Reading Agatha Christie’s autobiography

christieI think I have read 80% of Agatha Christie’s detective novels if not all, and I recall going to the library in my teens, and borrowing every title I could find, regardless of how grubby and worn it was.

I hadn’t realised that she had written an autobiography, and was so pleased to delve into the first hand account of her childhood and descriptions of her immediate family members. I didn’t know that her father was American, and had married his step-mother’s niece. Her sister was the belle of the ball, and many years older than her. Agatha was the indulged youngest child, and her difficult brother was the typical middle child.

It was a long autobiography, but I was very gripped by most of it. Only the lengthy descriptions of her life in the Middle East (her second husband was an archeologist, 14 years her junior) were a tad dry.

I loved learning about the period of English history that she lived in, and how household help was normal for middle-lower income families, whilst cars were by comparison, an article of sheer luxury. I was fascinated to read about how she grew up with no formal education until she was about twelve, and could sing some opera and play the piano very well. I hadn’t known that her first husband left her for another woman, right after her mother passed away, leading to a period of depression. I hadn’t realised that she passed away in 1976 either.

I suppose there is nothing quite like reading about an author you admire, in her own words. Here are some snippets that I enjoyed.

Social commentary:

Initially what mattered went along these lines: “But who is she, dear? Who are her people? Of course they are badly off, very badly off, but she was a Wilmot.”

This was succeeded in due course by: “Oh yes, of course they are pretty dreadful, but then they are terribly rich.” “Have the people who have taken The Larches got money?” “Oh well, then we’d better call.”

The third phase was different again: “Well, dear, but are they amusing?” “Yes, well of course they are not well off, and nobody knows where they came from, but they are very very amusing.”

Was impressed that she was totally dispassionate and almost clinical, when it came to her writing, and was under no illusions that it was more than a product to be traded. Since she needed money in the first decade of her writing, she wrote mainly to sell, and did not profess it as art per se.

Writing advice:

That is all right if you are a genius, but you are more likely to be a tradesman. You have got something you feel you can do well and that you enjoy doing well, and you want to sell it well.

If you were a carpenter, it would be no good making a chair that wouldn’t be what anyone wanted to sit on. It is no good saying that you think the chair looks handsome that way.

If you want to write a book, study what sizes books are, and write within the limits of that size. If you want to write for a certain type of magazine you have to make it the length, and it has to be the type of story that is printed in that magazine.

If you want to write for yourself only, that is a different matter – you can make it any length… but then you will probably have to be content with the pleasure alone of having written it.

It’s no good starting out by thinking one is a heaven-born genius – some people are, but very few. No one is a tradesman – a tradesman in a good honest trade. You must learn the technical skills, and then within that trade, you can apply your own creative ideas; but you must submit to the discipline of form.

Humble response to The Mousetrap – already the longest running play when she wrote her autobiography in 1965, and has continued till today

When people ask me to what I attribute the success of The Mousetrap, apart from replying iwth the obvious answer “Luck!” because it is luck, ninety percent. The only other reason is that there is a bit of something in it for almost everybody: people of different age groups and tastes.

Considering it and trying to be neither conceited nor over-modest, that, of its kind – which is to say a light play with both humour and thriller appeal – it is well constructed. The thing unfolds so that you want to know what happens next, and you can’t quite see where the next few minutes will lead you.

Peter Saunders predicted that it would run fourteen months, whilst Christie gave it only eight months, but it is STILL running now in 2015 – it’s SIXTY-THIRD year.  So much for eight months!

I think one of the most wonderful things about writing, is how royalties from books are the gift that keeps on giving. I never thought about it this way, but it is rather magical and precious. Christie shared about how:

I have given many of my books and stories to other people. The serial rights in one short story, Sanctuary, were given to the Westminister Abbey Appeal Fund, and other friends and family.

The fact that you can sit down and write something, and that then it passes direct from you to someone else, is a much happier natural feeling than handing out cheques or things of that kind.

You may say it is all the same in the end, but it is not the same.

The play, The Mousetrap, was given to my one and only grandchild. Mathew, of course, was always the most lucky member of the family, and it would be Mathew’s gift that turned out the big money winner.

One of my favourite quotes from this book, Christie on acquaintance Mary Smith, somehow a quintessentially British sentence to me:

She also had the most devastating common sense, like the tang of a really good savoury served for dinner.

If you’re a big Christie fan, you’ll love this book, all 500 pages of it! : )

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