gift for Mother's
Day than a great Adam Dalgliesh mystery? I am delighted to present
P.D. James and Bill Link.
LINK: We're all honored tonight to have with us a woman who
is considered by most critics, and by many readers all over the
world, to be the best detective story writer. First, on a personal
note, I think that we have some similarities besides writing
mysteries. I have a little talent you have a touch of genius.
I don't particularly like opera, I'm against capital punishment,
and I'm compulsively early to meetings except for tonight.
also hate to drive even in Los Angeles. You don't drive
at all, do you?
So we have those things in common. Raymond Chandler despised the
term "checkered career." In fact, Alfred Knopf, who is your publisher
also, wrote in the bio of Chandler on the jacket of his first
book, that Chandler had had a "checkered career." But if anyone
has had one, you have. You started to write mysteries in your
mid-thirties. You were in health care, you were in administrative,
and God forbid, you were in the Inland Revenue, which is the British
equivalent of our Internal Revenue service. When you wrote your
first book, you used not Phyllis Dorothy James, but you only used
the initials P.D. Was that to hide the fact of your gender? There
weren't a lot of women mystery writers at the time. Most of them
were men, in England and here. What was the reason?
I have to tell you Bill, I get slightly enraged when it is
suggested that I did it to hide my gender. I'm very glad to be
a woman. I love being a woman. I would never attempt to conceal
the fact that I am a woman. Of course, nothing could be more stupid,
because as soon as your book is published there's your
picture, and one can see whether you are a male or a female. I
wrote under my maiden name, which is James, rather than my married
name, because James are in my genes, and so I found myself thinking:
what was it going to be, Phyllis James? Dorothy James? P.D. James?
can't remember it was a long time ago but I do seem
to remember that I wrote these names down. I thought that I liked
P.D. James; it's short, it enigmatic, it would look rather good
on the jacket, if I ever got lucky enough to be published.
In your autobiography, you stated that you wanted to be a
writer for a long time.
Finally, it happened. You said that you knew the exact moment.
What was that moment when you knew that you were going to be a
writer, and that you were going to forget about everything that
had gone before?
When I said that I knew the exact moment, I couldn't possibly
tell you the date. I remember very, very clearly the emotion
of the moment. I knew from very early childhood that what
I wanted to do was to write. I knew that I was in love with words.
I knew what a story was. I knew what a book was. But there were
lots of reasons for the late start. I won't bore you with the
details, but I was 19 went the war broke out. I was young and
I was living in London during the worst of the bombing. One was
never sure if one was going to be there the next morning. So this
wasn't exactly conducive to sitting down and writing 80,000 words.
after the war, my husband returned from war service mentally ill
and he didn't get a pension, so I had two small girls and a husband
to support. Most writer's you don't easily pay the mortgage
regularly through writing at least in the beginning. So
I started working. I was in the Health Service when I wrote the
first book. A moment came, and I remember the emotion of it. It
struck me rather like a thunderclap, you know. There was never
going to be a convenient moment for me to write that first
book. If I didn't somehow make the time, I would be a failed
writer. I would have to say to my grandchildren that what I had
really wanted was to be a novelist. If I had to say those words,
then my life would have been a failure in one very important
I began getting up even earlier in the morning. I would plot and
plan on the way to work, and wrote on the weekends. It did take
a considerable time. I was in my mid-to-late 30s when I began,
and I was 42 when it was published. I was lucky. It was
accepted by the first publisher it was sent to. I didn't have
to go through the disappointment of all the rejections.
You are known for writing out of the grand tradition of the
English mystery what they call in this country "The Golden
Age of Mysteries." You were influenced by people like Dorothy
Sayers. Were you influenced my any male English writers?
