18 writerly questions for P.D. James

P. D. James is the author of 20 previous books, most of which have been filmed and broadcast on television in the United States and other countries. She spent 30 years in various departments of the British Civil Service, including the Police and Criminal Law Departments of Great Britain’s Home Office. She has served as a magistrate and as a governor of the BBC.

In 2000 she celebrated her eightieth birthday and published her autobiography, Time to Be in Earnest. The recipient of many prizes and honors, she was created Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991 and was inducted into the International Crime Writing Hall of Fame in 2008. She lives in London and Oxford. Her latest novel is Death Comes to Pemberley.

In this Q&A, P.D. James discusses her new book and the writing life:

1. How would you summarize your book in one sentence?
Death Comes to Pemberley is both an exciting mystery and a novel about the effect on the marriage of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy of a police investigation for murder centred on Pemberley.

2. How long did it take you to write this book?
Approximately 18 months.

3. Where is your favourite place to write?
In my London home.

4. How do you choose your characters’ names?
Sometimes from the telephone directory or from the Births and Deaths columns in the national newspapers.

5. How many drafts do you go through?
I correct each chapter when my secretary has printed it out.

6. What’s your favourite city in the world?

7. If you could talk to any writer living or dead who would it be, and what would you ask?
Jane Austen. I would be guided by how willing she was to talk frankly to me.

8. Do you listen to music while you write? If so, what kind?
No, when I listen to music I like to concentrate on it.

9. Who is the first person who gets to you read your manuscript?
My secretary who types it, and then my editor, publisher and agent.

10. Do you have a guilty pleasure read?
No, I don’t feel guilty about any book I read.

11. What’s on your nightstand right now?
The Letters of Evelyn Waugh edited by Mark Amory. Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford. O is for Outlaw by Sue Grafton.

12. What is the first book you remember reading?
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham.

13. Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes, from the moment when I was able to read.

14. What do you drink or eat while you write?
I don’t eat, but drink coffee.

15. Typewriter, laptop, or pen & paper?
Pen and paper.

16. What did you do immediately after hearing that you were being published for the very first time?
I did a little dance for joy.

17. How do you decide which narrative point of view to write from?
In each book I change the narrative point of view.

18. What is the best gift someone could give a writer?
Peace and quiet. A case of champagne would also help!

Reprinted courtesy Random House, Inc.