Friday, June 05, 2009
Alan Bradley at The Poisoned Pen
Alan Bradley, author of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, only visited bookstores in two cities on this U.S. tour, Houston and Scottsdale, so fans were lucky to get to meet him at The Poisoned Pen Bookstore. Within a short time, Barbara Peters' interview with Alan Bradley will be posted on their website so everyone will have the chance to listen to him. It's only in hearing Alan Bradley talk that his humor and storytelling skills come across. Until the interview is online, my summary of his appearance will have to suffice.
Alan Bradley, winner of the 2007 Debut Dagger Award, told how his entry came about, thanks to another Canadian author, Louise Penny. Bradley's wife is a quilter. She was quilting, and listening to CBC Radio, when she heard Louise Penny talk about how her first book, Still Life, was shortlisted for the Debut Dagger, and she referred to the website describing the Dagger. Bradley's wife wrote down the information, gave it to him and told him to do it. He entered the first fourteen pages, the first chapter of the manuscript that would become The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. The story was set in England, although Bradley had never been to England. His family came to Canada from there.
When Bradley won the Debut Dagger, his book sold in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Then, within seven days, it became a three book series. Bradley decided he had to write the book then. It took him nine months to write the book, getting up many mornings to write at 4 a.m. Everyone was delighted when he delivered The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, so they told him to go for all six books he had planned for the series. It's now been published in thirteen countries.
Alan Bradley had published before this book. He had written short stories, and nonfiction. But, he also wrote a book with a friend, Bill Sargeant, Ms. Holmes of Baker Street. Rex Stout once made a presentation to the Baker Street Irregulars, "Watson Was a Woman." As controversial as Stout's article. Bradley and Sargeant's ultimate heresy was saying Holmes was a woman, not Watson. In order to support their theory, they read all 75 Holmes stories, and then took ten years to write the book. As they got into it, they began to believe their own theory. Bradley said Holmes' peculiar characteristics were feminine traits; a wonderful sense of touch, smell, intuition. Any woman has those qualities. They published it, and prepared for the controversy. After appearing on a show to present their theory, they went to a supermarket, where the two men were attacked by an elderly woman with an umbrella.
According to Bradley, Conan Doyle was the archetypal Victorian gentleman. He did everything well. He was a sportsman, a doctor, a whaler. There was nothing he couldn't do. But, all of his dearest friends were women. He was absolutely faithful to his invalid wife, and women trusted him. When he came to create Holmes, the remarkable detective, he put together aspects from different friends, and they were all traits that came from women. To this day, Alan said he believes that is the basic structure of Holmes.
Barbara Peters mentioned that readers of the genius detectives, Holmes and Nero Wolfe, would be in awe of them, so they needed a narrator, an interpreter slightly dumber than us so we can feel better, and not be intimidated. Watson and Archie Goodwin are unreliable narrators.
This led to Alan Bradley's heroine, Flavia de Luce. Flavia is a genius in some ways, and, in some ways, she's completely clueless. We don't know how reliable Flavia is. She's an unreliable narrator. This is what she's telling us, but is it true? The chemistry is true in the book, but we can't be sure of anything else. She's an eleven-year-old girl, clueless at times about anything other than chemistry and poisons.
Alan Bradley went on to set up the book. The de Luce house, Buckshaw, is a crumbling English manor in 1950. And, the family, a father and three daughters, is an obsessive family. Father is obsessed with stamps, and no other world. Daphne is obsessed with books, and no other world. Ophelia is obsessed with herself. And Flavia is obsessed with chemistry. They are alike in their obsessions, but they can't communicate. They all live in little boxes. Barbara Peters said it might seem strange for four people to live in the same house, and live separate lives. But, in those large British houses, it's customary to keep the doors closed. So, what is going on behind those doors?
