P.D. James: “A writer needs as much trauma as she can take”

P.D. James: “A writer needs as much trauma as she can take”

Nothing that ever happens to a novelist is ever wasted. ~P.D. James

Years ago, on a whim, I picked up P.D. James’ Original Sin on a remainder table. I’d heard of the “Queen of Crime,” but I wasn’t into mystery novels. I decided to take a chance.

Five hundred pages later, I closed it and thought, “Didn’t see that coming.” I was hooked.

Original Sin was the ninth in her series about poet-policeman Adam Dalgliesh, commenced in 1962. She wrote it at age 42, while still in civil service and supporting a mentally-ill husband. I developed a deep admiration for her.

“A writer needs as much trauma as she can take”

Phyllis Dorothy James was born in 1920 in Oxford and educated at Cambridge High School for Girls. She was just 15 when her mother was committed to a mental hospital. James has little memory of the time before this happened.

She does, however, remember always wanting to be a writer, particularly a mystery writer. When she first heard of Humpty Dumpty, she asked: “Did he fall or was he pushed?”

A haunting movie based on James’ one science fiction novel

James left school at 17 and got a job in the tax office. When she was 21, she married Connor Bantry White, a young medical student. They had two daughters.

When a Beloved Companion Becomes a Total Stranger

World War II broke out, and Connor shipped out to India and Africa with the Royal Army Medical Corps. He returned a broken man, suffering from schizophrenia. He never worked again and spent the next 20 years in and out of mental institutions.

James observes,

Only those who have lived with the mental illness of someone they love can understand. Another human being who was once a beloved companion can become not only a stranger, but occasionally a malevolent stranger.

James took government jobs to support her family, first with the National Health Services and then with the Home Office. In the mid-1950s, she finally realized, that there would never be a convenient time to start writing: “You become a writer by writing. I had to make it happen.”

Connor died in 1964, when they both were both 44. James never remarried.

Eighteen Years to Overnight Success

James wrote in the early mornings before setting off for her job as a hospital administrator. Although the first Dalgliesh mystery appeared in 1962, success didn’t come until she retired from the Home Office 18 years later, with Innocent Blood, her eighth novel.

She has no regrets about keeping that steady paycheck coming in: “I had done more reading, I had done more thinking, I had done more living. It has been extremely useful being in the mainstream of working life.” She administered five psychiatric clinics for the NHS and worked in criminal law for the Home Office.

Several stories have been adapted for the PBS Mystery! series

Until age 87, she had few health problems. Then she broke her hip, and while recovering, had a heart attack in her dentist’s chair.

I was extraordinarily lucky with health. I really didn’t feel particularly old… We don’t grow gradually into old age. Throughout our lives, we’re on a plateau and then suddenly, whoosh! We’re five years older, and then we’re on a plateau again.

James incorporated her recovery experience into the latest Dalgliesh mystery, The Private Patient, which takes place in a remote plastic surgery clinic.

Other settings from her novels include a secluded Cornish island, a decrepit medieval tower turned asylum, and a private museum with a wing dedicated to grisly killings between World Wars I and II. (Only in England!)

Crime Fiction’s Grand Dame

P.D. James has five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. She looks like everyone’s granny, except for that “arsenic and old lace” gleam in her eyes.

In 1983, she was made an OBE (officer of the Order of the British Empire) and in 1991, a life peer. Baroness James regards the 21st century a challenge when it comes to finding motives for her antagonists.

Dear old Agatha Christie had A murder B because A was having an affair and thought B would tell. Now, of course, people write about their affairs in the Sunday papers.

In 2011, James wrote a whodunnit set in 1803, Death Comes to Pemberley, set six years after the events of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Masterpiece Theatre produced a televised version in December 2013.

Masterpiece Theatre's Death Comes to  by P.D. James
Masterpiece Theatre’s Death Comes to Pemberley

P.D. James passed away in Oxford, age 94, at the end of 2014. She proves that we absolutely can take care of our people and pursue our creative dreams. It may be hard and it may take longer, but we just need to keep at it.

More About P.D. James

27 Responses

  1. Kala
    | Reply

    ElleB. I really do like your writing style it’s witty and fresh! I devoured this story when I was only on a quick stop by. I loved the movie Children of Men, one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen-bleak. And I did not know who had written the book, so thank you. I am also a late bloomer, I do everything a bit later than others, but it seems (my opinion) it is keeping me younger as I explore things freshly when others are through that phase and tired!
    Be well,
    Kala

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, Kala. This is such a refreshing view: “I do everything a bit later than others, but it seems (my opinion) it is keeping me younger as I explore things freshly when others are through that phase and tired!” I might have to quote you in an upcoming article!

  2. Lindsay
    | Reply

    Thank you for another outstanding post. I once stood in line to get a book autographed by PD James. She is gracious and tough as nails. Both.

    • Debra Eve
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      I’d stand in line to get a book autographed by her! 91 years old and writing for almost 50 years now. What a gal. Thanks for stopping by Lindsay!

  3. David Stevens
    | Reply

    Thanks Elle B,
    Another fascinating read. I like the comment about there never being a convenient moment to do……..That’s life in general. People often looking for the
    ‘right time’ to do something…..often it never comes. Just get on with it & that’s what P.D James did. Thank you Elle B.
    Be good to yourself
    David

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, David. She’s always been an inspiration to me, especially after wrote that quote. Glad you enjoyed it!

