My earliest notes for the series which ultimately grew into The Immortal Nicholas Flamel
date back to May 1997. Unusually (because, like most writers, I've no
idea where the ideas comes from), I can pinpoint, almost to the day
when the idea solidified into The Alchemyst. It was late
September 2000, in Paris, and I had stumbled - entirely by accident -
across Nicholas Flamel's own house in the narrow Rue du Montmorency: the
Auberge Nicolas Flamel.
It is interesting, looking back, to see how much of the original idea still remains. I wanted to write a contemporary fantasy, one set very firmly in the present, with modern teenagers as my heroes, characters who used computers and cell phones, who sent emails and text messages.
I then decided that I wanted the heroes and villains of the story to be drawn from history, myth and legend. It allowed me to introduce characters like Nicholas Flamel and John Dee, real men who had an extraordinary influence on their time. Just everything I write about them in The Alchemyst is drawn from the historical records.
All of the creatures who populate the story are drawn from various world mythologies. People are somewhat familiar with the stories of ancient Greece and Egypt, but some of the other great legends - the Celtic tales or the Norse sagas, for example - are less well known.
All-in-all, it would have been easier to make it up - though not half as much fun!
Q: Can you tell us how you became familiar with the legend of Nicolas Flamel?
I was introduced to the character of Flamel through Doctor John Dee.
I had written a couple of novels which featured Dee as a secondary character before I finally decided that he needed a book to himself (The Merchant Prince.)
I've always been fascinated with the Elizabethan period. It was a time of extraordinary change, with new sciences, new countries, new races being discovered. And in this age of the extraordinary, Dee was exceptional. He was a mathematician and geographer, astronomer and astrologer and also part of the Queen's network of spies. Shakespeare is reputed to have modeled the character of Prospero in The Tempest on Dee.
Dee was an alchemist - that curious mixture of science and superstition. He also had one of the largest libraries in private hands - and that library included the writings of one of the most influential alchemists of the previous century: Nicholas Flamel.
Nicholas Flamel was one of the most famous alchemists of his day. He was born in 1330 and earned his living as a bookseller. (As an aside, I'll mention that I worked as a bookseller for 25 years, so that completely endeared him to me). One day he bought a book, the same book mentioned in The Alchemyst: the Book of Abraham. It too, really existed and Nicholas Flamel left us with a very detailed description of the copper-bound book. Although the book itself is lost, the illustrations from the text still exist.
Accompanied by his wife Perenelle, Nicholas spent more than twenty years trying to translate the book. He must have succeeded. He became extraordinarily wealthy and used some of his great wealth to found hospitals, churches and orphanages. Perhaps he had discovered the secret of the Philosopher's Stone: how to turn base metal into gold.
Of course the greatest mystery linked to Nicholas Flamel is the story of what happened after he died. When his tomb was opened by thieves looking for some of his great wealth, it was found to be empty. Had Nicholas and Perenelle been buried in secret graves, or had they never died in the first place? In the months and years to follow, sightings of the Flamels were reported all over Europe. Had Nicholas also discovered that other great mystery of alchemy: the secret of immortality?
What writer couldn't resist a story that combined magical books, an immortal magician, an empty grave and, even more excitingly, had a basis in fact?
Q: How does the writing process for your adult books differ from the way you approach the writing of your children's titles?
- The plotting process is identical. I plot everything in great
detail so I know exactly where I'm going. It also allows me to put in
place all the research I need well in advance. I've been to all the
places mentioned in the Nicholas Flamel series, photographed them
endlessly. And if you think that sounds like visiting exotic locations
using "research" as an excuse, then you're right!
Once the research is complete, I can then write without interruption. Or at least, that's the theory.
In reality, the books always surprise me. A minor character takes on a new significance or a sequence simply does not work.
The main difference I've found with writing for young adults is language. YA writing requires greater precision in expression. Also, it's important to remember that young adults may not have the shorthand that simply comes with age. The best example I can give is: "Bay of Pigs." Children and adults have two entirely different impressions of those three words.
Young adults are also a much more attentive audience. Doing a Q&A; with a young adult audience can be quite terrifying: more like being interrogated as stories, characters, scenes and situations are dissected.
Q: THE SECRETS OF THE IMMORTAL NICOLAS FLAMEL is a six-part series. Have you plotted out each novel? Do you know where the adventures are going for each title?
- The entire series is plotted out in great detail. It had to
be. With a series of this complexity, it would be so easy to get lost.
The notes for book one for example, are bigger than the book itself.
I first created an overall synopsis for the series. That is the most important step in the creation of any story; it allows me to see everything on a couple of pages. It is also the hardest part of the book to write, and can take weeks to get correct. With Flamel, for example, once it became obvious that the series was falling into six very distinct elements, I realized I needed to then create six individual and extremely detailed synopses, one per book.
That is my template. The major elements are then fixed in stone, but within the story there is room for movement and flexibility.
But, yes, I know how Book Six, The Enchantress, will end. I've actually written the epilogue to that particular story.
Q: Why did you choose to make you characters, Sophie and Josh Newman, fraternal twins?
- Inasmuch as the Flamel series is built on elements drawn
from world mythology, the ultimate heroes had to be twins, male and
female, because the mythology of just about every nation considers
twins to be special. Many of the creation myths are concerned with
twins - not necessarily good and evil, but heaven and earth, sky and
water. In much of West African mythology for example, twins are
considered the ideal, the perfect marriage of the human and divine.
And on a purely practical level, it allowed me to explore how an ordinary boy and girl would react if they were exposed to the knowledge they possessed certain magical powers. They've grown up together, lived together, they are identical and yet, once they are exposed to this knowledge, it changes them in different ways.
But to discover the real reason, you will have to wait until the end of the series. Then, all will be revealed.
Q: What would you like young readers to take away from the reading of THE ALCHEMYST?
- I would be thrilled if it encouraged people to check out some
of the amazing stories which exist in the world's mythologies and
The early response to The Alchemyst has been astonishing. I've had countless emails from readers who went online (as Josh in the book does) and checked out the characters and creatures, and discovered that they once existed. Readers can then discover a back story to just about all the characters, a story that was written hundreds of years before I borrowed that character for The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel.