As a wealthy but miserable bullied child, Anthony Horowitz sought refuge in stories. Now a hugely successful author with a happy family life, Alex Rider’s creator still treats books as means of escape, as Teddy Jamieson discovers
ANTHONY Horowitz is a writer but, really, I’m not sure it’s right to say that it’s his profession. Spend any time talking to him and it’s clear that “profession” doesn’t cover it.
You could call it a compulsion, perhaps. He uses other words. “Passion” and “love” are two of them. And both are clearly part of it too.
But I think, on reflection, “need” might be better. “I have to write,” he admits. “I’ve never written for money, which only someone who doesn’t need money can say, incidentally.”
Horowitz has a new book out when I speak to him, Never Say Die, the 11th in his Alex Rider Young Adult series. Come back later – August to be precise – and there will be another one, The Word Is Murder, the first in a new private eye series. If it takes off he thinks it might run to nine or 10 books in all.
There’s also a collection of Alex Rider short stories in the offing (though at least he’s not involved in the planned Alex Rider TV series currently in discussion). And just to keep things ticking over, November will see the paperback publication of his last novel, Magpie Murders. He’s working on a TV adaptation of the latter when I call.
“It has been an incredibly busy year,” Horowitz concedes, “and I am rather worried that people like yourself are going to become sick and tired of my name.”
That doesn’t seem likely. Horowitz is a brand. With more than 30 titles in his back catalogue for adults and children, he has been chosen to write new novels for both Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. And that’s before we even get to his work for television (he created and wrote Foyle’s War, Murder In Mind, Injustice And Collision, all produced by his wife Jill Green, and has written episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Midsomer Murders).
Some people, Anthony, spend years writing just the one book. “It’s true that everywhere I go, everyone I meet, everything I do, inspires me to tell a story. What I am not good at is describing life. What I tend to do is take the world around me and turn it into something.”
In the case of Never Say Die that includes putting his teenage spy hero through a spot of PTSD and a rather ingenious example of train kidnapping. He writes about spies and detectives and is not afraid of writing popular fiction. Indeed, that is the idea.
“I’ve also, incidentally, a keen awareness of my place in the scheme of things. I’m a storyteller, an entertainer,” he says. “I don’t think of myself as being somebody with worldchanging opinions. I don’t think of myself as being, in inverted commas, ‘a great writer’. I just try to be a good one. I don’t compare myself to my heroes Dickens and Trollope, or modern writers like [Kazuo] Ishiguro or [Ian] McEwan. I know my place. But it’s an important place.”
I’m glad he adds that proviso. Horowitz can be guilty of playing that posh-boy Hugh Grant-ish self-deprecation card (you may have already noticed).
This morning he is at home in London and trying hard not to say anything too headlinegrabbing. That has been something of a habit in the past.
Earlier this year he revealed that an editor had said he shouldn’t write any black characters because he himself wasn’t black. “There is a chain of thought in America that it is inappropriate for white writers to try and create black characters,” he said at the time.
Is that going to stop him? “Absolutely not. The book in question is not one book but a trilogy. It’s a very big piece of writing. I’m contracted for four novels before I can even begin to think about it so we’re talking about something which is five years down the line and as for the colour, age or make-up of the two main characters ... that’s a long, long time for me to think.” H E takes the idea of the author as a public figure seriously, albeit reluctantly. “It’s a difficult situation to be in. On the one hand it is my responsibility to do as much as I can to publicise the books, which means talking to journalists like you and going on television and radio. And if you do that it seems pointless and wrong simply to offer platitudes and just bang on about how marvellous the book is and not to try to grip issues that are around us.
“But at the same time I have never wanted to climb onto a soapbox. I don’t think I have the right to. What have I done? I’ve sold lots of books. I’m not somebody who is working with refugees or in politics or whatever.
“So I have to be honest and say that I’ve proven myself not to be the world’s most skilful communicator when it comes to issues that might have even a whiff of controversy attached to them and as far as I am concerned I am happier writing than talking about writing.”
Well, yes. Last year he claimed that the British actor Idris Elba wasn’t the right actor to play James Bond (he preferred Adrian Lester). Uncontroversial in itself, perhaps, but he did suggest that Elba was “too street” for the part. A choice of words that he later admitted wasn’t the cleverest. “Just be honest and say ‘James Bond’s being white is important to me’ and be done with it,” the American writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, tweeted in response. That said, sometimes the press can make a mountain out of a molecule. “I often now have to be very careful about what I say because a joke told in Hay-on Wye can easily turn up on page four or five of a newspaper as your opinion on something.”
