The XX Factor

Poisons and Playdates

As Hanna says , writing and motherhood can be an uneasy combo; there is always someone who needs to be fed or read to or bathed or listened to or driven places, and in meeting the needs of so many dependents, it’s easy to let the writing day slip away from you, or sit down at the computer and forget what you wanted to say (or even why you walked into the room in the first place). So pressing are the demands that some writers have resorted to extreme measures: We are reminded in a recent biography of Muriel Spark that Spark profoundly neglected her son, leaving him behind when she traveled to London during the war, then choosing for him to be raised by others. As Joseph O’Neil notes in his review of Martin Stannard’s Muriel Spark: The Biography , “Spark provided for her son financially and would drop by in Edinburgh from time to time, but she never even tried to combine a mother’s usual responsibilities with those of a writer. She remained on red alert against that enemy of promise, a son’s need for a full measure of love.” As a devotee of Spark, I sort of knew this but was disappointed to be reminded that works like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Memento Mori were produced at such a cost. O’Neil, thoughtfully exploring the challenges that parenthood presents to women writers (and noting that male writers with little time for their children tend to be less harshly judged) also quotes Doris Lessing, who did some offspring-offloading of her own. Lessing pointed out: “Writers, and particularly female writers, have to fight for the conditions they need to work.”

No doubt this is true, and far truer when these women were writing than it is now. Thankfully, however, there is the charming counterexample of Agatha Christie, mistress, it emerges, not only of murder mysteries but of multitasking. As Michael Dirda pointed out earlier this year, in his review of a collection of Christie’s notebooks , the “cheap school-exercise books” in which she plotted her works: “Christie’s notebooks are only partly work-related. She also used them to scribble down shopping lists and telephone numbers or to remind herself of a hair-dressing appointment. But turn a page and suddenly you will find ‘Nitro benzene-point is-it sinks to bottom of glass-woman takes sip from it-then gives it to husband. ’ ” Dirda quotes the book’s creator and the notebooks’ interpreter, John Curran, who noted that: “The plotting of the latest Poirot novel can be interrupted by a poem written for [daughter] Rosalind’s birthday; a page headed, optimistically, ‘Things to do’ is sandwiched between the latest Marple and an unfinished stage play.”

Now, whenever I contemplate the chaos of little notebooks I keep here and there-scribblings from some interview, combined with grocery lists and the title of some movie I mean to order for the kids from Netflix, not to mention, probably, some mashed crumbs that have left a greasy shadow on the paper-I think about Dame Agatha, planning a daughter’s party while plotting the perfect poison, and feel that perhaps it can, after all, be done-all of it.