Asked to account for the sheer volume of his work, the composer Camille Saint-Saens replied, ‘I write music like a tree grows apples.’ The same could be said of the prolific Anthony Horowitz. Author of 27 children’s books published over the last 30 years, he has also written for adults ( The Killing Joke ), for television ( Foyle’s War plus many other plays and adaptations) and for the stage ( Mindgame ). Comparatively unknown for the first half of his writing career, he has now hit big time with his six Alex Rider stories, published worldwide and with three million copies sold in Britain alone. The first of these, Stormbreaker , is currently being filmed in London with an all star cast; another five films are planned. As an executive producer, Anthony flits between Pinewood and his home in North London. He has a small walk-on part in the film, due to come out towards the end of 2006. Handsome, slim, charming and urbane, there could surely be a bigger role for him here too.
But what Anthony still likes doing best is writing, and while being interviewed by me he was always in the most courteous way clearly itching to get back to his latest horror story, this time involving a massage chair that also rips apart anyone who sits in it. He remains happiest alone sometimes up to ten hours at a time in his comfortable garden studio with its downstairs bedroom, for use when his writing goes on well into the night. Much time too is spent on active research, visiting virtually all the locations of his books in journeys that have taken him as far as Havana and the Peruvian jungle. He has also trained with the SAS and scaled the roof of the Science Museum, both in the interests of getting that extra authentic touch to his writing. But when it comes to surfing, jet-skiing and snowboarding, he is content now to observe how his 15-year-old son Nicholas manages to cope before incorporating these areas of expertise into yet another Alex Rider adventure. Younger brother Cassian, aged 13, is also kept busy, already appearing in four of his father’s television shows.
It all sounds the most prodigious fun, which is entirely fitting for it was basically to cheer himself up that Anthony started writing in the first place. Born in Stanmore, North London in 1955, his childhood appeared sheltered and peaceful, at least on the surface. It was only when he looked back on it years later that he realised that he had in fact been left stuck in a huge house ‘with too many rules and not enough friends. I used to dream regularly about waking up one day suddenly poor, with the chauffeur and the Rolls Royce gone and us only dressed in rags. I could then become a criminal and have some really exciting adventures. I used to long for this.’
There were also relatives he had become accustomed to but who now seem to him deeply unsympathetic if not occasionally downright horrible. Particularly hated was his grandmother, upon whose grave he and his sister literally danced after her death. Being sent off to boarding school in Harrow at the age of eight was another blow, especially when this turned out to be ‘a horrendously unpleasant prep school where the headmaster sometimes used to flog pupils until they bled’. On a recent visit to give a talk he found himself back in the school dining room, unchanged since his own time. ‘I was suddenly paralysed with fear all over again, trembling and sweating. Whatever black jokes I have made about that school since, I also know it did something pretty dreadful to me at the time.’
Overweight, bad at lessons and lonely, bullied and tormented not so much by other pupils but by his teachers, there was fortunately always his own imagination to offer him an escape to a much nicer world. Finishing his first novel at the age of eight, he later had the humiliation of hearing his father cruelly deride another of his efforts after stealing the manuscript from his son’s bedroom. This same ultra-secretive father, described by Anthony as ‘a fixer for Harold Wilson’, was later threatened with bankruptcy. Withdrawing all his money from Swiss bank accounts in Zurich, he deposited it somewhere else under a false name and then promptly died of cancer.
The money, if indeed it ever existed, has never been found. Anthony’s mother went on to get a job which she then found she enjoyed, while Anthony finished his education at Rugby public school. He was still writing story after story but liking lessons more once he had come across some inspired English teachers. York University followed, a time for lots of student theatre work and not much study. After that there was a short spell in advertising before he suddenly decided, one wet, boring day in October, to become a children’s writer – just like that. Never looking back, his first novel, Enter Frederick K Bower , was published in 1979 when he was 23.
Many others followed, some of which like Granny (1994) and The Switch (1996) take revenge on the monsters of his childhood. All his books were moderately successful without ever tying him to one particular way of writing. He remains grateful for this flexibility, and is anxious not to become over-associated with his Alex Rider novels, described by some as junior versions of the James Bond stories. Anthony is more than happy with this comparison. ‘When I was about 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13, the James Bond films were coming out for the first time. Every year at Christmas I would go to see the next one. It was a big, big event in my life.’
