Books

Anthony Horowitz on the childhood trauma that drives his compulsive writing

He grew up an overweight and unhappy child in north London. His wealthy parents showed little interest in him, leaving the chauffeur and governess in charge. Straight after kindergarten he was packed off to a ghastly boarding school. Neither sporty nor especially academic, he found himself entertaining his fellow pupils with his stories after lights out. Thus was born his ambition to become a writer.

It was fulfilled early after short spells as a waiter, abattoir worker and Australian “jackaroo” cowboy, and he has been prolific, writing not only his own gripping stories, including the 21-million selling Alex Rider series for young adults, but two James Bond novels for the Ian Fleming estate, and two Sherlock Holmes books.

He also created Foyle’s War for ITV and New Blood for the BBC, and contributed scripts to, among others, Midsomer Murders. Such astonishing creativity was, he believes, born out of trauma in his early life, but Horowitz is unwilling to complain.

“I get nervous when I see wealthy and privileged people like myself talking about their sad childhood,” he explains.

“But I always say rich kids can be unhappy, too, and it’s true I had strange parents, an alienating family life and if my teachers behaved the same way now they’d be behind bars.”

School life was “enormously destructive”, revolving around “putting you down, making you feel that you were useless, making you feel you were never going to have any success in your life”.

He was frequently beaten by drunken, sadistic masters.

Drawing breath, he continues: “No child should ever be treated that way. Every child has a talent; even when I was at that school I was beginning to tell stories and beginning to write. It was only after I began to tell stories to the other kids at night I realised this was what I loved doing.

“Suddenly, I knew I was going to be a writer. At 10 or 11, I was already designing book covers and practising my autograph! It was a very vivid dream for me at a very early age.”

For years, Horowitz made light of his experiences, instinctively feeling jokes were the best response.

Then one day, invited back to his old school as a famous writer, he found himself standing in a corridor unchanged since his time and froze.

“I’m not an emotional person, I don’t tend to have fainting fits, but I found myself palpitating and sweating and feeling really ill. That was when I realised what was going on,” he explains.

Has he sought counselling? “I’ve often been recommended therapy but I always worry; something is fuelling me. Why do I work so hard and write so much, why do I never stop, why am I always thrusting for ideas?

“The answer is there’s something inside me that’s still burning away, some kind of anger or fear, and I don’t want a therapist to remove that; to put out the fire.”

Despite delving into some of the darker recesses of the human psyche, Horowitz has tried to write uplifting, optimistic stories, especially in his young adult books.

A lifetime’s love of Ian Fleming’s 007 stories, and their films, inspired his first outing with teenage spy Alex Rider spy 20 years ago with Stormbreaker.

He explains: “Alex began with the simple premise that James Bond was getting too old. I just thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if Bond was a teenager’. I didn’t then write the book for another five years but I carried the thought in my head. It was that light bulb moment that changes your life that you’re not even aware of at the time.”

Alex’s name was a nod to Dr No’s Honeychile Rider – played onscreen by Ursula Andress – and the subsequent books contain a wealth of allusions to Fleming’s classic Bond plots and characters.

Stormbreaker was made into a well-received 2006 movie starring Alex Pettyfer. But despite the success of the series, Horowitz originally ended it on book nine, Scorpia Rising (2011).

“I was always nervous about Alex Rider becoming formulaic, I didn’t want to write simply to make money,” he says. But he picked it up again four years later with Never Say Die because Alex’s “final appearance” had been too gloomy.

“I realised I missed Alex,” he says. “It also occurred to me that Scorpia Rising was not the happiest of books and it left Alex in a slightly dark place, his best friend dead. Young people are going to inherit the world and, as you get want a to put fire’ older, you become gloomier and more nervous.

“But if there’s one responsibility for young adult writers, it’s to say, ‘This is your world and you’re going to have a fantastic life’. Scorpia Rising was not an optimistic book and therefore I brought Alex back in a much lighter, more fun book.”

He is now publishing the 13th novel in the series, Nightshade, which he describes as a political book: “It’s about radicalisation, children being brainwashed and turned into mercenary assassins. You don’t need to go too far to see that happening in the real world.”

Alex is also returning to the small screen later this year in a new eight-part TV series starring Otto Farrant as Alex, andVicky McClure.

While the books succeed, in part, because of a genuine sense of jeopardy, Horowitz has occasionally been questioned about their violence.

In his defence, he says, it generally comes with a smile, pointing to one memorable baddie, Damian Cray, who dies after falling out of an aircraft on a tea trolley!

“At the end of the day my job is to entertain. I’m not out to traumatise kids. I don’t like casual violence, the day to day violence you almost take for granted now, violence on Twitter, violence of language and in politics,” he says.

Horowitz, who has two grown-up sons with TV producer Jill Green, continues on the 007 theme: “Having had the idea from Bond, I did everything in my power to make Alex as unlike 007 as I could.

“He’s a reluctant hero, he’s not a patriot. Originally I wasn’t even going to put gadgets in the books because that was too much like the films, but kids like gadgets.”

His son, Cass, reads the Alex Rider books for him.

“He’s a ruthless critic, he always has been since he was a little boy. Once, he read a paragraph and said, ‘Dad, if you publish that I’m leaving home’. It was good advice, I put a red pen straight through it.”

Horowitz has three TV projects on the go, one a series for American television aimed at millennials – each episode just 10 minutes long.

“The producers have decided that younger people in their twenties no longer want to sit down in front of a television for 30 minutes or 40 minutes,” he explains.

“They want their entertainment in bite-sized chunks and they want it on their mobile phones.”

It is a far cry from his most enduringly popular show, Foyle’s War. Sadly, Horowitz concedes, it is unlikely to return with new episodes.

He says: “One of my ambitions is to watch the whole series again.

There are stories I could still tell but television has changed so much that I’m not sure there is the money to make the show.

“Whereas in the old days I could knock on local doors to get my television made, Foyle’s War, New Blood, whatever, now I’m in a queue and ahead of me are people like Steven Spielberg, Stephen King and Martin Scorsese.”

Happily, he has enough books and television projects commissioned to keep him busy for years to come. Among his plans is another Sherlock Holmes novel.

He says: “The Giant Rat of Sumatra is mentioned in passing by Conan Doyle. Is it an idol, a ship, a crook? I can’t wait to find out.”

And another Alex Rider book is in the creative pipeline.

Horowitz still writes in longhand, using a fountain pen, often rising early and missing breakfast. And he leaves notes for his assistants and wife in case he dies before he completes his current book.

He laughs: “It’s always been a worry that if I’m writing an incredibly complicated whodunnit and die before the end of the book nobody will know who did it.

“So I have got into the habit of leaving notes for my wife and my assistant: ‘In the event of my death, this is the solution’.”

Now one of his favourite things is meeting fans who have grown-up with his stories. “I’ve been a positive part of their lives. Something that’s been good and helped them achieve their aims. That’s the best thing in my life, meeting readers who have grown up with me.”

Nightshade by Anthony Horowitz (Walker Books, £12.99) is out now. For free UK delivery, call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310 or order via expressbookshop.co.uk Delivery may be up to 28 days

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