Her Own Words

Agatha Christie. If you any interest in mysteries (and probably even if you don’t), you’ve heard that name. Rightly so. Agatha Christie is still the highest selling mystery author of all time (ranking in the top of fiction authors across all genres), and her work continues to amaze and intrigue millions of readers and TV/movie watchers.

So when I saw a documentary about her on Amazon Prime, I was all in. Tell me more about this talented person! It took about two minutes before I was appalled. I watched, horrified, as the narrator/host declared he wanted to know who she was, not as an author, but as a woman.

Apparently this man believed female authors cannot be authors or creative people first and foremost—they must be defined primarily by being women.

(Please note: who I am as a writer is the same person I am as a woman. In fact, I’d rather be referred to as a writer than as a woman because my love of words defines me more than my gender does.)

Did I stop the documentary right there? No. No I did not. Surely it would get better, I thought. Surely the host deserved a chance to improve.

If only.

Instead, the host pondered what must’ve happened to Agatha Christie to give her a dark imagination. I don’t know if it even occurred to him that she was simply creative, without some great event or trauma eliciting such a talent.

Then he proceeded to join another man as the two of them flipped through Agatha’s notebooks, providing delightful statements along the lines of “Wow, her books are so easy to read but these notebooks make it seem like she worked hard to write them!” and “She kept notebooks everywhere and was always jotting things down. She must have constantly been having thoughts!”

That woman. Having thoughts. What an idea.

The documentary was like a horrible accident where I just couldn’t look away even though I didn’t want to see (or hear) any more. This talented, prolific author, someone who’d had a massive impact on the genre I love, was being reduced to a handful of facts and assumptions by people who didn’t even know her. And she’s not here to set the record straight.

That’s nothing new. There are more than a dozen biographies written about Agatha Christie, by people who’ve analyzed her work and her life, making assertions about her decisions, dissecting her words to look for hidden meaning.

I love a good analysis. But I’m tired of hearing other people’s opinions about this remarkable woman. I’m tired of seeing her legacy shaped by people who like to pretend they have unique insight into her mind. It scares me to think people will just accept their words as truth.

Authors reveal a lot about themselves in their work. There’s no doubt about that. But too often people see connections that don’t exist. Too often the characters’ words are considered the same as the author’s words. A lovely phrase or idea gets pulled from a book and attributed directly to the author, as if she herself said it instead of the character. Maybe it reflects her own thoughts; maybe it doesn’t. Believe me, I’ve written plenty of characters whose views and statements don’t reflect my own. It scares me to see the ease with which people conflate the two.

So when I discovered that Agatha Christie had written an autobiography, I about tripped over myself to order it. Here she is, telling us about her life in her own words. Why is that not enough for us? Why do we feel we must know about her than she was willing to share?

So I’m starting a new series on my blog. This talented author deserves to have her voice back, and I want to do what I can to provide that.

The first Wednesday of every month, I’ll be sharing my favorite quotes from her autobiography—her words, directly from her, with no assumptions and analysis from me. I’ll provide a bit of context and an explanation of why I chose that quote, what I like about it or why I connect with it. But I’m not going to try to tell you what she was thinking when she wrote it or how that view may have affected her choices as an author or as a woman.

All I want to do is amplify the voice of an incredibly talented author. So if you want to hear Agatha Christie’s words about her life, from her own pen, meet me back here the first Wednesday of every month.

Revenge Is a Man’s Work

Confession: I like a good revenge story.

I mean, who doesn’t love a twisty tale of personal justice? In fact, my current work-in-progress has a significant revenge theme. And as with any manuscript I write, I tried to think of revenge stories (books or movies) that had a similar thread for comparison.

As I pondered the options, I began to notice a concerning trend. Most of the stories I could think of featured male main characters, some of whom are avenging female family members (Taken, e.g.). The ones with female main characters are centered on how they’ve been wronged by a man (First Wives’ Club, The Lauras), and more often than not, they’re humorous in nature (Fried Green Tomatoes). Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies comes close, but I’d consider that more self-defense than calculated revenge.

With a little research, I found more woman-led stories, but most of the women are teen girls (True Grit, Carrie) or highly-trained professionals (a detective or assassin, like Kill Bill). The average-Joe-gets-revenge narrative seems limited to men, for the most part. You know the theme I’m talking about, the one where the totally normal guy is wronged in some way and starts doing his research, creating a murder board with pictures and strings connecting them, gathering evidence as he plans his hit list.

I couldn’t find anything like that with a woman in the lead, so I asked my husband what he could think of. He mentioned Orphan Black and Killjoys, which are closer, but they’re sci-fi tales. They’re already squarely beyond reality, set within the realm of imagination. Is that the only place to find female revenge-seekers? Does a woman have to have special powers or live in an alternate universe to enact revenge?

I’m sure there are stories out there of average women getting revenge for an injustice not involving infidelity. I don’t claim to have read every book or seen every movie with a revenge theme. The problem is, those stories are harder to find. They don’t represent the revenge themes you find in popular tv shows and movies. In those, serious revenge is best left to the men.

And that bothers me. Of course it does.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a “I’m gonna take out his cheating self” narrative, and I love a good sense of humor. But is that all women get? When it comes to mystery/suspense fiction, women are already more likely to be victims than heroes, more likely to need rescuing than to be the rescuer. The suspense world is full of books with that same old trope of the the pretty dead girl who needs a man to get justice for her. Yes, women tend to be more physically vulnerable, but statistically, men are more likely to be victims in every crime except rape. (Check out these stats, especially page 9.)

Maybe that’s why I feel compelled to create strong, intelligent female characters. I want women like me to be able to embrace a narrative in which women aren’t simply the victims but are the heroes of their own story. They say write what you know, and an intelligent woman at the helm of her own ship, that’s a reality I know.

The truth is, I’m lucky enough to have some incredible, strong women in my life. If I ever needed justice, my money’s on them to get it for me. Sure, there are some awesome men in my life too. But when it comes to taking care of business, there’s one thing I know for sure: don’t ever underestimate a woman.