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…
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.”
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 night’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.
He 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 listen 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.”
When asked by audience members whether he always knows the ending of his novels early on, Bradley smiled, saying that 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).
But 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 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.
- The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
- The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag
- A Red Herring without Mustard
- I Am Half Sick of Shadows
- Speaking from Among the Bones
- The Dead in their Vaulted Arches
- 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.
- The Curious case of the Copper Corpse (a short e-book)