Alan Bradley discusses his first book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
- the first of six planned books set in England in the 1950s to feature
11-year-old sleuth Flavia de Luce
With the publication of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, you've
become a 70-year-old-first time novelist. Have you always had a passion for
writingor is it more of a recent development?
Well, the Roman author Seneca once said something like this: "Hang on to
your youthful enthusiasms you'll be able to use them better when you're
older." So to put it briefly, I'm taking his advice.
I actually spent most of my life working on the technical side of television
production, but would like to think that I've always been a writer. I started
writing a novel at age five, and have written articles for various publications
all my life. It wasn't until my early retirement, though, that I started writing
books. I published my memoir, The Shoebox Bible, in 2004, and then
started working on a mystery about a reporter in England. It was during the
writing of this story that I stumbled across Flavia de Luce, the main character
Flavia certainly is an interesting character. How did you come up with such a
forceful, precocious and entertaining personality?
Flavia walked onto the page of another book I was writing, and simply hijacked
the story. I was actually well into this other book - about three or four
chapters - and as I introduced a main character, a detective, there was a point
where he was required to go to a country house and interview this colonel.
I got him up to the driveway and there was this girl sitting on a camp stool
doing something with a notebook and a pencil and he stopped and asked her what
she was doing and she said "writing down license number plates" and he said
"well there can't be many in such a place" and she said, "well I have yours,
don't I? " I came to a stop. I had no idea who this girl was and where she came
She just materialized. I can't take any credit for Flavia at all. I've never had
a character who came that much to life. I've had characters that tend to tell
you what to do, but Flavia grabbed the controls on page one. She sprung
full-blown with all of her attributes her passion for poison, her father and
his history all in one package. It surprised me.
There aren't many adult books that feature child narrators. Why did you want
Flavia to be the voice of this novel?
People probably wonder, "What's a 70-year-old-man doing writing about an
11-year-old-girl in 1950's England? " And it's a fair question. To me, Flavia
embodies that kind of hotly burning flame of our young years: that time of our
lives when we're just starting out, when anything absolutely anything! is
within our capabilities.
I think the reason that she manifested herself as a young girl is that I
realized that it would really be a lot of fun to have somebody who was virtually
invisible in a village. And of course, we don't listen to what children
saythey're always asking questions, and nobody pays the slightest attention or
thinks for a minute that they're going to do anything with the information that
they let slip. I wanted Flavia to take great advantage of that. I was also
intrigued by the possibilities of dealing with an unreliable narrator; one whose
motives were not always on the up-and-up.
She is an amalgam of burning enthusiasm, curiosity, energy, youthful idealism,
and frightening fearlessness. She's also a very real menace to anyone who
thwarts her, but fortunately, they don't generally realize it.
Like Flavia, you were also 11 years old in 1950. Is there anything
autobiographical about her character?
A: Somebody pointed out the fact that both Flavia and I lacked a parent. But
I wasn't aware of this connection during the writing of the book. It simply
didn't cross my mind. It is true that I grew up in a home with only one parent,
and I was allowed to run pretty well free, to do the kinds of things I wanted.
And I did have extremely intense interests thenthings that you get focused on.
When you're that age, you sometimes have a great enthusiasm that is very deep
and very narrow, and that is something that has always intrigued methat world
of the 11-year-old that is so quickly lost.
Your story evokes such a vivid setting. Had you spent much time in the
British countryside before writing this book?
My first trip to England didn't come until I went to London to receive the
2007 Debut Dagger Award, so I had never even stepped foot in the country at the
time of writing Sweetness. But I have always loved England. My mother was
born there. And Ive always felt I grew up in a very English household. I had
always wanted to go and had dreamed for many years of doing so.
When I finally made it there, the England that I was seeing with my eyes was
quite unlike the England I had imagined, and yet it was the same. I realized
that the differences were precisely those differences between real life, and the
simulation of real life, that we create in our detective novels. So this was an
opportunity to create on the page this England that had been in my head my whole
You have five more books lined up in this series, all coming from Delacorte
Press. Will Flavia age as the series goes on?
A bit, not very much. I think she's going to remain in the same age bracket.
I don't really like the idea of Flavia as an older teenager. At her current age,
she is such a concoction of contradictions. It's one of the things that I very
much love about her. She's eleven but she has the wisdom of an adult. She knows
everything about chemistry but nothing about family relationships.
I don't think she'd be the same person if she were a few years older. She
certainly wouldn't have access to the drawing rooms of the village.
Do you have a sense of what the next books in the series will be about?
The second book, The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, is
finished, and I'm working on the third book. I have a general idea of what's
happening in each one of the books, because I wanted to focus on some bygone
aspect of British life that was still there in the '50s but has now vanished. So
we have postage stamps in the first one
. The second book is about the
travelling puppet shows on the village green. And one of them is about
filmmakingit sort of harks back to the days of the classic Ealing comedies with
Alec Guinness and so forth.
Not every author garners such immediate success with a first novel. After
only completing 15 pages of Sweetness, you won the Dagger award and
within 8 days had secured book deals in 3 countries. You've since secured 19
countries. Enthusiasm continues to grow from every angle. How does it feel?
It's like being in the glow of a fire. You hope you won't get burned. I'm not
sure how much I've realized it yet. I guess I can say I'm "almost
overwhelmed"I'm not quite overwhelmed, but I'm getting there. Every day has
something new happening, and communications pouring in from people all over. The
book has been receiving wonderful reviews and touching people. But Flavia has
been touching something in people that generates a response from the heart, and
the most often mentioned word in the reviews is lovehow much people love Flavia
and have taken her in as if she's a long-lost member of their family, which is
certainly very, very gratifying.