WILMINGTON — A UNCW creative writing professor’s new novel takes off this month after being published first. Within 10 days of its release, it was already a New York Times top five bestseller, won an article in Reese Witherspoon’s Monthly Book Club, and was cast in a television series.
In “The Christie Affair,” Nina de Gramont twists fiction with reality to invent a tale of what happened when legendary detective novelist Agatha Christie disappeared for 11 days in December 1926.
Nearly a century later, little is known about Christie’s disappearance. Despite her fame, she escaped the public eye and took her secret to the grave. Countless search parties followed and newspapers reported his disappearance.
Even her autobiography does not indicate her whereabouts. But some clues are included — from her abandoned car to the beloved dog she left behind – and are used in the novel. Perhaps adding the most drama, Christie’s husband had told her before she disappeared that he wanted to leave her for his young mistress, Nancy Neele.
This is where de Gramont’s protagonist comes in: Miss Nan O’Dea, a mysterious figure who has infiltrated the life of the prosperous couple. It seems O’Dea is determined to take out Christie by stealing his wife, Archie, but why?
Before expanding on the story, de Gramont admits that she was not a die-hard fan of Christie, an author who was only sold by Shakespeare and the Bible. It was in 2015 when de Gramont came across the story of Christie’s disappearance in an article and saw it as having potential for an interesting plot.
“It was really emotional for me that someone so successful and iconic was able to have this interval that was clearly so grief-driven and probably very embarrassing for her,” de Gramont said. “It kind of made her deadly, in a way that I thought was interesting to explore.”
In the early 2000s, de Gramont attempted to write a novel about poet Emily Dickinson and Dickinson’s difficult relationship with her sister. Still, de Gramont said she made a mistake loading the search upstream and then felt like she was regurgitating it onto the pages. Instead, she wrote “The Last September,” from the perspective of a Dickinson scholar.
This time, de Gramont approached it differently. She wrote a draft with little research, apart from some historical studies and the knowledge she had of the literature of the time.
“I wanted to focus on my story,” the writer said. “And once I had an approximation of the story that I wanted to tell, I dove into a deep dive, I read books about her and I read a lot of her novels and I also researched other aspects of the book.”
In all, “The Christie Affair” took five years, aside from a hiatus, Gramont’s estimate was 18 months. During this time, however, she still read, sketched and thought about the project.
“I got pretty far into it, and I just thought, ‘This is too difficult. I can not do that. I make all these mistakes in front of my eyes, and I just need to put them aside,” she said. “So I put it aside and wrote a different book, then came back to it.”
“The Christie Affair” goes deeper than a typical mystery. It weaves a story of love and lessons from World War I and its aftermath, as the surviving soldiers returned home only to be confronted by the 1918 flu pandemic. Gramont’s character says that loves most, Finbarr, is an optimistic young man sent into battle who comes back impacted.
“I gave him these characteristics in his youth of being super sunny and happy. It’s a characteristic that I tend to admire a lot and envy in others. I tend to be more fatalistic,” a- “To use him as an example of the change and the trauma that happened to so many young men after having to fight those horrific trench wars was really sad for me.”
The book was completed and picked up in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic in February 2020, so today’s events did not inspire the inclusion of influenza; it was rather because de Gramont felt it was necessary to highlight the epidemic by writing about European soldiers returning from the First World War.
Yet even though it’s based on a separate event, she points out that the story is “highly, almost 100% fictional.” — not a theory of Christie’s case, which many have tried to solve over the years.
“At the same time, I wanted to be historically accurate in terms of describing the time and what was going on, and what were the events, the concerns and the technology, and the nuts and bolts of the day?” said de Gramont.
She said it’s the furthest she’s gone back in her writing.
She has written a number of other books, including “Gossip of Starlings” and “Of Cats and Men”, as well as young adult novels. But the buzz surrounding “The Christie Affair” has been the strongest yet. Even before its drop, the novel was placed on early mailing lists including Goodreads and Barnes & Noble. It was named a “must-read mystery” by Amazon Book Review standards.
Miramax had already secured the rights to produce a limited series based on the novel. A screenwriter is adapting it. The entertainment company behind the classic “Pulp Fiction” also produced “Halloween Kills,” filmed in Wilmington in the fall of 2019.
Deadline broke the news about two months ago, around the same time de Gramont found out that Witherspoon would be sharing “The Christie Affair” with her book club, which has 2.2 million followers on Instagram.
“My editor called me into my office at UNCW, and I screamed and jumped up and down and she said, ‘But you can’t tell anybody,'” de Gramont said. “I said, ‘Well, everyone I know just heard me scream.’ But luckily they didn’t ask me too many questions I was able to keep it quiet I told my husband and I told my friend who is a lawyer so I knew she could keep a secret.
She said she didn’t even know Witherspoon was reading it, but realized it was a possibility given its acquisition by St. Martin’s Press.
“If you have a publicity team working on your books, they’ll try to get it into the hands of the Reese Witherspoons and the Jenna Bushes,” de Gramont said. “I knew it was something they would be heading towards, but I didn’t imagine they would pull it off.”
Witherspoon, a world-renowned actress, has skyrocketed many novels, with picks such as “Where the Crawdads Sing” and “Little Fires Everywhere.” All about powerful female roles and often written by women, her picks regularly morph into major TV productions or movies.
“I would have been delighted to see her photographed, walking through an airport with her under my arms,” de Gramont said.
Announcing the novel as her February book club pick, Witherspoon wrote on Instagram, “True crime aficionados…this book is for you! I loved it so much that I read it in one go. »
De Gramont is now traveling across the state for book signing events and hosting virtual talks.
“It’s been crazy,” she said. “There were a lot of interviews, a lot of excitement. Lots of opening my eyes at 5am and not being able to go back to sleep.
Despite all the excitement, de Gramont continues to teach creative writing at UNCW, where she also earned her MFA in 2006. She believes teaching writing in her daily life is a ideal companion for this skill.
“You’re all the more immersed in the process and in the writing life,” she said. “When you walk away from your desk, you walk into the classroom and you talk to students about the books and how they are constructed, you refer to the process and you look at student work and see how they approach things. I think anything that keeps the art form in your brain throughout the day is positive.
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