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IN HER OWN WORDS: P.D. James

Monday brought us an excellent profile of the crime writer P.D. James, and the quotes below reveal many of the characteristics that define James’s work. They show us the author’s dry wit and clear sight; the acute consciousness of mortality with which she imbues so many of her characters; her regard for the crime novel and its literary merit; and her pragmatic take on what it takes to write and how aspiring writers ought to begin.

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“[O]ne should never trespass on kindness. Human kindness is like a defective tap: the first gush may be impressive, but the stream soon dries up.” —Devices and Desires (1989)


“Pleasure need not be less keen because there will be centuries of springs to come, their blossom unseen by human eyes, the walls will crumble, the trees die and rot, the gardens revert to weed and grass, because all beauty will outlive the human intelligence which records, enjoys, and celebrates it.” —The Children of Men (1992)


“‘I like the black tower, particularly in summer when the headland is peaceful and golden and the sun glints on the black stone. It’s a symbol really, isn’t it? It looks magical, unreal, a folly built to amuse a child. And underneath there’s horror, pain, madness, and death. I said that to Father Baddeley once.’

‘And what did he reply?’ asked Julius.

‘He said, “Oh, no my son. Underneath there’s the love of God.”’

Julius said roughly:

‘I don’t need a phallic symbol erected by a Victorian eccentric to remind me of the skull under the skin. Like any reasonable man I prepare my own defenses.’

Dalgliesh asked:

‘What are they?’

The quiet question, even in his own ears, sounded stark as a command. Julius smiled:

‘Money and the solace it can buy. Leisure, friends, beauty, travel. And when they fail, as your friend Father Baddeley would have reminded me, they inevitably will, and [the] four horses of the apocalypse take over, three bullets in a Luger.’” —The Black Tower (1975)


“[D]etective stories are not the only novels which conform to a recognized convention and structure. All Jane Austen’s novels have a common storyline: an attractive and virtuous young woman surmounts difficulties to achieve marriage to the man of her choice. This is the age-long convention of the romantic novel, but with Jane Austen what we have is Mills & Boon [British romance fiction] written by a genius.” —“Talking and Writing Detective Fiction,” NPR


“First, I like structured fiction, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. I like a novel to have narrative drive, pace, resolution, which a detective novel has. Second, I was setting out at last on the path of becoming a writer, which I had longed for all my life, and I thought writing a detective story would be a wonderful apprenticeship for a ‘serious’ novelist, because a detective story is very easy to write badly but difficult to write well. There is so much you have to fit into eighty or ninety-thousand words—not just creating a puzzle, but an atmosphere, a setting, characters . . . Then when the first one worked, I continued, and I came to believe that it is perfectly possible to remain within the constraints and conventions of the genre and be a serious writer, saying something true about men and women and their relationships and the society in which they live.” —from James’s interview as part of The Paris Review’s “Art of Fiction” series


“When I am writing about a particular murderer I really am entering into his mind: feeling his emotions, feeling his needs, feeling his violence, feeling his unhappiness. I think that, with all the characters, when I am writing about that character, I am that character and I believe that character for as long as I am writing that character. I believe the past is what has made him what he is. In A Taste For Death, where the bodies are found in the vestry of a church, the murderer is an evil man, but he is the only one in the book who notices that the boy, who is part of the cast, has leukemia. He is a sick little boy. Nobody else notices it, neither the priest in the church nor the good characters—they just don’t notice it. The murderer notices it, and it is a way of saying that he may be contemptible and maybe outside what we think of as humanity, but there is always something there. I don’t know that he was motivated particularly by compassion . . . but he noticed and he insisted that the boy be treated. So to that extent he saved a life, and I like that sort of mystery about human nature: that we can never completely know another person.” —from a 2013 interview at The Anglican Planet


“I don’t like Patricia Highsmith‘s books about Tom Ripley, a psychopath who is made the hero. I think a crime story should be in favor of rationality. That’s what the form is all about.” —from a 1996 interview at The New York Times


“A genre which rests on the fundamental belief that willful killing is wrong and that every human being, no matter how unpleasant, inconvenient or worthless his life may be, has a right to live it to the last natural moment, needs no particular apology in an age in which gratuitous violence and arbitrary death have become common.” —from a 1978 piece in the anthology Crime Writers


“After the pathologist had left, Rickards had turned to the nearest [detective constable] and said, ‘For God’s sake, can’t we get this thing out of here?’

And then he heard Dalgliesh’s voice from the doorway like a whiplash.

‘Sergeant, the word is ‘body.’ Or, if you prefer, there’s ‘cadaver,’ ‘corpse,’ ‘victim,’ even ‘deceased’ if you must. What you are looking at was a woman. She was not a thing when she was alive and she is not a thing now.’” —Devices and Desires


“Well, I think that there is a moral responsibility [for a writer]. I think, first of all, it is a responsibility just to know your standards. For instance, not to write this book just because it is going to make a lot of money or to write a certain kind of book because it has become very popular—and always to demand the very best of yourself.” —from the Anglican Planet interview


“Don’t just plan to write—write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.

Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.

Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer—however happy, however tragic—is ever wasted.”

—from James’s contribution to The Guardian’s “Ten rules for writing fiction” (2010)


“We can experience nothing but the present moment, live in no other second of time, and to understand this is as close as we can get to eternal life.” —The Children of Men


“Feel, he told himself, feel, feel, feel. Even if what you feel is pain, only let yourself feel.” —The Children of Men


“Everything living was part of one great wholeness. To breathe was to take in delight.” —Innocent Blood (1980)

Click here to read Jill Kronstadt’s feature piece on P.D. James.

Bloom Post End

Homepage photo credit: Bart Everson

2 thoughts on “IN HER OWN WORDS: P.D. James

  1. Pingback: ICYMI: Links Roundup for Feb 12, 2014 - storyacious : storyacious

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