Phyllis Dorothy James was born in Oxford in 1920 and educated at Cambridge Girls’ High School.
During the war she was a Red Cross nurse and later she was employed in hospital administration before working in the Home Office, first with the forensic science service and then in the criminal law department.
Her first novel, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962 and in 1979 she retired from the Home Office to concentrate on her writing. Many of her novels feature the detective Adam Dalgliesh, most popularly in A Taste for Death (1986) which enjoyed an international vogue. In 1987 she was awarded the Crime Writers’ Association Diamond Dagger. She served on the Art’s Council and numerous public services as well as being a Governor of the BBC. In 1991 she was made a life peer, Baroness James of Holland Park. A remarkable lady seemingly indestructible who died suddenly at the age of ninety-four, she was always a force to be reckoned with.
I interviewed her in 1992.
You describe your childhood as having been a time of considerable anxiety: Do you think this was primarily nature or nurture?
Probably a little of both. My parents were not very well matched, so I think it was a house where there was considerable tension. I was quite frightened of my father. I loved him very much, and I remember him with great respect and affection, but the qualities that I admired in him – his fortitude, intelligence and a certain sardonic humour – are aspects you come to appreciate only when you’re older. A child wants a father to be loving and kind and rather more affectionate than mine was able to be.
It is often said that to have a great deal of trauma in childhood is an excellent preparation for the creative writer. In that sense would you say that you served a good apprenticeship?
I have to be very careful here because, although this may seem platitudinous, I’m always aware of the fact that three quarters of the human race go hungry. I didn’t go hungry, so it’s very difficult to feel I had a less happy childhood than I should have done when in fact I had a roof over my head, I had enough to eat, I had an education. But it was a time of some trauma; that is certainly true. It is good for a creative artist to have this, but I’m not so sure it’s good for a human being. Perhaps that is why some creative artists aren’t very easy people.
You seem always to have regretted the fact that you did not go to university. Is this a straightforward sadness at missed opportunity, or is it overlaid with resentment towards your parents for not making it possible?
It would have been very difficult for them to have made it possible, although if I had been a boy my father would have made a greater effort. As it was I was born in 1920, and there were no grants before the war. You had to be clever enough to get a scholarship, and you didn’t get an awful lot of money even then. I wasn’t bright enough for a scholarship so I didn’t get the chance. I don’t think I can altogether blame my father who was only a middle-grade civil servant, but I would have loved to have gone to university instead of leaving school at sixteen. It had been my childhood dream – I had always thought of university as being a very beautiful place, somewhere full of learning and books and conversation and intelligent people, much brighter than myself. Whether it would have made me a better writer, I don’t know; it may have been lucky for me not to go.
Are you one of those people who believe that all our adult virtues and failings can be explained in terms of childhood influences, or can this delving into the past be overdone, do you think?
It can be overdone. I tend to think heredity is more important. The first Queen Elizabeth said, ‘I am endued with such qualities that if I were turned out of the Realm in my petticoat I were able to live in any place in Christome.’ And one feels she would; she would have survived. Certain people are born with such qualities of character and intellect that they are survivors, and even if they’re born into bad environments or deprived families, they’re going to make their way all right because it’s in them to do it. Having said that, I do accept that early environment and childhood experiences are immensely important.
You yourself have made the connection between your literary interest in death and your childhood experience of seeing a drowned boy retrieved from a river. That seems to have been a psychologically significant moment…
I didn’t actually see the body, though I do remember being immensely interested in it, and I wouldn’t have minded seeing him. As it was, the children were herded together on one side and then taken away, but just knowing a body had been found was fascinating. I didn’t really understand this interest, but from early childhood I certainly was aware of the fact of death in a very strange way. For example, if we were talking about what we were going to do in the summer, even as a small child I would think, ‘Well, if we are still alive that’s what we’ll do.’ Of course I do that now all the time, I always have at the back of my mind the thought ‘if I’m still here’ – that is because I recognize the inevitability of death and the knowledge that it can come at any time; but it’s odd for a child to think in those terms.
Your mother seems to have provided the warmth and security in your life, and although later you came to respect and admire your father’s qualities, you have often said that you feared your father. Was this a rational fear? What exactly were you afraid of?
