- The Washington Times - Friday, June 9, 2000


Readers of a diary kept by British mystery writer P.D. James may be amazed at the large number of speeches she gave and the many meetings, dinners, book signings and festivities she attended in one year. Perhaps more amazing, given her age and occupation, it was her first diary.

"You're perpetually asked to do things," the 79-year-old says. "Some are very good, charitable things, supporting causes I'm glad to support. The result is an overly busy life."

"Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography" was published by Knopf in April. Besides the activities of her day, Phyllis Dorothy James also recorded her memories, observations and opinions in the year between her 77th and 78th birthdays, from Aug. 3, 1997 to Aug. 3, 1998.

"I thought it should be what I felt at the end of each day," she says in an interview. "Once I wrote, I never revised."

Readers have been especially interested in her views on the craft of writing, her childhood memories and her experiences during the bombing of London in World War II, she says.

In her diary, Miss James deplores the lack of control a writer has when his or her works are adapted for television or film. She also writes that she dislikes people who talk loudly on cell phones in train compartments.

Miss James has enjoyed a long and productive career. Her first book, "Cover Her Face," was published in 1962. A string of best-selling mysteries followed, bringing her fame and fortune.

She is finishing book No. 17, which features Commander Adam Dalgliesh, the Scotland Yard detective and published poet, who is one of the best-known and most interesting creations in popular English fiction.

"The chief joy of fame is the private satisfaction that you have exercised, I think, a God-given talent," she says. "It's the recognition of talent that gives pleasure to many other people. They let me know it, and I appreciate that and their support and encouragement."

Although fame "does attract a certain amount of envy and malice, I've been lucky," she says. "There has been very, very little."

As for the money, it allows her to help family members and is assurance that she will never be a financial burden to them. It also has enabled her to live comfortably.

"I haven't lived vastly differently on a day-by-day basis, but it's wonderful to be relieved of the anxiety of being poor," she says.

In 1991, Queen Elizabeth II made Miss James a baroness, not for her writing, but for her large amount of official public work.

"I've always felt that women were underrepresented on more powerful bodies. So when I received invitations to serve on things, I felt I had an obligation to say 'yes' if I thought I could do it. It's no good complaining and not accepting when you get the chance," she says.

These days, she accepts fewer engagements.

"I have the excuse that I'm nearly 80 now and have to cut down a bit. I need to conserve my energy for my writing and see more of friends and family," says Miss James, who has two daughters and five grandchildren.

There will be a family dinner to celebrate her 80th birthday in August, and Faber and Faber, her English publisher, will play host to a party on a boat on the Thames River in London.

Miss James says her age makes her think about the inevitability of death and that so few years remain.

"Am I going to be writing at 90? Will I write two or three more books, or less?"

When asked what change during her lifetime upset her the most, Miss James cites the breakup of the family as an institution.

"When I was in school from age 5 to 16, there was not a single child there whose parents were separated or divorced," she says. "I'm not saying divorce is always wrong. With cruelty or terrible meanness, divorce is the answer. But it seems to me now that society is much less stable because the family is less strong and children have suffered very much through this."

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