Excerpt from the interview by Lynn Kaczmarek in the February/March 2006 issue of Mystery News
It was a typical sunless January day in Chicago, early evening in the UK, when P.D. James and I chatted about life, death, and mystery.
The Baroness James of Holland Park, a retired magistrate, member of the House of Lords, an 84-year-old great-grandmother of four, a winner of numerous awards, including the Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement, Phyllis Dorothy James is perhaps the best living writer of the classic British mystery. In fact, for many of us, she has set the standard by which all others are judged -- an uneasy mantle born with great dignity.
Writing came late to P.D. James (the name chosen not to conceal her sex, but because it would look better on a book jacket). Although she knew since early childhood that she wanted to become an author, it wasn't until her thirties that she put pen to paper and wrote her first book, Cover Her Face, under the most trying circumstances. Her husband, Connor White, to whom her newest book is dedicated, had come home from World War II with a mental condition so serious he was institutionalized and died several years after the publication of the first book. In order to support her two children she held various positions with the health department and a department of criminal law before becoming a magistrate and eventually retiring to write full time in 1979.
Ms. James chose the mystery for its structure. "I love the structure, that's part of it, producing order out of chaos. I am fascinated by structure in novels, and also of course, in poetry. I love a sonnet which is very structured, with only 14 lines and a strict rhyming sequence. And I find that structure is supporting and liberating of my creative imagination. I do like a book which has a shape, I think, a beginning, a middle and an end. I like a strong narrative thrust to a book...And I like the difficulty of a challenge (I hate using that overworked word), of holding the tension between all the necessary elements of the story, the plot, the setting, the characterization and the scene and holding them all in unity."
The Lighthouse by P.D. James
Published by: Knopf
Read the complete interview in the February/March 2006 issue of Mystery News