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The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: A Flavia de Luce Mystery Paperback – January 19, 2010
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A Q&A with Alan Bradley
Question: With the publication of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, you’ve become a 70-year-old-first time novelist. Have you always had a passion for writing, or is it more of a recent development?
Alan Bradley: Well, the Roman author Seneca once said something like this: “Hang on to your youthful enthusiasms--you’ll be able to use them better when you’re older.” So to put it briefly, I’m taking his advice.
I actually spent most of my life working on the technical side of television production, but would like to think that I’ve always been a writer. I started writing a novel at age five, and have written articles for various publications all my life. It wasn’t until my early retirement, though, that I started writing books. I published my memoir, The Shoebox Bible, in 2004, and then started working on a mystery about a reporter in England. It was during the writing of this story that I stumbled across Flavia de Luce, the main character in Sweetness.
Q: Flavia certainly is an interesting character. How did you come up with such a forceful, precocious and entertaining personality?
AB: Flavia walked onto the page of another book I was writing, and simply hijacked the story. I was actually well into this other book--about three or four chapters--and as I introduced a main character, a detective, there was a point where he was required to go to a country house and interview this colonel.
I got him up to the driveway and there was this girl sitting on a camp stool doing something with a notebook and a pencil and he stopped and asked her what she was doing and she said “writing down license number plates“ and he said “well there can't be many in such a place“ and she said, “well I have yours, don’t I? “ I came to a stop. I had no idea who this girl was and where she came from.
She just materialized. I can't take any credit for Flavia at all. I’ve never had a character who came that much to life. I’ve had characters that tend to tell you what to do, but Flavia grabbed the controls on page one. She sprung full-blown with all of her attributes--her passion for poison, her father and his history--all in one package. It surprised me.
Q: There aren’t many adult books that feature child narrators. Why did you want Flavia to be the voice of this novel?
AB: People probably wonder, “What’s a 70-year-old-man doing writing about an 11-year-old-girl in 1950s England? “ And it’s a fair question. To me, Flavia embodies that kind of hotly burning flame of our young years: that time of our lives when we’re just starting out, when anything--absolutely anything!--is within our capabilities.
I think the reason that she manifested herself as a young girl is that I realized that it would really be a lot of fun to have somebody who was virtually invisible in a village. And of course, we don’t listen to what children say--they’re always asking questions, and nobody pays the slightest attention or thinks for a minute that they’re going to do anything with the information that they let slip. I wanted Flavia to take great advantage of that. I was also intrigued by the possibilities of dealing with an unreliable narrator; one whose motives were not always on the up-and-up.
She is an amalgam of burning enthusiasm, curiosity, energy, youthful idealism, and frightening fearlessness. She’s also a very real menace to anyone who thwarts her, but fortunately, they don’t generally realize it.
Q: Like Flavia, you were also 11 years old in 1950. Is there anything autobiographical about her character?
AB: Somebody pointed out the fact that both Flavia and I lacked a parent. But I wasn’t aware of this connection during the writing of the book. It simply didn’t cross my mind. It is true that I grew up in a home with only one parent, and I was allowed to run pretty well free, to do the kinds of things I wanted. And I did have extremely intense interests then--things that you get focused on. When you’re that age, you sometimes have a great enthusiasm that is very deep and very narrow, and that is something that has always intrigued me--that world of the 11-year-old that is so quickly lost.
Q: Your story evokes such a vivid setting. Had you spent much time in the British countryside before writing this book?
AB: My first trip to England didn’t come until I went to London to receive the 2007 Debut Dagger Award, so I had never even stepped foot in the country at the time of writing Sweetness. But I have always loved England. My mother was born there. And I‘ve always felt I grew up in a very English household. I had always wanted to go and had dreamed for many years of doing so.
When I finally made it there, the England that I was seeing with my eyes was quite unlike the England I had imagined, and yet it was the same. I realized that the differences were precisely those differences between real life, and the simulation of real life, that we create in our detective novels. So this was an opportunity to create on the page this England that had been in my head my whole life.
Q: You have five more books lined up in this series, all coming from Delacorte Press. Will Flavia age as the series goes on?
AB: A bit, not very much. I think she’s going to remain in the same age bracket. I don’t really like the idea of Flavia as an older teenager. At her current age, she is such a concoction of contradictions. It's one of the things that I very much love about her. She's eleven but she has the wisdom of an adult. She knows everything about chemistry but nothing about family relationships. I don’t think she’d be the same person if she were a few years older. She certainly wouldn’t have access to the drawing rooms of the village.
Q: Do you have a sense of what the next books in the series will be about?
AB: The second book, The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, is finished, and I’m working on the third book. I have a general idea of what’s happening in each one of the books, because I wanted to focus on some bygone aspect of British life that was still there in the '50s but has now vanished. So we have postage stamps in the first one... The second book is about the travelling puppet shows on the village green. And one of them is about filmmaking--it sort of harks back to the days of the classic Ealing comedies with Alec Guinness and so forth.Q: Not every author garners such immediate success with a first novel. After only completing 15 pages of Sweetness, you won the Dagger award and within 8 days had secured book deals in 3 countries. You’ve since secured 19 countries. Enthusiasm continues to grow from every angle. How does it feel?
