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P.D. James Talks About Her Writing and the Appeal of Mystery Novels

IN a recent wide-ranging round-table discussion with Monitor editors and writers, author P.D. James discussed her writing. How does a new mystery get born?

I get a feeling that it's time I wrote another book so I settle down and write one. I have an immense number of ideas, my mind is crowded with them, but I wait for the one that's ... really exciting. Life is so busy, I don't think I have a clear week until August, so I don't think any inspirations I can help before August!

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Do you have a system for working?

Once I've got the idea for the book, then I tend to move into the world of the book; move in with the characters as they emerge. It's almost as if the story and characters already are existing in some limbo of my imagination or outside my conscious control, and I'm really just getting in touch with them. It does seem far more a process of revelation than creation sometimes.

If a book takes three years, 18 months of that probably is spent in planning and research. I go back to the place where it's set. I may have to visit the forensic science lab, talk to biologists, get myself up to date in medical and forensic details, visit Scotland Yard and talk to the detectives, if necessary. The research takes a bit of time. For this one, I visited two atomic power stations.

At the time of murder, I need to know precisely where everybody is for the whole of that day. I have charts listing where each character is every 10 minutes of the day. With all the complications you have for a mystery, I sometimes do one chart for where they actually were, then another chart for where they say they were.

What got you started on writing ``Devices and Desires''?

The setting started this one off. I visited the east coast ... and looked out over the cold, turbulent North Sea. I felt that I had been standing there a thousand years ago and it looked exactly the same, with nets drying in the wind. And as I turned north, on the horizon there was this great power station. I had been looking at the windmills and the ruined abbeys, and I felt a great sense of time passing on that lonely coast. Particularly, the difference between the windmill and the atomic power station. I felt I wanted to set my next book under the shadow of an atomic power station. How do you explain the enduring popularity of mysteries?

Catharsis is probably the key to [mystery's] immense popularity. It may be simply that it appeals so much to people who are ... conventional is not quite the word, but certainly law-abiding and intelligent. Maybe this is one way in which we vicariously commit murder and know we can do it in this structured form and in the end it's all going to be discovered and we didn't do it anyway. At least at the end of the book we know that we shall have the fallible justice of men if nothing else. ... Life can never be as it was before the murder, the dead can't be brought back to life, and often the innocent suffer more than the guilty. But there is at the end a kind of justice. The truth is established.

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