The Georgia Straight caught up with 70-year-old first-time novelist Alan Bradley at his Kelowna home, for a wide-ranging discussion of the skyrocketing success of his new mystery tale, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and the nature of its brash young detective, Flavia de Luce.
With Sweetness being translated into 13 languages and a six-book-series deal secured with a major publisher, Bradley talked about the future adventures he’s planning for Flavia. He also described his lifelong fascination with all things English, and offered advice for aspiring authors in their later years.
Georgia Straight: The book seems to be rolling along, doesn’t it?
Alan Bradley: It’s just been getting absolutely overwhelming response from around the world.
GS: Does this still come as a shock? Do you find you have to keep all this in the background?
AB: Yeah, I’m not sure how much I’ve realized it yet. I guess I can say “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 just receiving wonderful reviews and touching people. The publisher in London”¦was telling me that they’ve never quite ever had this kind of response with a book before. Detective fiction usually results in a very cerebral review that has to do with the structure of the book or the puzzle or the crime, or something of that nature. 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 love—how 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.
GS: She’s a vivid character. Was there an advantage to making your protagonist a girl instead of a boy—to writing across the gender line in that way?
AB: I think there is. It’s certainly time that we had a female protagonist in a series of detective novels, as I’ve said before. There were a number of things about Flavia that I wanted, and I think the reason that she manifested herself as an 11-year-old 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 say—they’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. And I wanted Flavia to take great advantage of that. I also thought it would be equally fun to have an unreliable narrator. That was the starting point. But”¦I really had no idea what she was going to be like. I didn’t realize how strong she was going to be. And I think that is an advantage. She has a lot of flipsides—her knowledge of chemistry, for example, is very intense, but her knowledge of other things, like sex or relationships between people, is very much lacking. I think that makes her dimensional, because she not only has attributes but she’s also lacking attributes”¦.I really couldn’t imagine Flavia at all other than as a girl. I just couldn’t envision another character who could stand in and have that same personality, that same combination of wild talents.
GS: As a narrator, Flavia is extremely well-spoken for an 11-year-old, yet she still comes off as a child.
AB: There’s a niche of novels that have somewhat precocious and observant narrators, and I’ve cited To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn. And I think I’m walking the same tightrope that those authors did—that it’s a very, very fine balance between voice and credibility. And it seems to me—or at least people are telling me—that it works very well, and I certainly wouldn’t want to make Flavia older than that, because a lot of the appeal is simply the fact that she is 11.
GS: Will Flavia age as the series goes on?
AB: 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. I don’t think she’d be the same person at all. She certainly wouldn’t have access to the drawing rooms of the village if she were older.
GS: Her social role would change totally.
AB: Yes.”¦I was very excited about having a character who could go anywhere. She could go to the village blacksmith and pump him for information. She could go to the doctor and pump him for information. And she could go to the chemist and pump him for information—and people would give this quite freely to an 11-year-old. And she’s able to capitalize on that, because they think she’s no more than a village innocent.
GS: She’s no threat to them.
AB: No, none whatsoever. They never give her a second thought. They’re quite open in front of her, and I like that. I think that’s a great way for Flavia to manifest herself as sort of an invisible presence.
GS: Given that you were, like Flavia, 11 years old in 1950, is there anything autobiographical about her character?
AB: Somebody pointed out or asked the question if the fact that Flavia was lacking a parent had struck me as something that I had in common. And I said that I wasn’t aware of it during the writing of the book. It was something that simply didn’t cross my mind. But it is true that I did grow up in a home that was lacking a 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 then—things that you get focused on. When you’re that age, you sometimes have a great burning enthusiasm that is very deep and very narrow, and that is something that has always intrigued me—that world of the 11-year-old that is so quickly lost.
GS: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you’d never been to the U.K. before you went there in 2007 to pick up your Crime Writers’ Association award for an initial excerpt of Sweetness. This is surprising to hear, considering how much detail you give to the English town where the book is set, and to the surrounding geography. It must have been a challenge.