AB: It's like being in the glow of a fire. You hope you won't get burned. I’m not sure how much I’ve realized it yet. I guess I can say I‘m “almost overwhelmed”--I’m not quite overwhelmed, but I’m getting there. Every day has something new happening, and communications pouring in from people all over. The book has been receiving wonderful reviews and touching people. But Flavia has been touching something in people that generates a response from the heart, and the most often mentioned word in the reviews is love--how much people love Flavia and have taken her in as if she’s a long-lost member of their family, which is certainly very, very gratifying.
(Photo © Jeff Bassett)--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
More About the Author
The first-ever Flavia short story, "The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse" has recently been published in eBook format, as has his 2006 memoir, "The Shoebox Bible".
Top Customer Reviews
Flavia de Luce, heroine of "The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie" is an intrepid young lady with a penchant for poisons. Arsenic and its antidotes are her special interests. A brilliant, budding chemist, she is also an all-around persistent protagonist who insists on inserting herself into every situation!
Flavia's family consists of her reclusive, eccentric father and two older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne. Her mother, Harriet, was an adventurer who died tragically during a mountain climbing expedition. Of the three sisters, Flavia believes herself to be most like her mother. The core family is completed by Mrs. Mullet, the cook/housekeeper, and Dogger, a former soldier who served with Mr. deLuce. Having served in a number of positions during his employment with the de Luces, Dogger is now the gardner. He is also Flavia's confidante and mentors her in useful skills such as lockpicking.
Intelligent preteens will find in Flavia someone with whom they can identify. Individuals seeking an entertaining read which does not require intense concentration will sail through this novel. As this is the first in a series, I will be interested to see how the characters develop and whether Bradley can resist succumbing to the formula mystery genre to which so many authors fall prey.Read more ›
I will admit that it took a couple of chapters for me to warm up to the unusual group of folks living at the decrepit country mansion called Buckshaw. The family dynamic is unusual to say the least, and the vocabulary and knowledge pouring forth from Flavia as she narrates the story takes a little getting used to. Perhaps I was a bit jealous and somewhat intimidated by all the scientific knowledge this little "smart-aleck" had to impart, or could it have been that I found myself imagining what it would be like to live in a household inhabited by Flavia and the dysfunctional cast of characters that surrounded her. If I still smoked, that thought alone would have found me reaching for a "gasper".
Author, Alan Bradley has managed to give his readers an unconventional protagonist, a creative, somewhat amusing and intriguing story, as well as multiple mysteries to solve. Written for the adult reader, Flavia is definitely more Nero Wolfe than Nancy Drew. Just abandon logic and reality, hop aboard Gladys and take a bumpy ride back to 1950's England with Flavia DeLuce, girl sleuth. 31/2 stars
But things get shaken up a bit when a dead blackbird shows up on the porch at Buckshaw (the old mansion where the de Luces live) with a penny stamp stuck to it's beak. The next morning Flavia finds a dead man in the cucumber patch - well, he's not dead yet, but expires with a final word: "Vale." But who was he, and more important, who killed him? Was it the Colonel who had secretly argued with the stranger the night before, or Dogger, the dependable but unstable gardener (who still suffers from his experiences in Japanese POW camps)? Maybe he died from eating a slice of Mrs. Mullet's horrible cream pie? Whoever it was, Flavia is determined to find out with the help of her chemistry knowledge and Gladys.
In spite of a slow start, this was really an enjoyable read. It has a style that reminded me of Alan Bennett's "The Uncommon Reader." It's what the English like to call "wickedly funny," which apparently means that it's funny in a clever and witty way with a good helping of subtle sarcasm. And it's certainly all of those.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
I would probably not have chosen this book on my own, but it was suggested to me as a book this person enjoyed. Read morePublished 2 days ago by Jeanne Hoyle
I just adore Flavia deLuce. She's a great character, full of intelligence, spunk and curiosity. I've enjoyed every one of her mysteries.Published 5 days ago by shanmc
I bought this book as an audio book. Though set in the 1950's it reminded me so much of my own childhood (except for the whole chemical genius part) in the 1980's and 1990's that... Read morePublished 10 days ago by Kryst
This book was a delight from page one. The workings of this small genius's mind was captivating, as well as her courage, humor, and intelligence. Read morePublished 12 days ago by revloc
Great witty fun! Loved the characters and detailed story. Perfect amount of suspense and mystery. Flavia is my new hero.Published 19 days ago by Kindle Customer
This is a children's book in the vein of Pippi Longstocking. It's well written though there are British terms that require looking up. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Ellen
He seems like a good writer, but Flavia is a dangerous brat. She's one of those brainy, entitled, soulless children who seems to think other people exist only for her amusement. Read morePublished 1 month ago by M. Bergen
This is a very well-written and entertaining story, though the protagonist
should realistically be about 15 or 16. Read more