Alan Bradley is the New York Times bestselling author of THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE and recipient of the Dagger Award in 2007.
This interview contains some spoilers, though I have tried to avoid significant spoilers.
Hello, it’s a delight to have an opportunity to interview you for www.talesuntangled.wordpress.com.
I originally discovered Flavia in I AM HALF-SICK OF SHADOWS and loved her for her clever mind and perspective on the world. I had to go back and start the series from the beginning with THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE because I didn’t want to miss a moment of the undaunted, poison mistress – Miss Flavia.
I’ve always thought characters make or break a novel. I love the fact that you are a mature man writing a young female character as the protagonist. Can you share with us how you developed Flavia?
It’s a strange story all round. As I was writing an entirely different mystery novel, Flavia appeared on the page as if from nowhere, and demanded attention. I did not consciously create her, and cannot take any credit whatsoever for her coming to life. I can only presume that she was lying in wait for years waiting for someone with a pen, or a pencil, or a keyboard to come along.
The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, the second novel.
That gives hope to me that there are other amazing characters out there ready to be discovered!
I’m also fascinated with your other characters like Flavia’s father, and her surrogate father, Dogger. They are complex and I can feel their backstory pushing to get on the page. I’m rooting for Dogger to have a love interest in the future – there was a hint in THE GRAVE’S A FINE AND QUIET PLACE that he has loved in the past. How do you decide how much of their backstory to include?
I merely eavesdrop on Flavia’s conversations with Dogger. I am always aware in their scenes together that I must keep very still and listen attentively. It’s like snooping on strangers at a railway station.
How fortunate that you are such a skilled eavesdropper! I’m sure it’s a talent many authors wish to acquire.
Another reason I believe your series resonates with readers is the unvarnished relationship between sisters. The deadliest of enemies, and friends at times.
When the house was willed to Flavia, I gasped, unable to imagine how her sisters would react. How do you find a balance between their vicious attacks on one another and still have them care for each other as siblings? Did you have character models from real life? (If so, that may be a question best left alone!)
Someone pointed out early in the series that I had two sisters precisely the same number of years older as Flavia does. Coincidence? Ridiculous! But I’ve always been aware that intense cruelty and intense love can and do co-exist.
After reading your series, I’ve wondered if I was better off with only my brother as a sibling! Even so, he was probably grateful not to have a sister interested in poisons.
After a career in television broadcasting, visual story-telling must have come naturally to you as a writer. When did you decide it was time to start writing? Had you always wanted to write novels?
My television career was devoted to electronic systems: the cameras, recorders and millions of miles of wiring beneath the floor; the anatomy of TV, if you like. Still, I was always keenly interested in the stories taking place in front of, and behind, the lenses, and was sometimes even asked to step across the line and consult on scripts, etc. As a very early reader, I was always devoted to literature, and began writing my first novel at about five years of age. It didn’t come to much. In later years, I published assorted children’s stories and newspaper articles, but didn’t take up the art of the novel until taking early retirement.
You are masterful at plot development, and slowly revealing clues to the readers. Do you have a method to make each book blossom so effortlessly? How do you choose your red herrings? I’m always so engrossed in the story I never realize you’ve sent me on a false path. I love being surprised by a book!
A Red Herring Without Mustard, the third book in the series.
I begin each novel with only a general idea of the main theme or setting, and launch into the actual writing with no other plans. As with Flavia, I let the characters materialise and walk onto the page by themselves. The red herrings appear spontaneously, arising naturally out of the story. I am always happily surprised as each new twist reveals itself. I realise that this is the complete mirror-image of how most writers tackle about a book, but it works for me. Charts and graphs and lists of plot points and scenes would drive me gaga.
Your titles tickle me – they add the whimsy inherent to Flavia even though the story always revolves around murder. I love the moment when I see the reference for the title. I can only imagine the research needed for the titles. My kudos also go to the illustrator of the jacket covers.
In the most recent installment, THE GRAVE’S A FINE AND QUIET PLACE, there is a moment when I laughed for five minutes. Dogger has just explained to Flavia the chemical reactions within a body, due to exertion, in great detail. Flavia responds, she had never had such a simple explanation before and now it all made sense to her.
Before reading your books I never liked chemistry. It would seem you have an extensive background in chemistry, or are all the references also the work of laborious research?
The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse is a short story and number 6 1/2 in the series. You won’t want to miss the information on chemistry in this one, though not an experiment you would want to try at home! It’s currently only .99 and worth more than its weight in copper pennies.
As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, the seventh book, takes place in Canada while Flavia is sent to a boarding school.
Thrice the Brindled Cat Hath Mewed, the eighth book, where Flavia returns to England to discover her father is seriously ill.
I know nothing whatsoever about chemistry. In school, I frittered away my chemistry classes by reading Steinbeck, largely ignored by the teachers. Flavia, on the other hand, knows everything about the subject that can be known. If I dare say, “Gee, Flavia, I don’t know if that’s actually possible,” she snaps her fingers and says, “You can look it up in your spare time.” Maddeningly, she is always right. I don’t pretend to understand this process. Actually, the most recently published book is “The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place”, and the one before that, “Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d”.
I’m glad to hear that Flavia made you laugh. She makes me laugh, too – especially when she rhapsodises about corpses and churchyards. My wife says she can always tell when Flavia has done or said something outrageous because she can hear me laughing in the next room.
The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place is the ninth book in the series and Flavia is in true form solving mysteries that have layers of deception!
Do you have a secret for your success? The publishing industry is known for being cut-throat, what is your advice for unpublished authors?
Write the best prose of which you are capable. Keep personal seat applied to chair seat. Write. Never give up. As somebody wisely said, it takes ten thousand hours.
I’m hoping for another Flavia de Luce mystery, but I would read anything you write at this point. What upcoming projects do you have?
Alan Bradley: Flavia will next appear in February 2019 in “The Golden Tresses of the Dead”. I’ve just handed the manuscript to my publishers in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.
The Golden Tresses of the Dead can be ordered on Amazon to see how a finger in the wedding cake is only the beginning!
I can hardly wait for the next book!
Thank you for sharing your insights with me today.
Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts, Michelle. I’ll be looking forward to appearing on Tales Untangled, which is a great title by the way!
You are too kind! Keep in touch!
To follow Alan Bradley you can find him at http://alanbradleyauthor.com/