Just afraid of his displeasure; of him as an authority figure. My parents were mismatched. He was very intelligent, very musical, but he didn’t have many opportunities in life. He had to earn his living from the age of sixteen, so I think in many ways he was a disappointed man. My mother was sentimental and warm and not very bright. She would have been a good wife for a country parson with eight children. My mother was slightly afraid of him and that communicated itself to me.
When you became a mother yourself, were you conscious of trying to reverse this rather unhappy experience of childhood for your own children? Was it very important to convey a sense of love and approval to your children?
Oh yes. All that is tremendously important, especially a sense of approval. It was difficult of course because my husband was very ill, and obviously I had to support the family by myself. The children lived with their grandparents, so they didn’t see me as much as children normally do, but certainly I was a very affectionate mother. Whether I would have been as good a mother had they been difficult children, I don’t know. I’m not very fond of children as children, but I did like my own. They were very easy to love; they were themselves loving and bright, and our interests coincided, so we always had something to talk about as they grew up. But I might have been a poor mother of a stupid, irritating child.
Many people who married during the war have described how the fact of war gave their marriage a sense of urgency or fatalism – it was a defiantly optimistic act in time of uncertainty. Was it so for you?
It was. In some ways it was such a happy time, which is a curious thing to say, but I think there was a great sense of comradeship; and during the bombing there was a great sense of excitement. It was a romantic time really, and one didn’t think about things so very deeply.
You were to have three happy years before your husband’s tragic illness. Are you still able to recall those years, how they felt, or was that something that was lost in the stressful times which followed?
Oh I can recall them…I can recall them. They haven’t been really lost. I was so young then, and when you’re young, you’ve got all that optimism, that enthusiasm for life.
It seems that you coped with the difficulties of supporting two children and your sick husband in an entirely pragmatic and unself-pitying way. Were your strength and resourcefulness innate qualities, do you think, or were they born of your immensely difficult situation?
They were probably innate. Throughout life my attitude to problems has been to find a solution and to survive, and I was helped by the fact that by nature I am more suited to having a career and a job than I would have been to being a doctor’s wife and staying at home. On the whole I enjoyed the jobs I did; not all of them and not all of the time, but I had no reason to feel terribly aggrieved that I was having to work. Once I realized my husband was unlikely to get well, I went to evening classes and qualified in hospital administration so that I could get a reasonably senior job. After he died I took an examination for a senior post in the civil service; so there was a lot of ambition there really.
Was your husband your first love?
More or less. There were various experimentations…but yes, he was my first real love. I still miss him. We were well suited; I was the dominant partner, but that didn’t worry him; he was quite happy for me to be the one who arranged things in his life. He was eccentric, clever, Anglo-Irish; a strange race, the Protestant Anglo-Irish. He loved books and pictures, he had a wonderful sense of humour, and a very great charm. He adored his daughters, and he would have loved his grandchildren. And since he was totally without envy, he would have loved his grandchildren and he would not have minded a wife who was more successful in worldly terms than himself. I miss him very much. We were very happy.
And after he died you never fell in love again?
No, never. I didn’t meet a man whom I could really love, and the men who proposed marriage to me after Connor died, I didn’t want to marry. I would also have been wary of falling in love. I do believe that as one gets older one looks at marriage in a rather different light. When you’re young you are forced by sexual desire and youth and romance, while underneath it all the genes are wanting to perpetuate themselves, but when you get past childbearing you begin to think, do I really want to wake up every morning and see this face at breakfast? I would have been happy to marry again if I’d met someone for whom I had a great respect and affection, but it’s very easy to get quite selfish after a bit when you live alone, especially if you’re a writer; you do things in your own time and in your own way.
You have an impressive record of public appointments – you were on the board of the Arts Council, you chair the literature panel, and you are a governor of the BBC. Being a woman seems to have been no impediment in this area…
Not at all. When I was appointed to the BBC there weren’t enough women on the board, so a woman can have a slight advantage in that way. Not always of course, and there are still not enough women in public life. In the Health Service I had to be much better than the men if I was going to get a job over their heads, but otherwise I’ve never felt disadvantaged as a woman, and I never felt that I was sexually harassed. Perhaps I’ve been lucky.
Is it attributable to luck, or do you think sexual harassment is a bit exaggerated?
