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.'”
Happy June! Cicada Brood X has emerged and is causing quite a racket in my neighborhood, but I can’t say I mind it. A little white noise is good for my brain. I just finished my most recent manuscript and am now trying to catch up on some reading while ideas of my next project circle around my mind like sharks going for the kill. That’s one reason I chose this month’s quote.
“There is always, of course, that terrible three weeks, or a month, which you have to get through when you are trying to get started on a book. There is no agony like it. You sit in a room, biting pencils, looking at a typewriter, walking about, or casting yourself down on a sofa, feeling you want to cry your head off. Then you go out, you interrupt someone who is busy — Max usually, because he is so good-natured — and you say: ‘It’s awful, Max, do you know I have quite forgotten how to write — I simply can’t do it any more! I shall never write another book.’
“‘Oh yes, you will,’ Max would say consolingly. He used to say it with some anxiety at first; now his eyes stray back again to his work while he talks soothingly.
“‘But I know I won’t. I can’t think of an idea. I had an idea, but now it seems no good.’
“‘You’ll just have to get through this phase. You’ve had all this before. You said it last year. You said it the year before.’
“‘It’s different this time,’ I say, with positive assurance.
“But it wasn’t different, of course, it was just the same. You forget every time what you felt before when it comes again. Such misery and despair, such inability to do anything that will be in the least creative. And yet it seems that this particular phase of misery has got to be lived through.”
The Context: In this recollection, Agatha has just finished writing a theatrical adaptation of The Hollow. Once it was a success, she felt she really had a handle on the whole writing thing, although every time she had a bit of despair at the beginning of a new project, wondering if maybe this time would be the time she couldn’t do it.
Why I Chose It: Well, it’s majorly relatable. I think most writers know that feeling very well. You finish one project and you’re floating on that high for a while. Then you think, “I’m going to start my next one,” and you have ideas—so many ideas!—but choosing the right one and starting on it can feel like trying to push a semi uphill. And slowly the question creeps in, what if you can’t actually write another one? What if you’ve written all you had in you and you’re all out? Evidently it does’t matter how much you’ve written before (at that point, Agatha had written dozens of books), there’s always a point where a writer wonders if they can actually do it again.
But in the end, Agatha and the rest of us realize this is what we do. There are always ideas and there are always more books/stories/plays in us. We’ll get there, as long as we (and our loved ones) can survive the initial painful month of questioning everything we ever thought we knew. (Speaking of what we think we know, next month I’ll be shifting a bit and sharing what I think happened during Agatha’s mysterious disappearance, based on all the clues laid out in her autobiography. I can’t wait. I have thoughts.)
Happy May! I hope the spring weather is absolutely lovely where you are. This month, I’m focusing on how Agatha Christie viewed her writing, especially in the early days as she was establishing herself as a storyteller.
“It was by now just beginning to dawn on me that perhaps I might be a writer by profession. I was not sure of it yet. I still had an idea that writing books was only the natural successor to embroidering sofa-cushions.”
The Context: This quote is actually in the same section as the one I shared last month. (There are so many quotable pieces about writing in that section!) This was when she was still married to her first husband and had just moved to Scotswood. At that point, she had written four published novels. I’ve pointed out in previous posts that Agatha didn’t really have a strong aspiration to become a writer. In many ways, she sort of fell into it. She also talks in this section about how she had taken lessons in sculpture because, “I was a great admirer of the art — much more than of pictures — and I had a real yearning to be a sculptor myself.” But upon attempting it, she realized she didn’t have a natural capacity for it. She was also a talented pianist as a child, but had such stage fright, she struggled to perform for an audience. As an adult, she tried to compose songs, but didn’t know much about harmony and composition. Only after trying all these other artistic pursuits did she realize, “… writing seemed to be indicated as my proper trade and self-expression.”
Why I Chose It: It’s interesting to examine how people end up in specific careers, especially people who find great success and come to define a certain profession. The fact that Agatha was able to try things until she found something she was good at is definitely a privilege of the wealthier classes. Artistic endeavors were just something people in her social class did, like learning to embroider—stitched a lovely sofa-cushion, wrote an amusing story, all in a day’s work! But it also highlights her natural creativity, that she always wanted to be creating something, whether it was music or poetry or an imaginary friend.
When writing comes out of that mindset, I imagine it can take a minute to recognize it as a full profession instead of simply a hobby. And as someone who used to cross-stitch as a child, started learning and performing music at the age of nine, and loved acting and dancing, I appreciate knowing I share that craftiness and creativity with Agatha.
There is no set definition for success in a specific profession. There’s no singular moment that defines a writer as a true professional instead of a dabbler, so it’s no surprise that the realization came to Agatha slowly, a gentle dawning of the idea that, in fact, she might be a real writer, officially, professionally. As humble as she was, I think she’d be quite shocked to know that, even now, she’s one of the bestselling authors of all time. I think we can all agree she definitely found her profession.