British author Anthony Horowitz talks to Bijal Vachharajani about his lonely childhood, his teenage spy protagonist and how books are actually secret passages
“The worst time to feel alone is when you’re in a crowd,” thinks Alex Rider in Point Blanc, as the teenage spy walks across the playground, “surrounded by hundreds of boys and girls of about his own age.” Rider may be a cool spy with high-tech gadgets and skills at his disposal, but there’s something innately vulnerable about the teen. “I have often felt alone in a crowd,” said Anthony Horowitz, the author of the Alex Rider series, who was in India recently for the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival. “And I know that feeling, particularly when you are a child, it’s the worst thing in the world. I remember being in school and all these kids around you. Schools have that pack mentality – you’ve got to know the right people, have the right friends. And I didn’t. I was on my own often. And I still remember that loneliness. There is no worse loneliness [than] when you’re surrounded by people,” said the author.
It’s perhaps that cutting loneliness, that feeling of not-belonging in a space you inhabit daily, and razor-sharp honesty that young adults are drawn to in his books. Apart from the fact that Horowitz’s books are thrillers – packed with “action, adrenaline, adventure” and lots of suspense.
In fact, think “spy” and “books”, and it’s hard not to think “Anthony Horowitz”. The UK-based writer has written over 40 books – the Alex Rider series has sold 19 million copies across the world. Horowitz has also written TV series, films, and plays. He was commissioned by the Conan Doyle Estate to write two Sherlock Holmes novels – The House of Silk and Moriarty as well as by the Ian Fleming Estate to write the James Bond novel Trigger Mortis. In 2014, he was awarded an OBE for his services to literature.
Delving into childhood
Horowitz began his writing career in 1979, with a children’s book, The Sinister Secret of Frederick K Bower. “Writing for children when I was 21 or 22 years old was a very strange thing to do,” recalled the 62-year-old author. “And I still to this day, don’t understand why I wrote a children’s book, or why I wrote Fredrick. I remember it was a wet afternoon and I was bored, I pulled out a piece of paper and I wrote the first paragraph of that book just without thinking about it. Then I liked the idea and I worked on it and then it became a book.” Horowitz points out this was way before the Harry Potter series phenomenon – there was little interest in children’s books back then. “Sometimes I think it maybe because I was unhappy as a child and I needed to write this book,” he added.
He went on to write more children’s books, including the Groosham Grangeseries, about a boy who goes to a sinister school. And then as Horowitz recalled, “J.K. Rowling came and electrified the world of children’s books.” He added, “What I think is that people don’t even realise is that just as Roald Dahl created the modern children’s book, J.K Rowling made children’s books part of everybody’s life. Suddenly publishers were more interested, journalists wrote about children’s authors, bookshops had a whole section dedicated to children’s books. At the same time, I realised that I couldn’t write any more books about children doing magic. It had to be completely different. And I thought, wasn’t there an idea in my head about a spy? A teenage spy?”
The James Bond influence
And that’s how Alex Rider began to be formed in Horowitz’s mind. “Alex” was named after his best friend’s son. “I thought it was a good name because it’s a strong name,” said Horowitz. “It’s got an ‘X’ in it, which is good and it’s four letters, so it’s very easy to read. It’s an international name – Alexandra, Alex, Alexander the Great. So, that was Alex. And then I had to think about the surname. Bond was so much of an inspiration.” So, Horowitz turned to Dr No, in which Ursula Andress played Honey Ryder. “Alex is sort of her son in my head,” he said.
Given that Bond connection, it’s not surprising to read about really cool gadgets in the Alex Rider series. Like the Stingo Mosquito Lotion that instead of repelling bugs, attracts them! Or the expanding bubble gum which can break locks and is aptly named Bubble 0-7. All of this goes into making the books a fun reading experience. So much so that The British Education Secretary has dubbed Horowitz “the not-so-secret weapon” to get boys reading. “I use good language,” he explained. “I don’t write down. I hate the idea that children are stupid or looking down at them. But basically, the way I write is that river is always flowing, that pace is always happening, so that you get an immersion in the story.” Horowitz relies on using show, rather than tell techniques, immersing his reader into the story and what is happening to the character.
Horowitz is very clear that his books are entertainment and are not meant to preach. He tries hard to avoid serious issues in his books. Yet, Crocodile Tears includes genetically modified crops and Oblivion, the final of the Power of the Five series, is set in a world ravaged by climate change. “It’s not my job to force my views to children,” said Horowitz, who has two sons. “But I do have views. I have particularly strong views about the future, because of course, it’s not my future. It’s their future. And so, some messages creep into the books even if I try to stop them. Certainly, the environment is one, and anti-smoking. Basically, I have been very lucky in my work and in my life. I feel a responsibility to try and help other people in a way. This will sound too goodie-goodie and I am not a goodie-goodie, but I do try to do some good things.”
Horowitz often draws from his unhappy (although self-confessedly privileged) childhood to write his books. And one of them, he said is his fascination for secret passages. He recalls that as a child, he once found himself in an old house full of antiques. Bored, he began tapping its walls. “I knew somewhere there was a passage that would open and get me out,” he said. “Books, in a way, are a secret passage that will take you out of life and take you into a more exciting place. So much of life is difficult, repetitive and depressing that you need to find an escape in some ways. Love is one way of escape, sport, religion, there are many ways. But for me the greatest escape is adventure and storytelling. And those are my secret passages.”