From the Publisher
The great British mystery novelist P. D. James, otherwise known as
the Queen of Crime, has redefined the genre over a career spanning
close to forty years. TIME magazine called her the
"reigning mistress of murder," whose vivid and compelling novels
have made her one of the world's leading crime writers. Biographers
have urged her to allow them to write about her life, but she has
always kept them at bay, valuing her privacy.
However, at the age of seventy-seven, P. D. James decided for the
first time in her life to keep a diary for one year, foremost as a
record of her thoughts and memories for her family and herself, but
also as a "fragment of autobiography" for publication. As she
beautifully describes the salient events of a dizzying year full of
publicity duties, giving lectures and fulfilling other public
commitments, she lets the memories flow, wandering back and forth
through the years to illuminate an extraordinary life and to give
striking insights into the craft of writing. The book became a
New York Times bestseller - as have all of her recent
books - and does more than simply satisfy the curiosity of her many
Mystery author Eric Wright wrote in The Globe and Mail
that "The final effect is not of a fragment, but of a finished
miniature portrait of the artist in her 77th year. … The form she
has invented, a kind of public diary, creates an intimacy that a
major autobiography would never achieve. …a revealing portrait of a
gifted human being, full of common sense and humour, someone we
would like to know."
In the book, James comments on everything from architecture to
literature to fox hunting to the decline of moral values in modern
Britain, and shares with us her love of reading and the joys of
family life (she has two daughters, who live in the United States,
and several grandchildren). However, she refuses to delve too
deeply into the painful areas of her personal life now well in the
past, though she has clearly experienced some hard times. "They are
over and must be accepted, made sense of and forgiven, afforded no
more than their proper place in a long life in which I have always
known that happiness is a gift, not a right." Readers have found
this reservation admirable and elegantly refreshing in a time of
"self-rummaging, self-serving autobiography" (Joan Barfoot, The
London Free Press). Still, hints of pain slip in, and we may
sometimes read between the lines.
Time to Be in Earnest is a privileged and engrossing look
into the life and mind of one of the great mystery writers alive
today, one who has earned comparisons with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
and Dorothy L. Sayers. James is also deeply thoughtful, a
remarkable woman who witnessed much over the course of the
twentieth century. Whether describing motherhood in London during
the bombardments of the Second World War, her fine career as a
civil servant in the British Home Office, or her later life as a
formidably successful writer, she sheds light on a lifetime of
1) Can you tell us how you became a writer?
I knew from early childhood-probably as young as six or seven-that
I wanted to be a writer. I was, however, a late starter, mainly
because I was 19 when the war broke out, married young and lived
for a time in London during the bombing. After the war I had a sick
husband and two small daughters to support and concentrated on my
salaried position in the National Health Service. I was in my
mid-thirties when I realised that there would never be a convenient
time to begin the first novel and that the years were slipping
away. It was then that I started Cover Her Face which was
published in 1962.
2) What inspired you to write your autobiography?
I was inspired to write Time To Be In Earnest because a
number of writers approached me saying that they had been
commissioned to write a biography. I was reluctant to co-operate
and thought it might be as well to set down my own record, however
incomplete. I then had the idea of linking periods in my life to
entries in a diary kept from my 77th to my 78th birthday. This
would provide a record of at least one year of my life and of the
most memorable events of my childhood, youth and middle-age.
3) Are there any tips you would give a book club to better
navigate their discussion of Time To Be In
I think book clubs are experienced in organising their discussions,
but perhaps members might like to relate my experiences to similar
events in their own lives, discussing the similarities and
differences arising from our different countries and
4) Do you have a favourite story to tell about being
interviewed for your book? Have the interviews been very different
from the media you receive for your fiction?
No, I have no favourite story to tell about being interviewed for
Time To Be In Earnest. The interviews have necessarily
been somewhat different from the media response to my fiction since
they have dwelt on the events of my own life and the difference
between creating imaginary people in a fictional world, and trying
honestly to record events in my own past.
5) What question are you never asked in interviews but wish
I can think of no question that I wish I had been asked but
If there were such a question, I would probably have brought it up
when the journalist asked if there is anything else I would like to
say about the work.
6) Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on
No, I have never been influenced in my writing by any review or
profile. I think I am my own keenest critic.
7) Which authors have been most influential to your own
The writers who have most influenced me as a writer are very
Jane Austen, Wilkie Collins (for The Moonstone), Dorothy
L. Sayers, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh.
8) What are some of your other passions in
Exploring churches, rummaging through antique markets and second
hand bookshops, and walking by the sea are my other passions-and,
of course, my family.
9) If you could have written one book in history, what book
would that be?
Emma by Jane Austen.