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Christmas, 2013: P.D. James

(Photo: C. Peter Molloy)

As promised in our last issue, here is the second part of the P.D. James interview, in which she discusses with C. Peter Molloy the moral responsibility of the writer. Fans of Baroness James (and based on the response to our last issue, there are many) will be especially pleased to hear her discuss a final novel and the question of Adam Dalgliesh’s salvation.

TAP: You have written on the question of the moral responsibility of the writer. What do you mean by that?

PDJ: Well I think that there is a moral responsibility. 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. That is a moral issue in my view. And then I think that there are certain types of books that have too much gratuitous violence. And if you write detective fiction you do have violence. You have the final violence of murder, which, after all, is most extreme. I think that torture and cruelty, especially sexual torture, is unhealthy and we have a tremendous lot of it now – on the screen in particular – and I think it is wrong. I know it is present there in life, we accept that there are people as evil as this about.…but I think to exploit that for money in a sense is dependent on people’s worst instincts – including your own worst instincts.

It is a very difficult matter to talk about because nearly every writer dislikes any kind of censorship and I do think that censorship is wrong. It is easy to say, as I think certain countries do, “Those books will not be admitted in our country,” or on the other hand “Everything is permitted you know.”  What is difficult is the way in between and you have to say, “What is it that crosses over the boundary into something which is just abysmal for human beings to write about?”

TAP: Which is why the language of moral responsibility of the writer seems quite appropriate. It doesn’t place an external moral standard but calls for the writer to make those sorts of decisions.

PDJ: Yes, that’s right.

TAP: Now, that being said, have you ever considered a genre other than the murder mystery?

PDJ: I have written books which have been just novels, which have not been murder mysteries and there has always been a puzzle in them, I think.There has always been moral choice in them. That is what is fascinating: how people make their moral choices and also how people have become what they have become. The influence of childhood, like long shadows, spread over a life.  All those things are fascinating and I think that death is fascinating too: I can’t imagine that I have a book in which nobody dies. Death has fascinated me from childhood – what it was and how mysterious it was. By the time you turn 90, you have to come to terms with it; you know what you feel about it or what you hope about it. There is no point in letting one’s life be ruled by the thought of it, but it is always there in my novels.

TAP:  I find that, reading your novels, they are quite morally complex and I find that in each of them, especially the murder mysteries, I have sympathy for both the victim and the murderer.

PDJ: Well, I think that you see that there is nobody that is wholly bad, and certainly nobody that is wholly good. 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.

TAP: In your writing about developing characters, you describe that your work as a novelist is more about revelation than creation. That these characters exist in a sort of limbo until you begin to reveal them.

PDJ: Yes, that is true. The novelist Anthony Trollope said that you must live with your characters. You must live all day with them, you must wake up with them in the morning, you must go to bed with them at night. You have to know them as well as you know yourself and certainly they develop. When the book is planned I know roughly who is going to be the murderer, so I know roughly his background and possibly what his parents were like, what he does, how he earns his living, a lot about him, what he looks like. But only when I write about him does he reveal himself much more to me. So it is perfectly true, it is a process of revelation in one’s mind and just uncovering things and discovering new things – it is fascinating.

TAP: Now I am very concerned about Adam Dalgliesh. he would obviously be your most intimate character, your having written 14 novels with him. Would it be fair to say that he is sort of a male version of yourself? I always wondered that.

PDJ: I think he probably is. If I were a man, this is the sort of man I would like to be. When you continue to write about someone, then you do create someone you personally like, someone you feel at home with. I understand how his mind works and I understand his love of churches and I understand his attitude toward the Church. I remember giving a talk once, I believe it was in Norwich Cathedral, and during the question time somebody asked “Why haven’t you made Dalgliesh a Christian?” And I said, “Because he really isn’t one, he is a reverent agnostic.” In the book Death in Holy Orders, set at a theological college, he goes to it and says you must bring a heart that is ready to believe, and ready to receive what’s there. But you go in with that attitude of humility and reverence. So I do not think he is very far away from being one.

TAP: This is what I am wondering in terms of his spiritual trajectory. It is in Death in Holy Orders that you introduce Emma Lavenham and I wondered if you were quite intentionally casting this character, an attractive professor of Metaphysical poetry, as a type of Beatrice to draw Dalgliesh further to the faith of his youth?

PDJ: Well I didn’t start with that intention, but in fact, she may do so, I think. 

TAP: You seem to prompt Adam, virtually in every novel, with a priest or someone to draw this out. Now that he has come to resolution in terms of his marriage with Emma, do you think that there would be a resolution in terms of his conflict with God?

PDJ: Well, the book I am hoping very much to write at the moment – but I have no time, no time at all and I do not think it is going to get written, and I am just having to face that…but I hope it may get written. Yes, he will be facing death, he will die facing the certainty of death. But I think that is how he is, and then, “Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief” – it is a rational prayer.

TAP: Well, let’s hope that as Adam faces death he will cry out for more belief.

PDJ: Well I think he will, but you know it has to be a gift from God in a sense, doesn’t it? I do not think you can talk yourself into it; you bring what you can to him.

TAP: I think of your Adam Dalgliesh in a very pastoral way, which is the way I basically relate to all people in my vocation. Undoubtedly he was baptized as a child and I pray that God will receive and embrace him as the baptism service declares.

PDJ: We can be hopeful, if you believe that God is love, that he is merciful.  Heaven knows he has an awful lot to forgive, when I think of what we are making of our world and that you would almost feel that the experiment has gone on far enough, thank you. That God would almost write us off, that we are absolutely hopeless…but he never has and I do not think that he ever will. 

TAP: You use a quote in A Time To Be Earnest, that “for writers creativity is the successful resolution of internal conflict.” Do you feel that you have successfully resolved your internal conflict?

PDJ: I do not think one does completely, no. I think I am as near to it as I am likely to get. I think that my religious life is really dominated by worship and gratitude. I do, in my prayers night and morning, always thank God for bringing me through the night to a wonderful day and I pray that I can live each day with love, with gratitude, with courage and with generosity. And that is quite a lot for me.

TAP: Thank you very much.    TAP


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