Ms. James
talks about
her new book
Death in Holy Orders
(Knopf) .


Previous Writings:
Time to Be in Ernest

A Certain Justice

Original Sin
The Children of Men

Devices and Desires

A Taste for Death

The Skull Beneath the Skin

Innocent Blood

Death of an Expert Witness

The Black Tower

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

A Shroud for a Nightingale

The Maul and the Pear Tree

Unnatural Causes

A Mind to Murder

Cover Her Face



  Thursday, May 3, 2001 at the Writer's Guild Theatre, Los Angeles

ANDREA GROSSMAN: Good evening, and thank you for coming to tonight’s 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.

I would like to thank a few people who have made tonight's program possible. To Cheryl Rodin and the Board of Directors of the Writer’s 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.

Now 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.

That's 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.

In 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.

The 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.

Bill 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.

But 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.

It's 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 well.

Here's 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.

BILL 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.

I also hate to drive – even in Los Angeles. You don't drive at all, do you?


LINK: 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?

JAMES: 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?

I 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.

LINK: In your autobiography, you stated that you wanted to be a writer for a long time.


LINK: 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?

JAMES: 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.

Then 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 respect.

So 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.

LINK: 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?

JAMES: 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.

She 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.

LINK: Who do you read now in the mystery genre?

JAMES: 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.

LINK: I know you like history and biography. Do you shun all reading while you're actually in the process of writing?

JAMES: 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."

Of 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.

LINK: 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?

JAMES: 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.

LINK: 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 a computer?

JAMES: 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.

I 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."

When the book was published, the heroine and her boyfriend go to the National Theatre to see Romeo and Samantha! So computers need watching.

LINK: 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.

JAMES: 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 to me.

LINK: 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?

JAMES: 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.

LINK: Do you enjoy the structuring of a book?

JAMES: 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.

What 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.

LINK: 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?

JAMES: 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.

I 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?

LINK: 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.

JAMES: 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.

LINK: I get the impression that you are very happy writing. You love to write. A lot of authors don't.

JAMES: 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.

LINK: 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.

JAMES: 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.

LINK: Once he's into it, he's fine.

JAMES: Aah – it's just the beginning.

LINK: Yes, it's like stage fright.

JAMES: 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.

LINK: We're the lucky ones.

JAMES: We are. We're blessed.

LINK: 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.

JAMES: 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?"

And 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.

LINK: I think a lot of authors have that fear. Have you ever had writer's block?

JAMES: 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?

LINK: 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?

JAMES: 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 very mysterious.

LINK: 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 . . .

JAMES: 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 new idea.

LINK: You haven't been plagued with insomnia?

JAMES: 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.

LINK: 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?

JAMES: 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.

LINK: 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?

JAMES: 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.

But 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.

You 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.

And 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.

LINK: You said once that "setting aids in characterization." Could you elucidate on that a little for us?

JAMES: 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.

With 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.

LINK: 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?

JAMES: 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.

I 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.

I 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."

LINK: You named Adam Dalgliesh after a favorite teacher?

JAMES: 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!

LINK: You had mentioned that you are drawn to the macabre and the morbid.

JAMES: 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.

Armistice 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 me.

LINK: 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?

JAMES: 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 it.

I 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.

What 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.

One 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.

LINK: 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?

JAMES: 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.

It's 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!

I 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 home.

LINK: 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?

JAMES: 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.

It 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.

It's a very desolate, almost errie, sinister but magical, part of England. It seemed just right to set my college there.

LINK: Let's take some questions from the audience.

JAMES: Yes, let's do that.

QUESTION: Have you been happy with the actors who have been chosen to play your characters on television?

JAMES: 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 they'll make.

I 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.

QUESTION: You have many characters in your books who live a lonely existence. How is it that you are drawn to this type of character?

JAMES: 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.

Maybe 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.

QUESTION: I would like to ask you about Cordelia Gray. Where did she come from?

JAMES: 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.

So 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.

QUESTION: Were you happy with Helen Baxendale as Cordelia?

JAMES: 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.

QUESTION: Have you ever considered writing a play like Deathtrap or Sleuth?

JAMES: 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.

QUESTION: Ruth Rendell has expressed a rather low opinion of Agatha Christie. What do you think of Dame Agatha?

JAMES: 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; we’ve 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!

She 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 in ChristieLand!

QUESTION: Could you talk about your experiences in the House of Lords, and the state of your main character – England – today?

JAMES: 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.

It 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 food.

It's 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 their sons.

The 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.

The 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.

——transcribed and edited by Kurt Wahlner

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