A conversation with award winning Canadian author, Alan Bradley

Entering the library the murmur of amiable voices greets you and immediately you sense you’re among friends. You bask in the amber glow of the coals on the hearth as rays of the late afternoon sun seep through ancient leaded glass windows. You are enclosed by polished mahogany lined walls and bookcases filled with ancient tomes as the soothing scents of leather and old books fill you with a sense of peace and tranquility. Someone pours you a steaming cup of your favourite hot beverage and you settle into your familiar chair as an expectant hush falls over the room and our conversation begins.

Welcome to a conversation with award winning Canadian author, Alan Bradley, known for his Flavia de Luce mystery series, which began with the acclaimed “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie”.

Thank you kindly, Alan, for talking with us. I must say, I’m sincerely honoured that you have joined us for a chat.

Born in Toronto, on Lester Avenue, in 1938, Alan grew up with two older sisters in the small, picturesque town of Cobourg, Ontario. He learned to read at an early age but confessed to having been a very bad student, particularly in high school. Feeling like he didn’t fit in he spent a lot of his free time reading in the local cemetery.

After completing his education he worked in Cobourg as a Radio and Television Engineer. He had a long career in broadcasting in Cobourg (CHUC), St. Catharines (CKTB), Cornwall (CJSS-TV), Pembroke (CHOV-TV) and Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, now known as Ryerson University, in Toronto. Alan took early retirement in 1994 to become a full-time writer after an illustrious tenure of 25 years as Director of Television Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan.

Interested in writing his entire life he began to take it more seriously in his 30’s joining several Saskatoon writing groups.

He received the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel Award in 2010 and has made 10 appearances on the New York Times bestseller list.

In 2012, Director Sam Mendes optioned the Flavia de Luce series, with the intention of developing into made for television movies.

Please welcome our esteemed guest, Alan Bradley. Thank you, Alan, for agreeing to be our guest today.

James:                  When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

Alan:                     I think when I was about 5 or 6. I had protested to my sister that I could write a better book than the one I was reading at the time (a pulpy western, as I recall). She challenged me to do so. I wrote a paragraph or two which caused her to fall on the floor laughing – and not in a nice way.

James:                  What are common traps for aspiring writers?

Alan:                     (a) Taking “no” for an answer. (b) Hoping to learn to write by reading. (c) copying others

James:                  Could you please elaborate on: “(b) Hoping to learn to write by reading”?

Alan:                     I have heard it said that one can learn best to write by reading. This would be lovely if it were the truth – or at least the whole truth. In the end, though, one learns to write by writing. Reading prepares the way, but it is just the first – and ongoing – step.

James:                  Great advice, Alan.
                              Does a big ego help or hurt writers?

Alan:                     It probably helps some writers and hinders others. Tireless self-promotion often pays off, as we see in the everyday headlines, but quality will always outlive sensation.

James:                  Thank you for your sage insight.
                              What is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?

Alan:                     Those “gatekeepers” who pretend to hold the keys to publishing success. Don’t ever pay anybody to read, edit, or publish your work. Ever!

James:                  You are very adamant about this may I ask why?

Alan:                     The answer is not a complicated one. Although it never happened to me – quite the contrary, in fact – I have been saddened again and again to meet young, and not so young, writers who have been sucked into the promises made by the fraudsters who seem to litter the literary landscape: writers who have been bilked by so-called “experts” who promise everything but the awards for a certain fee. My advice, then, is that one ought not ever to enter into a contract with these people. That way lies heartbreak.

James:                  What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

Alan:                     Many years ago, a Smith-Corona portable electric typewriter, for which I had to sweat blood, made it possible to get my words in front of the right eyes.

James:                  How do you select the names of your characters?

Alan:                     They seem to pop up at your fingertips as required. The right names will be as recognizable as beacons in the night.

James:                  That’s interesting. I find that once my story is begun my characters seem to take over and dictate where it takes them but their names always take a certain amount of thought on my part.

                                Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?