Wilkie Collins, I think. I suppose that everyone, to an extent,
is influenced a bit, by Sherlock Holmes. I'm not conscious that
I was, but I don't think that anyone can write a mystery without
being influenced by Conan Doyle and by Sherlock Holmes. I can
see the influence of Wilkie Collins. He was responsible for almost
every development in the genre of English mystery writing. I was
influenced by him and certainly by Dorothy L. Sayers. We read
her now as part of a period of fiction. It's an entirely different
world. But for me, she was one of the influential ones.
knew how to write. She knew how to use English. She was one of
the writers who transformed the genre from obscurity to having
claims as a serious novel.
Who do you read now in the mystery genre?
I always read the new Ruth Rendell. She's a personal friend.
I don't read a great deal actually, of crime. As I get older I
read rather less fiction, and I read more non-fiction. I was wondering
the other day why it is that I don't read as many mysteries. I
was reminded of an elderly lady who used to clean my sea side
house. It was Christmas; she was talking with my daughters, "I
would like to give your mother something for Christmas, but I
don't know what to buy her. I thought that I would get her a book,
but if she wants to read a book, she can write one!" I
don't know maybe if I want to read a mystery, I write one.
I know you like history and biography. Do you shun all reading
while you're actually in the process of writing?
Not shun it actually. But I think that when I am writing,
life is largely incredibly busy, and the only time to read is
in bed at night. I never go to sleep without reading something
for a time. It tends to be nothing very new or anything that will
keep me awake. Something comforting, and rereading, which would
be somebody like Jane Austin. Or indeed, rereading some of the
favorites from the so-called "Golden Age."
the Americans, I must say that I do like Amanda Cross. And I like
Sue Grafton, because I believe in her detective. I believe in
that young woman. I enjoy those very much. But I don't read a
great deal when I'm writing.
Do you ever read any books by our American author, who really
considered himself British, even though we has born in Pennsylvania,
John Dixon Carr?
Oh yes, absolutely. When I was an adolescent, he was extremely
popular. Of course, I have to say that I don't think that there
are any writers who haven't been influenced by Chandler and Hammet.
People often tell me that here in the United States, the mystery
is not regarded as serious literature. But these two writers were
not only extremely good novelists, but their influence on fiction
went beyond their influence on the genre.
William Faulkner said that he never used a typewriter if he could
help it. He always wrote his first draft in pencil. He loved the
lead striking the texture of the paper. I believe that you write
your first drafts in longhand. Have you ever been tempted to use
I have to say that there is no machine made by man that is
user-friendly to me. That includes the computer too. I do have
one; my secretary uses it. I like writing by hand. I like
the feeling of words seeming to come from the brain, down the
arm and onto the page. I have pretty appalling handwriting when
I am writing, so what we do is this: I usually write early in
the morning. When my secretary arrives, I dictate to her what
I've written, then she puts it onto the computer. Then
we print it out, and then we have our first draft.
do fully realize how marvelous a tool the computer is. I can make
changes, and we'll have the second draft instantaneously. It has
revolutionized writing; there's no doubt about that. But I want
to write words on paper, not words on a screen. You must know
the story of the new author who got his computer. All my friends
who have gotten computers tell me that they would never write
any other way. This young man had gotten his computer, and he
was saying how marvelous it was. "For example, my heroine
is called Juliet, and as the novel progressed, I realized that
Juliet was quite the wrong name for her, that she should be called
Samantha. I only had to press one key, and throughout the
book, the name was changed. Think of the time I saved."
the book was published, the heroine and her boyfriend go to the
National Theatre to see Romeo and Samantha! So computers
Most writers I know out here mostly television and
screenwriters have lost something of theirs on the computer.
They all have horror stories to tell. You will spend all day,
sometimes even longer working, and you lose everything.
Awful! I can't bear the thought of it! I know that
I would loose it. I know that I would what I'm really trying
to say is that I know that I would press the right key,
but that I would still lose it, because that's what machines do
I know that you take nine months to a year to structure your
stories,. And you spend even longer in the actual writing process.
Do you outline? Do you make copious notes?