  4. LucyAtkerson
    | Reply

    Thank you so much young lady for this wonderful information on P.D.James. I reread all of her books every year and get any new ones she has written. I dread the time she is no longer with us. My first encounter with her was when PBS did “Devices and Desires”, and I feel in love with her detective character and was hooked. I don’t know if you are familiar with Ngaio Marsh, the New Zealand writer, who died in the 80’s. If not you would enjoy her detective character also.
    Thank you again. Lucy Rose Atkerson

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thank you, Lucy, for calling me a young lady :). I feel the same way you do about P.D. James and dread the day I’ll have to update this piece. I have heard of Ngaio Marsh, but haven’t gotten around to her books. Now that you’ve brought her to my attention again, I will rectify that. I just checked — she published her first Inspector Alleyn mystery at age 39, so she deserves a piece written about her too!

      This is very exciting. I always love embarking on a journey with a new writer! Thank you again, Lucy.

  5. Valerie
    | Reply

    Enjoyable article on P D James.
    I am currently re reading most of her books in order to carefully LISTEN to her writing.
    Reading small segments at a time.

    I have been a P D James fan for years but I missed a lot in previous reading.
    Currently re reading A Taste for Death—listening very carefully to Kate’s comments about a woman working in traditionally a Man’s world. Can’t help wondering how much of what she says is a reflection of James experience during her voyage from Civil Servant to Literary Royalty.

    • Debra Eve
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      Oh, I’m so jealous, Valerie. What a fantastic project, listening to her writing in small portions. I can’t even imagine what she experienced in that era as a working woman, especially once she joined the home office. It couldn’t have been easy.

  6. Kassandra Lamb
    | Reply

    I didn’t catch this the first time you posted it so very glad that you’ve put it up as a re-run. I love PD James. Hers were some of the first mysteries I read as an adult.

    And Happy Birthday in advance to you, Debra!

    • Debra Eve
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      She’s truly a role model for all of us, whether we write mysteries or not! Thanks for stopping by, Kassandra.

  7. Darlene Foster
    | Reply

    How wonderful to learn more about this amazing author. Thanks for this article.

    • Debra Eve
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      You’re welcome, Darlene. She’s one of my favorite late bloomers 🙂

  8. Linda Hutsell-Manning
    | Reply

    Thanks so much for this insightful article. My first book was published when I was 41 and, at 73 with 11 children’s books and my first novel for adults in 2011, I feel as though I am just hitting my stride.

    • Debra Eve
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      I love hearing stories like yours, Linda! I look forward to perusing your site. Congrats!

  9. florence fois
    | Reply

    Debra, you already know that mystery is my fav genre and if we love mystery, we must love the Brits, and if we love the Brits, we must read James. It took some adjusting the first time. She is very cerebral, a very introspective writer. There are no fast paced thrill rides, but very deliberate and heavy plots to dig into. Makes some of the stuff we are told we MUST do in mysteries these days seem silly 🙂

    Thanks for another great post. And thanks to Kala … I hope you do use that line … it’s a keeper :):)

    • Debra Eve
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      She is very cerebral, you’re right, Florence. I found Original Sin a fast read, but a few of her other books I had to stick with — and it was well worth it.

  10. Chris Edgar
    | Reply

    I definitely enjoyed her wit reading this piece — particularly the quote about how, these days, people write about their affairs in the Sunday papers. I’ve actually struggled with a similar issue myself — given how accessible we are to each other today, I’ve sometimes wondered, is the loss of love or friendship for a character as big of a deal as it would have been 20 years ago?

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      I think loss will always be traumatic, Chris. But I do get what James is saying about our “reality TV” culture. We’re inundated by arranged TV nuptials, dysfunctional family galas, and people eating gross stuff for a buck. It renders the world of cerebral murder mysteries a bit tame. But hopefully, when people get tired of the sensationalism, authors like James will see their due. Thank for such a thoughtful comment, Chris!

  11. Jedda Bradley
    | Reply

    Hi Debra I love your website – it makes me feel normal that at 41 after a decade of caring for kids, completing a Masters in screenwriting and writing two novels that are not polished
    enough for the publishers I’m OK. In fact I completely agree with the first post. I am on this slow, sometimes frustratingly so, sometimes wondrous but I have a lot of energy and passion when peers don’t and feel younger now than I did with two toddlers and no sleep. I love westerns and some detectives. I’ve been put off James because of the cerebral nature of her writing but you have inspired me. I’m loving the Walt Longmire series by Craig Johnson who I believe may also be a late bloomer:) Thank you so much.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      Thank you, Jedda! I agree, James can be difficult. I go through stages with her. Sometimes I’m mesmerized and other times I just can’t follow. Thanks for the tip about Craig Johnson. Will definitely check him out! All the best on your “late” blooming. 😉

  12. Freda Farmer
    | Reply

    I cannot possibly tell you how encouraging the story of PD James is for me! My story, thus far, roughly parallels hers. At the age of 63, I am soon to start blogging my first book – one I wrote more than a decade ago. Your website is so very encouraging. Thank you!

  13. leslie
    | Reply

    One of my favorite writers.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      Mine, too, Leslie. I was so sad when we lost her last year, but she’s left us with so much.

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