British novelist Phyllis Dorothy James died in Oxford today – 27th November – aged 94. Many tributes have already been paid to the ‘Queen of crime fiction’; for my part, I find many aspects of her writing journey extraordinarily inspiring. Let me share why.
For one thing, her fame as a writer arrived late in her life. Very late actually.
From her school days she knew she wanted to be a writer. But her family’s financial troubles forced her to leave school at 16 and find a job as a filing clerk. Also, her mother was committed to an asylum when James was 14, leaving her to look after the house and her siblings. All in all, not the easiest of early lives, and one that forced her to put her writing dream on hold.
In fact it wasn’t until the mid-1950s, while in her mid-thirties, that she really began writing, composing parts of her first novel while on her work commute. But she didn’t make a serious start on that first novel until she was 40, while continuing to work full time and bring up a family. That novel was eventually published in 1962. There then followed a series of others (the second published just one year later) and so developed a modestly successful writing career with a small but loyal following.
And then, in 1980, with the publication of her eighth book she began to experience best-selling international success and acclaim:
‘Monday, I was ticking along as usual, and by Friday I was a millionaire.’
So, to re-cap:
- She had to put her writing dream on hold for many years – about twenty in fact.
- When she finally started, she was in her thirties and facing the time pressures of work and family.
- Her first novel took several years to complete. (I would guess she went through all the false starts, setbacks, and the steep learning curve of all rookie writers.)
- She was in her early forties before she was published.
- And she was sixty before she achieved significant commercial success – so probably forty or fifty years after she’d first thought about writing, more than twenty years after she finally started, and nearly twenty years after first being published. A success for sure, but not what you’d call an overnight one.
Now if that’s not an object lesson in persistence and patience, I don’t know what is. But there’s more. Her husband, traumatised by his experiences in the Second World War, was eventually placed in an institution, leaving James to bring up their two daughters alone. Then In 1964 he died following an overdose of drugs and alcohol. So no sooner had she finally achieved her dream of being a published writer than life lobbed another grenade in her direction. But she carried on working and writing.
Of course, the publishing world has changed massively since James first ventured into it, and is changing still. No doubt some things about her career would have been different had she been born fifty, sixty or seventy years later. Perhaps also she was fortunate in at least two ways. First, and most obviously, she did achieve success in the end. Yet I feel sure that would have happened anyway, even if she started out today, even if by a different route – her talent and dedication would have all but assured it. Maybe it would have happened more quickly, maybe not.
Her second stroke of luck was her long life. Hitting the big time in your sixties isn’t so bad if your still have three more decades to enjoy it, and enough time to pen more than twenty books. She acknowledged as much herself, once saying:
‘I am lucky to have written as many books as I have. It has been a joy.’
Yet some might say that, by modern standards, twenty-ish books in a thirty-year-plus writing career is an unexceptional output. These days there is pressure to write almost with a production-line mentality: keep publishing, get your work out there, get noticed. The trade-off is that quality can easily suffer.
But James saw her writing as a craft. She wanted to get it right. Her books were known for being well-researched and well-written. She rejected the notion that crime novels were not ‘proper literature’. Perhaps if more writers were so fixated on quality, they would make more progress in the long run. In our fast-moving digital age, where we can all too easily be panicked into believing that tomorrow is too late (and even today might be), too much is thrown out into the world too quickly. The world needs better books, not just more of them. (Arguably it doesn’t need more of them at all …)
Speaking of research, here again is another way that James turned what might have been a negative into a positive. For many years her writing and her day job had to co-exist, as it still does for most writers. But she used her experience in hospitals, in psychiatric clinics, and in the criminal policy section of the Home Office in her books. In one memorable quote, she described seeing someone being fed through a tube during her time as a nurse:
‘I remember thinking, ‘that would be an easy way to kill someone.’’
That duly became the method she used to dispatch a character in a later book.
I admit I’m not into crime fiction especially, but James did range beyond that at times, for example in the dystopian novel The Children of Men, and the recent Austen tribute / Pride and Prejudice sequel / murder mystery Death Comes To Pemberley.
Finally, a few more pearls of wisdom and inspiration from the great lady …
Talking of her regret about waiting until she was 40 before writing her first novel:
‘I realized that there was never going to be a convenient time to start that first novel … If I didn’t make time, find the motivation, I would be a failed writer and that would be absolutely appalling for me.’
Her characters often died brutal deaths. But she admitted it could be hard to get under the skin of a killer:
‘When I am writing about a killer, I am that killer. I am in his mind, which is probably why I don’t have sadistic mass murderers as characters.’
She wrote all her novels by hand and then dictated the words onto tape for a secretary to produce the first draft – but she found that approach had certain advantages:
‘Dictating is quite useful … because you can hear the dialogue, hear the structure of the sentences, the very subtle and peculiar usage that is English prose.’
While she loved writing, she admitted it didn’t always come easily to her:
‘There are moments when I’m rather reluctant to get started; the sort of day when even cleaning the stove seems an agreeable thing to be doing rather than start writing. But on the whole it is a labour of love.’
… and just to prove it, she said last year she was working on another book. Which just goes to show you’re never too old to start writing – or to stop!