WRITERS TELL ALL
"[Flavia] is whispering to me even as we speak": An Interview with the Brilliant, Incomparable Alan Bradley
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Alan! It’s so nice to get to talk with you about your wonderful series of
novels revolving around your character Flavia de Luce. First, I wanted to ask, what came first
for you? The ideas of the books or the characters like Flavia? It’s always interesting to see the
author mould the story around a character, or create a character who fits into the story.
Alan Bradley: The idea of writing a mystery came first, although in the end, I never did complete the book I was planning. Flavia sauntered onto the page and hijacked my story lock, stock and plot. She brought the characters and settings with her. I didn’t have a chance.
MT: Flavia is such a brilliant, alive character. I have a lot of friends who are big fans. She’s
Nancy Drew but for adults, so much dark humour and general darkness it’s like entering a new
world when you write about her. How hard is it to get into Flavia’s mind when you are writing?
AB: It’s not hard at all. Flavia is always there, champing at the bit, just waiting for me to sit down at the keyboard so that she can occupy my hands and make herself heard.
MT: Flavia is such a specific girl. She starts off a young girl who wants to study Chemistry and
ends up studying the murders of dead people—solving their deaths, these crimes, with these
incredible skills. How did you decide who Flavia is, as well as her voice, and decide upon how to
really make Flavia a person herself. How do you decide about these brilliantly unique murders?
and do you think Flavia grows throughout the series?
AB: I can take no credit for Flavia. She appeared on the page – “jumped out of the inkpot” as they say – fully formed. I sometimes think that she might have been waiting centuries for someone with a suitably quirky mind. With each book, I have settled upon the unique theme (obsessive stamp collecting, curious religions, gypsy caravans, etc: something which will grip my interest long enough to write a book.) Turned loose within these frameworks, Flavia seems perfectly at home, and goes whizzing off in all directions. I had to learn touch-typing to keep up! And thanks to my beloved wife, who taught me.
MT: Before Flavia and success, how long did it take you to get a book published, and how long
before you felt you were successful, which has different meaning to different people?
AB: Although I had collaborated on an earlier book (Ms. Holmes of Baker Street) my first published book was The Shoebox Bible, a memoir of my mother. I don’t remember having any particular problem getting it published. I emailed the manuscript to an agent and received a blank contract the next morning. It was sold very quickly, with several publishers bidding for the rights. The first Flavia book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Piewon the Debut Dagger Award from the CWA (Crime Writers’ Association) in the UK. It was only when I flew from Canada to London to accept the award at a black-tie event in Park Lane and found that the book – and the subsequent series - had been sold in three countries on two continents (and later, thirty-eight!) that I began to realize how widespread was the readers’ love for Flavia de Luce. The most oft-occurring word in my mail and email is “love”, for which I am eternally grateful.
MT: What was the toughest book to write, and why was it a struggle? Was there ever a Flavia
book you nearly gave up on, or did you fight through no matter what?
AB: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was likely the toughest, because I hadn’t written a mystery before. I vividly remember my forefinger hovering above the ‘send’ button of the final draft – then stopping to change a word, a phrase…and then another…and another…and another. It was long after midnight before I got up the gumption finally to send it on its way. The book was written in the wake of a tragic forest fire, which we survived, but not unscathed. Several of the other books were written under trying circumstances, and only now do I begin to realize what a balm they were at the time to the soul. I hope this passion comes through to the reader.
MT: What was your favourite mystery? Who are your favourite characters? We certainly come
AB: My own personal favourite mystery is Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Nine Tailors. Exquisite! If I may indulge in one long answer, consider the following:
“The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes. Tin tan din dan bim bam bom bo--tan tin din dan bam bim bo bom--tan dan tin bam din bo bim bom--every bell in her place striking tuneably, hunting up, hunting down, dodging, snapping, laying her blows behind, making her thirds and fourths, working down to lead the dance again. Out over the flat, white wastes of fen, over the spear-straight, steel-dark dykes and the wind-bent, groaning poplar trees, bursting from the snow-choked louvres of the belfry, whirled away southward and westward in gusty blasts of clamour to the sleeping counties went the music of the bells--little Gaude, silver Sabaoth, strong John and Jericho, glad Jubilee, sweet Dimity and old Batty Thomas, with great Tailor Paul bawling and striding like a giant in the midst of them. Up and down went the shadows of the ringers upon the walls, up and down went the scarlet sallies flickering roofwards and floorwards, and up and down, hunting in their courses, went the bells of Fenchurch St. Paul.”
It simply doesn’t get any better than that.
Of the Flavia mysteries, they are all my favourites, but for different reasons: the restoration memories, beliefs, friendships, mentors, and near-forgotten joys.
