Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Agatha Christie

The book of laughter and forgetting

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In her autobiography, Agatha Christie makes a confession that might strike those of us who haven’t written more than sixty novels as rather strange:

Murder at the Vicarage was published in 1930, but I cannot remember where, when, or how I wrote it, why I came to write it, or even what suggested to me that I should select a new character—Miss Marple—to act as the sleuth in the story.

Christie says the same thing about a novel that followed two years later: “Peril at End House was another of my books which left so little impression on me that I cannot even remember writing it.” In On Writing, Stephen King makes a similar admission: “There’s one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all. I don’t say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss. I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page.” To be fair, Christie and King were monstrously prolific, and in both cases, there may have been other factors involved—Christie had suffered from a “fugue state” several years earlier in which she disappeared for ten days without explanation, while King was drinking heavily and using drugs. But even novelists with more mundane lifestyles have reported a similar kind of amnesia. On rereading her novel The Autograph Man, which she bought on an impulse at an airport, Zadie Smith recounts: “The book was genuinely strange to me; there were whole pages I didn’t recognize, didn’t remember writing.”

I find these testimonials oddly reassuring, because they tell me that I’m not alone. Recently, I realized that I couldn’t remember how I came up with one of the most important characters in the trilogy of novels that began with The Icon Thief. If I tried, I could probably reconstruct it, and I’ve even written a whole author’s commentary devoted to preserving this kind of information. But it’s still troubling. I’ve published only three novels, the most recent of which appeared less than four years ago, but I don’t think I could tell you much about them today. This is partially due to the fact that I don’t like reading my old work: in the essay that I quoted above, Smith refers to the “nausea” that overcomes her when she looks back at her books, as well as “a feeling of fraudulence,” and I think most authors can relate to that revulsion. Yet it doesn’t entirely account for how little I remember. In the moment, writing a novel feels unbelievably hard, and it consists of so many discrete choices that I’ve even used it as an argument in favor of the existence of free will—but afterward, it seems to evaporate completely. Which just means that it’s like everything else in life, except that it leaves a more tangible trace of itself behind. In his memoir Self-Consciousness, John Updike writes:

That we age and leave behind this litter of dead, unrecoverable selves is both unbearable and the commonest thing in the world—it happens to everybody…In the dark one truly feels that immense sliding, that turning of the vast earth into darkness and eternal cold, taking with it all the furniture and scenery, and the bright distractions and warm touches, of our lives.

Not only can’t I recall much about writing The Icon Thief, but when I look at pictures of my daughter as a baby, from just two or three years ago, I can barely seem to remember that, either. I’d laugh about it, but it also makes me very sad.

And I suspect that a lot of parents would report the same phenomenon. Part of this is because we tend to have children at an age when time already seems to pass more quickly, but there’s also something else involved. It’s generally agreed that forgetting plays an important role in memory. In a paper first published in 1970, the psychologist Robert A. Bjork argued that forgetting is a way of minimizing interference between old and new experiences:

When people voice complaints about their memory, they invariably assume that the problem is one of insufficient retention of information. In a very real sense, however, the problem may be at least partly a matter of insufficient or inefficient forgetting. If one views the human cognitive apparatus as an ongoing information-handling system, it is clear that some mechanism to update the system, to keep the system current, is crucial…The positive function of any such forgetting mechanism is to prevent information no longer needed from interfering with the handling of current information.

Bjork went on to provide an example that seems more resonant the more I think about it:

Consider the information processing task faced by the typical short-order cook. He must process one by one…a series of orders that have high interorder similarity. Once he is through with “scramble two, crisp bacon, and an English,” his later processing of similar but not identical orders can only suffer to the degree that he has not, in effect, discarded “scrambled two, crisp bacon, and an English.”