Indeed, he recently found himself apologising on BBC Radio Suffolk for a jokey reference to murders in the village of Orford. “I don’t think I needed to apologise because people in Suffolk have a perfectly developed sense of humour. That is the world we now live in. I’m not complaining about it. I’m just wary of it.”
Hmm. I get that. He does seem burned by the odd peevish headline. At the same time, though, he’s not above picking a fight. Earlier this year Horowitz was one of the authors whose books were banned from the library of the King’s College School in Wimbledon, because the headmaster deemed them “simplistic, brutal and banal”. Horowitz brings this up in our conversation to point out the wrongness of the decision.
“I shouldn’t even raise him
really. But I’ve always had this belief that fiction and enjoying story and narrative is something that unites and binds us. I do think that your life is immeasurably improved if you read and enjoy fiction.”
In short, the headmaster in question just didn’t get what stories can do for children. Children like the one Horowitz once was. Because in his own childhood, stories were everything to him.
His rich and strange background is itself a story that has been often told, but one that doesn’t flag from the retelling. Horowitz grew up in north London, the son of a millionaire businessman in a home full of servants but conspicuously lacking in love. His school days at prep school were equally miserable. He was bullied and unhappy and sought escape in fiction. Then, when Horowitz was 22, his father died and his fortune disappeared into a Swiss bank account and has never been recovered.
In that sense, Horowitz can call himself a self-made man now. But the shadow of his childhood never seems far away. “One of the reasons we need books and we read books,” he tells me, “is that fiction is a place of retreat, of safety.”
He speaks from the experience of his own youth. The question is, does it remain so now? If the 10-year-old Horowitz turned to fiction as a means to escape his misery, what about the man in his early 60s? Is he still looking for an escape?
“Yes I think I am. I think that immersing myself when I’m writing it or reading it is a sort of escape from the worries and sadnesses of everyday life; worrying about my children, thinking about the horrors that are happening in the world, worrying about politics in America, Brexit, all these different things. There’s a tendency in all of us to get into bed and pull the covers over our heads. And when we do it, it’s good to do it with a book. So, yes, there is an element of escapism in my work.”
Horowitz has two sons. He is in his seventh decade. Does he feel distant now from the boy he was? “I think humanity can be roughly divided into people who have forgotten what it’s like to be a child and those who haven’t. I like more the people who still remember and who still keep part of the inner child with them. I think it’s an important part of our humanity. I vividly remember my childhood. I am still very connected to it. I don’t think I could write children’s books unless I had somewhere inside of me the 14-year-old that I was.”
That may also explain why he involves himself in a charity like Kidscape, which provides help for bullied children. “Having come through prep school where bullying was prevalent, where I was both bullied and a bully, it seems to be incredibly important and good work. I was asked to be their patron, which I still am and I do what they ask when they ask it.”
Of course, the reason for all the interest in him (and the flak that sometimes follows) is that Horowitz is a storyteller and a good one. He doesn’t need to apologise for that.
He thought he had finished with Alex Rider and says he is as surprised as anybody that he found himself writing a new novel. Polishing up the short stories for publication, Horowitz realised he missed his teenage spy. “When you write a character for so long you get to know them. They become a part of your life. You worry about him even though he’s a fictitious character. So he’s always been lurking in the back of my consciousness. Also the letters hadn’t stopped. To children who were reading Alex Rider there was no end to him. Since he wasn’t over in their minds, nor should he be in mine.”
Rider is the reason he is talking to me now, he knows. More than that, Horowitz says, he only became successful as a writer when he moved away from his own childhood. “My earlier works are all just riffs on my childhood in a funny way,” he says. Indeed. In his early children’s book Groosham Grange, he parodied his own father. Granny, meanwhile, was a take on his grandmother. She doesn’t come out of it well. With the first Alex Rider book, Stormbreaker, Horowitz put his past behind him. “The moment I dropped the baggage,” he says, things took off. Alex is such a different character from me. He’s everything that I’m not, right down to the fact that he went to a comprehensive, even chose to go to a comprehensive rather than a private school like me and is an orphan and is gifted. That’s what made him work for me and is why, I’m sure, after writing 10 books, Stormbreaker took off.”
Was Alex then a form of wish fulfilment? “Not wish fulfilment but I think every child has a desire to save the world.”
Horowitz hasn’t managed that. But he has saved himself. That’s achievement enough. Time to go. There is writing to be done. Anthony Horowitz is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 12. edbookfest. co.uk. Never Say Die is out now from Walker Books, £12.99. The Word Is Murder will be published by Century on August 24, £20.
Anthony Horowitz, author of the hugely popular Alex Rider series
of books, landed himself in trouble in the past talking about actor Idris Elba playing James Bond
After writing 10 books it was Horowitz’s first Alex Rider book, Stormbreaker, that saw his career ‘take off’