Why an autobiographer can never tell the whole truth…even Agatha Christie

I’ve often thought that if I were famous, and a publisher wanted me to write my autobiography, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it. Writing about one’s life would require a degree of candour and honesty, a revealing of certain personal events and private thoughts that I just wouldn’t be prepared to share with the world.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. The other option is that you are in control of what you leave out of an autobiography.

Contrary to the idea that you get the true story of events ‘from the horse’s mouth’, so to speak, an autobiography is just another version of a life. As a journalist or a biographer has an agenda—to titillate and draw in readers in order to  sell newspapers or books, or to get high ratings—so the autobiographer. That is, to present themselves as they want the world to see them.

Add to that the fact that, especially as we grow older and farther away from the events we describe, our memories often aren’t precise, particularly childhood events when we might not have understood everything that was happening around us. I remember at my father’s funeral, I related some stories that were exactly as I remembered them happening, yet my mother said I had got the facts wrong in several of them.

I could swear, for example, that when my father and I watched the Apollo lunar landing on TV in 1969 when I was a very little girl (this is my first memory of television), we did so in our flat at Heslington, York, in the UK. But no, if I look at the date of that landing, we would have been back in Auckland, New Zealand by then. Strange.

a-christieDame Agatha Christie’s autobiography

I was prompted to muse about autobiographical writing when reading this month the 551-page tome Agatha Christie: An Autobiography, kindly given to me by my friend, the crime writer Angela Savage (whose blog you can read here: http://angelasavage.wordpress.com/).

It’s a fabulous read, quite possibly the best autobiography I have read, beside Roald Dahl’s Boy (1984) and Going Solo (1986). I couldn’t put it down, in fact.

It is intriguing in its description of a Victorian upper-middle-class childhood in an age that seems so strange these days. Born in 1890, young Agatha Miller was brought into a world of apparent privilege—gracious mansions, servants, extended trips to France. Yet,  as she explains, it was not full of luxuries, at least not in the way we would expect today. There wasn’t much cash, and her father was always on the brink of financial ruin, relying on an inheritance. He never worked, and eventually depleted his inheritance by a combination of bad decisions and bad luck.

daily-mirror-agatha-christieA mystery fit for the little Belgian detective

Coincidentally, while I was reading Christie’s autobiography, there was a TV special on her life hosted by David Suchet, who played her most famous character, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot from 1989 to 2013. Part of the show looked at what happened when her first marriage broke down in 1926, and her husband left her for a young woman he had worked with. During that time, Christie disappeared for 11 days, kissing her daughter Rosalind goodbye, leaving late at night, then deserting her car by the side of the road and disappearing. The media speculated that the by-then famous author had killed herself, perhaps by drowning. Eventually, she turned up, and it transpired that she had been staying at a hotel under an assumed name.

Christie never spoke about the incident, completely skipped it in her autobiography, and it remains something of a mystery.

So why didn’t she tell her side of the story? The only thing she says in the book is that it was well documented in the news media and she doesn’t want to say any more: and that’s the answer. She didn’t want to revisit it. Of course, in the 1970s when this book was published, readers couldn’t then look up the internet to view news archives: you would actually have had to go to a library with British newspapers of the time, and few readers would have taken the time to do that. Nowadays, you can simply google it. Speculation continues, as evidenced in this recent article: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2006/oct/15/books.booksnews

Second marriage and life in Iraq

Some of her views, such as those on transportation of criminals to Australia and on empire would not be appreciated by many readers today: she must be read as a product of her times and class, however.

Christie travelled extensively and adventurously, and tales of these travels are another intriguing part of her autobiography. With her first husband, she travelled round the world in the early 1920s, surfed in Hawaii and visited Australia and New Zealand, all of which she describes in the book with relish. She travelled through the Middle East on her own after her divorce, and met her second husband, Max Mallowan, at Ur. He was an archaeologist who was 14 years younger than Christie. They married when he was 26 and she 40, and the marriage lasted until she died in 1976.