It’s been overdone. Men have always flirted, and why shouldn’t they? I’m quite prepared to flirt with a man if he’s attractive. And a woman always knows the difference between a man who is flirting with her because she is a woman, and a man who is sexually unpleasant. If women have lost the art of knowing that, I’m very sorry for them. If a man opens a door for you nowadays it’s regarded as an insult, and I think that’s dreadful and also rather sad.
You have done a great deal in your own career to advance the cause of women, but am I right in thinking you might share Doris Lessing’s view on feminism – you support its aims but you dislike its shrill voice?
I share her view entirely. I also suspect that many of the extreme feminists are so because they envy men and dislike being women. I don’t dislike being a woman. I have many men friends, and I admire men, but I’ve never wanted to be one, and I sometimes suspect that the shrillness comes from a huge resentment that they haven’t been born male. I very much dislike the suggestion that all men are by nature rapists. It just is not true. There are some very unpleasant men about, one knows, but to look at the entire male population and castigate them as anti-female, uncaring, sexually harassing and potential rapists, is nonsense, complete nonsense.
In your public life you are very much an Establishment figure, an Anglican, a Conservative, a former magistrate and high-ranking civil servant. So you see any link between the Establishment and the rather murky lower depths you explore in your novels?
No, I don’t think so. I suppose I am an Establishment figure – I’m certainly an Anglican, though not a very good one in the sense that I’m not a regular churchgoer. I am also on the liturgical commission of the Church of England, but I think I sit there more because of my interest in the language of the liturgy. I’m not a member of the Conservative Party but that’s the way I vote; I am a natural conservative, no doubt about that. And I am an ex-magistrate, so yes, I do qualify as an Establishment figure. There is in my character a natural love of order, and a real fear of violence and disorder, which may account for the kind of fiction I write. I’m very frightened of emotional and psychological violence as well as physical violence, and I think good order is important to any country. All the old certainties are just being swept away, that’s the trouble nowadays. I think one needs the central certainties, just as most people need a religion, whatever form it takes. In the modern detective story, order may be restored in the sense that the crime is solved but the crime is so contaminating that all the characters are in some way touched by it. In the 1930s when the detective stories were set in a village, the crime was solved and the little village went back to what it was before. We don’t write like that now, but it is still about restoring order. It is also about affirming the belief that we live in a moral universe and one that we’re capable of understanding. All this is very reassuring, yet with part of my mind I wonder if we’re not living in a universe that is not moral, a universe with chaos underneath.
As a governor of the BBC where do you stand on the business of violence on television? Do you have any sympathy with the Mary Whitehouse view that violence on our screens is corrupting and ought to be censored?
There is no proof that it does harm but I do think from the common-sense point of view, for young people to be perpetually exposed to images of violence cannot be good. Of course people are apt to say there is nothing but violence on our screens, but when you ask for some examples it’s not so easy. I don’t honestly think it’s the BBC we have to worry about, it’s the videos which children can buy nowadays. These videos are really quite appallingly violent, and that, I think, has to be bad.
What about violence in books?
In books I hate scenes of torture, but I don’t worry so much about violence in the detective story, because it is such a moral form. The villain always gets found out. What worries me more is that books are becoming increasingly pornographic, and when that happens they cease to be erotic. It’s the same with films. I saw Basic Instinct, which is supposed to be a thriller, on video and every time the main characters were near a bed we had another ten minutes of reeling and writhing. All this heaving and loud breathing and acrobatics…oh dear, oh dear…it’s just not subtle enough to be erotic. Perhaps it’s my age, but I do believe that some of the most erotic things are the most subtle; you can have the most erotic scenes where the couple don’t in fact touch each other, you can have a huge sexual charge without having people rolling around naked on beds.
You have sometimes said that you’re not a professional writer in the sense that you never have actually had to earn your living from writing. Is that something you have regarded as a liberation or a constraint?
A liberation. This is part of my innate caution. Without the writing I would have been quite poor, but we wouldn’t have starved. When I worked in the Home Office it was a good wage and it paid the mortgage. I didn’t expect the writing to make me rich, although it has; I had ambitions to be highly regarded, and I set out to be a good and serious writer. I certainly don’t despise the money – it’s totally dishonest to pretend that you’re not happier if you’ve got money, by and large. But I’ve never taken a penny in advance for any book until it was completed. Some people work better if they’re given a huge advance to write the next book, but I can’t stand that anxiety, I never wanted that. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not making any judgement here or any moral point – it just happens to be right for me. I do remember the depression of the 1920s and being constantly told by my mother how lucky I was that my father was a civil servant. People were hungry then and I grew up with this great need for security.
