Interview with Alan BradleyPosted by Goodreads on January 6, 2015
Six bestselling books later (and director Sam Mendes has optioned the series for film adaptation), Bradley is releasing his seventh Flavia story, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. Readers find the now 12-year-old heroine and chemistry whiz bound for a girl's boarding school in Canada, where she immediately becomes involved in a mysterious murder. Armed with her sharp powers of observation, relentless curiosity, and wry, dark humor, Flavia (rhymes with "brave") cleverly navigates the complex social and scientific maze.
Sitting before a roomwide, floor-to-ceiling stack of bookshelves that hold the many designs and editions of the Flavia novels (published in 39 countries and in 36 languages—"Flavia is huge in Russia"), Bradley talked to interviewer Valli Herman about how his young sleuth found herself immersed in her latest mystery.
Alan Bradley: It was actually a lot of fun, having grown up not very far from Toronto. For the first time in the series I was writing about a place I was really familiar [with]. Toronto in the book was pretty much as it was in 1950 and as I recall it.
GR: Was the idea of sending Flavia to a boarding school percolating for a long time?
AB: I think it was inevitable, because Flavia from the outset has been following in her mother's footsteps and finding out more and more about herself—and at the same time finding out more about her mother. I mention in the very first book, in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, that [her mother], Harriet, had attended Miss Bodycote's, and Flavia was quite familiar with that fact, having rifled through her mother's papers from time to time.
GR: Goodreads member Susie wants to know whether you have a love for chemistry like Flavia. And if so, how did that come about?
AB: I was quite taken aback when Flavia arrived being so enamored of chemistry. If there was one topic she had that I myself would never have chosen to write about, it would be chemistry because of my vast ignorance in that area. I was keen on the guts of TV and radio sets, and high-voltage transmitters and shortwave radios. I gradually realized that Flavia's enthusiasm for chemistry was about the same as mine for electronics.
GR: Your command of the subject is quite convincing. How did you teach yourself the specifics?
AB: I started off by locating, in a secondhand bookstore, an ancient chemistry text from someone's course from around 1911. And I started plowing through it, looking for material. It was very difficult at first because I didn't understand the terminology. Chemistry in 1911 was vastly different from chemistry nowadays. And Flavia does her work in a lab from her Uncle Tarquin, and he died in 1928, and all the texts in the library are going to be quite out of date. So Flavia's chemistry is quite old-fashioned. She uses phrases and experiments that might have been 40 years before her time. She is firmly footed in the past.
There is no doubt that 90 percent of a Flavia book is research. It takes huge amounts of time to sift through material and come up with appropriate chemistry scenarios. I don't claim credit for that.
GR: What do you mean that you can't claim credit for them?
AB: There are spooky things that happen when I am writing. Sometimes in the middle of a page, she will suggest doing something. In the first book or two, I would be saying, "Come on, Flavia. I don't think you can do that—that doesn't sound possible at all." I found I was contorting her thought process. But when I followed through on her research, I found she was quite often right in the things she would do.
All of those cases where Flavia comes up with some wonderful solution came from Flavia. They did not come from me because I don't have that kind of mind or knowledge. That is the magic. And when I check it out, it turns out to be absolutely possible.
GR: So Flavia speaks to you, or through you?
AB: You become quite passive. It's a different instinct. I learn to restrain my ego a lot. I learn not to overrule Flavia and just listen. The writing process has become far more of a listening experience than writing.
GR: So is the process a little like channeling someone?
AB: Unlike with channeling, she is not dead. But it is probably a similar process to that in that you listen internally to what the character is saying. I very seldom try to overrule her. I think it only happened twice over the seven books. My wife had read the manuscripts and said, "Oh, you can't do that." Invariably in each one of those two cases, when I've seen that she was right, I realized that it was me; I was losing Flavia a little.
GR: Do you have a routine that helps you create Flavia?
AB: It's a fairly simple process. I like to start very early, about 4:30 in the morning. And there is quite an interesting story behind that. When I was writing the first Flavia book, we were living in British Columbia and were on Pacific Standard Time. I found during the writing of the book that usually when I was full of energy and ready to write, Flavia was wanting to sleep. But when she was full of energy, it was bedtime to me. I realized that there was a nine-hour time difference between us. Once I realized that, we negotiated some kind of happy medium. When it was 4:30 in the morning for me, it would be 1 or 2 in the afternoon for her. Then we would be good for four or five hours. After a while, she would start getting tired because it was bedtime in England, and I was just getting into the swing of the day.
Now we live in the same time zone, but we still start at 4:30 in the morning because we have become accustomed to that.
GR: A number of writers say that they like to write very early in the morning. How is it for you?
AB: I think you are probably more in touch with your subconscious when you first wake up. The censorship part of your brain isn't as active as it is later. The heaviest part of my writing is from 4:30 to 8 or 9 or 10. I sometimes go back later in the afternoon to edit a little bit, to look at what we've done for the day. Then you are finished for the day quite early, and you can go around and feel self-righteous.
GR: You use the term "we" in describing your writing process? So it is both of you?
AB: We are not the same person, but we enjoy each other's company. I am always telling people what a joy it is to be sneaking around with Flavia and listening in on her conversations. It really makes her come alive. She is very real. My wife speaks of her as being one of our children. She is very much present in our lives. Every day seems to be very much occupied with a Flavia book contract, emails from readers, or research for the next book. The entire day seems to revolve around Flavia.
AB: What a tough question! [English crime writer] Dorothy Sayers's novels were put into my hands at a very young age. There is also the blessing that I was a very early reader. My sisters taught me to read before I went to kindergarten so they wouldn't have to entertain me. So by the time I got to school, I was reading some things quite racy.
I used to let my eyes pore over...James Joyce's Ulysses. I didn't understand it, but I absolutely adored the words in it. I still keep a copy of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake on my bedside table. If I wake up and don't feel like sleeping, I can make a long arm...and seize one of James Joyce's masterpieces and open it anywhere and enjoy the words. I like nonsense and surrealism in writng. It's a very fun and underestimated thing to connect with readers on the fringes of communication. I also love Lewis Carroll for the language.
I have been having an email correspondence with a chap in Colorado. We have been comparing notes about what we have read over the years since we were teenagers working together in a little radio station in Colorado. We settled on some of the same books: One is Thomas Berger's Little Big Man. And another is Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.
GR: What are you reading now?
Shakespeare. But one of my very bad habits is that I tend to read about 10 or 12 books at the same time.
I have been reading Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. I'm rereading the first Hornblower book by C.S. Forester. I love seagoing tales. And Patrick O Brian's novels. I very, very much admire his series about Jack Aubrey, the daring sea captain. My wife and I binge read them.
GR: Goodreads member Lindsay asks why you choose the 1950s as your setting.
AB: I had read a lot about the 1950s...when I was about the same age as Flavia. And I grew up in southern Ontario in a household of British expats whose frequent topic of conversation was England. My grandmother's house was always overflowing with issues of English magazines. I probably read tens of thousands of magazines from the 1950s and absorbed it all. There also was a time when I went to the library three or four times a week and picked up anything about England. It didn't matter—English costumes, glass manufacturing, geology, memoirs, the history of English magicians. As long as it was English, I would read through all of that. I think Flavia is the payoff for a half century of gorging myself.
Interview by Valli Herman for Goodreads. Herman is a Los Angeles-based writer who is very likely reading several books at once, stacked all over the house. She is a veteran journalist who has held fancy staff positions at the Los Angeles Times, The Dallas Morning News, and other notable places too numerous to mention. A traveler, writer, cook, mom, and knowledge-seeker, she's quite comfortable in libraries and anywhere there are books.
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