Vesta Giles: Success Story – Alan Bradley finds silver screen sweetness at the bottom of the pie

alan bradley the author

EDITED TO ADD: Holy crap! Another TVWriter™ Online Workshop student is now a best-selling author, while I, the lowly munchman, labor at my far-from-dreamy dayjob. Maybe I should do the Workshop too? LB, can ya give me a little financial breakage? Huh?

In 2003, forest fires raged through the interior of British Columbia. The oppressive heat and dryness of that summer created the perfect conditions for the fires that burned out entire towns and countless homes over an area bigger than some European countries. In Kamloops, where I live, we were surrounded on three sides with heavy smoke and flames that jumped from treetop to treetop for more than a month. It was memorable, to say the least.

At the time of the fires I was taking courses with some guy named Larry Brody, and posting on the forum. Another person who posted on the forum talked about the fires that were creeping up his street, devouring houses one by one in Kelowna where he and his wife lived. Kelowna is a mere two-hour drive from Kamloops and we chatted in the forum about the nature of fire and the sense of futility it inspired. His name was Alan Bradley. We lost touch shortly after that and for some reason I never forgot him.

Bradley, it turns out, had taken early retirement after his 25-year tenure at the University of Saskatchewan where he was Director of Television Engineering in the university’s media centre. While in Saskatoon, he was a founding member of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild and the first President of the Saskatoon Writers. His short story, Meet Miss Mullen, was the first recipient of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild Award for Children’s Literature. He taught script writing and television production courses through the extension program at the university. Bradley was also a founding member of The Casebook of Saskatoon, a society devoted to the study of Sherlock Holmes and Sherlockian writings. With the late Dr. William A.S. Sarjeant he co-wrote the controversial book, Ms Holmes of Baker Street, which suggested that Sherlock Holmes was really a woman. Much attention in the Canadian press followed the firestorm that this book’s release inspired.

When I encountered Alan Bradley in 2003, his early retirement had taken him to Kelowna where he was concentrating on writing screenplays. Apparently, however, the fires inspired him to look more toward a memoir style of writing. In 2006, his book, The Shoebox Bible, was released. Shortly after, Bradley’s wife heard of a fiction competition while listening to CBC Radio. The Debut Dagger fiction competition, hosted by the U.K. Crime Writers’ Association, invited writers to submit the first chapter and synopsis of a murder mystery. Bradley’s wife encouraged him to enter, and the result is a wildly successful series of books and a sweet TV deal.

Bradley’s series that stemmed from his winning that competition features 11 year-old detective, Flavia de Luce, who lives in England in the 1950’s with her eccentric family. Flavia’s passion in life is chemistry, and poisons in particular. In the first book she distills poison ivy and injects it into her older sister’s lipstick. Then she waits patiently, notebook in hand, ready to meticulously record the results. A chemistry lab in an abandoned part of her family’s manor home is her sanctuary and the books and journals it contains are her means of escape. Flavia has also been blessed with a rare talent for discovering dead bodies.

Flavia’s first award-winning adventure, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, was released in 2009, followed by The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, A Red Herring with Mustard, I am Half-Sick of Shadows, and the current release, Speaking from Among the Bones.

Oh, and Sam Mendes (of Skyfall, American Beauty, Road to Perdition fame), optioned the books as a series of TV movies in 2012.

Having been addicted to the books (in audio form) since they first came out, I emailed Bradley on a whim, through the Flavia de Luce website, to see if it was the same Alan Bradley I remembered from – and it was! He remembered me too. Linked by the fires, we talked a tiny bit about how fire and other devastating events can inspire change, which it did for him.

I asked him if, as an author, he had any fears that the Flavia (and her world) Mendes and his team would create wouldn’t match the Flavia he lives with when he writes.

“None whatsoever,” he responded. “There isn’t a filmmaker on the planet with the credentials of Sam Mendes. His series “Call the Midwife” for BBC TV has been scoring ratings higher than anything that has ever been measured since their ratings began! (To say nothing of “Skyfall”, “The Hollow Crown”, etc.).”

Bradley has now moved on from Kelowna, and he and his wife live in Malta. I’m not sure how flammable that area is but I hope, for his sake, the fire rating is relatively low. Or, if it isn’t, that he uses it to continue inspiring change.

So, let all this be a lesson to me. Write, keep writing, look for opportunities in all directions and seize them when they appear – no matter how small they may seem. Oh, and of course… just keep writing.

Ironically, just before I contacted Bradley to see if he was the same one I remembered from 10 years ago, Larry, who has always nudged me through the years, particularly when my writing was limited to advertising and annual reports to make ends meet, reminded me there was space in a Master Class coming up.

Ah yes, just keep writing and seize the opportunity! You never know where it will take you. It seems a fire has been lit beneath my writing rear end …. and off I go.