The es­capol­o­gist

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

Sunday Herald Life - - BOOKS INTERVIEW/REVIEWS -

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. 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’

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