I do make copious notes. When I have started a novel, I never
go anywhere without a pad of paper with me. Sometimes, I'll see
a face in a crowd or in a queue or an airport lounge, and know
that that face is just right for one of my characters, and I will
describe it then and there. I do an immense amount of research.
I go back to the setting, and make notes of the floors, the sky,
the architecture, the people. I end up with 15 or 16 of these
notebooks. And I do make an outline of the structure. For each
part of the novel and what's going to happen in a chapter.
Do you enjoy the structuring of a book?
I love structure. I think that's partly why I'm so attracted
to the mystery. The wonderful form of it. And that's also
why I think Jane Austin is my favorite novelist, because she's
the Mistress of construction in the novel. Yes, I love construction.
I think it's very, very important.
is interesting Bill, is that despite all my very detailed research
and preliminary work, the book always changes during the
writing. It seems to me that the characters reveal themselves
much more fully to me, when I write about them. In fact, until
I really write about them, although they are there in my
mind, they don't really come alive. And sometimes they do rather
mysterious things. Of course, I might think of something new,
like a more sophisticated plot or clue. I never get the book that
I thought I was going to get. It always changes during the writing.
Vladimir Nabokov was once asked if he allowed a character to "take
over" a novel during the writing. He replied that he would never
allow that. "My characters are galley slaves." Are yours?
I wouldn't say that they are galley slaves, but certainly,
they are pretty controlled. I simply can't have an innocent suspect
suddenly decide that he'd rather be a murderer, or having a murderer
decide that he wants to be an innocent suspect. We all have our
own methods as writers. Some writers although few mystery
writers do put their characters into a situation and let
them get on with it. The Maybury books they were done exactly
that way, and they were fine novels.
control the characters fairly closely, but they do change, they
do develop. Maybe it is the same with dramatists, but what that
translation feels like is this: It feels as if the story and the
characters and everything about them, even the things that I'm
not going to put in the book, already exist in some limbo of my
imagination. That I'm not really making this up, but that I am
getting in touch with them. That I'm trying to get the story down
in black and white. It feels much more like a process of revelation,
more than it does of creation. Do you agree with that?
Yes. I know a lot of writers who say the same. It's a mediumistic
kind of thing. That you're tapping into something that already
exists, and that it flows through you that is, when the
writing is going very well. If you have to go digging for things,
then you're becoming an archeologist.
We all have days of near despair, but we are compensated for
them by the days when each scene sings on. At the end of a day
like that, I find that there are very few alterations to make,
and I am sure that this is so with your work. "This is as good
as I can make it." On other days, it's a question of going back
or chucking it away or starting again.
I get the impression that you are very happy writing. You
love to write. A lot of authors don't.
It's hard work. I do like it, but I don't find it necessary
to be doing it the whole time, as some of my friends do. It's
interesting with Ruth Rendell, for whom I have an immense respect,
I don't think she is ever not writing. Ruth writes one or two
a year. She'll finish one and on to the next one. Very prolific.
I can go months without actually writing, when I am waiting for
that new idea, when I'm waiting for the inspiration. I can get
a bit edgy after a time. I want to be writing. And luckily, the
new idea comes along, and I'm able to get started again.
A friend of mine, who is a very successful television writer,
says that every day when he faces that blank computer screen,
he almost loses his breakfast at the thought of having to write.
He's unhappy. It's difficult to believe that anyone who is
a good writer doesn't get pleasure from the craft. To me, that
is a very strange story.
Once he's into it, he's fine.
Aah it's just the beginning.
Yes, it's like stage fright.
Yes, stage fright. Actors are like that. Perhaps that's the
price that they pay for their talent. Your writer friend is paying
for his. My view is that we should try to make a living from something
that we enjoy doing. So many of our waking hours are spent working,
it just seems such a waste of a life if you're not really happy
doing what you're doing.
We're the lucky ones.