They had an interesting life, living for years in Iraq, at Ur, Ninevah and Nimrud for Mallowan’s archeological digs. Christie even joined in the archeological work, including photographing and drawing it for classification purposes.

Through it all, Christie kept writing, and became very wealthy. She was prolific, sometimes taking only a couple of weeks to write one of her mysteries. But she had to slow down: as she says in the autobiography she had to cut back to writing only one book a year, because writing any more resulted in such high tax that it wasn’t worth doing. She also wrote books under the pen name of Mary Westmacott. They sold well, too, and for years no one knew Westmacott was really Christie.
Interestingly, although Christie and Mallowan were both knighted in their own right—he in 1968 and she in 1971—this is another thing Christie doesn’t mention at all in her autobiography—see “At the end”, below, for the reason.

“Thanks, Grandma!”

In her later life, instead of writing cheques for her family and close friends, she would sign over the royalties of a certain work. For example, her grandson, Mathew Prichard, got the rights to The Mousetrap (then later inherited the bulk of her estate after his mother, Christie’s daughter Rosalind, died in 2004). At the time she gifted her grandson the rights to the world’s longest running play, Christie had no idea that it would be the phenomenal success it was. Read more here about Pritchard and how in 2010 he found long-lost tapes of his grandmother dictating her autobiography.

For the record, Christie’s books have sold about four billion copies—as an author, she is outsold only perhaps by Shakespeare.

At the end

While Christie writes enthusiastically of her young life and middle years, she rather trails off after the late 1940s, and only a small section at the end of the book talks about the 1950s and 1960s. The book was published posthumously in 1977, but she was clear that she would not write about anything after 1965. Although she was still working in the last 10 years of her life, she ended the book at age 75 because “it seems the right moment to stop. Because, as far as life is concerned, that is all there is to say” (Christie 1977:7).

The book is rather haphazard in parts, skipping across vast decades and back again, contradicting itself along the way. But this is part of its charm. I will leave the last word to Christie herself, who explains why the book is like this, after recovering from an illness in the mid-1960s:

“Returning from the valley of the shadow of death, I have decided not to tidy up this book too much. For one thing I am elderly. Nothing is more wearying than going over things you have written and trying to arrange them in proper sequence or turn them the other way round. I am perhaps talking to myself —a thing one is apt to do when one is a writer. One walks along the street, passing all the shops one meant to go into, or all the offices one ought to have visited, talking to oneself hard—not too loud, I hope—and rolling one’s eyes expressively, and then one suddenly sees people looking at one and drawing slightly aside, clearly thinking one is mad.”

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Job insecurity as the new job security

My friend, Kenny, over at Consider the Sauce, writes about the insecurity of current work life. It’s something close to my heart.

consider the sauce

security1

Today I went to work … for the simple reason I had a job to go to.

I will do the same on Monday and Tuesday.

And, hopefully, presumably, next Friday, too.

Given the ongoing ructions in the media in general and the newspaper lark in particular, this is not a situation I take for granted – even in a good week.

And this has not been a good week. (But perhaps it hasn’t been ruinously bad one either … read on, dear reader, read on …)

Once again, my colleagues and I have been tossed around by the winds of change.

In this case, it was announced on Thursday that the western suburbs affairs of the MMP group, for which I work, are to be merged with the western suburbs affairs of the Star group, which lives on the other side of the Ring Road from our Airport West…

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Valentine’s Day: why a tomato beats a red heart

People who know me well will tell you I don’t like being told what to do; I’ll decide what I do and, as I say, “YOU don’t tell me”.

So, naturally, I don’t like these days in which we are all told en masse that we WILL and HAVE TO celebrate something by spending up big, and that if we don’t, it shows we don’t care.

Today is Valentine’s Day in Australia, when we are all supposed to be romantic. There’s something creepy about being told by commercial enterprises that this is the day we will do something romantic with our partner: like a nasty voyeur watching through a peephole, or a dastardly puppeteer surveying her handiwork.

I’m NOT going to be shamed into buying roses, chocolate hearts or a $9 card.

