WHAT WOULD FLAVIA THINK? (Alan Bradley comes to town!)

It was a cold night, almost unearthly so, as the library patrons shuffled in, many refusing to remove their boots before slipping their feet into what were surely swimming pool blue shower caps masquerading as slippers…

ps130909-13-alan-bradleyOops! Sorry! I got a bit carried away there, which is understandable considering the delightful, whimsical evening I spent yesterday at the Library in the company of Alan Bradley. What a treat!

For those who may have forgotten his name, Alan Bradley is the writer/creator of the Flavia de Luce murder mystery series. And if you didn’t know Flavia’s name, remember it too: Flavia (pronounced “Flay-via”, I found that out last night, to my embarrassment) is the 11 year-old self-taught chemist and master detective, described just recently by Brian Bethune in Maclean’s as:

“[…] perhaps contemporary crime fiction’s most original character―to say she is Pippi Longstocking with a Ph.D. in chemistry (speciality: poisons) barely begins to describe her.”

0385665822.01.LZZZZZZZWhich is certainly true, though I’m also sure that Bradley would be very happy with this succinct portrait of the girl who changed his life.

In any event, she will also soon become an even greater celebrity, as producer-director Sam Mendes (through Shingle Productions, also responsible for the Call the Midwife series) has optioned the rights to Bradley’s mysteries.

But last evening with Alan Bradley was less about the future than it was about the special place Flavia occupies in the author’s imagination, heart and family (though three more Flavia novels are planned, and Bradley is thrilled with the prospect of Flavia wreaking havoc on our TV screens).

Like many tales of conception, Flavia’s birth was unplanned, according to her creator. Relaxed and smiling, Bradley explained to last 0385665849.01.LZZZZZZZnight’s crowd that Flavia first appeared unbidden in a scene from a novel he had begun writing shortly after his retirement.

His original plan had been to write about  the adventures of a young woman who worked for the CBC in the 1950’s, a period following in the footsteps of the Golden Age of detective fiction. It’s while struggling with a scene in one of the early chapters of this book that Flavia first materialized (POP!) sitting against a wall.

According to Bradley, though at the time he was tempted to discard her, Flavia would have none of it, and kept resurfacing in his mind until he was forced to concede that though he knew absolutely nothing about who she was, or even what her name was,  she was a force to be reckoned with, and here to stay.

1410434249.01.LZZZZZZZHe went on to explain that it took him three months to name her, saying that it felt  “like trying to guess Rumpelstiltskin” (yes, he’s as funny as Flavia), but that “once she started talking…”  all he really had to do is “learn to 0385668090.01.LZZZZZZZlisten and to shut up”.

It may all sound ridiculously modest of the author to speak this way about an extraordinary figment of his own imagination, but Bradley was not being disingenuous. Rather, he was expressing the idiosyncratic workings of creative inspiration.

In a brilliant film titled  Glass :  A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts, there is a scene where composer Philips Glass is asked about the source of his inspiration as a composer: I remember that Glass’ disarming response was something like: I’m just tapping into the stream of music that’s already there, that already exists: I can hear it.”

0385668147.01.LZZZZZZZAnd so I found it completely believable and even thrilling to hear Bradley explain how he simply attempts to “reach in and grab literary characters who are already fully formed.”

When asked by audience members whether he always knows the ending of his novels early on, Bradley smiled, saying 1410464784.01.LZZZZZZZthat it’s the characters of his novel (or, to be honest, Flavia) who decide what he writes and that he quite frequently gets to the end of a book and finds that WOW!, the murderer isn’t who he thought it was: Flavia has surprised him yet again.

Flavia does, of course, owe some of her identity to the mind that cradled her. Both she and Bradley grew up in single parent homes with two older sisters, and he and she were born a year apart (Flavia in 1939 and Bradley in 1938).

21874813But in stark contrast to Flavia’s genius as a self-taught child chemist, Bradley claims to have been a poor chemistry student, who had to resort to riffling through old chemistry texts from 1901 to help bring Flavia to life.

At evening’s end, it had become clear that Flavia is not so much her creator’s alter ego as she is part of his family. As 81ehCrboK+L._AA1500_he said last evening, speaking for himself and for his wife, with obvious fondness:

“Flavia is like a daughter; we talk about her all the time […] and often wonder: What would Flavia think?”

Here is a list of the 7 novels of the Flavia de Luce series, in chronological order (the titles themselves are marvelous), as well as a very short e-book mentioned by the author yesterday, and several links to articles and to interviews given recently by the author.

  1. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
  2. The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag
  3. A Red Herring without Mustard
  4. I Am Half Sick of Shadows
  5. Speaking from Among the Bones
  6. The Dead in their Vaulted Arches
  7. As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust: In which Flavia leaves the English village of Bishop’s Lacey for the first time, finding herself “banished” in a Canadian boarding school.
  8. The Curious case of the Copper Corpse (a short e-book)

Other links:








7 thoughts on “WHAT WOULD FLAVIA THINK? (Alan Bradley comes to town!)

  1. I agree that we tap into creativity already there. We see it in our mind/soul and watch it, taking a piece for ourselves when we can attain it. When we notice we can take it. Like a gift.

  2. Dear Heather, what a beautiful description of the creative process. How inspiring!

    I can honestly say that this force that you describe contributes enormously to my sense of happiness.
    When we respond to that impulse to create and to express ourselves, we feel a rush of joy and a profound sense of fullness and of satisfaction.

    For a first visit to the COMMENTS section, you’ve really touched me!
    Please come back soon.

  3. Flavia sounds like an interesting ‘n adventurous young girl. I love how a writer creates,develops characters, especially in a series.

    1. Hi Lorraine. 🙂

      It’s true! A great series is made greater because you can keep following the characters you love.

      Most writers of detective novels understand this and I’m pretty sure that for them, too, there is a joy in continuing to develop a character through the years.

      I think of Christie’s Miss Marple, Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus, Henning Mankell’s Wallander, PD James’ Adam Dalgliesh, Michael Connely’s Harry Bosch, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe…

      There’s no end to these kinds of characters who take on a life of their own.

      I do remember, though, that Agatha Christie came to hate Hercule Poirot, and regretted having created such an insufferable character.


      But to me, Flavia de Luce is more like Amelia Peabody than any other fictional character that I can think of. Do you know the Elizabeth Peters series?


      Happy reading Lorraine!

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