We are. We're blessed.
I recently saw an interview with David Chase, the man who
created the television show The Sopranos and writes the
first show every season he's a depressive. He's not enjoying
it now, He's at the peak of his creative powers, and he's not
really enjoying himself.
I think that's a very sad story. I don't understand writers
who live with acute anxiety because they feel that their talent
is going to go and that the talent is fragile. I was going to
say earlier that I was lucky, but it wasn't altogether luck. It
wasn't altogether fortunate that I had to support a husband two
small daughters. Because it meant that I needed at full-time,
safe job. For most of my writing career, I have also been a bureaucrat.
That has had two advantages. One is that it gave me an immense
amount of experience which I have been able to use. The hospital
service, the administering of the forensic service, for example,
in the police department of the Home Office, in the criminal law
department, being a Magistrate. All of this has been extraordinarily
valuable to me. But it has also meant that I have never had the
dreaded worry, "Well, suppose the talent goes, and I have to pay
the mortgage, how will I support my children?"
that, I think, for all creative artists, must be a very considerable
anxiety. It seems as thought one's talent were sort of a God-given
gift that we've done nothing very much to deserve that
we've been given it. And I suppose that for some, there's always
the feeling that it can be taken away just as mysteriously as
it was given.
I think a lot of authors have that fear. Have you ever had
No, I haven't experienced it. I find the idea terrifying.
I'm not sure exactly what the term means, though. Does it mean
that a new idea hasn't come along, and you are unable to decide
what you want to write, or does it mean literally, you have lost
the power to string the words together?
Both, but I think the majority have a problem with the "idea."
What part does the conscious or the unconscious play in the development
of one of your stories?
I don't think that one can talk about "using" the subconscious
really, because that suggests that there is a certain amount of
control over it, and I don't think there is. But I do think it's
very important. Particularly in plotting. I should think that
you've had the same experience. You have plotted something out,
and you feel, "No, it didn't happen like that. That could
be quite credible, quite logical, but it didn't happen like
that." You can go to bed with the problem unsolved, and then,
you'll wake up in the morning, and you'll say, "That's what
they did that's how it happened." I think this is
Have you ever had this happen to you? You have a writing problem.
You've wrestled with it before you retiring. Then, in the middle
of the night, when your mind is more acute, and . . .
No, I don't find that I'm much good in the middle of the night.
I have a great aversion to waking up in the middle of the night.
But I do think that if I wake up in the early morning when I'm
at my freshest and best and I do wake up very quickly
it can certainly happen then. One gets the inspiration and the
You haven't been plagued with insomnia?
No. I don't know about you, but I need to be absolutely alone,
and I need a great deal of peace and quiet when I'm writing. I
can't write with people around me. The great thing about insomnia,
and waking up and writing, is that you can be pretty certain that
you're not going to be interrupted by the telephone or the fax
machine or anything else.
Or one's agent, that pesky person. Have you ever thought about
retiring, or is writing something that is so ingrained in your
psyche, that you will write, and write, and write?
I don't consider or plan to give it up. But I am 81 in August.
I have to face the fact that there aren't all that number of years
ahead. What's important is to insure that the quality of the writing
is still there. I think that it's very sad when very popular writers
go on writing, and obviously, the publishers encourage them. The
publishers know that if they get that name on the book, it will
sell. I don't want to publish a single book where people say,
"This is an inferior P.D. James." So what I want to do is watch
and make sure that the talent is still there. I hope that I can
still go on as long as I have a mind that still works, and a talent
that is still with me.
Here, here. I know that you've taught writing. Here at UC
Irvine and elsewhere. Obviously, you believe that writing can
be taught. What about plotting or structure?
I like teaching. I've done it at the University of Boston
and here, and I've done a little back home. But I'm not sure how
far writing can be taught. The creative talent has to be there.
But certain techniques can be taught. And I think that
there is great use for young people to be with other writers,
reading their work, listening and criticizing and being in that
environment. You can teach something about structure, can't you?
