Great Scott! The Man, the Myth and the Magic

Who is Michael Scott? A New York Times bestselling author? The architect who designed the Abbey Theatre in Dublin? The original CEO of Apple? The regional manager of a company called Dunder Mifflin in Scranton? If Michael Scott is all of these things, he must be a very busy man! This Michael Scott is only one of the above. Does that make him any less busy? Not in the slightest. Caoilfhionn Fay tracks him down.

After waiting two months for this interview while Scott completed an extensive book tour promoting The Warlock, the latest and most thrilling instalment of the Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series, I finally got the answer to a burning question. Just why did Scott pluck a real man called Nicholas Flamel from relative historical obscurity and turn him into the central character in the latest spellbinding juggernaut bound for Hollywood?

Originally, the story was not about Nicholas Flamel. Scott tells me it was called ‘The Secrets of Dr Dee’. John Dee was an English alchemist, astrologer and mathematician born in 1500s London. For Scott, Dee was one of the most extraordinary men of his time and he wondered what it would be like to take a man like him and move him forward into the 21st century. The problem with Dee was that there were several aspects of his life that were a little too dark for a young adult (YA) novel, and Dee spent a long time looking for someone equally fascinating, someone who had existed on the fringes of history.

In September 2000, Scott stumbled across the oldest house in Paris, which had once belonged to Nicholas Flamel. Flamel was one of the most famous alchemists of his day but, as Scott points out, he earned his living as a bookseller. One day Scott bought a book, the same book mentioned in The Alchemyst, called the Book of Abraham. It also really existed and Flamel left us with a very detailed description of it.

Scott, born in Dublin, spent ten years researching for the series and Flamel’s notes were obviously an integral part of this, as Scott incorporated a lot of complex magic into the story. What is intriguing about writers who do this is how they invent and adhere to the ‘rules’ of magic they begin with and how they manage to avoid any ‘continuity errors’. I asked if, when writing in such detail about magic, he spent much time constructing rules to follow and if details such as spells and names of creatures came mostly from imagination:

There has to be rules. Even though this is a fantasy, there must be a logic to it – otherwise there is no story. If, every time my heroes are in trouble, they can simply wave a magical wand or utter a spell, then there is no tension or drama. When they use ‘magic’ in the stories, it is not limitless power and it is not without a personal cost. For example, every time the Flamels use their powers, they age. The rule I created for myself with the series was that I should create as little as possible. So, with the exception of the twins, all the human characters are drawn from history and all of the creatures are from myth and legend.

This can only be a good thing because, for a generation growing up on fast food, fast fads and fast communication, yesterday’s news may as well be in the distant past, so what hope is there for ancient history without authors like Scott? ‘I wanted to reintroduce modern readers to some of the fabulous stories that exist in the mythology of every nation,’ he says. He reckons that many of the great stories, myths and legends that survived for countless generations are now, in this age of cinema, TV and internet, being lost. And those legends that do survive ‘tend to be those which have been given a TV or movie makeover’. What happens then, he argues, is that people only know the ‘modern version of the myth, rather than the original’. With the Flamel series, he believes it is possible for the reader to research all of the characters and discover their backstories, which adds an extra element to the books. Basically, readers can delve not only into their imagination but also into their past.

Furthermore, just as Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series triggered new interest in Greek mythology, Scott’s loyalty to Irish myths and legends must also be noted. The author’s first book was a collection of Irish folklore, published in 1982, and several more volumes followed. This interest remains apparent throughout the Flamel series. For example, Scáthach, the Morrigan and Aoife are just some of the ‘Irish’ characters and references to the Irish language (e.g. madra for dog) are used regularly. We also see Flamel fleeing to Ireland and blaming Dee for the ‘Great Hunger’ in the 19th century. Did Scott make a conscious effort from the beginning to include so many Irish references? In short, yes:

It was deliberate. It is my culture, my background. These are the stories I grew up hearing. Because we were never invaded by the Greeks or Romans, our stories remained more or less pure and our strong oral tradition ensured that the mythology remained alive. Also, Irish folklore is not very well known. Hollywood hasn’t ‘done’ it yet. So, it allowed me to introduce ‘new’ and relatively unknown mythological characters into the story. It pleases me tremendously that the most popular character in the series is Scáthach. I get more mail about her than any other character.

Scáthach, for those unfamiliar with the Ulster Cycle of myths, was a warrior woman said to have trained both Naoise, lover of Deirdre, and the legendary warrior Cú Chulainn in the art of combat. She also presented Cú Chulainn with his famous spear, the Gáe Bulga. When it comes to role models for girls, Scáthach would beat the likes of Bella Swan hands down. Literally.

Speaking of role models, one of the things that struck me when I read the series was how real the twins – Sophie and Josh Newman – were and how easily teenage readers must identify with them. Often, while a fantasy story might have potential, the ‘human’ side can fall short of our expectations. How did Scott go about voicing such believable young characters?

I’ve been writing in the YA genre for nearly thirty years now. I read the same books my audience are reading, watch the same TV series and movies, listen to the same music. I’ve visited thousands of schools over the years and I get to meet my readers. That helps me with the voice. I find that dedicated YA authors write their characters really well while those adult writers, who only occasionally dip their toe in the YA waters, just don’t get it.

Indeed, it seems everyone wants a bite of the YA pie these days and, unfortunately, the results are not always as good. There is also that worrying trend of turning every single YA fantasy novel into a theatrical blockbuster. In fact, the movie adaptation of The Alchemyst is currently in development, with producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura quoted in Variety as saying, ‘Michael’s fantastic series is a natural evolution from Harry Potter.’ What are the author’s hopes for the film and is he prepared for comparisons to Rowling’s magicians, as well as similar levels of hype?

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of books optioned for movies – indeed the Flamel series was optioned before it was even published. But Hollywood moves very, very slowly. However, the good news is that the movie is inching forward. I will be an executive producer, which will ensure that it adheres fairly closely – though not slavishly – to the text. My hope is that the movie will properly reflect the tone, atmosphere and heart of the books. Every YA movie that comes out now – and a lot of YA books too – are compared to JK Rowling. Those comparisons are meaningless. There will only ever be one Harry Potter.

Of course, there is one obvious connection between the spectacled one and Nicholas Flamel – The Philosopher’s Stone. Scott explained that after twenty years of trying to translate The Book of Abraham with his wife Perenelle, Flamel became extremely rich, using his newfound wealth to found hospitals, churches and orphanages. Though it is not certain where this wealth originated, as Scott says ‘perhaps he had discovered the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone: how to turn base metal into gold.’ This had been the objective of most practising alchemists in Europe at the time so to achieve this would have made Flamel very rich. It was this purported wealth that drove thieves to break into the Flamels’ tomb after their deaths, only to discover that it was empty. Sightings of the two around Europe in the years that followed led many people, Scott included, to ask the most curious of questions: ‘Had Nicholas also discovered that other great mystery of alchemy: the secret of immortality?’ It’s a question we’ll never know the answer to, though after reading this series you might truly believe he did.

So what would Michael Scott do if he held the secret to eternal life? ‘To be immortal is to be incredibly lonely,’ he declares. ‘To watch everyone around you age and die – it is one of the themes of the Flamel series. So, I am not sure I would want that. Maybe a slightly longer lifespan to go to all those places I want to visit, and do all those things on my list.’

As I said before, he’s a very busy man. Lots of places to go, lots of things to do. So I’d better let him get on with it. CF