Bradley said this family comes from his own childhood. Alan had two older sisters, eight and ten years older than him. When he was three or four, they had boyfriends, and he was a pest. Because of that, his sisters would put him in his crib, and tie him by the hands and feet to his bed. So, he learned to undo knots behind his back. He gave his own skill to Flavia, and The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie opens with her in a closet with her hands tied behind her back.
Alan Bradley grew up in Ontario, Canada. From WWI to the 1940s, wealthy American coal mine owners, usually from Philadelphia, had enormous summer homes there. When the homes were sold, they became reform schools run by the Ontario Government. Alan's first high school job was working at one of the schools, mowing lawns, driving tractors. In his second year, he worked the night shift inside the house, counting the inmates. He spent a lot of the middle of the night hours poking into strange places in old houses.
Barbara said at 70, Alan is a literary rock star. He's her idol because he's starting over, with five more books scheduled. Life isn't over at seventy. She went on to say the Debut Dagger is presented by the British Crime Writers' Association to encourage new writers, and usually they receive a publication contract. Louise Penny was shortlisted for the award.
Bradley said he started a detective novel because that's what he enjoyed. He read Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. He started to write a story about a floral archaeologist, someone who dredged out old flowers and germinated them. His name was Adam, and he came from an old family of horticulturalists. But, he was writing the story of Adam, driving a big old car up to an old house, where he encountered a young girl sitting on a stool, writing. And, Adam commented about what she was writing, and she said she was recording license plates. He said he didn't think she'd get many there. She said, I have yours, don't I? So, Bradley encountered Flavia while writing Adam's story, but he couldn't write more about Adam. He couldn't even get him into the house. He was given the character of Flavia, but he didn't know her story. It took him months to learn her story, but he learned to shut up and listen to her.
The phase in which he tried to learn about Flavia was like guessing Rumpelstiltskin's name. According to Bradley, he'd take walks, and say, "Is this your name?" He must have lost ten pounds before, one day, he asked, "Is your name Flavia de Luce?", and there was stunned silence. So he went back, and started writing. He can't plan Flavia. He never has any idea what she's doing. He can't make Flavia do anything. His wife calls Flavia a gift from the universe. He has to let her do what she does. He can't force her to do anything. He loves being in her company, and working with her.
Peters and Bradley both said there are traces of Dorothy Sayers in his story; the big car that belonged to Adam, the house. Alan said he admires her work. His grandmother was born in England in the 1870s. She was forbidden to read, so she snuck out to the coachhouse to read by lantern. As an adult, she was a voracious reader, who read a book a day for years. She once forced the library to give him an adult card to read The History of Funeral Services in America. Alan read before kindergarten. He was sickly and bedridden, so his sisters taught him to read. At five, his grandmother lent him books. He read everything from Victorian shockers to Sayer's Busman's Honeymoon.
Buckshaw, the crumbling house in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, has a black line down the middle of the foyer. Two brothers divided the house in two, and then two wings were built that were different. Flavia chooses to live in the unheated wing with a Victorian laboratory on the top floor. The family has great difficulty in crossing the line in the house. Part of the house belongs to the Harriet, the mother who is missing.
Alan Bradley has a six book design for the story, an umbrella with a complete range of stories. He's covering bygone aspects of life in Britain, aspects that were still there in 1950, when the storyline begins, but that are gone completely now. Each book covers one aspect.
The first book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, is about a fanatic stamp collector, with details about stamps. The second book has just been delivered to the publisher. It's called The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag, a story about traveling puppet shows in England that stopped to perform. When Barbara mentioned Punch and Judy shows, he said those were down at seaside, but marionettes were part of the traveling shows. There was a great tradition of them in England, and his book is based on Elsa Lanchester's brother's puppet theatre.
Book 3 will be about gypsies, who still traveled through England in horse-drawn caravans in the 1950s. Book 4 will bring a British film crew to Buckshaw to film, and it's based on Ealing Films. The fifth book will feature St. Tancred's Church, and Adam, Bradley's floral archaeologist, might appear in this one. Book six will feature Harriet, and bring the series full circle to the first one.