The crucial phrase here, I think, is “interorder similarity.” It’s the everyday things that we tend to forget first. I have trouble reconstructing my daily routine from earlier periods in my life, like what I ate for breakfast in my twenties, but exceptional events, like travel to foreign countries, remain relatively vivid. There’s nothing odd about the idea that unusual or striking memories would persist more strongly, but you could also turn that argument on its head: the days that were more or less the same as the ones that followed are more likely to be discarded because they interfere with surrounding information. This allows us to focus on the problems of each day without distraction, but over time, it can turn entire years into a blur. That’s certainly true of writing novels, in which the sameness of each day’s work allows for those rare moments in which inspiration takes place. (It’s noteworthy that both Christie and King were genre novelists who reworked the same conventions over the course of many books. You could also say the same thing about many “literary” authors like Updike, whose novels tend to blend together. And I’d be curious to know if a writer whose style and themes change radically between novels, like David Mitchell or Mark Helprin, would have a different perspective.) Writing a novel, like raising a baby, can also be unpleasant, and perhaps this selective amnesia is what fools us into trying it again. Smith writes of The Autograph Man: “Between that book and me there now exists a sort of blank truce, neither pleasant nor unpleasant.” Sometimes you have to make a similar kind of truce with the past to go on living, and forgetfulness is where it begins. As Hercule Poirot would say, it’s a matter of little grey cells, and we can’t expect to hold onto them forever.

Written by nevalalee

May 4, 2017 at 9:05 am

“In the lights of the cameras…”

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"Shortly after midnight..."

Note: This post is the fifty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 56. You can read the previous installments here.

Few creative choices are so central to the writing process as the selection of a point of view, but it’s often a haphazard, instinctive decision. Unless you’re working in an overtly experimental mode, you’re usually stuck with the first or third person, which isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. It helps to visualize your set of options as a scatter plot, with the dots growing denser around two blobs that we call the first- and third-person point of view—although the boundaries are fuzzy, and there’s a wide range of possibilities within each category. When a writer begins a story, he or she usually selects a point of view from the start, but it’s only in the act of writing itself that the style settles into a particular spot on the spectrum, which can be further refined at the revision stage. The first person is slightly more limited in scope, which is why an author like Henry James, who called it “the darkest abyss of romance,” could claim that it was inherently unsuited to the novel. But it clearly has its uses, and there are even signs that genre readers have come to prefer it. It opens up delicious possibilities for unreliable narrators, who threaten to become a cliché in themselves, and the intimacy that it creates, even if it’s an illusion, can encourage a greater identification with the protagonist. (Hence the fact that the Nancy Drew series switched from the third person to the first about a decade ago, which feels like a sign of the times.)

I made the choice long ago to write my fiction in the third person, and it has remained pretty much in place for everything I’ve published, for both short stories and novels. (The one exception is my story “Ernesto,” which is set to be reprinted soon by Lightspeed: I gave it a first-person narrator as an homage to Holmes and Watson and to discourage me from attempting a bad imitation of Hemingway.) By design, it’s a detached style: I never dip into interior monologue, and even strong emotions are described as objectively as possible. For the most part, I’m comfortable with this decision, although I’m also conscious of its limitations. As far as I can recall, I arrived at it as a form of constraint to keep certain unwanted tendencies in check: these novels are violent and sometimes implausible, and I developed a slightly chilly voice that I thought would prevent the action from becoming unduly hysterical or going out of control.  I wanted it to be objective, like a camera, so that the reader would be moved or excited by events, rather than by the manner in which they were related. Looking back, though, I sometimes wish that I’d modified my approach to give me the option of going deeper into the protagonist’s thoughts when necessary, as Thomas Harris sometimes does. By keeping my characters at arm’s length, I’ve limited the kinds of stories I can tell, and while I don’t mind staying within that range, it also means that I didn’t devote time to developing skills that might be useful now.

"In the lights of the cameras..."

That said, I still prefer the third person over the first, and I especially like how it can be imperceptibly nudged in one direction or another to suit the demands of the story. This comes in handy when you’re writing what amounts, in places, to a mystery novel. When you’re working in the first person, it can be hard to conceal information from the reader without it feeling like a gimmick or a cheat—although a few authors, like Agatha Christie, have pulled it off brilliantly. The third person allows you to pull back or zoom in as necessary to manage the reader’s access to the plot, and when you’re working in an omniscient mode that allows you to move between characters at will, you can even cut away entirely. These tricks have been baked into the third person as we’ve come to accept it, so a reader, ideally, will accept such shifts without thinking. (It’s possible to take this kind of switching too far, of course, which is why I try to stick with a single point of view per chapter, and I’m never entirely happy with my attempts to cycle between characters within a single scene.) When an author’s style is inherently objective, we aren’t likely to notice if it retreats or advances a little, any more than it registers when a movie cuts from a medium long shot to a medium shot. And if I’ve remained faithful to that style, it’s largely because it’s more flexible than it seems, and its gradations don’t tend to call attention to themselves.