I wonder if you are conscious of your readership as you write. Do you feel the need to justify the particular moral scheme within which you operate, or is it something you take very much for granted?
I don’t think about the readership. I think about what is going to satisfy me. If I have an idea for a book I do the very best I can with that idea. It’s a matter of total artistic pride, not to publish a book until it’s as good as I can make it, and I suppose I feel that if I can satisfy myself then I shall satisfy my readers. There is a moral climate in which I write, but my characters don’t always share it. My characters can make powerful arguments in favour of a world in which there is no God, for example, and I understand those arguments absolutely, so in that sense I’m not a didactic writer.
Would you increase the sexual interest in order to sell more books?
I’ve never done that, and I’ve never been tempted. But I can’t imagine a book without sex, because love, including sexual love, is such an important part of human life and it controls so much of what men and women do. In detective novels where you have motives, where you have people driven by compulsions, where there is moral conflict, almost certainly you are going to have strong sexual motives. It would seem a very bloodless book if it had no sex in it, whether it’s heterosexual or homosexual sex, and I’ve had both. In one of my books Dalgliesh remembers a constable saying to him, ‘People will tell you that the most dangerous emotion in the world is love.’
Are there any passages in your books which you would mind your daughters reading?
No. I’ve never written anything of which I’m ashamed, or that I’d mind them reading. With regard to my descriptions of dead bodies I sometimes think they will say, ‘Oh Mummy, really, this is a bit much’, but I’ve never written anything which I feel I couldn’t justify artistically. When a body is found I want the description to be absolutely realistic, what it would look like and smell like. That’s important.
Do you believe novelists have a moral responsibility towards their readers?
They have a moral responsibility to do the very best they can with their talent, without considering what is going to earn the most money, without twisting it to suit a particular market, without inserting gratuitous sex or pornography in order to increase sales. It’s artistic honesty that counts.
Your books are as remote from the comfortable middle-class world of Agatha Christie as it is possible to be. It seems to me that your concern is more with the ethical problems or murder and the consequences of crime, something which allows you to probe deeper into the complexities of human nature. Is this the real area of interest to you?
Yes, it is. What I’m interested in are the people, their motives, the characters’ compulsions and the moral choices. That’s why there are no psychopaths in my detective stories. A psychopath murders because he just happens to enjoy murder; he has no moral choice, and therefore he is of no interest to me.
Do you perhaps rather disapprove of Agatha Christie and her Poirot and Miss Marple? Has part of your purpose been to explode the cosy class-ridden snobbish world she portrays?
Sometimes people say that I am Agatha Christie’s crown princess and successor, and that always seems to me to be nonsense because I think we’re very different writers. I don’t think she’s a good novelist; I have to say that, although I feel it’s very unbecoming of any writer to deride her because she has given immense pleasure to millions of people all over the world. Some people say she’s done harm to the crime novel, but I don’t see that. She’s a kind of literary conjurer. Every time most of us are surprised – I’m not because I now see through the trick – but if we think about it afterwards we realize it could not have happened in real life. She puts down a character as pasteboard, and we get the same ones in each book; she shifts then around, and we think ah, that’s the murder; it never is. I wouldn’t be too unkind about her, but I don’t think I am at all like her. The accusation of snobbery in connection with a classical detective story arises from the fact that you are really hoping to provide an intelligent murderer who knows the difference between right and wrong, makes the moral choice, and is out to commit a very clever murder; and that being so, he is very unlikely to be a stupid, professional villain. The horror of the deed is greatly enhanced if there is contrast, as W.H. Auden knew when in an essay called ‘The Guilty Vicarage’ he said that the single body on the drawing room floor is a great deal more horrible than the dozen bullet-ridden bodies down Raymond Chandler’s mean streets. You need contrast, and it’s a good thing to have it in a fairly prosperous, orderly society. If I were to set a detective story among professional criminals in the worst areas of inner-city violence, it would not be very interesting. Murder has to be set among people to whom murder really is an appalling crime if you’re going to get that contrast, and I suppose Agatha Christie felt that to an extent, even though she produced prosperous middle-class books set in cosy little villages.
You have described the detective novel as essentially an unsentimental form. Does sentiment hold many terrors for you?
