Having recently finished Agatha Christie’s Autobiography, published in 1977, I wanted to put down for reference some of the things her reminiscences brought me to conclude about life as a successful writer. As the best-selling novelist of all time, Christie’s habits and beliefs about the writing life carry weight, and she does go against the modern “best practice” in several ways.
- Ruminate before you write. Christie says she would decide all the technical and specific turns and twists of her plots, those amazing threads of surprising detail that led her to be called Queen of Mystery, before beginning. Then she would write the words in a straightforward and businesslike way.
- It’s okay to be rejected and to be ignored … for a while. Her first novel was rejected several times, then sent to the publisher who ultimately bought it — but they made her wait for that acceptance; they didn’t get back to her for two years. She had forgotten the project by the time they contacted her.
- Write the beginning and then the end. Once you’ve got the beginning and the end, the middle will fill in easily. And the emotional intensity of starting the book, for the writer, will carry over into the ending and sustain the project.
- Don’t edit other writer’s work — wow, that’s a big one, but she didn’t do it. How would she know about what would work for someone else and someone else’s readers? She certainly didn’t want to be responsible for discouraging someone who needed encouragement. And besides — she was busy writing her own books!
- See the world — there seems no doubt that Christie’s travels with her first husband, circumnavigating the globe, and her second husband in the Middle East significantly contributed to her creative outflow, as she wrote mystery after mystery about the places and people she had seen.
- Copy real people in your books. Christie acknowledges that she used her own friends, neighbors and people she observed on the train or in the market as models.
- A novelist is not a critic, so don’t be self-critical. Christie maintained that she didn’t actually know which book was her best.
- Take risks — what is life for if you can’t take a chance?
- Don’t waste too much time re-writing. She reported that she once wrote a book in three days flat and that when she re-read it, she thought “it’s just right.” She sent it off and it was published and received well. And finally,
- The publisher is not necessarily your friend. Christie’s first publisher took advantage of her inexperience by offering her a low sum and putting her under contract for her first five books. That would have been deadly for the career of the average novelist, for whom five books might have been over half their lifetime output. However, for Christie, it was just a learning experience, and at her lifetime rate of one to two books per year she was able to get an agent and a much better deal with a second publisher. She ultimately finished a total of 90 books.
Although it’s long (my edition is 644 pages) I can heartily recommend “An Autobiography: Agatha Christie.” It’s quite a journey, and now that I’ve finished, I feel a little of that melancholy that one feels on saying goodbye to a treasured friend who is going on a long journey. ] As she concludes, meditating on death, she does not seem afraid of what is to come, but grateful. “Thank God for this good life, and for all the love that has been given to me,” she writes in closing. All I can say is, sorry to see you go, Agatha, but I can’t say with all your novels, short stories and plays still here, you left us empty handed!