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 in Sweetness.
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 from.
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 life.
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.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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