I’m very wary of sentimentality and I don’t think it’s the same as compassion. Sentimentality is a very easy and agreeable emotion which doesn’t often find its outlet in effective action; compassion does.
I imagine you are wary of conclusions about art imitating life, but at the same time your hero Dalgliesh is intelligent, self sufficient, unsentimental, wary of relationships – is he not created in your own image?
Yes, he is a bit. If you have one character who goes through a succession of books this tends to happen.
You have used Graham Greene’s words of Dalgliesh, saying that there is a splinter of ice in his heart. Is there also a splinter in yours?
Yes, there is. It’s difficult to explain why because it involves something which happened to me, and telling it could be much too painful for my children. Let me just say that even when appalling things have been happening to me, part of my mind has been observing my own reaction to them; I have known myself to do that in many quite terrible situations. I know I couldn’t do it if one of my children had died. If that happened I wouldn’t be able to watch my own grief or record it or watch myself grieving; it would consume me, absolutely. But in most other situations, when I’ve been in a condition of great trauma, and sometimes if I’ve been comforting friends in great distress, I’m still observing the manifestations of the distress.
You have a fascination with the bridges we construct over the chaos of personal and psychological disorder, the bridges of law and order and religion. Murder, the ultimate crime, blows away these bridges and reveals how people behave under stress. Are you attracted to writing about the chaos in the knowledge that you are able to put it right?
Yes, I’m sure that’s so. In life you aren’t able to, but in books you are. Of course you don’t put it totally right. In A Taste for Death in which the bodies are found in the church vestry by poor Miss Wharton and the little boy she befriends, we know at the end how the murder was done and we know who’s guilty, but nearly all the characters in that book had their lives changed because in some way they came in contact with the two butchered bodies in that church. And yet it is controlled, and this profound sense of imposing order on disorder is highly agreeable to me. It’s psychologically satisfying, especially in a world where there is so much disorder.
Albert Camus believed that the evil in the world almost always comes from ignorance and that ‘good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding’. Is that something you agree with?
I could agree with it in certain circumstances, but I don’t think evil is just the absence of education and the absence of knowledge. It’s true that good intentions on their own are not enough; well-intentioned people who lack wisdom and knowledge and intelligence can do a great deal of harm, but it doesn’t follow that these qualities when present make for an absence of evil.
But do you think that without evil there can be no goodness?
I don’t think goodness depends on evil, but it depends on the possibility of evil.
Despite the fixation on death in your books there emerges a distinct sense of the sanctity of life. Is that an intended effect, one you’re pleased with?
Yes, it is intended and I am pleased with it.
Do you ever apply your mind to the abortion issue?
Yes. It’s extremely difficult because here my reason is at war with my instinct. If the child is going to be grossly deformed, mentally or physically, then abortion is justified, but I find it abhorrent when abortion is used as a method of birth control or for the convenience of the mother. Of course one can argue logically that if the woman is to have a choice, then the choice includes abortion, and who am I to judge whether her motives are selfish or not. Yet it is abhorrent, it is abhorrent.
Are you saying that the sanctity of life depends on the quality of life?
Yes, I am, though I don’t think that’s very logical. The easy answer is to take the extreme view that abortion is never justified; or to say that it is always justified, and no child should come into the world unwanted. It is far more difficult for human beings to have to apply their minds to this essentially moral question: are there circumstances in which the destruction of an embryo is justifiable? I would say there are, when it’s a question of preserving the life of a mother, or if the foetus is so abnormal that its chances of having any kind of life worth living are virtually none. But it’s a slippery slope.
You are fond of quoting the psychologist Anthony Storr who said, ‘All creativity is the successful resolution of internal conflict.’ How would you describe your own internal conflict?
What he said is profoundly true for me. My fear of violence and disorder reveals a basic insecurity which likes this ordered form, because in the end, although I can’t put it right in the real world, I can put it right between the covers of my books.
You are generally dismissive of physiological theorizing about yourself, and tend to promote the image of a respectable, sensible grandmother figure. Is this to keep intruders at bay, to keep yourself private, or is it perhaps an unwillingness to delve too deeply into your own psyche?
