Writing in the Basement

I knew this was where she started her novels in longhand, on this very table, to be transcribed later by her long-time assistant, Joyce.

I was taking a summer course at Oxford, and the magazine I wrote for scored an interview for me with P.D. James, my favorite author. I remember wondering on the train down to London how many people she would have around to protect her, as the interview was to take place at her Holland Park townhouse.

The spry octogenarian opened the door herself, no secretary or press people in sight. The celebrated author was growing out her hair dye and had six inches of gray roots. She'd decided at the age of 80 to let her hair go natural, and it gave her the look of anyone's grandmother, although she was a baroness and had received virtually every award a writer could covet.

As we sat in her living room, I tried not to gape at her antiques, oil paintings, and William Morris wallpaper. Moving through my interview questions, I kept picturing her serving tea on the burnished round table to Frances Fyfield or Ruth Rendell. James was warm and sincere, and I hated for the interview to end. When I could postpone leaving no more, I thanked her and got up to go.

"Wouldn't you like to stay for a cup of coffee with me?" she asked.

Would I! We went downstairs to her narrow kitchen, and I sat at the table chatting as she made us instant coffee and opened a tin of shortbread cookies. I knew this was where she started her novels in longhand—on this very table—to be transcribed later by her long-time assistant, Joyce. I looked out at her small garden, picturing this sprightly, intelligent woman playing the "what if?" game.

As proof of her goodness, she talked to me about my own fledgling series of British mystery novels, advising me to write one at some point based on my nursing experience at a soap-opera studio in New York. "Give readers a behind-the-scenes view," she said. "Always intriguing."

Three novels later, I've finally taken her advice, and nurse Trudy Genova solves the murders that haunt the soap opera on which she consults. This is the one my agent assures me will catch a publisher's eye once my revisions are finished, which is where James assured me "the real writing gets done."

Why didn't I listen to her wisdom before this? Maybe because my North Carolina home doesn't have a basement.

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