As I mentioned in Part One, Agatha Christie did not include much about her writing in her autobiography. There are references sprinkled here and there, and some observations, but no real advice. It’s as if she regarded the writing to be a minor aspect of her life, necessary but not of that much importance, which is peculiar for such an established and prolific author. I suspect she did not think the details of her craft would be of much interest to her reading audience, as writers were not as common back then, not like now when social media has made everyone a writer.
I can’t imagine coming up with the plot and characters for 66 plus books. I read somewhere that she would put all the characters together at the end and then decide who did it, and then go back and insert the clues, but I can’t substantiate this. While there is little in her autobiography about her technique or what inspired the books, she does tell us how she got started.
Her older sister had written and published a few short stories, and it was an early conversation with her which proved crucial to her own writing career. Her sister, in an informal bet, dared her to write a detective novel, a popular genre at the time. She was discouraging, “I don’t think you could do it,” said Madge, who had thought about it herself, but “they were very difficult to do.” “I should like to try,” was Agatha’s reply. ‘Well, I bet you couldn’t,” said Madge. There the matter rested….but the “words had been said….from that moment I was fired by the idea that I would write a detective story…..I didn’t start to write it then, or plan it out but the seed had been sown……the idea had been planted. Some day I would write a detective story.“
An earlier attempt at a novel set in Cairo, had been rejected and then critiqued by a neighbour who was a popular novelist, who realizing how shy she was, was kind in his criticism, offering encouragement and some advice about plotting.
She wrote her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, while her husband Archie was off at war. The idea was conceived at work in the dispensary, where she was surrounded by professional poisons. Soon she had a sketchy picture of some of the characters, including her detective, Hercule Poirot, whom she imagined as a meticulous, tidy little man, Belgian like the Belgian refugees in the area, but she wished she had made him younger, considering they were to be together for so many years. (In later years she found him “insufferable” according to her diary.)
“In leisure moments, bits of my detective story rattled around in my head. I had the beginning all settled, and the end arranged, but there were difficult gaps in between. It made me absent-minded at home.” Her mother encouraged her, her mother had the usual complete faith that her daughters could do anything. She wrote it out longhand, and then typed it. “Up to a point I enjoyed it. But I got very tired, and I also got cross. Writing has that effect, I find.” She had difficulties with the middle, “the complications got the better of me, instead of me being the master of them.” It was then that her mother made the suggestion that she go away on holiday and write undisturbed. She booked into a large dreary hotel in the country, walked on the moors and wrote. She spoke to no one – it would have taken her mind off what she was doing.
She sent it out several times with no success, and had almost forgotten about it as Archie had come home from the war. They were busy looking for a place to live, as flats were in short supply in post-war London, so she was surprised when it was accepted for publication. They requested a few minor changes, and it was finally published in 1920.
Like many young authors, she got trapped into a lousy contract promising them her next five books. (After fulfilling her end of the bargain, she changed publishers with no explanation given, although they were willing to bargain by then.)
“Having given up hope for some years of having anything published, except the occasional short story or poem, I would have signed anything……I would not receive any royalties until after the first 2000 copies had been sold…..none of it meant much to me – the whole point was the book would be published. I didn’t even notice there was a clause binding me to offer him my next five novels……I signed with enthusiasm…..In spite of the clause about the next five novels, this was to me a single and isolated experiment. I had been dared to write a detective story, I had written a detective story. It had been accepted and was going to appear in print. There, as far as I was concerned, the matter ended. Certainly at that moment, I did not envision writing any more books.”
Her child Rosaland was born. She was worried about keeping Ashfield, her family home as her mother still lived there. Her husband suggested she write another book.
She started making money and had an unexpected request from the Income Tax people about her literary earnings. She had not thought of herself as an “established author” and had not kept track of the royalties, so she got herself a literary agent – a young man named Edmund Cork – and a friendship which lasted for 40 years.
