Today is a very special day in the crime fiction world; it's the 90th birthday of living legend Phyllis Dorothy "PD" James, Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE, FRSA, FRSL. So ngā mihi rā i tō rā whānau, e te tau from Aotearoa Baroness James - we hope you have many more.
To mark this very special occasion, we have a very special 9mm interview with the birthday Baroness. As many of you know, I was fortunate enough to be granted the only New Zealand interview with Baroness James in the lead-up to her 90th birthday celebrations. Parts of that interview have been utilised for a feature that is in the September issue of Good Reading, which will hit shelves soon - so keep an eye out for that. I hope you all don't mind, but I also took the opportunity to ask Baroness James the 9mm questions during our delightful hourlong phone interview, so I could share them with you here.
It was a real privilege to interview such a living legend of the crime fiction world, so I hope you all enjoy this special 9mm interview.
The Crime Watch 9mm Author Interview: PD James
Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
Well, I do like Morse, Colin Dexter’s Morse. And I don’t know whether that’s popular in New Zealand, but it’s extremely popular here… They’re Oxford stories, and I was born in Oxford and know the city, and I suppose that’s one of the big attractions of the Morse series. [The TV adaptations] are very, very well done, and they’re also very true to the books, and also some of them are special to the - you know, they didn’t have their origin in a book by Colin, the company has carried on with the character. Very, very successfully I think.
What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
Well, I suppose The Wind in the Willows, I liked very much. I loved The Wind in the Willows, which I guess was quite a reassuring book, as I could cuddle up with the little animals in bed, and feel safe. But the actual reading, the first thing I ever read were comics. I think that’s often true with children. My mother used to buy them for me, there was one called Tiger Tim, and one called The Rainbow, and I was desperate to be able to read, because as soon as they came into the house I’d say “Mummy, read me another story”, and she was usually busy. And then one day, I just found, and I remember in huge excitement, that I could read - [comics] were of course very easy, because you had the picture and then the words underneath, you know, and you just recognise the words in relation to the picture. But I can remember the huge excitement of being able to read, and … of course I outgrew the comics as children do, and went onto books.
Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
No, I didn’t write any other novel. I did write a television play, quite a short one, and I sent it off to the BBC, and I remember I did have a reply from Val Gielgud, who was a very important producer there, he said he couldn’t accept it, but could I send anything else, because he thought I had great promise.
But I’d never wrote anything else, that was the first thing I wrote, but when I first wrote my novel, and it was the first novel I wrote, COVER HER FACE, but I was very lucky because that was accepted by the first publisher I sent it to, which was marvellous of course. So I’ve never had a rejection slip for a novel. I’m very admiring of people who do have rejection slips, and they just put the book away and revise it later, or start another book, and I think that shows a lot of determination and a lot of courage because writing a book is a pretty long job…
Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
Well, I love to see the family, to spend the day with my daughters and my son-in-law, that’s a very great thing. I used to be a very great walker, and what I love is walking by the sea, or going to London and seeing an exhibition, and just walking… and just exploring bookshops, and junk shops, and picking up all sorts of things that like. And it’s a great shame, because it’s difficult now because I can’t walk very far, so I can’t do that. Apart from the pleasant things like that, I have the House of Lords to go to, which I don’t go to as much as I should, but at the moment as we’ve got a new leader and a new Parliament, I shall be there, all dressed up in my robes...
What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
Well, I live in London, and I think it is important to see the obvious sights, one should visit Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral, and then I would say if there is time, take a boat down the Thames to Greenwich, and see the Great Hall of Greenwich. And then there are all sorts of wonderful museums, there’s the British Museum, and … I should wander the parks a lot, there’s St James’ Park, walk around St James’ Park, which is lovely, which is just across the Park, where you can go and visit the rooms underground where Churchill conducted the war. And of course you can’t go near it, but you can look at Downing Street in the distance. And then visit the House of Commons if there’s time for it.
If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Oh, I really wouldn’t want anyone to play me at all. I can’t think of anybody that … it’s really difficult to look at somebody and say they are like me. Oh my goodness, I don’t know. [Helen] Mirren perhaps? I think I would choose Mirren if I had to, absolutely.
Of your books, which is your favourite, and why?
I’ve thought about this quite a lot. I think I could probably, if somebody said ‘only five of your books can last, all the rest will be destroyed, which five?’, I could probably pick out five, but with great difficulty. And I would probably be influenced more by whether I thought the book was a really good book. I mean, for example, I would probably have THE CHILDREN OF MEN, and then I would probably also have the last one [THE PRIVATE PATIENT] which I thought as a detective story I’d rank very highly. But I do think it’s one of those things - you do look back to number one, and the joy of being published for the first time, it’s rather like a first child. And then the second straight novel, INNOCENT BLOOD, would I have that there? I don’t know. I think I’d have to re-read some of them, but I think it would probably most likely be some of the recent ones I think. I think I could probably have the three most recent ones, and THE CHILDREN OF MEN.
I’m not sure now that the last one isn’t my favourite. I so much enjoyed writing it, it was… I was in hospital for the last third of the book, having had a heart attack, in a convalescent hospital, and it was ideal really, because I had a room of my own, and I had no telephone, no visitors really, and my secretary came down twice a week and took the dictation of the novel. And I’d get up, and get my over-bed table, and get at it, and work away in absolute peace, and if I wanted a cup of tea or coffee it came in. My medication came in with it, but I wasn’t in any pain, but I got on with it very well. And it seemed to do very well.
That was a very enjoyable one, and a very successful one, and I think probably I would say, probably, PRIVATE PATIENT, is [my favourite].
What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
I can remember that the most exciting moment of all was when I got home from work, because I was working in the health service then, supporting my two small girls and my sick husband, and then I got home, and I did everything usual, and then the phone rang, and it was my agent, and she said, “Your book is going to be published, it’s been accepted by Faber & Faber”.
Well, that was one of the great moments of my life. It was a greater moment than when the first book arrived, or when I first saw it on the shelf, because it meant that my great ambition was going to be fulfilled, I was going to be a published writer. And I can remember, you know, understanding for the first time what people meant by ‘dancing for joy’, I did a little jig around the hall, you know. There was nobody there, my husband was in hospital, so there was nobody there to share it with, but it was a great moment.
And after that, it was a satisfaction to hold the book in my hand, when they sent it to me when it was ready, and when it was on the shelves, but nothing quite came up to that moment of knowing that it was going to be published. And I know that my daughter, she went out to the bookshops over Christmas, the holidays, to earn some money, and she spent some time moving my books to the front (chuckling).
What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
Well, I suppose that the strangest was a book signing that I did in America. And I remember that the crowd that was waiting was so large, that they had to call out the police to control it… but there’s just been so many hundreds of them, and they’ve got more in common really, than any difference. Um, and you know you just have individual memories of people, and they have my books with them… and [the things they say about my books are] just so touching and reassuring, that makes me feel so humble. I remember people saying they don’t know what they would have done without PD James, and I just feel so humble and grateful that I’ve been able to give them a great deal of pleasure.
Will you please extend my warmest wishes to all my fans in New Zealand and Australia. I’ve had very many happy visits to New Zealand, and have some very happy memories of that beautiful country, and I just want to say thank you for all the loyalty and support I have had from my fans there.
Thank you Baroness James. We really appreciate you taking the time to talk with Crime Watch, and hope you have a truly wonderful birthday.
So what do you think of this 9mm interview? Have you read any of PD James' Dalgliesh novels? What do you think of her and her work? I'd love to read your comments. Please share your thoughts.