WILMINGTON — A UNCW creative writing professor’s newest novel is taking off this month after hitting bookshelves on the first. Within 10 days of its release, it’s already a top-five New York Times bestseller, has earned a feature in Reese Witherspoon’s monthly book club and was optioned for a TV series.
In “The Christie Affair,” Nina de Gramont twists fiction with reality to invent a tale of what transpired when legendary mystery novelist Agatha Christie disappeared for 11 days in December 1926.
Almost a century later, little is known about Christie’s disappearance. In spite of her renowned fame, she escaped the public eye and took her secret to the grave. Countless search parties ensued and newspapers broadcast her vanishment.
Not even her autobiography hints at where she was. But a few clues are understood — from her abandoned car to the beloved dog she left behind — and are utilized in the novel. Perhaps adding the most drama, Christie’s husband had told her ahead of her disappearance that he wanted to leave her for his younger mistress, Nancy Neele.
That’s where de Gramont’s protagonist comes in: Miss Nan O’Dea, a mysterious figure, having infiltrated the lives of the prosperous couple. It appears O’Dea is set on taking down Christie by stealing her spouse, Archie, but why?
Prior to developing the story, de Gramont admits she wasn’t a “die-hard” fan of Christie, an author only outsold by Shakespeare and the Bible. It was 2015 when de Gramont came across the story of Christie’s disappearance in an article and considered it as having potential for an interesting plot.
“It was just really moving to me that somebody so successful and iconic could’ve had this interval that was clearly so driven by heartbreak and probably greatly embarrassing to her,” de Gramont said. “It sort of made her mortal, in a way, that I thought would be interesting to explore.”
In the early 2000s, de Gramont attempted to write a novel about poet Emily Dickinson and Dickinson’s fraught relationship with her sister. Yet, de Gramont said she made a mistake by front-loading the research and then felt as if she was regurgitating it onto the pages. Instead, she wrote “The Last September,” from the point of view of a Dickinson scholar.
This time, de Gramont approached it differently. She penned a rough draft with hardly any research to go off of, other than some studies of history and the knowledge she possessed from the literature of the time.
“I wanted to concentrate on my story,” the writer said. “And once I had an approximation of the story I wanted to tell, then I went into a deep dive, and read books about her and read a lot of her novels and also researched other aspects of the book.”
In all, “The Christie Affair” took five years to complete, aside from one break de Gramont estimates was 18 months. During this time, however, she still read, outlined and thought about the project.
“I got pretty deep into it, and I just thought, ‘This is too hard. I can’t do this. I’m making all these mistakes right in front of my eyes, and I just need to put it aside,’” she said. “So I put it aside and I wrote a different book and then I came back to it.”
“The Christie Affair” goes deeper than a typical mystery. It weaves in a love story and lessons of World War I and the aftermath, as soldiers who survived only returned home to be met with the 1918 influenza pandemic. The character de Gramont says she’s most partial to, Finbarr, is a young optimistic man sent off to battle who returns impacted.
“I gave him those characteristics in his younger days of being super sunny and happy. That’s a characteristic I tend to very much admire and envy in other people. I tend to be more fatalistic,” she said. “Using him as an example of sort of the change and the trauma that happened to so many young men after having to fight these horrible trench warfare was really sad for me.”
The book was completed and picked up on the heels of the Covid-19 pandemic in February 2020, so the events of the present day didn’t inspire the inclusion of the flu; it was more because de Gramont felt it was necessary to highlight the outbreak when writing about European soldiers returning from the First World War.
Still, even though it’s based on a distinct event, she stresses the story is “highly, almost 100% fictionalized” — not a theory of Christie’s case, which many have tried to solve throughout the years.
“At the same time, I wanted to be historically accurate in terms of depicting the time and what was going on, and what were the events and concerns and technology, and nuts and bolts of the day?” de Gramont said.
She said it’s the farthest she’s gone back in her writing.
She’s written a number of other books, including “Gossip of Starlings” and “Of Cats and Men,” as well as young adult novels. But buzz surrounding “The Christie Affair” has been the strongest to date. Before it even dropped, the novel was placed on anticipated release lists, including Goodreads and Barnes & Noble. It was named a “must-read mystery” by Amazon Book Review’s standards.
Miramax had already optioned the rights to produce a limited series based on the novel. A screenwriter is adapting it now. The entertainment company behind the classic “Pulp Fiction” also produced “Halloween Kills,” shot in Wilmington in the fall of 2019.
Deadline broke the news about two months ago, around the same time de Gramont found out Witherspoon would be sharing “The Christie Affair” with her book club, which has a massive following of 2.2 million on Instagram.
“My editor called me in 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, everybody 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’s a lawyer, so I knew she could keep a secret.”
She said she didn’t know Witherspoon was even reading it but gathered it was a possibility given her acquisition by St. Martin’s Press.
“If you have a publicity team that is working on your books, they’re going to try to get it into the hands of the Reese Witherspoons and the Jenna Bushes,” de Gramont said. “I knew that it was something that they would be angling toward, but I didn’t imagine that they would be successful.”
Witherspoon, a world-renowned actress, has skyrocketed many novels to fame, with selections such as “Where the Crawdads Sing” and “Little Fires Everywhere.” All about powerful female leads and often written by women, her picks regularly turn into major TV productions or films.
“I would’ve been thrilled just to see her photographed, walking through an airport with it under her arms,” de Gramont said.
Announcing the novel as her February book club selection, Witherspoon wrote on Instagram: “True crime aficionados…this book is for you! I loved it so much, I read it in one sitting.”
De Gramont is now traveling across the state for book signing events and hosting virtual discussions.
“It’s been crazy,” she said. “It’s been a lot of interviews, a lot of excitement. A lot of opening my eyes at 5 in the morning and not being able to go back to sleep.”
Between all the excitement, de Gramont continues to teach creative writing at UNCW, where she also earned her Master of Fine Arts in 2006. She believes teaching how to write in her day-to-day life is an ideal companion to the skill.
“You’re that much more immersed in the process and in the writing life,” she said. “When you get away from your desk, you go into the classroom, and you’re talking to students about books and how they’re constructed, and referencing process and looking at student work and seeing how they’re approaching things. I think that anything that sort of keeps the art form in your brain throughout the day is positive.”
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