I told everyone that Alan Bradley was my birthday present this year. It was just perfect timing that his book tour for The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag brought him to the Velma Teague Library on my birthday.
Following hugs and the introduction, Alan told the audience that his character, Flavia de Luce, actually showed up in a book he was trying to write. While working on a book he thought would be a classic English village mystery, a young girl appeared on the page. She just refused to cooperate. That was Flavia de Luce, and finally he realized she needed her own book.
Bradley reminded us that Flavia was an eleven-year-old girl who lived in a big old ancestral mansion in England with her father, a rabid stamp collector, and her older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, who she calls Feely and Daffy. Feely's seventeen and Daffy is thirteen, and they live to tell Flavia she's unwanted, while she spends her life trying to get back at them.
Bradley went on to mention that the first Flavia de Luce mystery, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, was on the New York Times Bestseller list for trade paperbacks right now, so there are two Flavia books on the bestseller lists at the same time.
Alan said Flavia was always on an adventure. Bradley said The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag opens with Flavia lying in a graveyard, her favorite spot on earth. Then he read from the opening scene when Flavia meets Nialla, who claims to be Mother Goose, in the cemetery.
Following the reading, Bradley told us the books are set in the 1950s, while there were still travelling puppet shows all over England, and they would set up and perform wherever they could get an audience.
In response to a question about Flavia, he said she arrived as a complete package, with her family, the house, her bicycle, Gladys, and her love of chemistry. He said some people have complained she's too smart for an eleven-year-old girl. His answer? Those people obviously don't know any eleven-year-old girls because they can be incredibly intelligent. He said those people can accept talking telephone booths in fiction, but not brilliant eleven-year-old girls.
When asked about Flavia's voice, Alan said he was writing the first attempt at the novel in third person, but first person was needed for Flavia. Her voice is inside his head.
He said Flavia's family are all preoccupied with himself, so, in a sense, when she questions the villagers, they become her proxy family. Flavia herself has had no real experiences in life. She only knows what others told her, and what she overheard people say. She has to then take those ideas, and make them so she can understand.
He was questioned about the time period in which he sets his books, and he answered that he was about Flavia's age in 1950, and he remembered what it was like, and what people were talking about then. According to Bradley, it will be a six book series, and we'll learn more about Flavia and her family. Flavia will be just under twelve when the books are finished.
One question concerned Flavia's relationship with the Inspector, and Bradley said it was much the same in this book. But, Flavia has taken a liking to the inspector's wife. Alan's finishing the third book in the series now, and he's not sure what's cooking in Flavia's relationship with the inspector's wife. He has already laid out the six books. There was a natural division into the six books. He knew he couldn't tell the entire, long story in one book. Each book focuses on some bygone aspect of British life. The next one will highlight horse-drawn gypsy caravans. Each is a slice of the pie. The whole story of Flavia and her family will be told by the end of the six books. We'll know what becomes of them. Bradley himself needs to wait until Flavia finds out what's happening. He gets snippets. By the end, we'll know who she is, and about her family and situation. By the end of the six books, we'll know them completely.
It's been suggested by his publishers that Bradley might want to do more Flavia books, such as Flavia's Big Book of Poisons, but he's not ready.
The next book will be called A Red Herring Without Mustard. It comes from an old paraphrased saying, "A lad in a pub without a lass is like a red herring without mustard."
Bradley was asked if he had a lot of sisters, and he answered, "I had two. That was a lot." He doesn't know why Flavia appeared to him. But, years ago when he was writing a piece that wasn't working, it was suggested that he try it from a woman's point of view, and, once rewritten, it worked. Flavia is keen, razor-sharp. Eleven-year-old girls are usually invisible. So, Alan said he hopes his books are promoting them, showing how brilliant they are, caught in that age when they're not children, and not adults.
He said he doesn't plot the books. He basically knows the theme, such as travelling puppet shows or gypsy caravans, but Flavia tells him where the books are going. He knows nothing about chemistry. He pours over old chemistry books, with suggestions from Flavia. But, he has a friend in British Columbia, a retired doctor, who checks on Flavia's chemistry to see if it could work. But, he said, if it doesn't, it's fiction, just a novel. He does try to keep the chemistry as close to reality as possible.
Bradley listens to Flavia's voice while writing. He's learned to suppress the Alan Bradley ego, since no one is interested in his voice, and listen to Flavia. He doesn't react to her. Flavia is not frivolous at all, and Bradley can be. She's much more serious than he is.
The first book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, told Flavia's father's story. He's an avid stamp collector, obsessed with them. Ophelia is focused on music and boys. Daphne's obsession is books, while Flavia's is chemistry. They all have their own focus.
When Bradley was asked if Flavia is the realization of a young Sherlock Holmes, since he wrote the book, Ms. Holmes of Baker Street, he said no. Rex Stout had presented a piece called "Watson was a Woman," and Bradley wrote the book, Ms. Holmes of Baker Street, with a friend, Bill Sargeant. Bradley said the only thing remarkable about Holmes was that he was a man. All of his qualities, from his intuition to his keen sense of touch are ones we assign to women. But, Conan Doyle was a ladies' man. He loved women, and had a circle of women friends. Holmes' remarkable qualities were borrowed from the people closest to Conan Doyle, his women friends. When the comment was made that Flavia might be in that league, Bradley admitted she probably thinks of herself as that intelligent, or more so than Holmes. Holmes is certainly humbler when it comes to chemistry. Flavia is quite adept at that.
Alan went on to say that Laurie King evokes Conan Doyle's writing, the atmosphere and setting. Mary Russell is remarkable. But, Bradley has to stop reading them when he's writing.
The question came up about copyright on Holmes. Alan said Dame Jean Conan Doyle, Doyle's youngest daughter, was still alive when they wanted to write Ms. Holmes of Baker Street, and she first said they absolutely could not write the book. They had to pay up front for rights, with no guarantee. When she read it, though, she said it was, "Quite fun."
Bradley was asked what he reads for background for Flavia, besides books on poisons and chemistry. He reads all kinds of books on England. Alan reads old herbal books, but only up to the 30s or 40s. There was a woman named Hilda Leyel, sometimes listed as Mrs. C.F. Leyel, who wrote a dozen books. She fought to have herbalists licensed. She founded shops called Culpeper Shops and the Society of Herbalists in England. During WWII, she convinced them to use herbal remedies for pilots who had been burned. She wrote a book called A Modern Herbal, filled with English lore, stories of plants, history, folklore, and myth. It was the perfect ending when Bradley told us many of Flavia's ideas are picked up through that book.
Alan Bradley's website is www.flaviadeluce.com
The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley. Random House, ©2010. ISBN
9780385342315 (hardcover), 384p.
FTC Full Disclosure: I bought my copy of the book.