Youthful dreams at the time of being a spy heavily into revenge and retribution were transformed 30 years later into stories about Alex Rider, aged 14 and Britain’s youngest serving MI6 officer. He also is quite solitary, having lost both his parents. Still too young to be seriously interested in girls – only once brushing his lips against attractive fellow-teenager Sabrina – Alex concentrates instead on saving the world and himself from various attempts to bring both to an end. James Bond’s particular brand of conspicuous consumption is replaced by descriptions of the latest state of the art skateboard or trainers. There are also ingenious gadgets of a non-lethal kind, useful for getting out of dangerous situations when all seems lost. The writing is not subtle: eyes narrow, lock on or are filled with hate at regular intervals, and there are reliable adventure story stand-byes such as those sheets that somehow can be torn effortlessly into strips at a moment’s notice in order to tie up or gag troublesome villains. But the narrative always goes at a great pace, a tribute to the meticulous plotting that takes place before any of these novels are written.
There are going to be more Alex Rider stories before he finally bows out after reaching his fifteenth birthday and proper adolescence. Living in real time, there is no intention for him to stay forever young in the way that Richmal Crompton managed with her great character William. Alex’s seventh story, not yet finished, takes place three days after the finish of Ark Angel , the most recent novel. This is a very busy modern hero, with six full-scale adventures already having taken place within one year in his life, with time for at least two more stories yet.
But Anthony currently has a new project: putting the horror into Horowitz. Having had enough of Alex Rider for a while, he had another look at The Devil’s Doorbell , a book he wrote in 1983. Deciding it was worth re-writing, he has now produced Raven’s Gate , sticking to the main ideas of the original story but with around 80% of the text completely revised. This is to be the first of five adventures in a sequence to be known as ‘The Power of Five’. His original intention – to meld the supernatural with the modern world rather than escape into other universes altogether – still stands, although in Raven’s Gate 14-year-old Matt, an orphan in trouble with the law, is up against a cast of drivelling, in-bred villagers taken not so much from today but from Hammer Films from the 1960s. But future novels in this series will have a more metropolitan setting as Matt and his readers continue to face up to the enormity of the task in front of him: to save the world once again, but this time from invasion by the Old Ones, led by Satan himself.
Guarded over by a modern witch and her dogs from hell, Matt survives quicksands, attempted murder and dinosaur skeletons brought terrifyingly back to life before finally making it to the last page of Raven’s Gate . Only occasionally gruesome, this story is actually great fun, neatly tying in the splitting of throats in the Middle Ages with splitting atoms in the world today. A disused nuclear power station is the locus for dark forces which have never gone away. The fact that a 14-year-old boy proves too much for all the evil adults out to get him will surely remain a popular message with Anthony’s many young readers. Already on the New York Times bestseller list, this novel seems set for excellent sales over here as well. Future books in the series promise to be more horrific, with this book something of a warm-up before the main action really gets going.
Anthony is a restless, energy-packed person, and certainly the smartest dresser in the male section of the children’s books world. He has many plans for the future, and although the good money he now earns comes in useful, he has never written simply for cash. This is because, as he puts it himself, ‘I love what I do. I don’t try to be a great writer, but I aim to be a good one. Children like my stories, and so do I.’ This enthusiasm comes over both in his books and in person. Children and the odd adult turned on by his books can and should be grateful. There are many other effective storytellers writing for younger readers at the moment, but none with quite the same panache and very few who work quite so hard. His decision to become a writer all those years ago was an excellent one both for children and for children’s literature alike.
Nicholas Tucker is honorary senior lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at Sussex University.
The Books – a selection
FROM WALKER BOOKS:
The Power of Five:
Book 1: Raven’s Gate , 1 84428 619 3, £6.99 pbk
The Alex Rider books:
Stormbreaker , 1 84428 092 6, £6.99 pbk
Point Blanc , 1 84428 093 4, £6.99 pbk
Skeleton Key , 1 84428 094 2, £6.99 pbk
Eagle Strike , 1 84428 095 0, £6.99 pbk
Scorpia , 0 7445 8323 3, £6.99 pbk
Ark Angel , 0 7445 8324 1, £6.99 pbk
Alex Rider: The Gadgets , 1 84428 116 7, £9.99 pbk
Seven titles including The Falcon’s Malteser (0 7445 9035 3) and Public Enemy Number Two (0 7445 9036 1), £4.99 each pbk
The Devil and his Boy , 1 84428 606 1, £4.99 pbk
Granny , 0 7445 9096 5, £4.99 pbk
The Switch , 1 84428 607 X, £4.99 pbk
FROM ORCHARD BOOKS:
Six titles including The Night Bus (1 84121 372 1) and Killer Camera (1 84121 366 7), £3.99 each pbk. Also available in collections, Horowitz Horror (1 84362 788 4) and More Horowitz Horror (1 84362 789 2), £5.99 each pbk