How many 70-year-olds can also claim the title of best-selling debut novelist? We know of at least one: Canadian author Alan Bradley, whose first novel (after two nonfiction projects), The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, became a word-of-mouth hit in early 2009. Set in Britain just after World War II and starring Flavia de Luce, a fiercely intelligent 11-year-old with a talent for chemistry and a nose for mystery, the book was nominated for a handful of awards—and won the hearts of more than a handful of readers. Now Bradley has released the second Flavia de Luce mystery, The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag. This time, Flavia is investigating the murder of a traveling puppeteer whose death might drag a skeleton from the closet of her small English community.
We contacted Bradley, who now lives in Malta with his family, to find out more about the series, his inspiration for Flavia and the many reasons women make better detectives than men.
You’ve said that Flavia just showed up while you were writing a different novel and “hijacked the book.” What was it about her that fired up your imagination? Do children like Flavia still exist today?
I loved Flavia’s undimmed enthusiasm: that powerful sense of self that 11-year-olds can sometimes have. That and the intense focus. I believe that children of that caliber haven’t changed at all over the years, because they tend to be not much influenced by outside demands upon their attention.
At 71 years old, did you ever worry about finding the voice of an 11-year-old girl?
No. There must be a lot of the 11-year-old Alan Bradley left inside me!
Growing up in Canada in the 1950s, was your childhood in any way similar to Flavia’s?
I suppose it was, in the sense that, as a child, I was left alone a lot. And I like to think that I had that kind of burning enthusiasm. My passion was lenses and mirrors—I loved to play with light.
You had never been to England before writing the first Flavia de Luce book—how did you create such an evocative setting?
I grew up in a family of English expatriates who never stopped talking about “back home.” Books about England have always been a favorite read—I have a wonderful collection of them!
Flavia knows a good deal more about science than your average tween—it’s how she makes sense of the world. Was this an interest of yours already, or did you have to study to write the book? Why did you choose chemistry as Flavia’s obsession?
I chose chemistry because it is a subject about which I know absolutely nothing. As I’ve said before, Flavia knows everything there is to be known about chemistry, while what I know about it could be put in a thimble with room left over for a finger. I’m learning, though! I’ve actually come to love poring over ancient chemistry books.
Rights to the first Flavia de Luce novel have been sold in several countries. Which cover is your favorite? How does it feel to be an international success? And do you have any overseas publicity tours planned for book #2?
Rights to the first book in the series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie have been sold in 31 countries, and to The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, in 19, so far. I love all of the covers—but for different reasons. The U.S. edition, from Delacorte Press, set an incredibly high standard to which every other country has aspired. I’ve just seen the Turkish cover today, and it’s breathtaking.
It’s lovely to know that so many readers love Flavia so fiercely. I’ve even heard from a couple of ladies in Washington who have formed The Flavia de Luce Adoration Society!
I often find when I meet Flavia’s fans that we have a lot in common, so it’s extremely gratifying to know that she’s being welcomed into such compatible company.
Besides the upcoming tour of Canada and the U.S., I’ll be visiting London in April, with two trips to Germany planned for later in the year.
You are also the co-author of Ms. Holmes of Baker Street, a book that presents the hypothesis that Sherlock Holmes was a woman. Do you think women are better suited to detection than men?
Yes. I’m surprised that no one’s ever spotted that before. Women are equipped by nature for the task: for example they have a better sense of smell, hearing, touch and taste than men. What is remarkable in a man is commonplace in a woman: it’s sometimes called “intuition,” but it’s really a kind of secret brain power. If more detectives were women there’d be fewer unsolved crimes.
You’ve planned six Flavia novels—without giving away too much, how do you see the character changing over the course of the series? How has she changed between books 1 and 2?
Since book two takes place barely a month after the first, there’s not a lot of change in Flavia. But she’s definitely growing up as she learns more and more about her place in the world. And it’s not all pleasant.
What books did you enjoy as a child?
I was an early reader. My two older sisters taught me to read before I went to Kindergarten, and once I’d worked my way through Huckleberry Finn and the set of Mark Twain books my mother owned, I read anything I could lay my hands on. One of my sisters had a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses. I didn’t understand it, but I loved the words. After Ulysses, Dick & Jane were crashing bores.
What mystery writers influenced you?
Dorothy L. Sayers, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie—also, many of the mystery novelists who were writing during the 1960’s and ‘70’s, such as Laurence Meynell, Peter Lovesey, Catherine Aird—the list goes on and on.
What’s next for Flavia?
I’m currently working on book three, which is called A Red Herring Without Mustard. I can’t say much about it except that a Gypsy caravan is involved and that Flavia stumbles upon a particularly gruesome murder. I love that word, “gruesome”—don’t you?
Alan Bradley’s website