I think there are ways you can help people put a book together.
you can't make a writer out of someone without writing talent.
I had a friend who worked at the Home Office, who was one of,
if not the world's greatest forensic toxicologist. What he didn't
know about poisons nobody knew. He had traveled all over
the world on extraordinarily interesting cases. He thought that
he'd like to write a mystery, so he worked at it, then he gave
me the first two chapters. As a scientist, he wrote extremely
well. It only took two chapters to know that this man was not
going to be a novelist. It was very embarrassing, so I said, "Finish
the book, and then I will be able to have the whole thing." Because
I knew that he would never finish it.
have got to have that original talent. I must be the same for
teaching people to write for television or the stage. You can
do a great deal, but you can't give them a talent that isn't there.
People ask me for advice people who want to be novelists
I tell them, that first of all, you are dealing with words.
They are the raw material of your craft. Because if you're lucky
enough to be working in the English language you're working
in the world's greatest language, the world's richest and most
flexible, and most beautiful language, you must learn how to use
it, and increase your word power. Read other people who are good.
Not in order to copy them, because you've got to find your
own style, but because if you read inferior writing, you will
become an inferior writer. And then, you must write. You
don't become a writer by thinking about it or talking about it,
but by doing it.
then you should go through the world with your senses open to
experiences. Learning to understand other people. Realizing that
nothing that ever happens to a writer however painful
is ever wasted.
You said once that "setting aids in characterization." Could
you elucidate on that a little for us?
The setting, often, is a room or a house. I like to describe
this. You can go into a place someone's study, or sitting
room. If you're left there for a little time, you are able to
nose around, you look at the pictures, you look at the books,
you look at the sorts of things that they choose to surround themselves
with. Some people like to live with a minimum of things, they
like to have a simple space. Other people are great collectors
of things. I think that you can learn a great deal about character
from the setting.
me, the books nearly always begin with the setting. Death
in Holy Orders began with the setting of the Theological College.
It was a jewel of a setting: a closed society. A specific, unusual,
and in fact, uniquely closed society. Then I thought of
setting it on the East Coast of England.
Some writers go to the telephone directory for the names of
characters. The names of your characters are always interesting.
Where do you come up with them?
You must face the same problem. Names are very important,
aren't they? You can't really write about your character until
you've given them a name! They can't just exist nameless, can
they? Nothing can be more disconcerting than to discover that
this isn't the right name. For example, I had a name for the character
of a doctor and thinking, "Right, that's it." Then, I went looking
in the medical directory and found a doctor with that name, so
I had to let that one go. It was very disconcerting.
use the birth and deaths section of the newspaper as a source,
actually. The telephone directory is a good source. If the characters
are from an old family I am a very great visitor of old
churches. In our country churches, you find the first rector around
probably, 1300, 1400 to 1420, and they have wonderful old names,
which I have sometimes used. Even if I'm not writing a book, if
I come across something which I think would be a good name, I
tend to try and remember it, and it may be attached.
had the name of Eleanor for one character who really wasn't very
agreeable, but that was her name. I have a granddaughter named
Eleanor. She said, "Granny, why did you use my name for
that awful character?" I could only say, "That's what she was
called! I didn't have much choice."
You named Adam Dalgliesh after a favorite teacher?
Oh yes. I named Dalgliesh after my English teacher at school.
I didn't appreciate it at the time, and I had forgotten of course,
that Dalgliesh is a Scottish name. A very Scottish name. So I
had to say that his family came down generations before and settled
in England. What was strange was that long after Miss Dalgliesh
had retired, she moved back to Edinburgh. She was an Edinburgh
woman. Later, I was attending the Edinburgh Literary Festival,
so I went to see her. She told me that her father was called Adam!
She showed me a photograph of the first Adam Dalgliesh! I thought
that was a bit of an extraordinary coincidence!