It’s a bit of all three. I do delve quite deeply into my psyche, as deeply as I would want to delve, but I don’t like other people doing it, and I don’t feel much good comes of it. The old idea that if you can understand things then somehow you put them right is not necessarily so. I can see that my insecurity might well have come from a childhood trauma, that my need for religion, my belief in God is perhaps the need to have a better father figure than I had; but I don’t think I gain much by knowing, or by somebody else expecting me to lie on a couch and pay a great deal of good money in order to reach that same conclusion.
You fear violence a great deal, which is perhaps a natural condition of women. But in your case it seems a rather heightened, almost irrational fear – keys always kept round your neck, doors locked, truncheon under the pillow, and so on. Would you agree it borders on the pathological?
Boarder perhaps. But it’s very difficult in this modern world not to feel that it’s really quite sensible. The keys round the neck are simply because I have a fairly big house and if I require to open the door, if only for the postman, it’s just maddening chasing up and down for keys. I am meticulous about locking up, but I think that is no more than common sense. The house was never locked throughout my childhood, and people who had cars could leave them unlocked in the street, but it’s a different world now.
Do you believe that we are all potential murderers?
I believe we’re all capable of homicide but I don’t think we’re all capable of murder. I would make a distinction between killing to save people, to protect one’s children or grandchildren, to protect oneself if assaulted, but the legal definition of murder involves premeditation: ‘causing the death of a living creature under the Queen’s Peace with malice aforethought, death occurring within a year and a day’. And I don’t think we’re all capable of that. I would not plan to kill someone, but if I woke up in the middle of the night and found a rapist in my bedroom, I wouldn’t give much for his chances; and it wouldn’t worry me, not in the slightest.
Would it be overstating it to say that your novels perhaps offer a catharsis of the natural state of guilt, your own included?
I think the detective story does that, for my own guilt and the reader’s. If people don’t look back on their life and feel guilty there’s something wrong with them. Guilt is almost inseparable from being a human being. I certainly think I could have been a better daughter, a better wife to my husband, a better mother to my children, and there are those to whom I could have been a better friend. At the same time we shouldn’t let guilt master us. If we don’t learn to forgive ourselves we never learn to forgive other people, so guilt can be very destructive, and that’s why religions make a provision for coping with it.
The subtext of much of your writing seems to be a deep disapproval of the present world and its moral climate. Is there something of the old morality play in your fiction, do you think?
Not intentionally, but it tends to be so. Auden certainly thought that a detective story was the equivalent of the old morality play. Its moral stance is unambiguous: murder is wrong, and it should be discovered and punished. There should be an attempt to understand the murderer and what the temptation was, but my books would never say that what was done was right.
Do you believe in punishment as a deterrent to crime?
Yes, I’m sure it is. I remember a conference where people were saying that punishment was never a deterrent, and the speaker stood up and said, ‘If the penalty for illegal parking was a public flogging very few would have left their cars where they are standing now.’ And she was absolutely right. It’s a commonsense thing – it would deter me. I don’t know how far, if we had the death penalty, it would deter potential murderers, but by and large human beings are deterred by the thought of punishment.
Do you agree with Muriel Spark that although novels are fiction, there emerges from them a kind of truth, a moral or metaphorical truth perhaps, but none the less truth?
Yes, she is right. The truth which emerges is the truth about human beings. I don’t think that one can make a universal application from a particular novel; one can say this tells us something about how human beings would behave in certain circumstances, and the consequences of that behaviour.
I have noticed that in your earlier books there is almost a complete absence of cruelty, or description of pain; the reader was protected in a sense. In later books, such as A Taste of Death and Devices and Desires, this is not so. Why do you think your writing developed in this way?
I think it had to do with becoming increasingly aware of the pain and the violence of life. If only our moral progress could match our scientific progress. I remain an optimist, but that is a state which is very difficult to justify intellectually.
Your new book The Children of Men describes a futuristic world stricken by universal infertility. Your hero Theodore recounts the fact that people’s interest in sex is waning, and that ‘romantic and idealized love’ has replaced ‘crude carnal satisfaction’. Do you think sex is dangerous when it is separated from love?
Dangerous is perhaps rather a strong word. It can lead to the dangers of being promiscuous and that in the end is not satisfactory to human beings. When sex is divorced from love it’s a sterile business. Women find it extremely difficult; men find it much easier.
Is it something you would be able to do?
I think I could. I can quite see that I could have a sexual relationship simply because the man was very attractive and I was sexually drawn to him, but I don’t think I’d find it very satisfying. The highest satisfaction from sex is through love.