There’s a good functional example of this in Chapter 56 of Eternal Empire. The first two pages are unusual in that they’re effectively told from nobody’s point of view: they relate a series of events—the explosion of the shadow boat, the movements of reporters, the arrival of the evacuees on shore, and the withdrawal of three unidentified figures to a distant part of the quay—as if recounting them in a news dispatch. (In fact, this is literally what is happening: a big chunk of the section is described as if it were being seen by a viewer on a newscast. If I repeatedly mention the camera crews, it’s to provide an artificial viewpoint through which to narrate the action. The lack of a central character is disguised because a camera has taken its place, which isn’t a tactic that can be extended indefinitely, but it works well enough to get me to the second page.) The reason is obvious: I don’t want to reveal that the three men who have detached themselves from the crowd are Orlov, Ilya, and Tarkovsky, whose fate up to this point has been left up in the air. This wouldn’t work at all in the first person, and if it works here, it’s because I’ve established a style that allows, when the plot calls for it, for the removal of the characters entirely. Very little of this was conscious, but it was all built on a choice of tone that I made two novels earlier, on the hunch that it would lend itself to the kind of story I wanted to tell. A paragraph or two later, we’re back in Ilya’s head. And if I’ve pulled it off properly, the reader should never notice that we left it at all…

Written by nevalalee

June 30, 2016 at 9:07 am

And then there was one

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Maeve Dermody in And Then There Were None

Note: Spoilers follow for the book and miniseries And Then There Were None.

Over the weekend, my wife and I caught up with the recent BBC adaptation of And Then There Were None, which aired in two parts last week on Lifetime. It’s a nice, overwrought version of Agatha Christie’s story, faithful to the novel in its outlines but cheerfully willing to depart from it in the details, and I liked it a lot. (I particularly enjoyed Maeve Dermody’s swift descent from an Emily Blunt lookalike to something like a crazy cat lady, complete with dark circles under both eyes.) And it also gives me an excuse to revisit the weirdest novel ever to sell one hundred million copies. The book reads like Christie’s attempt to see how far she could push her classic formula—a series of baffling murders in a closed setting—without alienating her audience, and as clinical as the result often feels, readers have never ceased to respond to it: by any reckoning, it’s the bestselling mystery novel of all time. With every single character serving in turn as bystander, suspect, and victim, it takes this sort of novel to its limit, and it incidentally discovers how few of the standard elements are necessary. There isn’t a sympathetic protagonist in sight, or even a detective. As Sarah Phelps, who wrote the miniseries, observes in a perceptive interview:

Within the Marple and Poirot stories somebody is there to unravel the mystery, and that gives you a sense of safety and security, of predicting what is going to happen next…In this book that doesn’t happen—no one is going to come to save you, absolutely nobody is coming to help or rescue or interpret.

In other words, the puzzle itself is the star, just as the plot is the hero in most science fiction—a genre that often overlaps with this sort of mystery. (And Then There Were None was published just a year after “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, which tells much the same story, except with a shapeshifting alien as the villain.) Watching Noah Taylor in the role of the sinister servant who places the ten figurines on the table, I joked that he was playing the Tim Curry part, but’s a hint of truth there: Christie emphasized the gamelike aspects of the genre long before there was anything like Clue, and she plants the seeds of her own future parodies so consciously that there’s hardly any point in mocking those conventions. And Then There Were None is structured like the five-minute mysteries that contemporary readers probably know best through the likes of Encyclopedia Brown: after the last victim dies, there’s a convenient summary of the relevant facts by two bewildered cops at Scotland Yard, followed by what amounts to a sealed bonus chapter with the killer’s confession, complete with a list of the clues that the reader might have missed. As the murderer writes: “It was my ambition to invent a murder mystery that no one could solve.” And if we had any doubt about the identification of the killer with Christie herself, this should put it to rest. Christie is the murderer, even if she appears in the story under a different face and name.