Alan:                     No, not really. I might include personal enthusiasms which often strike just the right note with readers, but there are no hidden messages. It wouldn’t be fair to the general book-buyer.

James:                  How long were you a part-time writer before you became a full-time one?

Alan:                     In one sense, 50 years. In another, fifteen. I published my first Flavia de Luce novel when I was 69, and had been retired for nearly 15 years. As Forrest Gump ought to have said, “Writing is as writing does.”

James:                  What are some day jobs that you have held?  If any of them impacted your writing, share an example.

Alan:                     Oh, my goodness! I’ve had a cavalcade of jobs: sidewalk sweeper, lawyer’s office boy, dishwasher, soda-jerk, television engineer, theatre projectionist. None of them, oddly, have crept into my published writing, although I have written about my life in haunted projection booths.

James:                  If you had the opportunity to live anywhere in the world for a year while writing a book that took place in that same setting, where would you choose?

Alan:                     Probably the south coast of England, from which my family emigrated more than 100 years ago. The English countryside is in my genetic makeup, and I often recognize places I have never been before. It’s a special kind of homecoming of the soul.

James:                  Ah, déjà vu. Although I don’t recall experiencing déjà vu I too have visited my roots in Norfolk, County Durham England and Lochwood Tower, Scotland and would love to spend more time in the UK. My first short story, “Death Points Her Finger in Coffinsrise” included in a compilation entitled, Evil Lurks in the Dark is set in Cornwall, in fact the entire Paladin series is set in the UK.
                                What, behind-the-scenes tidbit, in your life would probably surprise your readers the most?

Alan:                     I was featured some years ago on a BBC Television documentary about people who have special powers. Mine is the ability to see, with one eye, into the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, so that, like a hawk, I can spot some mosses and mouse urine by their glow.

James:                  I’m gobsmacked! If this were a comic book or science fiction novel, this is where you would find descriptions of strange creatures visible only in ghostly purple light, strange doors undetectable by those not afflicted by aphakia, whole civilizations and a really coherent plot involving a threat to the human race that can be foiled only by humans able to see into The Purple.

                                What was the hardest part of writing your author bio?

Alan:                     Sitting down – the applying of posterior to chair – is always the most difficult part of writing, when there are so many millions of books to be read.

James:                  What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Alan:                     As above: read. I have recently rediscovered the Greek classics to which I paid far too little attention as a schoolboy. I see now, in spades, why they were required reading.

James:                  What was your epiphany into the reason Greek classics were required reading?

Alan:                     Looking back to the days when I was an inattentive student studying Greek, I believed the reason for reading the classics was to teach us to read and write Greek. How wrong I was. It was the content that was the important part: the lessons in life to be learned from reading great literature. This was again driven home again when I recently picked up a 99p copy of T.H. Lawrence’s translation of The Odyssey. I was transported, as they say, with delight. Oh, how I wished I had read it sixty years ago. What am I still missing?

James:                  Pick one excerpt from one of your books you would like to share with readers.

Alan:                     From:    The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Chapter One:

It was as black in the closet as old blood. They had shoved me in and locked the door. I breathed heavily through my nose, fighting desperately to remain calm. I tried counting to ten on every intake of breath, and to eight as I released each one slowly into the darkness. Luckily for me, they had pulled the gag so tightly into my open mouth that my nostrils were left unobstructed, and I was able to draw in one slow lungful after another of the stale, musty air.

                I tried hooking my fingernails under the silk scarf that bound my hands behind me, but since I always bit them to the quick, there was nothing to catch. Jolly good luck then that I’d remembered to put my fingertips together, using them as ten firm little bases to press my palms apart as they had pulled the knots tight.

                Now I rotated my wrists, squeezing them together until I felt a bit of slack, using my thumbs to work the silk down until the knots were between my palms – then between my fingers. If they had been bright enough to think of tying my thumbs together, I should never have escaped. What utter morons they were.

With my hands free at last, I made short work of the gag. This was the page that began my crime-writing career. It won me the prestigious Debut Dagger Award from The Crime Writers Association (UK) and half-a-dozen publishing contracts at home and abroad.