Interview with Kristel Thornell, author of On The Blue Train

on-the-blue-trainIn December 1926, Agatha Christie, already the famous author of several detective novels, disappeared for eleven days. The press and the public were agog as a massive investigation employing more than a thousand police officers was mounted, and after her car was found abandoned, great fears were held for her safety. As titillating details emerged about the traumatic events surrounding her disappearance–her husband’s demand for a divorce on top of his infidelity, and her beloved mother’s death–the public joined in the hunt, with hundreds of amateur detectives combing for clues. Even other mystery writers joined in the hunt, including Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L.Sayers! Eleven days after she first went missing, Agatha was discovered in a spa hotel in Harrogate in Yorkshire, where she was staying under the name of Teresa Neele–poignantly, the surname of her husband’s mistress.

There have been many speculations, then as now, as to what really happened. Agatha herself never explained those missing eleven days. An intensely private, even shy woman, the trauma of the time when she was in the full glare of remorseless publicity never left her, even though she went on to become a mega-selling ‘Queen of Crime’. Even today she is the most best-selling novelist of all time, with literally billions of books sold.

Now young Australian author Kristel Thornell has written a novel which, with great deftness and sensitivity, imagines what those eleven days might have been like. Foregrounding both Agatha herself and the fictional character of Australian Harry McKenna, similarly bruised by life, she draws a convincing portrait of heartbreak, the beginning of healing, and the challenges and consolations of creativity. It’s a wonderful novel which is also a touching tribute to Agatha’s unique creative gift, informed by a great deal of research. And so today I’m delighted to bring readers a fascinating interview with Kristel Thornell, in which she talks about the creation of her novel, On the Blue Train (Allen and Unwin, out now).  kristel-thornekll-better

How did you first come up with the idea for the novel?

I heard a fragment of a radio program that mentioned Christie’s “disappearance” and I was very taken with the idea of a young writer living under a pseudonym for eleven days. Perhaps because writing itself can resemble living under a pseudonym, and this parallel intrigued me. I was particularly interested in the tension suggested between public and private selves. I found myself vividly picturing a troubled, resourceful woman arriving at a hotel in the north of England in an unusual state of consciousness. I thought it could be an interesting challenge to try to give fictional depth to such an experience, exploring the combination of disorientation and freedom she might have felt. I was attracted to writing a sort of psychological mystery. One that, without being a detective novel, would salute what I most enjoy in that genre – transporting atmosphere, a hypnotic flow, the heightened awareness of details, moments, and buried impulses.

What research did you do, and what were the challenges in researching such a famous, but also mysterious episode in Agatha Christie’s life?

I began with the biographies of Christie by Janet Morgan and Laura Thompson, Christie’s autobiography, and her early novels. In the UK, I read newspapers covering her disappearance and the archive of her papers at the University of Exeter. A central part of the process was spending time in Torquay, where she grew up and loved to return, Newlands Corner, the area from which she “disappeared”, and Harrogate, where she lived for those days as Teresa Neele. In Harrogate, I stayed at the hotel she stayed at (which still exists), for the same period of time she was there, absorbing the ambience and learning to inhabit my character.

Agatha Christie in 1926

Agatha Christie in 1926

The blanks in the official record gave me a certain sense of being at liberty to invent, but it was a challenge to avoid preconceived ideas and put aside, as it were, Christie the icon, Christie the phenomenon. I had to avoid anachronistically projecting all of that symbolic weight onto my vision of a young writer. It also felt crucial to allow myself to freely imagine within the biographical contours, and to approach the biographical material itself in my own way.

You have deftly mixed your own imaginings with what’s known about what happened. How did you negotiate the intersection between fact and fiction?

This was somewhat more straightforward with “On the Blue Train” than it was with my previous novel (inspired by the Australian landscape painter Clarice Beckett). With the earlier novel, I worked with biographical facts quite loosely, sometimes purposely altering them. With “On the Blue Train”, I aimed to incorporate the known facts of Christie’s disappearance and life up until that time into the imaginary world of the novel. I didn’t consciously change anything factual that appeared significant to me. Though I was aware, of course, that simply to fictionalize a fact is to reimagine it. To shape it with language, frame and illuminate it in particular ways, give it a tone. So that even the biographical becomes semi-biographical, novelistic.

There have been many theories concerning Christie’s disappearance, ranging from amnesiac fugue to a cynical publicity stunt mixed with revenge against her unfaithful husband. In your version, Agatha is aware that she is not who she is telling the world she is, yet she cannot cope with the fact of who she is and what has happened–a syndrome perhaps like post traumatic shock. How difficult was it to portray the state Agatha is in?

Finding a voice to convey that state was the key to the whole project. Laura Thompson, who wrote the 2007 biography of Christie, sees her mental state during that episode as semi-rational, somehow poetic, and this rang true to me. Such a condition plausibly fit the omission in Christie’s autobiography. I saw the fictional Agatha/Teresa as fluctuating between extreme sensitivity and numbness, and, increasingly, a sort of playful, creative spirit, a reawakening sensuality. She was both guiding herself and drifting. I wanted the novel’s voice to reflect these complexities: to be hypnotic, slightly hallucinatory, and inflected, indeed, with shock, grief, shame, and anxiety. The voice actually came quite intuitively. I identified with it deeply.