Your detective books are concerned with the judgement of men, but your new book is more to do with the judgement of God. This is surely difficult ground for any writer…
Very difficult, yes. The idea for this book came to me from reading about the extraordinary reduction in fertility of Western man. The sperm rate is down by about forty per cent in thirty years, and there seems to be no reason why the same thing shouldn’t happen to homo sapiens as has to virtually every one of the millions of living forms that have inherited our planet. In the nature of things we should die out, and dying out in one year spectacularly is not impossible, but a bit unlikely, so to that extent the book is a fable. It was a slightly worrying book to write, rather traumatic.
The book tells us that much of the sinister, bleak picture you paint can be traced back to the preoccupations of the early 1990s – ‘Pornography and sexual violence on film, on television, in books, in life, had increased and become more explicit, but less and less in the West we made love and bred children.’ That sounds like a terrible indictment of modern times and morals. Is it meant to be?
There’s quite a lot of truth in it, but that’s what Theo says – it isn’t necessarily what I believe, although I can see some evidence for his views. For example, he says somewhere that we know more and more about sex and less and less about love, and I think that’s probably true. Even St Valentine’s Day has been reduced to commercial nonsense about sex rather than a celebration of love.
The fact that you describe The Children of Men as a moral fable rather than science fiction seems to place it within the possibility of human experience…
Once infertility had taken hold, it would not be reversed in the way I describe, but the rest of it is well within human experience. We would start storing sperm, and then there would be all sorts of interesting questions, such as, from whom do you get the sperm, and who has access to it? People would be screened for their suitability to breed, and a great many ethical and philosophical issues would arise.
Isn’t the nightmare scenario you depict in which sex, in so far as it takes place at all, has become ‘meaninglessly acrobatic’ and woman experience what they describe as ‘painful orgasms – the spasm achieved without the pleasure’ – isn’t this getting dangerously close to the wrath of God being unleashed, the extremist view of the Aids epidemic?
Yes. In this new world people discover that if there is not the possibility of breeding children, sex loses its point and therefore more and more they’re striving after a sensation which isn’t coming to them naturally. I don’t know whether that would happen or not, but it seems to me it’s very possible it could.
Happy sexual relationships tend not to be a feature of your novels. Is that because you regard them as a rare feature of real life?
It’s rather the result of the kind of fiction I write. The detective story is an artificial from, and though all fiction is a rearrangement of the artist’s view of reality, a detective story is highly stylized in its conventions in order to form a coherent entity: there is a central mysterious death, a number of clues and a close circle of suspects who are all – the reader must believe – capable of this particular murder. One of the strongest motives is the sexual motive, so the novel is not likely to be full of very happily married, jolly people, but rather people whose lives are full of tension and unhappiness and misery of some kind. As my dear mother, God rest her, used to say, why can’t you write a nice book about nice people? But you’re not likely to get an awful lot of nice people in a detective story; it’s inherent in the situation that people aren’t living very happy or stable lives.
The ending of The Children of Men, although ambivalent, suggests that the future of mankind is not entirely redemption, and that ultimately the power of good can overcome moral depravity and corruption. Do you see this as essentially a Christian message, the triumph of good over evil…
The triumph of good over evil and the triumph of love over hatred is essentially a Christian message; and it is central probably to the great religions of the world. There is a lovely story which has always amused me about a man who appeared in court for some kind of public disorder, and when asked how he pleaded, he said, ‘I plead for hope against despair, I plead for good against evil, I plead for peace against war, for sympathy against unkindness’, and the judge said, ‘That will be recorded as not guilty, and if we hear any more from you I shall order a psychiatric report’ [laughs].
But do you yourself believe that good triumphs over evil?
Yes, I think I do. I have a fairly simple view of these things. I think of life in terms of a mountain with God at the top, and those of us who are religious or have any aspirations are slowly working our way up. I am a practising Christian because that’s the tradition in which I was brought up. We start life according to where we’re born – I know if I had been born in a Roman Catholic I wouldn’t have changed; I would have remained in the religion of my fathers and my people. I’m a very strong traditionalist, although that does not mean that I assent intellectually to all the articles of the Church of England, with which I am sometimes disenchanted. For example, I can’t accept the idea of a God whose notion of justice was to send his only son to be tortured on earth to atone for the sins of the world. I believe that death on the cross had a universal significance, but I can’t quite see it in those crude terms. I don’t conceive of God as being less merciful than an earthly father would be, and an earthly father wouldn’t do that. So certainly aspects of the Christian religion present me with some problems, but within that basic view of religion, I am certainly a deist. If one thinks of God as being the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, I like the idea of the Holy Spirit moving through the whole of creation, but it is to the Father I actually pray, God as Father is my concept.
