All keen readers will have writers for whose books they put everything aside, the ones who go straight to the head of the reading queue, no matter what else is waiting. I am delighted to welcome one of those writers to Cornflower Books today, and it is a privilege to have been able to ask him a few questions about where and how he writes.
Alan Bradley is one of those inspiring people who have a successful career but then truly come into their own at a stage of life when others are thinking of putting their feet up. Taking early retirement from academia, he wrote non-fiction before beginning a novel which - on the basis of a synopsis and an opening chapter - won the CWA Debut Dagger Award. A publishers' bidding war ensued, rights were sold hither and yon, and the first of the wonderfully entertaining Flavia de Luce books was published to great acclaim and popular success. The sixth in the series came out recently and, as Alan tells us below, there is more in store!
Apart from being a great fan of his books, I had another reason for inviting Alan to join us today. He and his wife Shirley are Canadian, but nowadays they live on the Isle of Man which is where I was born and spent my childhood, so I'm proud to have an honorary Manxman as my guest, and I hope he is feeling very much at home in that beautiful island.
Alan, please tell us about your writing desk or table. Is it a special piece of furniture or just a convenient surface? And the room in which you work - a dedicated study, or a corner you've carved out of another room in the house?
Although I have a lovely study overlooking a churchyard, complete with computer on a Victorian partners' desk and a wonderful reference library at hand, I still do an inordinate amount of writing propped up in bed. The reason is quite simple: since I like to begin work at about 4:30 a.m., it means I can make the transition from sleep to writing with as little jarring effort as possible.
What typically sits on your desk? Piles of books for reference/a dictionary or thesaurus? Photographs or special objects? Can you work with 'clutter' around you or do you need clear space?
I like clear space, but I usually have a clutter of things that need doing. I feel most comfortable when I'm within reach of my reference books. I must admit to an absolute passion for outdated reference works: the Imperial Dictionary; Whitaker's Almanacks for the early 1950's; the ABC Railway Guides, ditto, Kelly's Post Office Directories; Bradshaw; the Army and Navy Catalogue; Hints for Holidays; Law's Grocer's Manual (1949) and the Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th edition), marred as it is by the sensationalism of the popular plates. There's an indescribable comfort in being surrounded by things as they used to be.
As you sit at your desk, do you have a view (and if so, of what) or would that be too distracting - do you prefer a blank wall, or a lovely object or painting perhaps, to focus the mind?
As I have said, my desk overlooks a churchyard where there's often something going on: weddings, funerals, jackdaws, ravens, all of which keep me grounded in real life without proving too much of a distraction to the murder and mayhem on my mind.
Do you write in longhand first, or make notes/plans that way, or do you work directly on the computer? If the former, do you have a favourite notebook and pen, or does any scrap of paper serve the purpose? Do you use a pinboard or whiteboard or similar, either for displaying notes and reminders, sketching out plot points and structure, showing location photographs or other visual cues to characters or interiors, etc.?
I write directly onto the computer, but only after doing the required research and making notes in pencil. I don't know why a softish pencil is so important - perhaps because it reminds me of my childhood. A hard-nosed ball-point seems so crude in comparison; the way in which it graves the paper seems physically (and even morally) repugnant. There's nothing I love better than a fat fresh pad of A4, even if I only use a few pages of it and start afresh with each new book. In spite of that, I always end up with hundreds of notes on bits of paper: the backs of envelopes, grocery receipts, bits torn from the edge of newspaper pages, and so forth. I don't do a lot of plotting, other than a few key scenes. The Flavia mysteries are character driven and I have learned to let them have their heads.
Do you ever write away from your desk, for example, in cafés, libraries, on trains, in the garden? If so, is that because you happen to be in those places and need to get on with some work, or do you purposely go to other writing locations for inspiration or improved concentration?
No, I do a lot of thinking while walking by the sea, or riding on the bus, but I write only at home. It would be wonderful to be able to write anywhere, but I can't. To me, writing fiction is like being a deep sea diver: you can't be on the surface and in the depths simultaneously. Which is reality? Whichever one you're immersed in at the moment.
Tell us about sound while you're working: do you like to listen to music or prefer silence, and do you need to be shut away with a virtual 'do not disturb' sign on the door, or can you get on happily with the usual interruptions of phone, doorbell, other people in the house, and so on?
Silence is golden. Our household is a haven of blessed near-soundlessness. As I write this, the only sound in the room is the sober ticking of the clock. We have no radio chattering away mindlessly and watch television only by appointment: generally on DVD. My wife, Shirley, treasures silence as much as I do, so we're the perfect couple.
What tends to distract you most when you're supposed to be writing?
Telephones, doorbells, people who don't realise that your work involves staring densely off into space and looking as if you're waiting for a good old chin-wag.
Could you tell us a little about what's currently 'on the desk', i.e. your work-in-progress or what you are planning to start next?
I'm happy to announce that Flavia #7 (slated for 2015) will be called "As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust", which I must admit is one of my favourite titles. It's from Cymbeline, of course, and comes with its own haunting baggage. Besides that, I've been asked to write a new YA series. And, oh yes, Sam Mendes (of 'Skyfall' and 'Call the Midwife') will be bringing Flavia to the television screen in 2015. I've seen Harriet Warner's screenplay for the first episode, and it's absolutely brilliant. Who was it said, 'May you live in exciting times"?
What would you say were the best, most rewarding aspects of the writer's life, and what are the downsides, if any?
The rewards, I suppose, are in being self-employed and being paid for doing what you love to do. The downside is that there are no breaks; no holidays; work is 24/7/365. Travel, too, is a great joy. The Flavia books, which have been translated into about 36 languages, have allowed me to visit Germany, Finland, Croatia, Poland, Malta, and Norway, with upcoming trips to Italy, Sweden and Russia: all of them places I would never otherwise have seen. And the fans, of course! The word I hear most often from Flavia's fans worldwide is 'love'. It is like being immersed in a warm ocean. And there is no downside to love!
Finally, by spending many hours 'at the writing desk' you now have a very wide and avid readership, and a career which although you've come to it later in life has brought you great success. What advice would you give to aspiring writers, or to those already in print and hoping to build on that beginning?
Keep the bum applied firmly to the chair and the fingers to the pen, pencil, or keyboard. Remember the 10,000 Hour Rule. It sounds tacky, but it's true: you learn to write by writing. Beware the sharks and gatekeepers: there are many more of them out there than there are bona fide agents and editors. Don't ever pay anyone to edit or market your work. Real professionals don't charge; they make a living by selling your work.
My goodness - what a lot of advice! Well, it's taken me years and tears to learn it. I'd be thrilled to hear that it's helped someone else even a smidgen. Now go write.
My thanks to Alan for taking the time to answer my questions, and on behalf of all of us who love his books, may I wish him continued great success - his writing gives us such a lot of pleasure!