The pain of what Agatha is going through as she struggles with the realisation that her world has come crashing down is exacerbated by her inability to write a word of the book she was planning–which of course ended up being Murder on the Blue Train. Was this episode in Agatha’s life a turning point in terms of her art as much as her personal life, and if so in what way?

Yes, it would appear so. It was at around this time that she came to see herself as a professional author. She had already been working in a determined, focused way, aware that her work could earn money. Earlier in 1926, she had published “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”, which had done very well. However, in her autobiography she describes the experience of having to force herself to finish “The Mystery of the Blue Train” (which she was finally able to largely complete in 1928 in Tenerife) as transitional. This was the crossing over into the life of a true working writer, one who writes whether or not she feels like it. And there is the sense that she made something of a fortress of this new role, keeping her private self guarded within it. It was fascinating to me that her intense vulnerability and isolation during that time might ultimately have galvanized her, confirmed her independence and vocation.

The hounding of celebrities, the curiosity of the media and its readers in intimate details of their lives, is very much an element of your book, and also of contemporary relevance. How do you think a similar episode would play out today in the media?christie-paper

Yes, that aspect of the story struck me as extremely fresh and current. I imagine that such attention could feel even more traumatically claustrophobic today. It would certainly be amplified by recent technologies, and quickly become so much more international. And there appears to be an ever-stronger requirement for writers to be public figures. The Elena Ferrante phenomenon is interesting in this light: the novelty of her “hidden” identity, the emphasis on this and speculation over her “true” identity becoming a lucrative part of her brand, and the recent “unmasking”.

In France, Agatha Christie is regarded by critics as a popular fiction genius, with a succint elegance of style, a deftness of characterisation and an extraordinary mastery of plot. Yet in English-speaking countries she is too often dismissed as a mere purveyor of puzzles. I wrote about this disconnect myself some years ago: http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2006/07/writers_choice__2.html

What do you think? Does the disconnect still exist? And why?

I’ve been curious about that discrepancy, too, and I enjoyed Houellebecq’s response to Christie. It does still seem to exist and I would agree with your impression that in English-speaking countries she can be seen to represent an outmoded fairytale Englishness – one that is more attractive and soothing to foreigners. No doubt this involves some discomfort surrounding her perceived conservative upper-middle-class viewpoint. Could it be the case, also, that when a cultural product is such a powerfully popular national symbol, it can provoke a certain embarrassment?

Incidentally, I’ve read several of her novels in French and Italian, as well as in English, to see if I could come at the “essence” of them. Reading her in translation, I found it interesting that the streamlined quality of her prose – the minimally evoked settings, the emphasis on concise, bouncy dialogue, the light movement, and so on – seemed to translate very well, very smoothly.

Has writing the novel made you think of Agatha Christie, and her work, differently to before you started?

It has made me wonder at the intricacies of her inner life, and admire her strength, self-discipline, self-confidence, and forceful creative drive. I often think now of how hugely sustaining writing must have been for her.

What are your favourite Christie novels?

First edition, 1926

First edition, 1926

I think I remember most fondly “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” and “The Mystery of the Blue Train”. The first has a wonderfully fluid, clean elegance, and an intriguing, chilling mood lightly balanced between clinical and intimate. I am attached to “The Mystery of the Blue Train” partly, perhaps, because it was a triumph for her to finish it, after having struggled with it at that very difficult time. It represents a sort of survival-through-creativity for me. Despite all

First edition, 1928

First edition, 1928

she was going through, she managed to pull off a novel that is amusingly theatrical, evocative, and sprightly.

 

 

 

Kristel Thornell’s debut work of fiction, Night Street, was the co-winner of the Vogel’s award in 2009 and was much acclaimed when published in 2010. On the Blue Train is her second novel.

More about On the Blue Train:

What did happen to Agatha Christie during her mysterious eleven-day disappearance just as she was on the cusp of fame? Mixing fact and fantasy On the Blue Train is an entrancing novel of creativity and grief from a winner of the Vogel Literary Award

Yes, she said, finally. Breaks are important. There are times when it’s wiser to get away. From it all.

It was the work of a moment, on 4 December 1926, Agatha Christie became Teresa Neele, resident of the spa hotel, the Harrogate Hydro. With her wedding ring left behind her, and her minimal belongings unpacked, Agatha’s lost days begin.

Lying to her fellow guests about the death of a husband and child, Teresa settles in to the anonymity she so fiercely desires. Until Harry McKenna, bruised from the end of his own marriage, asks her to dance.

Thornell says, “We are drawn to the iconic aura of Agatha Christie, as well as to a sense of her tireless imagination and drive. We continue to find her blend of cozy comforting order and hidden dark forces tantalizing and highly addictive. Her “disappearance” – a brief escape from her public identity – seems such a unique act, unusually creative and psychologically fascinating.”

With verve and sensitivity, Thornell imagines what Christie could not write.

 

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