I might, however, make my beloved a special dinner: so instead of shopping for a card with a big red heart, I’ll more likely be buying a big red tomato today! I like that better.

My preferred Valentine's Day symbol.  Picture: Caron Eastgate Dann 2014

My preferred Valentine’s Day symbol.
Picture: Caron Eastgate Dann 2014

I’m not averse to receiving a dozen red roses, and my husband has often had them delivered to me on special occasions, such as our wedding anniversary. But they are outrageously expensive, and—truthfully—on Valentine’s Day, I’d rather have the money!

The Valentine’s Day supporters would say that makes me unromantic, but why? Because I don’t want to join the party with everyone else? Well I say, two’s company and anything more is just a crowd.
In addition, I don’t like the way a commercialised enterprise makes a significant proportion of the population feel sad, inadequate or lonely.

A good friend remarked to me today that although he appreciated exactly what commercial rubbish Valentine’s Day was, because reminders of it were everywhere you looked, it still had the power to make people feel sad if they were single but would prefer not to be.
I come from New Zealand, though I now live in Australia. Growing up, I can’t remember ever celebrating Valentine’s Day there. I knew about it, because I lived in the US for a few years when I was aged 10-12, and it was big even then, in the 1970s.
Back then, the done thing was to give a Valentine’s Day card to every student in your class, which I did in the first year. Only trouble was, I inadvertently missed out one girl: Erin was her name. She was a nice girl, though quiet, and I always felt bad that I’d forgotten her. I hope she isn’t now writing a post somewhere about how she was forever traumatised because at school she was the only person left out of Caron’s Valentine’s Day card delivery. Sorry, Erin!

Over the last few years particularly, the pressure to celebrate days such as Valentine’s has become much greater than it used to be. Weeks, and sometimes even months before the day, shops are full of reminders. You feel like a heel if you don’t participate. Now don’t get me started on the commercialisation of Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas and Easter…

The secrets of great cooking

Timing is the most essential element of successful cooking, according to my husband, Gordon, and I agree with him. But there’s another: ingredients. What to cook, what to combine, how to make something of seemingly nothing, what is best cooked fresh and when you can make do with frozen or canned ingredients are some of the necessary decisions.

I notice that famous TV chefs such as Jamie Oliver and that competitors in TV cooking competitions such as My Kitchen Rules all use packets of frozen peas in recipes, for example. Not that this would affect me, since frozen peas are one of the few foods I detest, and have done since, as a toddler, I stole a packet from the freezer and ate the lot.

I was reminded of how important ingredients are to cooking by today’s topic for the Daily Post At WordPress.com’s Daily Prompt, which is “Ingredients” (you can access the many interesting posts on this topic here). I’m fascinated by this subject, and since I took up painting three years ago, ingredients for recipes have featured in a number of my paintings. Some of them you’ve seen before, but I thought I’d gather my ingredients-based paintings together and present them on this one page.

My first painting, acrylics on treated board, in which I had to be brave, load the brush with paint and go! © Caron Eastgate Dann 2011

My first painting, acrylics on treated board, in which I had to be brave, load the brush with paint and go!
© Caron Eastgate Dann 2011

A quick pastel sketch on coloured paper. I don't have a fascination with knives, truly: they are just great subjects to try out new-found painting techniques. © Caron Eastgate Dann 2011

A quick pastel sketch on coloured paper. I don’t have a fascination with knives, truly: they are just great subjects to try out new-found painting techniques. This one has special sentimental value (explained in the last painting, below).                              © Caron Eastgate Dann 2011

"Pear-Shaped", watercolour. I bought these beautiful pears in season and couldn't resist painting them. This was my first attempt at a watercolour painting. © Caron Eastgate Dann 2011

“Pear-Shaped”, watercolour. I bought these beautiful pears in season and couldn’t resist painting them. This was my first attempt at a watercolour painting. © Caron Eastgate Dann 2011

"Only On His Day Off", acrylics on canvas board. © Caron Eastgate Dann 2011

“Only On His Day Off”, only the second painting I did, acrylics on canvas board. © Caron Eastgate Dann 2011