Another possibility which you might be reluctant to consider about the ending of The Children of Men is that there is an element of romanticism in the denouement, the idea that the world can be saved through an act of love…
The Christian religion said the world could be saved through an act of love; what I was saying was that Theo could find his salvation by learning to love, and at the end of the book he has learned that only through love will he find redemption. I don’t think that’s romantic; I think it’s true. E.M. Forster wrote that we must learn to love or we will destroy ourselves.
Isn’t there an element of tendentiousness in The Children of Men, the idea of divine punishment and retribution hanging over the world, and our agnostic hero ending up making the sign of the cross?
I don’t think the book ever specifically says that what happens is divine justice. God is not saying, ‘I’ll teach this lot, I’ve lost my patience with them.’ The God of the Old Testament might have felt that, but I didn’t see it in those terms. Theo makes the sign of the cross as a kind of impulse. He is not saying that the world is thereby redeemed; it’s more a natural instinct for him to do it, an affirmation of love, the sign of redemptive love on the child.
Last year you preached the university sermon in Oxford. What was the subject of your sermon?
Faith in the modern world, and people’s attitude to God and to faith. It was also a sermon about doubt, how one copes with doubt. I talked about different kinds of faith: the faith of people who, like the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, strive with God and argue with him; the very simple faith of people who, however sophisticated they may be in other aspects of their life, have absolute certainty from the day they’re born till the day they die. I talked about people who have never felt the need of faith, people who believe that man is born of the absolute chance fusion of one sperm with one ovum; that when they die they will go into annihilation and they face that without particular fear, believing that it is not among the most ignoble ways to live or die. And then I spoke about others who work towards faith, for whom life is a kind of pilgrimage, of which group I consider myself to be one.
You once said, ‘When people are maimed, or sad, or die for no reason, it isn’t anything you can cure by means of justice in this world, so it’s important to hope there might be justice in the next.’ Is that hope a tentative one, or is it central to your faith?
If you believe that God is just, and I do believe that God is just, it’s rather more than tentative. There must surely be an eternal justice. Men and women have a huge need for justice; it’s born in us to hate injustice, so there is a natural wish to believe that if things are terribly unjust in this world, if God exists at all, they’ll certainly be put right in the next. There’s a little poem about a disabled man who lives all his life in pain, who has nothing but misery and pain from the day he’s born, and it ends: ‘God of Heaven, God of Hell, see you recompense him well.’ And I think there’s a need to feel that.
You have been scrupulously careful never to use your husband’s illness or the more traumatic parts of your own life in your fiction. One senses, however, that your characters are infused with your pain and suffering. Would you perhaps allow that this is the case?
I would allow that if the writer hasn’t actually suffered it must be very difficult to write about suffering. No doubt since if the pain gets into the fiction; I think that’s inevitable.
You have sometimes remarked that the passage of time has not helped ease the pain of loss and bereavement. Has this surprised you?
Yes it has, although you do somehow come to terms with it. You either lie down and die, or you adapt, so after a few years somehow you’re coping. But time doesn’t heal everything.
Do you believe in an afterlife? Do you expect to see your husband again?
I don’t know, I really don’t. I don’t believe in the traditional old-fashioned Christian view of heaven, that’s for certain. I don’t think we’re all going to go up there into eternal bliss with pearly gates and everlasting feasting, but I think something does survive. I suppose one would call it the soul, but in what form, I have no idea.
Do you ever feel a sense of loneliness?
No. I don’t feel lonely. But I can see the possibility of feeling it. And I don’t think I’d like it at all.
You are anxious not to be a burden on others. Is that partly because you yourself have borne great burdens in life?
It’s not a very noble thing; it’s more a matter of pride. Partly it’s just not wanting to be a nuisance to one’s dearly loved children, but it’s also that one doesn’t want to be poor old gran who has to be visited and supported, poor old gran who’s got to be found a nice place in the nursing home. I don’t much like old age…