Professor Nina de Gramont on her instant bestseller ‘The Christie Affair’

Abigail Celoria, Culture Editor

Less than three weeks after the novel’s publication, “The Christie Affair” claimed the number five spot on the New York Times’ best seller list of hardcover fiction. Reese’s Book Club selected it as their pick for February, which, along with an effective marketing campaign, elevated the book’s buzz upon release. The Seahawk selected it for our February pick as well, not only for its incredible mystery, but the author behind it. A professor with UNCW’s own creative writing department, Nina de Gramont’s latest book became an overnight success. This is made sweeter by her dedication to the novel throughout its lengthy writing process.

Courtesy of Nina de Gramont.

De Gramont boasts an extensive relationship with creative writing. She studied English literature at the bachelor’s level and attempted a master’s with the same subject before ultimately finishing her degree under UNCW’s creative writing program. She is no stranger to publishing, with nine books under her belt before “The Christie Affair.” The first was a collection of short stories, “Of Cats and Men,” published in 2002. Her first full-length fiction novel came in 2008 with “Gossip of the Starlings,” followed by several YA titles before the release of “The Last September” in 2015. Seven years later, “The Christie Affair” is her newest novel.

In their similarities to “The Christie Affair,” “Gossip of the Starlings” had its foundation in real events, while “The Last September” shared the murder mystery genre. “The Christie Affair” is a blend of both these traits. It differs, however, in being a historical fiction. The idea originally came to her in 2015 when her agent shared an article on Agatha Christie’s real disappearance in 1926. Though de Gramont had not been a Christie fan, the writer in her saw the potential for a story.

“The thing that interested me the most was the detail that, when she was found, she was signed into the hotel using the same last name as her husband’s mistress,” she said. “And that to me seemed like such a novel. That was the detail that, if that had been omitted, the novel wouldn’t exist. That really intrigued me. And also thinking about somebody who seemed so strong, a star, iconic, in this vulnerable moment.”

De Gramont wrote the novel over the course of five years. Being a historical fiction, this meant a great deal of research throughout the writing process. When beginning the first draft, however, she focused on the story first. The events of Christie’s disappearance laid enough groundwork for de Gramont to craft her mystery around a fictionalized version of Archie Christie’s mistress, Nan O’Dea.

“The only thing I researched before I wrote my first draft was what books came out that year in 1926, because I knew I wanted to Nan to have literary aspirations,” she said. “But other than that, I was careful not to do any research because I wanted to get my story straight and what I wanted to tell. I didn’t want the story to be driven by the research.”

After writing the first draft, de Gramont began her research process. She read biographies and books related to the novel’s time period, including Christie’s own novels. Taking those details into consideration, she slowly infused them into the story as she went.

De Gramont’s research of the time period played a crucial role in the formation of Nan’s character. Most of the historical details in “The Christie Affair” are found in her past timeline, with the effects of the first World War and a harrowing encounter with the Magdelene laundries of Ireland informing her character in the present.

“The war period sort of gave itself to me as I was researching that timeline,” said de Gramont. “If this had taken place in Lithuania in 1964, that’s where I would have gone and found out everything that informed that place and time period. But in Europe, you know, the book takes place between 1912 and 1926, and the first World War was the biggest, most cataclysmic event that everyone was affected by. I couldn’t help but have that there.

“And with the Irish history, I had seen a documentary called ‘Sex in a Cold Climate’ years ago about the Magdalene laundries that was just horrifying and moving to me. When I thought about women disappearing, there seemed to be a connection there. I wanted to think historically about the reasons why women would disappear.”

Nan’s connection to the Magdalene laundries unlocked the mystery of “The Christie Affair” by the novel’s end, making this bit of research an essential point in the plot. De Gramont saw in this not only an opportunity to highlight this history but to provide Nan with a motivation that readers would understand.

“I knew pretty early on that I wanted her to have an ulterior motive,” said de Gramont. “When you make a decision to write from a mistress’ point of view, especially when it’s a mistress that breaks up the marriage and the wife is such a beloved figure, it’s a real challenge to make her sympathetic. I think it was important to give her what would eventually become to the reader an explanation for what she was doing, a backstory that might make her sympathetic.”

These choices led to a compelling final product that exploded upon release. The press de Gramont published with, St. Martin’s, made great efforts to promote “The Christie Affair.” Their unique marketing by publicist Dori Weintraub effectively spread word of the novel’s release.

The Christie Affair is a novel written by UNCW creative writing professor Nina de Gramot. It is the September pick for Reese’s Book Club. (Macmillan)

“St. Martin’s was a new press for me, and the press was very much behind this book, so it’s been incredible,” said de Gramont. “The publicist did a lot of work on getting reviews and getting in touch with bookstores. Before the book came out, we did these champagne hours, send bottles of champagne to book sellers and Zoom to talk about the book. For the marketing, they sent out these PR packages to book influencers.”

De Gramont also received the honor of being selected as a pick for Reese’s Book Club, another opportunity that propelled “The Christie Affair” into popularity. She received the news two months in advance and worked with the Hello Sunshine team to ready them for their reveal of Reese’s February pick. The book’s launch coincided with their reveal, prompting the perfect release for de Gramont.

“It’s just been great,” she said of the book’s reception. “I was very terrified before, you always are. I think that you, when you make the decision to become a writer, there’s a kind of courage connected there. You have to sort of expose yourself in ways that other people don’t. I had a lot of anxiety, I just started sleeping again. There was a stretch of time where I wasn’t sleeping because I was so nervous, and when the book came out, I was so excited I would wake up at 4:30 or 5 and remember. So it’s been heavy and exciting and validating and fun.”

Aside from de Gramont’s career as a writer, she finds further joy in teaching creative writing at UNCW. Being among other writers, both with other faculty and her students, allows her to keep herself immersed in the world of writing.

“I think that it’s really helpful to have your daily world be comprised of people that care about books and writing,” said de Gramont. “Not everybody thinks books are important. Not everybody even reads. So it’s really lovely to have your daily life be surrounded by people who find books as important as you do. And then teaching, I have to stay up to date on current literary trends. I’m in a classroom where we are examining those books from a craft perspective, so it keeps my mind focused on how stories are constructed. I think it’s really important and broadens my abilities as a writer.”

“The Christie Affair” is a testament to de Gramont’s strength as a writer. Its mystery is not only perfectly crafted but infused with passion and intention. UNCW’s creative writing program gains much in her presence as a faculty member, inspiring the students that have witnessed her journey with “The Christie Affair.”

“The Christie Affair” is available for purchase at any major bookstore. It is also available to read online. De Gramont’s website and faculty page list where to find her other books, as well.