"Waiting For Thai Tonight", acrylics on canvas board  © Caron Eastgate Dann 2011

“Waiting For Thai Tonight”, acrylics on canvas board
© Caron Eastgate Dann 2011

"Making Sangria", Pan Pastels on treated paper © Caron Eastgate Dann 2012

“Making Sangria”, PanPastels on treated paper. For this painting, I sourced all the ingredients, including a bottle of Spanish wine that we went to a specialist shop to buy. The great thing: I got to drink it after, so it was an incentive to finish the painting!
© Caron Eastgate Dann 2012

"Making Salad Niçoise", acrylics on treated board. This picture includes my favourite salad servers, plastic tiki-decorated souvenirs from New Zealand.  ©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2012 ©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2012

“Making Salad Niçoise”, acrylics on treated board. This picture includes my favourite salad servers, plastic tiki-decorated souvenirs from New Zealand.
©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2012

"Fruity Still Life", watercolours on paper. This was just a quick sketch, and I'm not very experienced in watercolours, so it's rather wonky: but I don't mind that! ©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2012

“Fruity Still Life”, watercolours on paper. This was just a quick sketch, and I’m not very experienced in watercolours, so it’s rather wonky: but I don’t mind that! ©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2012

"Apple Day", PanPastels on treated paper. The apples were three different varieties I bought for this picture. The willow-pattern china was given to me by my late grandmother.  ©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2013

“Apple Day”, PanPastels on treated paper. The apples were three different varieties I bought for this picture. The willow-pattern china was given to me by my late grandmother. The knife in this picture is very special, as it was given to me decades ago by my late father. It has a permanent place in my kitchen.
©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2013

Long-Ago Interviews: Lord Jeffrey Archer, author

In a previous career, I was a journalist who specialised in writing about the entertainment industry, celebrities, books and authors. I did this from the 1980s until 2008, when I became a university lecturer in media studies and journalism. In this series, “Long Ago Interviews”, I want to share some anecdotes from some of my more memorable interview subjects.

In the mid-to-late 1980s, I was books editor at the Sunday Star newspaper in New Zealand (now the Sunday Star Times). I had moved back to the big city, where I was brought up, after paying my dues from the age of 17 working at rural newspapers at Waipukurau in Hawke’s Bay and Warkworth, north of Auckland. I was still only in my early 20s when I became books editor of this major newspaper, but in those days, because we started so young, we were quite accomplished by age 23 or 24.

An example of my Sunday Star books page from 1986. Unfortunately, I no longer have a clipping of my Jeffrey Archer interview.

An example of my Sunday Star books page from 1986. Unfortunately, I no longer have a clipping of my Jeffrey Archer interview

Books editor

When I say I was books editor, this was an extra duty. I was primarily employed as the TV-page writer/editor, and before that the arts writer/editor of the Auckland Star Monday to Saturday. When the new Sunday edition was being planned, I sent the Editor—the big man upstairs who we lowly reporters barely ever saw—a proposal for a books page in the Sunday Star, because management had asked for ideas from staff and were prepared to give everyone a go. My proposal for a weekly books page was accepted, but it was additional to my role as arts editor then, later, TV editor. They paid me an extra $50 a week, but as all book lovers would know, it wasn’t about the money. I would be thrilled with anticipation every day as boxes of new books were delivered from publishers hoping to get a mention on the page.

Each week, as well as reviews by myself and other journalists happy to grab a free book (they got paid for reviews too, by the way), I wrote a news story about the book industry and did an interview with an author. It was a broadsheet newspaper, so there was lots of room.

As you can imagine, I was very busy, basically doing two jobs. As TV editor, every day I had to write a page of interviews and stories about local TV, and I also had to type out the program guide with witty comments! On Saturdays, I produced a TV lift-out. Then Sunday was thrown into the mix, though I’m not sure now if it was a dedicated TV page or just a news story or two.

“Mr Archer doesn’t go to interviews; you go to him”

Jeffrey Archer in 1998. Picture courtesy London School of Economics.