You had mentioned that you are drawn to the macabre and the
I think that it is very difficult to know to what extent one
is influenced by very early experiences. Being born in 1920, which
was only two years after the First World War, I was born into
an England where there was a sense of universal grieving. There
wasn't a family that hadn't been effected. In the villages, the
young men used to join up together. There was a deliberate policy
of letting them fight together in local companies and corps. Literally,
all the young men in a village could be wiped out.
Day was always a tremendous occasion. I remember that from very
early childhood. At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the
eleventh month, the country came to a close everything
stopped. So I think all this was effective. And it did seem
quite extraordinary to my generation that the Second World War
followed so surprisingly quickly. The first ending in 1918, and
the second one beginning in 1939 for us of course. I was
19 when the war broke out, and certainly, it had an effect on
To switch gears for a moment. If our books are our literary
"children," then we have to know that Hollywood is the great "child
molester." You sold the rights to one of your best books, Innocent
Blood and it's still not been made. You have been happy, I
think, with what has been done in television with some of your
books. What about Hollywood?
Certainly the rights for Innocent Blood were sold to
20th Century-Fox. They were negotiated by a gentleman
named "Swifty" Lazar. There was a note in The Evening Standard
about ten days ago that said that I was very cross with Rupert
Murdoch for not allowing the rights to go to someone who wanted
them. And indeed, people have tried to get the rights, but they
are very expensive. 20th Century-Fox paid extremely
handsomely for them, and no doubt they would like to have their
money back. One knows that books are bought and films are not
made. So I don't think that I have much cause for complaint about
think I have been luckier than most with television. But the difficulty
is that in Great Britain (and here too of course), television
drama has become so expensive, that we'll never have another Jewel
in the Crown for 13 episodes, or a novel handled the way they
did Brideshead Revisited. Everything has to be so cut,
so truncated, so changed, that novelists feel that sometimes the
essence of a book goes. But I have been luckier than most. The
BBC is going to make a series of Death in Holy Orders, and
I'm hopeful of that.
used to happen was that the producer and director would take you
out for an extremely good lunch or dinner, and then, they
would explain what they would want to do, and I would say, "That
sounds like a great pig, what a shame." And they would say, "Hard
luck" and that would be that. A film might be different.
can understand. I have to say that the craft of writing for film
is so different from the craft of novel writing. You have to accept
that your story is passing into the hands of people who are experts
in a visual medium, and to a certain extent, trust them, I think.
I wanted to ask you something that we touched on in the green
room. The detective and mystery novel is rather ghettoized here
in this country. It is still a poor cousin to what is called "the
serious novel." Are things the same in your country, or does the
genre have a more exaulted status?
I think it has a much more exalted status. In the review section,
there certainly are some of us who get full-page reviews. The
rest of them are collected up once a month under the heading "The
New Crime." But they are treated with respect. Largely because
there are some extremely good people writing in the form.
difficult for me really, when people say, "Don't you mind that
you are writing in what is regarded as an inferior genre?" It's
difficult to answer something like that without sounding rather
conceited, but I have six honorary doctorates of literature
from universities, I'm president of the Society of Authors and
I sit in the House of Lords, so it's difficult for me to think
that I am working in an inferior genre!
suppose that one could look at it in another way: rather more
like romantic fiction. That perhaps there are a lot of books published
that wouldn't be published if they weren't mysteries. I will visit
a mystery bookshop here and there is an immense number
far more than there are being written back home. It's far more
difficult to get published back in Britain. Certainly people like
John Le Carré is a crime writer, a spy writer, but he is
a major novelist and so is Ruth Rendell. They are pretty respected
Back to the personal. The sea is a recurring theme in your
novels. It's in your new one too. Why do you think that is?
