Today, I’m thrilled to chat with author Kristel Thornell about her latest novel, On the Blue Train (Allen & Unwin, 2016), a fictional retelling of what happened to Agatha Christie during her disappearance in 1926.
Your new novel, On the Blue Train, accounts for what happened to crime writer Agatha Christie when she disappeared for eleven days in 1926. What initially sparked your interest in Christie’s story?
I heard about her “disappearance” on the radio one day, several years ago, and was immediately visualizing it. The idea of her staying incognito in that Yorkshire hotel entranced me, and made me want to imagine what might have been occurring in her inner life at the time. I wondered how it would have felt to live for eleven days under an assumed name, living, in a sense, like a fictional character. That brief span of days struck me as containing so much potential depth, a whole little psychological world.
How closely do the events of On the Blue Train follow fact and why did you choose to retell Christie’s story in novel form?
I aimed to incorporate the significant known facts of the so-called disappearance and of Christie’s life up until then into the novel, and freely invent around them. Fiction seemed a fitting vehicle for investigating what can’t be known for certain or entirely explained. The sorts of emotions and thoughts the episode suggested to me – relating to identity, creativity, grief, and love – are those that I am most driven to explore in novels.
Most readers will know Christie as an author, but On the Blue Train shows us Christie the woman. What do you hope readers will take away from seeing a more personal side to this public figure?
I’m not sure. Personally, inhabiting the character of Agatha/Teresa made me reflect on the complexity of Christie’s life, its different layers. I imagined how intense and difficult the experience of public exposure might have been for one so inclined to look inward and be private. I empathized deeply with her vulnerability, while at the same time feeling great admiration for her survival instinct, for her strength and resilience.
Christie is struggling with her new novel at the time of her disappearance, and this weighs heavily on her mental state. Was this something the real Christie experienced, and why did you choose to explore this less glamorous side of creative life in your novel?
Yes, it was. She was suffering from writer’s block. Her novel, The Mystery of the Blue Train (“that wretched book”, as she referred to it in her autobiography), was stalled. This seemed such an important factor in the mental state of a writer, and an interesting, vivid reflection of her grief and disorientation. I am intrigued by the darker side of creativity, and also by the reawakening of dormant creativity.
In On the Blue Train, Christie, or Teresa Neele as she calls herself, befriends widower Harry McKenna, and the narrative alternates between them. Can you share a little about Harry’s character and the role he plays in the story?
Harry is “pure” invention (if invention can be pure!), though he was somewhat inspired by Christie’s mention in her autobiography of having had a crush on an Australian she met while staying in Queensland in 1922. I fictionalized that crush in On the Blue Train. So meeting and being attracted to Harry, an Australian expatriate, stirs memories for my Agatha/Teresa of her earlier Australian infatuation, and causes her to examine what such feelings might signal about her marriage. Harry and Agatha/Teresa are drawn together perhaps because they mirror one another. They are both mourning the end of a relationship, and are rather lost and disoriented; they both live to a large extent through their imaginations. Their growing intimacy was a way for me to investigate possible connections between her sadness over the end of her marriage and her writer’s block – between love, eroticism and the creative drive. I also enjoyed having Harry’s Australian perspective in the story.
Aside from your interest in Agatha Christie, are there particular authors who have influenced you as a writer?
It’s hard for me to pinpoint influences, and I tend to feel influenced in some way by whatever I might be reading and loving at any given time. But I do quite often find myself thinking of Virginia Woolf and Patrick White – of their psychological and poetic intensity, and their hypnotic flow of language. As a teenager, I read authors such as the Brontës, Jane Austen, John Keats, Christina Stead, Sylvia Plath, Colette, and Edna O’Brien. They have probably left their mark on me, also.
What are you currently reading?
I am going back and forth between Goliarda Sapienza’s The Art of Joy, Christina Stead’s The Salzburg Tales, and Gerald Murnane’s Landscape with Landscape.
What do you like to read and can you share some of your favourite books?
I like to read in French, Italian, and Spanish, as well as in English. I get obsessive and enjoy reading everything by someone I find interesting. Last year, I went through all of Elena Ferrante and Michel Houellebecq. I’ve recently been immersed in Karl Ove Knausgård, Javier Marías and Alan Hollinghurst. If I can’t sleep, I sometimes turn to detective fiction in Italian – especially Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels. I keep Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary close to my desk and dip into it every now and again. I spent this past summer (I live in upstate New York) working through Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I’m still under that powerful, unusual spell; it goes so wide and deep.
What advice would you offer to aspiring writers?
Try to be patient and let yourself enjoy what can feel like very long, slow processes. Choose projects that attract you strongly. Make a realistic routine that gives you a sense of maintaining a rhythm. If you can, mix up periods of sitting with movement. Stay exposed to stimulating, fun books, and perhaps to other forms of art. Though it can seem a tricky balance to achieve, do your best, if possible, to be open to feedback, while trusting your own judgment.
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.
For more about On the Blue Train, take a peek at my review.
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