Although she didn’t publish her first novel until she was 42, Phyllis Dorothy James had been writing since childhood. A celebrated crime writer, she penned more than 20 books, including the Adam Dalgliesh mystery series. A year before her death in 2014, at the age of 94, she talked to Allison Feeney-Hart of BBC News.
“You can’t teach someone to know how to use words effectively and beautifully. You can help people who can write to write more effectively and you can probably teach people a lot of little tips for writing a novel, but I don’t think somebody who cannot write and does not care for words can ever be made into a writer. It just is not possible.
Nobody could make me into a musician. Somebody might be able to teach me how to play the piano reasonably well after a lot of effort, but they can’t make a musician out of me and you cannot make a writer, I do feel that very profoundly.
You absolutely should write about what you know. There are all sorts of small things that you should store up and use, nothing is lost to a writer. You have to learn to stand outside of yourself. All experience, whether it is painful or whether it is happy is somehow stored up and sooner or later it’s used.
I love situations where people are thrown together in unwelcome proximity. where all kinds of reprehensible emotions can bubble up. I think you must write what you feel you want to write because then the book is genuine and that comes through.
I believe that someone who can write, who has a feeling for words and knows how to use them will find a publisher. Because after all, publishers do still need to find new writers. We all get old and we die and that’s that and there have to be successors.
I think all we writers are different. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how different we are?
Some people have to have the room, the pen and others do everything on a computer. I write by hand and I can write more or less anywhere as long as I’ve got a comfortable chair, a table, an unlimited amount of biros to write with and lined paper to write on. And then the next day when my PA comes, which she does at 10 o’clock, then I’ve got quite a lot to dictate to her and she puts it on to the computer, prints it out and I do the first revision.
In a sense, therefore, I revise as I go. It’s important to get up early – before London really wakes and the telephone calls begin and the emails pile up. This is the best time for me, the time of quiet in the morning,
Goodness gracious, how the world of publishing has changed! It is much easier now to produce a manuscript with all the modern technology. It is probably a greater advantage now, more than ever before, to have an agent between you and the publisher.
Everything has changed and it’s really quite astonishing, because people can self-publish now. I would once have thought that that was rather a self-defeating way of doing it but actually publishers do look at what is self-published and there are examples of people picking up very lucrative deals.
To write well, I advise people to read widely. See how people who are successful and good get their results, but don’t copy them. And then you’ve got to write! We learn to write by writing, not by just facing an empty page and dreaming of the wonderful success we are going to have. I don’t think it matters much what you use as practice, it might be a short story, it might be the beginning of a novel, or it might just be something for the local magazine, but you must write and try and improve your writing all the time. Don’t think about it or talk about it, get the words down.
It is undoubtedly a lonely career, but I suspect that people who find it terribly lonely are not writers. I think if you are a writer you realise how valuable the time is when you are absolutely alone with your characters in complete peace. I think it is a necessary loneliness for most writers – they wouldn’t want to be always in the middle of everything having a wonderful life. I’ve never felt lonely as a writer, not really, but I know people do.
Something always sparks off a novel, of course. With me, it’s always the setting. I think I have a strong response to what I think of as the ‘spirit of a place’. I remember I was looking for an idea in East Anglia and standing on a very lonely stretch of beach. I shut my eyes and listened to the sound of the waves breaking over the pebble shore. Then I opened them and turned from looking at the dangerous and cold North Sea to look up and there, overshadowing this lonely stretch of beach was the great, empty, huge white outline of Sizewell nuclear power station. In that moment I knew I had a novel. It was called Devices and Desires.
Never go anywhere without a notebook because you can see a face that will be exactly the right face for one of your characters, you can see place and think of the perfect words to describe it. I do that when I’m writing, I think it’s a sensible thing for writers to do.
I’ve written little bits of my next novel, things that have occurred to me. I’ve got the setting already. I’ve got the title, I’ve got most of the plot and I shall start some serious writing of it next month, I think.
I never talk about a book before it is finished and I never show it to anybody until it is finished and I don’t show it to anybody even then, except for my publisher and my agent. Then there is this awful time until they phone.
I’m usually pretty confident by the time I’ve sent it in but I have those moments when I think, ‘well I sent it to them on Friday, by Saturday night they should be ringing up to say how wonderful it is!’
I’m always aware that people might have preferences and think that one book is better than another.
I am lucky to have written as many books as I have, really, and it has been a joy. With old age, it becomes very difficult. It takes longer for the inspiration to come, but the thing about being a writer is that you need to write.
What I am working on now will be another detective story, it does seem important to write one more. I think it is very important to know when to stop.
Some writers, particularly of detective fiction, have published books that they should not have published. I don’t think my publisher would let me do that and I don’t think my children would like me to. I hope I would know myself whether a book was worth publishing. I think while I am alive, I shall write. There will be a time to stop writing but that will probably be when I come to a stop, too.”
I usually try to edit pieces like this, because I’m conscious that most of you don’t want to read a long wheeze. But with this piece, as I read through it, the warmth and openness of Ms James prevents editing. I agree with everything she said, except that I’ve never been motivated and clinical enough to carry a notebook to record my observations.