MT: What do you think is so important about writing mysteries and, for an adult audience, what
about Flavia being a child and solving mysteries do you think resonates with them?
AB: Everyone has been a child, and everyone can identify with the trials and tribulations of being a child. I firmly believe that all of us retain shards of childhood within us, some more and some less than others. Flavia appeals to whatever remnants of youthful idealism, of enthusiasm, of truth and justice lingers in our core. It is this which has kept me going till eighty.
MT: Can you talk about the journey Flavia has taken throughout her life in these books? Which
books or parts of books do you think showed her most, and where do you think Flavia was most
AB: Flavia gradually reveals herself only gradually, book by book. In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, which is set in the summer of 1950, she is almost eleven. Ten books later, in The Golden Tresses of the Dead, she is a couple of years older, and there is a detectible difference in her outlook. As an avaricious learner, she has taken on board a frightening amount of practical and philosophical knowledge. It worries me sometimes that the adults around her don’t realize how truly dangerous she might well be.
MT: What do you think makes Flavia so interesting to fans? She’s a blooming chemist, a
detective, a young girl—and how did you make the part of her being so young work so well in
the books? Other people might discredit a novel based on the age of the character.
AB: I’ve heard that criticism, and all I can say is “Barn-liquorice!”Anyone who underestimates the intelligence of an eleven-year-old girl is living with their eyes and ears glued shut. Some of the most brilliant individuals I’ve ever met have been eleven-year-old girls. Any girl of that age – or boy, for that matter - possesses naturally all the attributes required of a great detective: intelligence, keenness, curiosity, acute senses, and the great advantage of being completely invisible to adults – if she or he wishes: and Flavia does.
MT: Looking back on the series so far, what was your favourite book to write? Did you always
have the mysteries and the books mapped out or do you think on them and write as it come to
you? Either way, you do it fast—sometimes, you put out a book a year!
AB: As above, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was the most consuming, partly because of the amount of research required and partly because I was a mystery neophyte. I knew about halfway through that there was a much longer story in progress: that I could not possibly squeeze it all into one book. At first, I thought there would be three volumes…then six…then ten. I’ve just completed the tenth, and Flavia still wakes me up in the middle of the night with strange snippets and intriguing insights.
MT: What is the greatest writing advice—editing, revising, writing—that you’ve ever received
and how do you think it changed the way you write? Would you mind sharing it with our
AB: These elements are all equally important. I revise constantly as I write: a word here, a paragraph there, mostly the recasting of sentences to make them more graceful; to force them to flow more gracefully. Over the years, I’ve received many bits of writing advice from professionals, but the one which sticks forever in my mind was given me by the Governor General’s Award-winning poet, Anne Szumigalski, who once told me: “Just because it happened doesn’t mean you have to put it in.” Over the years, she saved me more grief than I knew. Bless you, Anne!
MT: Do you think you’ll have a set number of books for the series? How many mysteries will
Flavia solve before the series is over? And do you think the ending will be big and epic?
AB: I don’t think that Flavia or I will ever run out of ideas. She’s whispering to me even as we speak. Like life, I don’t think we can never know the ending. The great thing is not to worry about it and enjoy what we have and what we have done.
MT: The Grave’s a Fine and Private Placeis the most recent Flavia book. Do you mind
telling us about this book, and after almost ten Flavia books, how you feel you writing has
changed, Flavia has changed, and maybe even your life has changed?
: The tenth book, The Golden Tresses of the Dead, will be published in January. Having now written nearly a million words of the series, I’m beginning to feel I’m getting the hang of it. My wife, whose opinion I treasure, tells me that I’m a better writer than I was ten years ago. “Gee, thanks!” I think, but I know she means it honestly. My life has certainly changed since I sat down to write that first book: it couldn’t be more different. The main difference? The lovely people I’ve met.
MT: Can you tease us with what your next book will be about? Where will we find Flavia next?
AB: The Golden Tresses of the Dead (January, 2019) brings us (at last!) to sister Feely’s wedding day. As expected, there’s much ado in the village of Bishop’s Lacey as a corpse – or at least parts of one – turn up at the wedding feast. Before you can say “Pass me the poison”, Flavia and Dogger are on the case.
MT: Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with us, Alan. It was more than a pleasure, and we
at Writer Tell All as well as a lot of our readers are big fans. Please do let us know if you have
any thoughts or lingering comments you’d like to get out! Thank you again!
AB: Thanks, Matthew, for the opportunity to talk about Flavia. She is quite chuffed to think that she’s going to be mentioned on Writers Tell All. Our best regards to readers near and far.