My purpose for starting this Agatha Christie journey was to push back against all the speculation and assumptions bandied about by people who didn’t even know her. I wanted to rise above the noise and go directly to the source, to learn about Agatha by hearing from her.
It’s been a little like a Julie and Julia experience for me, exploring the life of someone who didn’t even live in this world at the same time as me but whose literary impact has arguably surpassed that of any other writer. As I read, I found an autobiography flowing with a warm voice and an honesty I wasn’t expecting.
What Surprised Me
- How Agatha got into writing. As someone who has loved writing since I was a child, I expected it would be similar for Agatha. But what I discovered was that she stumbled into it after exploring multiple creative endeavors. She had no particular ambition, which was common for women of her social class. But she found she had a talent for creating detective stories and, more importantly, she was able to produce work, even in the middle of two wars. She simply sat herself down and did it.
- How she talked about her first husband. Look, if she wanted to rant about what a cheating liar he was, I would absolutely have supported that. Instead, she writes warmly about their early years and international travels and is light on detail when her marriage started to fall apart.
- Her humble and shy nature. By the time she wrote this autobiography, she was an immense success by any standard. She could’ve bragged about that, but she never does. In fact, I got the sense that she was still rather surprised by it all. It took years and multiple books published before she even considered herself a writer by profession. She also hated publicity or speaking in public. I already wrote about my favorite story (you can read it here) but I think it probably illustrates quite accurately who she was as a person.
A Few Final Thoughts
I don’t think Agatha Christie would be a writer if she were starting today. One thing she mentions throughout this book is how glad she is that writing is a private endeavor. She talks about how wonderful it is that writers can do what they do in private. Which is still partly true. But she also says, “There are many careers where personalities and public relations matter — for instance if you are an actor or a public figure. An author’s business is simply to write.”
I think if Agatha Christie had been faced with the social media requirements of most authors today, she might never have even pursued publication. I can only imagine what she would’ve thought of Zooming into book clubs, being interviewed on podcasts, attending conferences, or maintaining Instagram and Twitter accounts. One of the things that she so loved about writing is not a reality for writers in our modern world.
I also appreciated her remarkably affable personality. I think her easygoing and flexible nature led to a lot of interesting experiences and encounters that likely informed her writing. One reason her characters are so unique is probably because she met a lot of different people in a range of settings, across countries and cultures. She was given the chance to be an observer in so many unique circumstances that I have no doubt it influenced her writing.
A Few Final Quotes (although I think it’s likely you will still find the occasional Agatha quote popping up on my Instagram)
On her thoughts about her autobiography:
“I have done what I wanted to do. I have been on a journey. Not so much a journey back through the past, as a journey forward — starting again at the beginning of it all — going back to the Me who was to embark on that journey forward through time. I have not been bounded by time or space. I have been able to linger where I wanted, jump backwards and forwards as I wished.
“I have remembered, I suppose, what I wanted to remember; many ridiculous things for no reason that makes sense. That is the way we human creatures are made.”
On the natural writing lifecycle:
“If you are properly modest, you will never write at all, so there had to be one delicious moment when you have thought of something, know just how you are going to write it, rush for a pencil, and start in an exercise book buoyed up with exaltation. You then get into difficulties, don’t see your way out, and finally manage to accomplish more or less what you first meant to accomplish, though losing confidence all the time. Having finished it, you know that it is absolutely rotten. A couple of months later you wonder whether it may not be all right after all.”
On writing crime fiction:
“I wanted to be a good detective story writer, yes, and indeed by this time I was conceited enough to think that I was a good detective story writer. Some of my books satisfied and pleased me. They never pleased me entirely, of course, because I don’t suppose that is what one ever achieves. Nothing turns out quite in the way you thought it would when you are sketching out notes for the first chapter, or walking about muttering to yourself and seeing a story unroll.”
After noticing some beautiful pottery at an archaeological dig and encouraging her archaeologist husband to investigate further:
“… I think I was right to be continually asking myself ‘Why?’ all the time, because to people like me, asking why is what makes life interesting.”
Lingering thoughts about her life:
“What can I say at seventy-five? ‘Thank God for my good life, and for all the love that has been given to me.'”