I really don't know at all, unless it's a family thing. Perhaps
if I look back in my family history I would find that we came
from sailors. But I loved the sea from early childhood. I have
a great sense of release when I am at the sea or by one. Some
of my happiest times I have a house on the coast at Suffolk
that's really were I can do my best plotting, because I
can walk along the sand and think and plot and get in touch with
my characters. I love, I suppose, the great skies, the emptiness
of it, I just love being by the sea.
was an essential part of the last novel, to set it by the sea.
It has a symbolism, because at that part of the coast, the sea
is eating away the land. There is a whole town, which is called
Dunleish, which is now under the sea. It was a great medieval
city and the North Sea has now swallowed it up. You can sometimes
find the bones from the long-buried graveyards being washed up.
There are seven great churches under the sea. I mention in this
book that people imagine that they can still hear the bells ringing
under the sea.
a very desolate, almost errie, sinister but magical, part of England.
It seemed just right to set my college there.
Let's take some questions from the audience.
Yes, let's do that.
Have you been happy with the actors who have been chosen to
play your characters on television?
Roy Marsden is a very good actor. He has height, a beautiful,
interesting voice, and certainly presence, and I can believe that
he is a professional policeman. He is not my idea of Dalgliesh,
but I would be very surprised if he were. This is Roy Marsden's
interpretation of Dalgliesh, and of course, Roy Marsden
is Dalgliesh to millions of people all over the world. It will
be interesting to see if the BBC will cast him for the new book
adaptation or whether they will do what was done with Poirot and
Miss Marple and make a change, and if so, what sort of a change
mean, Guinness was so right for Le Carré's George
Smiley. He was absolutely wonderful. I think that Le Carré
was happy with him, so I think that you can get lucky if you get
just the right one. I think Collin Dexter was lucky with his Morse,
but he's killed him off.
You have many characters in your books who live a lonely existence.
How is it that you are drawn to this type of character?
I'm not sure. I think that it's quite true that there are
many people who live a lonely existence in my books. To an extent
Dalgliesh does, but to him, it's a very satisfying one. I don't
think of him as being depressed at all really. I think he has
a very satisfactory life, but it's time he got committed to someone
else. Quite a number of the women lead quite lonely existences.
The book opens with this widow, who does lead a lonely existence.
I respond to people who are coping with loneliness. People who
are dealing with it in a courageous way. But beyond that, I haven't
any explanation. So much of the matter of creative writing is
so mysterious to the writer herself. My daughter pointed that
out to me once.
I would like to ask you about Cordelia Gray. Where did she
The book she first appeared in, An Unsuitable Job for a
Woman, began, as all my mysteries do, with the setting. I
wanted to set a book in Cambridge in high summer. I wanted to
contrast the beauty of one of Europe's lovely cities with a particularly
awful murder. I wanted to write a book about young people. It
wasn't a book that Dalgliesh could be in, because he couldn't
operate outside of the Metropolitan Police area. In the new novel,
there are particular reasons why he has to. He wouldn't
investigate the possible suicide of a student in Cambridge. And
officially, the case had been closed.
I felt that for the first time, an amateur detective. And it seemed
right to have a girl. She is a bit modeled on my younger daughter,
in some ways. And she seemed right for the book. I would like
to go on with her, but unfortunately, I let a film company
make the Cordelia Gray television plays. They were a company I
had a great respect for, because they had made the film Mrs.
Brown. I told them that they could use the character rather
as Collin Dexter had sold Morse. I'm afraid they were absolutely
hopeless. They produced two quite appalling things . .
. And the first actress got pregnant, and they made Cordelia into
an unmarried mother and a totally ineffective and silly girl.
They've rather stolen my character, really.
Were you happy with Helen Baxendale as Cordelia?
Yes, I think I was. If she had been able to go ahead with
properly made films with reasonable plots. In one way it
was deeply depressing, because I had great hopes for that character,
but it just didn't work out.