Peters asked Bradley about other plans. Is Flavia going to stay eleven? He said she probably is because of her innocence. Her ignorance of everything but poisons is important. She doesn't know anything about the birds and the bees. Flavia's sisters can handle that other stuff. Daphne is reading Forever Amber during the first book, a big, historical sexy novel.
Philately, stamp collecting is an important part of this book, particularly one rare stamp, the Penny Black. Bradley discussed the British Post Office, and their fear of stamp forgery. They used printing plates, and each stamp had a different number. In the 1940s and '50s, stamp collectors could tell when a stamp was printed by the plate numbers. And, they paid attention to the fussiest details. Father is so obsessed with stamps that he can't see his own family. Bradley went on to tell of a visit to the Royal Mail Archive. It was necessary to make an appointment, and go through security. But, once he was in there, he was told, here it is, help yourself. Peters said the only other mystery she could think of, other than Bradley's, that dealt with philately, is Barry Maitland's The Chalon Heads.
Since writing the book, Bradley and his wife moved to Gozo, and island off Malta. In talking about Malta, he said he always had a fascination with George Frederick "Buzz" Beurling, a Canadian pilot who flew a Spitfire in the Battle over Malta in World War II. And, he found a book in a bookstore there with Beurling in a Spitfire on the cover. The picture shows that the battle took place over Alan's house. Malta has been inhabited since the Stone Age.
Bradley said The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was a lot of fun to write, just fun.
Alan Bradley ended the program by signing books, but for me, and a friend, Cathy Johnson, the magic of the evening was just beginning. We met Barbara and Alan for drinks, and it was there we were able to listen to a gifted storyteller and a gifted interviewer.
Alan said he and his wife moved to Gozo following retirement. They had looked at other places, but his wife had a quilting friend who moved there to get away from the crime of Halifax. She said the cost of living was low, the health coverage is the fifth best in the world, and the views are spectacular. It took them about a year to move there, an island where they don't own a car. The buses, old British ones, only run for a few hours in the morning, and a few in late afternoon. Bicycles aren't used there because the roads are so bad. But, Gozo is special.
Bradley described the library there as an interesting collection. He found a first edition of a hard-to-find stamp collecting book, still in its dust cover. There are British novels from the 20s and 30s, next to a Danielle Steel and an illuminated manuscript.
He said we've lost special moments in life, but they still happen in Gozo. He was taking a walk one morning when a delivery truck pulled up, stopped, the driver jumped out, and started singing. The doors on a balcony were flung open and a woman flung herself out, where she called to him. They called back and forth, and the man would sing another verse to her, all in Maltese, and Alan couldn't understand a word.
There are times when taking morning walks, he and his wife have to move aside for a flock of sheep and goats. Sometimes the goats will nibble on clothes. And, then the shepherd will follow, talking on his cell phone.
The topics covered included marionettes in England, and the discovery of a barn filled with everything from a traveling troop that just left everything there when the oldest son of the family was killed in World War I. There in an old barn were the wagon, the marionettes, costumes, stage. Barbara mentioned a marionette show she saw in Germany, The Magic Flute, and discovering this famous show, with just two tickets left.
Bradley told the story of his discovery of a 35mm projector when he was a boy. He'd go to the movies, and, instead of watching the film, he would watch the projector. His uncle told him of a man who owned an old projector, and, when he went to meet the man, he was allowed not only to see the projector and films, but then the man gave them to him.
There was even a discussion of Flavia's age. Bradley said for years he felt as if he was seventeen. Now, he feels as if he's eleven, and can say and do anything he wants.
There was discussion of books, Gozo, the Maltese language, a Greek amphitheatre, and so much more. I wish you could have all been there for one of those magic evenings that are worth treasuring. Thank you to Alan Bradley and Barbara Peters for sharing it with us.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. Delacorte Press, ©2009. ISBN 9780385342308 (hardcover), 384p.
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Barbara Peters' Author interviews can be viewed here website