AB: I’ve always had this rather idealized England in my mind, I think, just from growing up in a household that was full of British books and magazines, and family who talked about back home. Although they had been in Canada a long time, they still talked about their days back in England. I think I just developed a deep love of British literature and geography and history and peculiarities. I’ve always been drawn to some of the secret things that are in England—not always visible, things that are underground. It was kind of way of exploring this. I’ve called it my own private England that I’ve generated in my mind. It was unusual to be there and overlay the vision on the reality”¦It was almost like putting on 3D glasses, where they suddenly snapped into register. And the England that I was seeing when I was there maybe wasn’t the real England as it is. It was England seen through the glasses of my imagination.
GS: There’s many hints in the book of the sort of trauma that was everywhere in postwar Britain—particularly in the character of Dogger [a handyman employed by Flavia’s family], but elsewhere, too. I wondered if that’s why Flavia seems so thick-skinned in some ways.
AB: That’s a point—it may be. The war had a huge effect. We haven’t said that the demise of Buckshaw [Flavia’s home] is because of the war, but it certainly had an effect on it, and, as you say, on Dogger, and on Flavia’s father, who has seen very, very difficult military service. And none of them can discuss it—it’s a closed book. That was often the case. And we’re going to hear more about that in other books. The series now has just sold six books. I’m still bemused by this—my agent”¦in Toronto is telling me that this is absolutely unheard of—that a publisher would buy six books before the first one is published.
GS: What’s the enduring appeal of the mystery genre, then?
AB: It’s an escape, and people are turning to that. I wasn’t aware while I was writing The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie that the timing was going to be so good. The publication came at the time of a great downturn, and things being shaken up with the financial crisis. People just want to get away from this constant, constant grinding that they see on television. And I think it had occurred to me that 1950s England is certainly idyllic, or seems idyllic, and that people would like to relax for a couple of hours in that kind of setting, where they don’t have all of the threats that we have whenever we go out of doors now—you’re exposed to all kinds of threatening things. So I think some of the response is because of that—that people feel comfortable in [the fictional village of] Bishop’s Lacey in 1950. And I think they feel comfortable in Flavia’s presence. They tend to enjoy watching her discover the world and discover chemistry through her eyes, because she’s so what they used to call “gung-ho” about it.
GS: You’ve had a long career as a writer. Is this your first experience with this kind of relationship with a character?
AB: Absolutely. I haven’t written very much fiction, really, so it’s a new thing. I’ve written short stories, but nothing of any length that a character came that much to life. I’ve had characters that tend to tell you what to do, but Flavia grabbed the controls on Page 1. All I can do is just put down what’s coming to me. I can tell when it’s Alan Bradley writing and not Flavia, if I push it too hard.
GS: At the moment of writing, or when you go back later on to read it?
AB: No, when I’m writing, when I’m actually working. If I’m distracted or have something else on my mind I suddenly discover that it’s me that wrote the last paragraph—it’s me talking, and not Flavia’s voice, and I have to stop and go back and say, “Okay, let’s hear it from Flavia.” And it will be completely different from what I’ve written—not only the choice of words but the whole response to what’s happening will be different when it’s Flavia responding and not me responding.
GS: Given those surprises, how fully sketched out are the subsequent books? Or do you have to wait to see where she takes you?
AB: In the smaller details, I suppose that would happen. But the second book is finished and delivered to the publisher, and I’m working on the third book. And 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 filmmaking—it sort of harks back to the days of the classic Ealing comedies with Alec Guinness and so forth. And there’s one book that’s centred on the [Bishop’s Lacey] church, which is the fifth book in the series. It’s going to talk more about the history of the church and the saint that’s buried there—St. Tancred. They’re going to exhume his bones, and of course in a detective novel you know full well what’s going to happen.
GS: A lot of the press you’ve received so far has focused on the fact that all this is coming at a point when you’re 70 years old. Do you feel like you’re a model for people who are hoping to have a hit and haven’t had one yet?
AB: Actually, nobody has asked me that, believe it or not. I have heard from people who are writers in their 60s and 70s, and they tell me they’ve been greatly inspired by this. And it’s something that I would like to say to people who are out there writing—“Yes, go for it. Don’t give up.” I think that 99 percent of success is keeping at it. And there are so many good writers in Canada, so many. It’s difficult for them, especially now, with the publishing business in this particular climate—it’s very bad. And I really would love to see it sort of set a trend. I’d love to see other people of my age develop a character and have it published and have it take off in the way that this has. It would be just stupendous.