Literary Legend

talks to Anthony Horowitz about formulaic writing, Harvey Weinstein, and a Stormbreaker film

Anthony Horowitz estimates that he has written ten million words in his career, and at 62 he shows no signs of slowing down. A cogent and engaging speaker, the words fly off his tongue and, we might presume, off his fountain pen (a fresh one for every book). On 8 November, I was lucky enough to see Horowitz return to his old university in conversation with Judith Buchanan, and to ask him a few questions afterwards.

One of York’s most lauded alumni, Horowitz believes his time at university allowed him to “find myself ”. Although some-what bashfully he admits he may have “neglected” his degree (English Literature), he made the most of the opportunities offered outside the academic. He became involved in student media (including Nouse!) and drama, even penning his first play, Castaways. Since then he has gone on to become one of the most prolific and successful living British writers. He has written over 50 novels  and is also an acclaimed TV writer of shows such as Midsummer Murders, Poirot, Foyle’s War, and Injustice.

Alex Holland; University of York

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As for many others who grew up in the noughties, Horowitz was one of the staple reads of my childhood. Not just Alex Rider (although I loved the series), but the Power of Five series, Killer Camera (a branch into horror), and the Diamond Brothers series. But it is for Alex Rider that Horowitz is renowned. The first novel, Stormbreaker, came out in 2000, and has since led to a series of eleven novels, with an estimated 19 million sales across the globe. This year Eleventh Hour Films (the company behind Horowitz’s Foyle’s War, New Blood, and Collision) have begun work on a TV adaptation of the series for ITV. Its popularity is certainly an interesting phenomenon. One of the unique things about Alex Rider is the moral purity of the cause and of the protagonist. Every child wants to be Alex: he always tries to do what is right, has a vast array of skills, and fundamentally, is both popular and a hero. Who didn’t dream of going on adventures and saving the world? Alex’s world is an idealistic one: in which the hero and the villain, clearly demarcated, receive their just deserts.

 

Horowitz came to love reading at an early age, at a brutal boarding school where he admits that “the library saved my life”. He wiled away his time with classics such as Tintin (“I was too stupid to read actual novels”) and Willard Price. Becoming a writer realised a long-held ambition of Horowitz’s, although it was only with the publication of his Alex Rider series that he found major success. Horowitz argues that for a children’s novel to be popular, one of the primary things the author must do is kill the parents. “It’s about empowerment” he argues, pointing to Harry Potter; the removal of otherwise stifling authority.

Does Horowitz see similarities between the tenacious, daring, and heroic Alex Rider and himself? The answer is a decisive ‘no’. His novels before Alex Rider were far less commercially successful, selling only around 5000 copies a year. He jokes that his earlier protagonists – overweight, unpopular children in boarding schools who don’t get on with their parents – were far more a reflection of his personality than Rider ever was.

Yet in spite of this, Horowitz clearly feels a close bond with Alex. He initially promised Scorpia Rising would bring the series to an end – the novel which closed with Alex mentally scarred, traumatised and dead inside. Yet Horowitz couldn’t face leaving such a bleak ending for Alex – so penned a sequel redeeming him.

Despite the enduring appeal of Alex Rider, not everything within the franchise has seen quite such commercial success. The adaptation of the first Alex Rider novel, Stormbreaker, to the big screen was a disappointment. Horowitz partly lays the blame for this failure at the feet of notorious Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, claiming that Weinstein repeatedly interfered in the creative process, wanting the film to appeal to children as young as six to boost ticket sales.

Bringing back characters has become almost a habit for Horowitz. Commissioned by both the Arthur Conan Doyle estate and the Ian Fleming estate to create new stories with their heroes, Horowitz had to consider the propositions. “I hate formulaic writing” he explains, “so when they approached me I had to consider whether I really wanted to do this – for all of five seconds”. Yet these two projects did present their difficulties. Conan Doyle writes with a distinctive style, using an idiolect and syntactical structure far removed from Horowitz’s work. Consequently Horowitz was forced to abandon his own prose style, and instead attempt to take on Conan Doyle’s mannerisms. In one instance, he recalls, Conan Doyle describes a window as ‘snib’, a phrase which Horowitz copied in his books. “I still have no idea what it means” he laughs gleefully.

Alex’s world is an idealistic world, in which the hero and the villain receive their just desserts

He explains, “‘I’m interested in the dynamic between sidekick, detective, and author, and their relationship with the author”. This relationship colours his most recent book, The Word is Murder. In it, Horowitz meshes fiction and reality, penning himself as the detective’s sidekick and introducing such familiar faces as Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson – and his wife. This produced some interesting moments in the novel’s drafting: in one scene Horowitz has been injured and is in hospital. His wife visits, a scene which she influenced (in real life) to make her presence ‘less harsh’. “That bit is fiction”, Horowitz quips.

Horowitz’s writing process is surprisingly intricate, given the rate of his publication. He estimates that a book takes from seven months to a year and a quarter, mostly written sitting in his London home. He often works through-out the day with little or no human contact, admitting, “It is lonely sometimes’” although he often has his labrador to keep him company. The internet has produced valuable tools for the writing process, sites such as Google Maps aiding with research. He recalls how, while recently drafting a new Bond novel set in 1950s southern France, he was able to use Maps to work out the first thing his character would see walking out of a café – stone angels on a nearby church. Fittingly, the working title of that chapter became ‘Guardian Angels’.

Alex Holland; University of York

At times, Horowitz comes across a little like one of his characters. He has a skull on his desk “to remind myself that time is brief ”. (When asked whether the rumour that it was a birthday gift has any truth, he replies “Not at all. It was a Christmas present”.) Horowitz is certainly never dull – a vivacious speaker, he is quick to make light of whatever circumstances he finds himself in. (At the opening of the talk, Horowitz’s microphone began whining. “Is my wife here?” he quipped.)

Looking forward, what project would most excite Horowitz? “I’m always waiting for that invitation from a major filmmaker that I admire to write a film or to work on a television show, I mean there’s a book called The Caine Mutiny that I have been trying to get permission to adapt for nine or ten years now, and we could finally hear we’ve got the green light for that. It’s a ten part series set in the Second World War aboard an American minesweeper, so that would be very exciting.”

But it is Horowitz’s final words to me that mark him out and reveal that – ten million words in – he still possesses dynamism and is still raring for new adventures: “I’m excited by everything, I’m excited to meet you. I live my life with a sort of sense that what’s next is going to be more exciting than what is past”. Horowitz says the words with such conviction that it is impossible to doubt him.

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