“The nice thing about writing in those years was that I directedly related it to money. If I decided to write a story, I knew it would net me L45, deducting income tax. This stimulated my output enormously. How different from the last ten or twenty years of my life. I never know what I owe. I never know what money I have…..or shall have next year.”
In 1927 she went to the Canary Islands to get away from the publicity of her disappearance and pending divorce, and managed to write the best part of a new book, but admitted she had no joy in writing it. “I had worked out the plot, a conventional plot….I knew where I was going, but I could not see the scene in my mind’s eye, and the people would not come alive. I was driven desperately on by the desire, indeed the necessity, to write another book and make some money. That was the moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you are writing, and aren’t writing particularly well. I have always hated The Mystery of the Blue Train, but I got it written, and sent it off to the publishers It sold just as well as my last book – though I cannot say I have ever been proud of it.”
By the time she remarried in 1930 she had written ten books.
Surprisingly, she never had a room of her own to write in. “I suppose I was enjoying myself so much in ordinary living that writing was a task which I performed in spells and bursts. I never had a definite place which was my room or where I retired specially to write. All I needed was a steady table and a typewriter. I had begun now to write straight on to the typewriter, although I still used to do the beginning chapters and occasionally others in long-hand and then type them out.” Many friends had said to her, “I never know when you write your books, because I’ve never seen you writing, or even seen you go away to write.”
She never felt any desperation as to whether she could think of one more book to write. “There is always of course, that terrible 3 weeks or a month which you have to get through when you are trying to get started on a book……when you think you can’t do it.” She admitted to talking to herself, while working out bits of dialogue.
Later she branched out into writing plays – she was good with dialogue – and it was a new adventure, along with her annual Christie for Christmas. She discusses how Three Blind Mice became The Mousetrap and her feeling of happiness when the audience enjoyed it so much, and its long run on the stage, and, the dread she felt about having to make a speech for a party at the Savoy on it’s tenth anniversary. She hated public speaking, crowds, large parties, and fuss. I don’t think there were as many author interviews back then and it was not as necessary to promote your book the way it is now when there is so much competition.
She doesn’t state how long it took her to write a book, or how many drafts or revisions she went through, but mentions that she once wrote a book in 3 days flat – Absent in the Spring, under her pseudonym, Mary Westmacott. It was a fiction novel she had always wanted to write, about a woman whose image of herself was completely mistaken, an idea that had been clear in her mind for some time, and the one book which satisfied her completely. She wrote the first chapter, and then the last because she knew so clearly how it was going to end, then wrote straight through, calling in sick to work, so frightened was she of interrupting the flow, then she slept for 24 hrs.
Of her detective books, the two that satisfied her best are Crooked House and Ordeal by Innocence. “No book was exactly as I wanted it to be, and I was never quite satisfied with it.”
Regarding any piece of creative work she wrote, “There always has to be a lapse of time after the accomplishment of a piece of work before you can in any way evaluate it. You start into it, inflamed by an idea, full of hope, full indeed of confidence (about the only times in my life when I have been full of confidence). 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.” (I find this is true, it’s difficult to evaluate your own work.)
To sum up, after reading her autobiography, I know more about her life, but I don’t feel that I really know her any better as a person or as a writer, although I enjoyed reading and can relate to many of her observations on writing. I found her to be a complex person, contradictory in some ways, but that might just be because she was a product of her time and the times had changed.
It seems as if the writing was just a sideline to her marvelous and enjoyable life. She wrote mostly for herself – that you could make money from it and that other people liked it was a bonus. Of course, in her later years, when she was expected to produce a book every year it could be drudgery and work – but by then she had assumed the mantel of a professional writer and she had her plays as a diversion. Like any other job, writing has its good days and its bad days. So perhaps there is some advice here, for those of us slogging away putting words on a page, after all.
PS. I watched the new Kenneth Branagh version of Death on the Nile recently. It was nicely filmed but just okay, casting and plot-wise. The usual quota of dark- haired men and very thin women. I guessed the ending about 20 minutes in, and there were way too many dead bodies for me.