Have you ever considered writing a play like Deathtrap
I am always being asked by producers if I would write a play
for them. It is a very, very different skill, and I have to accept
that. I did one some years ago, but it wasn't a murder mystery
play. It played in Watford, where it did well, but I didn't want
it to come up to London, and it hasn't. You know, it's very difficult
if you are a novelist, to realize how few words there are in a
play, and how good those words have got to be, and the
rest you have to leave to the actors. It's just a very different
craft. You could be an extremely good novelist and not be a good
dramatist. I think that if I were younger, I would like to make
an attempt at it. But now, if it's a question of writing another
Dalgliesh or writing a play, I think I would be better off sticking
to my Dalgliesh character.
Ruth Rendell has expressed a rather low opinion of Agatha
Christie. What do you think of Dame Agatha?
I don't rate her highly as a novelist. I don't think one
can. But she is a lady who has given pleasure and relief to millions
of people all over the world, often in very difficult times, and
that's a huge achievement. I feel that she is more of a
literary conjurer than she is a novelist. It's almost as if these
rather stereotyped characters (and we meet the same kind of characters,
don't we?) in the Village. There are a lot of people in the Village.
We've got the Doctor; weve got the District Nurse; we've
got the Rich Man, who's usually a late comer. He's usually got
a Much Younger Wife; they have a Butler of curious antecedents;
there is always a Ne'er Do Well Nephew; a Very Capable Secretary
(still waters run deep there). Christie shuffles these characters,
you know, and we break that one, and we turn it up, and
Ha, ha, ha! Fooled again!
does it with great ingenuity, but she is a conjurer. Her plotting
is interesting. How she does it is this (you must read everything
of hers because you miss it): there's one where she simply writes
that the Butler went over and closely studied the diary. She's
put it in our mind something about the date that the murder happened.
So we are thinking of dates. But the clue was that the Butler
was shortsighted. That sort of cleverness is Agatha Christie.
But when you have read the book and thought about how clever it
all is, you realize that it could not possibly happen in real
life. None of it is credible at all. We're in ChristieLand,
really. Where life is difficult, and we're cuddled up in bed
and we don't know what to read it's no bad thing to be
Could you talk about your experiences in the House of Lords,
and the state of your main character England today?
That would be a whole lecture by itself, wouldn't it? The
House of Lords. I'm afraid that I don't attend as often as I would
like to. To begin with, I'm rather busy, and secondly, we get
the program for the next week on Friday. They're having a very
busy week this week, but obviously, I can't be there. My life
is really settled well ahead. I do go as often as I can if there
is something that particularly interests me.
is a very good house to be a member of. The standard of debate
is, on the whole, high. The people there have very specific knowledge
or have achieved something in life. It certainly is one of the
best clubs in London. Marvelous library and lots of reading
rooms the food is much improved. When I first went there,
I said to one of the hereditary peers that the food wasn't very
good, and that I blame the hereditary dukes and so on. "You like
it because it reminds you of your prep-schools." And he said,
"No, we like it because it reminds us of Nanny." Those of us who
grew up without those privileges would rather have better
an interesting house to be a member of. There are now only 91
hereditary peers, because of the reform. The rest are life peers,
like myself, whose peerages don't go on to their children, to
state of England? Well, it's certainly the most prosperous country
in Europe at the moment. But I think there are many things about
it that we find depressing. Certainly the high level of crime.
The Government will be returned with a very large majority, though
not as large as last time, because its left wing is seriously
dissatisfied. We have a Labour Government which is following Tory
policies. It is in fact, more right wing, especially in law and
order, than the Tories were. But they will be returned, because
the opposition is somewhat in disarray.
overriding question is the question of Europe. Whether we give
up the pound for the Euro, which many of use don't want to do;
the way in which increasing powers are being transferred from
our own Parliament to Brussels, so that really, one can feel that
we are largely ruled from Brussels and not Westminster. So there
are really important and difficult questions facing the country
at the moment, which will have to be settled.
and edited by Kurt Wahlner