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Alan Bradley: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Alan Bradley grew up in Canada and worked in television and radio before retiring early in 1994. Upon retirement, Bradley began writing full time. Bradley was also a founding member of The Casebook of Saskatoon, a society devoted to the study of Sherlock Holmes and Sherlockian writings. In 2007 he won the Debut Dagger Award from the British Crime Writers' Association for what would become The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, the first in a mystery series featuring eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce. Flavia returns in his new book, The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag. Bradley lives in Malta with his wife and 2 calculating cats.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag are both fantastic and unique titles. What goes into choosing a title?

Titles often leap out at me from my rather eclectic reading. They sometimes precede—and even suggest scenes for—the book. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is from a 1712 work called Cookery, in which the author, William King, explains that art entirely in quite remarkable, and amusing, verse. The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag is, of course, from a poem by Sir Walter Raleigh, in which he warns his ne'er-do-well son that there are certain things in life that flourish—provided that they are kept apart: the wood that makes the gallows, the weed, that makes the hangman's hemp, and the wag, as he tells his son, "is thee!"

Is chemistry a passion you share with Flavia, or do you have to research it?

As I've said before, what I know about chemistry can be put in a thimble with room left over for a finger. I intentionally chose chemistry as Flavia's passion because I know nothing about it. I knew that I needed a subject that I could approach with eyes as fresh and enthusiastic as Flavia's.

Do you ever imagine who Flavia de Luce would be as a grown woman?

No, not really. I expect that Flavia has the capability of becoming either the world's greatest chemical researcher—or the world's greatest criminal poisoner. Only time will tell.

If you were 11 again, and had one day with Flavia, how would you spend it?

Encouraging her to talk about her enthusiasms—and writing down every word of her responses. I would also like to have a chat with Dogger.

You co-wrote Ms. Holmes of Baker Street with William A.S. Sarjeant—finding evidence that Sherlock Holmes was a woman. Now you've written a female detective of your own. Coincidence?

Perhaps—and perhaps not. I'm tremendously interested in, and supportive of, strong female characters. An utterly competent 11 year old female was, in my opinion, long overdue in mystery fiction. I believe that the intelligence of girls is often discounted nowadays, not only by society, but sometimes by the girls themselves. As if it's a sin to be brilliant!

Flavia's older sisters are great characters, especially seen only through the eyes of Flavia. Do you have siblings?

Yes, I had two sisters. Only by the merest coincidence were they about the same number of years older than me than are Ophelia and Daphne older than Flavia.

What books would people be surprised to know you own?

The Art and Science of Embalming: Descriptive and Operative? The History of American Funeral Directing? A facsimile of Shakespeare's First Folio? A complete set of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels (sheer bliss!)?

What authors or books have inspired you?

Mark Twain; William Shakespeare; T.H. White; both Durrells: Gerald and Lawrence*; Dorothy L. Sayers; Agatha Christie; Ngaio Marsh; my dear mentor, Michael Harrison.

I've read that you love old reference works. What's on your bookshelf?

Hazell's Annual (1908); several Whitaker's Almanacks from the 1950's; a set of Taylor's Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence that once belonged to mystery writer W.J. Burley; a vast library of herbal lore; a London Taxi by Dinky Toys, in its original package, a glass turtle named Jeremiah; a surfeit of dictionaries; an 11th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911), marred as it is by the sensationalism of the popular plates; almost all of W. Macqueen-Pope's books; Dorothy L. Sayers sits cheek by jowl with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle*, and Emerson with Plato. I've recently added Laurie R. King's The Language of Bees and a set of Louise Penny's Armand Gamache mysteries, as well as bringing out of storage Shelby Foote's magnificent set of Civil War volumes.

What's not on your bookshelf that should be?

The complete Dictionary of National Biography; a complete set of the Letters of Horace Walpole.

—interview by Abby Blachly

*LibraryThing has Legacy Libraries for Lawrence Durrell and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, featuring books that they were known to have owned.

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