Agatha Christie

This, I think, is why the original novel has always been such a spectacular success: it gets closer than any other to the uneasy way in which the author and the killer, rather than the detective, turn out to be one and the same. Christie’s guilty party is one of the earliest exemplars of a character type that we recognize from John Doe in Seven, Jigsaw in the Saw movies, and even Christopher Nolan’s version of the Joker: the killer whose control of the story is so complete that he can’t be separated from the screenwriter. In my discussion of the television series Hannibal, I noted that it sometimes seemed as if Lecter himself was in the writers room, or dictating material to Thomas Harris: he was so adept at manipulating the men and women around him that he practically became the showrunner. If the detective in a mystery novel is a surrogate for the reader, who approaches the text as a series of clues, the killer can only be the writer, and by removing the detective from the story entirely, Christie makes this identity even more explicit. We’re cast in the part of an invisible sleuth, moving unseen on the island as the victims are eliminated one by one, with Christie as our ice-cold antagonist, seated at the other end of the board. (The writer selects her victims as carefully as the killer does: note that all the characters are childless and—except for the servant couple—unmarried, which allows them to be dispatched with a minimum of regret.)

And those ten figures on the dining table aren’t there by accident. They’re tokens in the game that Edward Fitzgerald describes in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

But helpless pieces of the game he plays
Upon this chequerboard of nights and days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.

Christie certainly knew that verse: it appears only a few lines before the stanza that she used a few years later for the title of her novel The Moving Finger. And Then There Were None confirmed her as the genre’s ultimate chess master, and one of the pleasures in reading it again comes from our knowledge of how cunningly she uses the elements of the novel itself—like the third person omniscient point of view—to mislead and ensnare us. (That’s one way in which the miniseries, for all its cleverness, can’t match the novel: Christie moves in and out of the heads of her characters, including the killer, without cheating. A televised version of the same story only has to concern itself with the surfaces, which makes its job relatively easy.) Christie tricked us here in ways that can’t be reproduced, regardless of how many other works have copied its central twist. Mysteries come and go, but And Then There Were None is where the genre begins and ends. And there can only be one.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

September 24, 2013 at 7:30 am

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“How are we supposed to watch a house like this?”

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(Note: This post is the twenty-first installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 20. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Last week, I received the first batch of notes from my agent and other readers on the rough draft of Eternal Empire. This kind of detailed feedback is always essential, but this round was especially interesting, because it included comments from people who hadn’t read the first two books in the series. Overall, the response was very positive, and it pointed to a number of possible avenues for further tightening and clarification. But I was most interested in one recurring theme in the comments, which was that I ought to include additional backstory. A number of readers without previous knowledge of the series thought that I should provide a little more background on returning characters, for the benefit of those who hadn’t read The Icon Thief or City of Exiles, which is a perfectly valid point. But I also noticed something strange: in several cases, they wanted more background on characters they assumed had been more fully fleshed out in previous books—when, in fact, they were appearing here for the first time ever.

In other words, readers assumed that they were being deprived of information that had appeared somewhere in the first two installments, when it was really just a reflection of my natural tendency, as a writer, to give as little backstory as possible. I’m not going to go into my feelings on this topic again, since these have been adequately covered elsewhere on this blog. And from experience, I know that when you go out for comments, you’ll often get requests for this kind of background material—requests, I’m convinced, that you should push back against whenever possible. When readers want more backstory, it’s often a sign that things in the present tense of the story aren’t as clear as they should be, and there are ways of addressing this without cutting away from the action. A perceived lack of backstory may be a symptom of certain problems, but the solution often lies elsewhere, at least in the majority of cases. That said, there are times when backstory and exposition are genuinely necessary. And one of the greatest challenges for any writer lies in integrating this material in a way that seems natural, or at least minimally disruptive.

The best way to introduce verbal backstory and exposition is through action. This is why Dean Koontz, in his invaluable Writing Popular Fiction, notes that the long, dry summation of the mystery that we find at the end of most Agatha Christie novels would often work better in the context of a suspenseful sequence—with the protagonist, for instance, cornered by the villain, which provides an opening for our hero to explain how he figured out the evil plan. (Hence the frequently mocked monologues by the villains in the James Bond movies, which actually make perfect dramatic sense.) Unfortunately, this isn’t always an option: action scenes, if properly done, tend to be tightly structured, with only the essential number of moving parts, and can’t always handle the burden of extra information at a time when the plot should be moving forward as quickly as possible. A better solution, perhaps, is to insert exposition into a natural pause within a larger sequence of suspense. The best kind of suspense, after all, is about waiting for something to happen, and while a couple of your characters are waiting, you can have them talk about whatever you want, within reason.