Jeffrey Archer in 1998. Picture courtesy London School of Economics.

One of the interviews I remember vividly from this time was with the British author, Jeffrey Archer (now Lord Archer, but back then, plain old “Mr”). Before I write further, let me say I do not agree with his politics at all, and I wouldn’t comment on his private life, of which there are many versions (for an interesting article on truth versus fiction in his life, click here). Nevertheless, I have to say he was a most charming interviewee, humorous and talkative. In addition, he is one of only a very few among hundreds of authors I have interviewed who sent me a personally signed letter  after the interview, thanking me for my time. I still have that letter.

Jeffrey Archer was extremely famous in the 1980s, and few authors could match his sales. He is perhaps best known for Kane And Abel, of which a 30th anniversary edition was released last year, and which alone has sold 37 million copies, according to Archer himself on his blog. I’ve read several of his books and enjoyed them immensely.

Anyway, Archer’s publishing company’s publicist had called me to set up an interview time, assuming I would go to his hotel. When I said that I was actually too busy to go out to an interview that day and that Mr Archer would have to come to the Star building to see me, the publicist was aghast:
“Mr Archer doesn’t go to interviews; you go to him,” she said.

I said that unfortunately, then, I would have to pass on the interview. She then got back to me with the exciting news that the author would indeed go to the journalist.

He duly arrived. I met him in the foyer, and up the rickety elevator we went in the ancient but quaint Auckland Star building, to an interview room on the editorial floor. He was with a young male assistant, who I prefer to think of as a sort of manservant (and I’ll tell you why in a moment).

Now, when I say interview room, think monk’s cellar. These rooms were just cubbyholes, really, with only a small table and a couple of chairs inside. Nothing on the drab grey walls, rather musty smelling, no windows. They were like interview rooms you see in those old hard-boiled cop movies. Nevertheless, I got him a bad cup of instant coffee in a paper cup and away we went.

Ask a rude question…

In the 1980s, young people still mostly lived by a lot of rules about how to behave in company and, especially, to have respect for their elders. You did not talk about money, religion or politics, as a rule, and you never asked a woman over 30 her age. But as journalists, we had to forget these rules, and we used to have to ask what I saw as tough questions, which you always kept until last. For Jeffrey Archer, the tough question I had to ask was, “How much money do you earn from your writing?”

He laughed and told me he had no idea. I don’t believe that for a moment, but he qualified it with some good material for my story. This is not the exact quotation, as unfortunately, I no longer have the clipping, but he answered something like this: “Let’s just put it this way. I have enough money to go anywhere I want to and to buy anything I want without having to check if there is enough money in my bank account.” He told me he had Louis Vuitton luggage, which was very impressive. He also told me that the sole reason he had started writing his first novel, Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less, was because he desperately needed money to stop himself going bankrupt.

One’s manservant has the pen

Archer signs books in Bangalore, India, 2009. Picture: Mike Lynch.

Archer signs books in Bangalore, India, 2009. Picture: Mike Lynch

Another thing that has changed in journalism is that, in those days, you would never ask a celebrity for their autograph if you were a professional reporter. You would never show that you were “star struck”. This is the one time I broke the rules: I asked Jeffrey Archer if he would sign my paperback review copy of his book First Among Equals, which was what he was in New Zealand to publicise. He agreed, then held up his right arm with palm outstretched. Immediately, the “manservant” took a pen from his pocket and placed it in Archer’s hand. Archer signed the book, and handed the pen back to the assistant. I still have that signed paperback: you can see Archer’s signature and find out what happened to my copy of the book here.

I say “manservant”, because in New Zealand, we had nowhere like as rigid or apparent a class system as existed in England. No one else I knew or had interviewed had ever had someone else to carry their pen for them, including the then-Prime Minister, David Lange, who I met at the Beehive (as the Parliament Buildings executive area is known) in Wellington in the 1980s. Well, whatever the real reason the assistant had the pen, it makes a good story and is something that has stuck in my memory all these years.