The result is often something like Chapter 20 of The Icon Thief, which is a sort of portmanteau chapter in which I cover as much expository material in as little space as possible. Powell and Wolfe are on stakeout, seated in a car outside Archvadze’s mansion, at a point when I’ve already established that two other important characters are there for reasons of their own—and that a heist is unfolding even as we speak. As a result, I felt free to let Powell and Wolfe talk about a range of topics I hadn’t yet covered: the background of the case, additional developments on the murder at Brighton Beach, and, most unusually for me, Powell’s own backstory, notably the influence of his father, a former diplomat and intelligence officer now suffering from dementia. This is the kind of information I wouldn’t be able to include anywhere else, given my own rules for advancing the narrative with only the minimal amount of retrospection, but here, it’s borderline permissible, because the story has been structured in such a way as to allow for an organic pause. Moments like this, which naturally emerge from the flow of the narrative, are where backstory and exposition belong, so it’s no surprise that I try to pack in as much as possible. And fortunately for the reader, there’s a lot of action right around the corner…

Written by nevalalee

October 10, 2012 at 9:53 am

The Red Queen’s guide to writing

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One of the buried themes of this blog over the past year has been the ongoing, and not entirely intentional, acceleration of my writing process. The Icon Thief took about two years to write, revise, and sell. Its sequel, City of Exiles, was written in less than nine months, not counting a few extra weeks at the end for revision and copy-editing. And while I tried to negotiate a little more wriggle room for The Scythian, I’m still slated to deliver it about nine months from the day I signed the contract, which, when you take other projects into account, is even less time than it sounds. I don’t necessarily mind the compressed schedule: it’s forced me to be smarter and more efficient in how I plan these books, and as a result, I’ve learned a lot as a writer. I’ve even begun to take a certain pride in my productivity, and until recently, I held on to the hope that I’d eventually be able to scale back to the comfortable pace of a novel a year.

Or so I thought. These days, however, the consensus in publishing seems to be that a novel a year is far too slow, and even a novel every nine months is nothing special. A recent article by Julie Bosman in the New York Times points out that mainstream novelists are increasingly being compelled to publish two or more books every year, both because of competition with other kinds of content and in an attempt to keep a writer’s name in the public eye. The enormous popularity of series fiction has taught publishers the importance of building an audience with successive books, rather than betting everything on one big, self-contained novel every few years. This makes a lot of sense for individual writers—and it’s certainly had a surprising influence on my own career—but when everyone is doing it, the advantage disappears. As Lee Child observes, with a nod to Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen: “It seems like we’re all running faster to stay in the same place.”

Of course, mainstream novelists have always felt pressure to work at a fast pace. Agatha Christie referred to herself as “a perfect sausage machine,” and, at her peak, she produced two novels a year with clockwork regularity. In his book Writing Popular Fiction, published in 1972, Dean Koontz casually notes that a novelist who can produce “only” one or two category novels every year will never know real financial security, and that “half a dozen novels per annum” are the minimum for a comfortable lifestyle. Koontz, in his prime, was more than capable of writing a category novel in a week, and he was so prolific that he published under multiple pen names, out of his publisher’s concern that he would saturate the market—a fear that seems positively quaint in the days of the likes of James Patterson, who turns out something like twelve books a year with an army of co-writers, forcing the rest of us to struggle to catch up.

The trouble is that once a novelist, or any artist, has begun to produce at a certain rate, it’s all but impossible to pull back, at least not without alienating readers who have grown used to the ability to buy a new book by their favorite author (or brand name) multiple times every year. And it’s ultimately impossible for a writer to maintain that kind of pace forever, at least not without outside help. It isn’t hard to imagine a publishing landscape divided between a handful of big brands, often assisted by ghostwriters, and independent authors working vainly to keep up with the endless demand for content that this environment creates—if we aren’t there already. In the short term, it’s good for business, and I don’t blame publishers for trying to maintain their financial viability by any means possible. But as a writer, and reader, I can’t help worrying about where this all ends. As the Red Queen herself says: “If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Written by nevalalee

May 14, 2012 at 10:21 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

March 7, 2012 at 7:50 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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