Anthony Horowitz is a restless man. He talks quickly, energetically and with force, pausing only for a couple of seconds to formulate a thought before leaning forward excitedly to share it. “I talk fast and frantically because I’m worried my audience will get bored and lose interest in me. That’s how I write as well,” he said at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January, where he spoke about his staggering body of work – his 46th novel was published in August last year and the next is out in May 2018.
The British author is best-known for the wildly popular Alex Rider series of books for young adults, which have reportedly sold over 19 million copies worldwide. But while the young teenage spy might be his most famous creation, the prolific writer has also found acclaim through novels about characters even more popular than Alex Rider – the estates of both Arthur Conan Doyle and Ian Fleming have commissioned Horowitz to write new novels.
His first James Bond novel, Trigger Mortis was published in 2014 and the estate announced that a second novel, Forever And A Day, will be out in May 2018. He’s written two Sherlock Holmes novels already and while a third hasn’t been announced yet, it seems likely. Besides these, Horowitz has written several standalone novels, multiple television shows (including contributing scripts to Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Midsome Murders), films, plays, horror stories, graphic novels and other children’s books.
With his most recent novel, The Word Is Murder, however, Horowitz has broken new ground. The first in a series that introduces the detective Daniel Hawthorne, the book deviates from being a classic whodunit in several ways but most strikingly because Horowitz has written himself into the book as the narrator of the story, building a sly backstory where real life meets fiction. It’s a meta flourish that shows the 62-year-old author has many tricks left up his sleeve.
Horowitz is a notoriously outspoken author who didn’t hold back at the Jaipur Literature Festival either, sharing his thoughts on everything from James Bond (the films are ridiculously obsessed with the gadgets) and Sherlock Holmes (he’s an uncouth twat and only Dr Watson makes him tolerable by being the kinder, more interesting man) to writing horror stories (it’s the only form of writing that lets him kill children). In the past he has also spoken about being mercilessly bullied as a child and how that led him to support an anti-bullying charity.
Horowitz spoke to Scroll.in about the many hats he wears as a writer. Excerpts from the interview:
You have been tasked with the responsibility of carrying on the legacy of two of English literature’s most popular heroes – Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. When you write novels about them, are you trying to update them in any way for a 21st century audience?
Absolutely not. Doyle was a genius and so was Fleming. They created two immortal characters and it is not my job to update them, to modernise, to make them more acceptable, or whatever. It is my job to be true to the intention of the authors. With Holmes, Watson and Doyle that’s not so difficult because they are what they are – 19th century icons. With Bond, you’re right, it’s a little more difficult since attitudes have changed drastically since the 1950s. Some of things that Bond says or does would no longer be considered acceptable. It’s more difficult to be true to the original character without offending the sensibilities of the audience, particularly now, given the very strong backlash against Weinstein.
How has the reception been? Are there loyalists who are dissatisfied with what you’ve written?
The first people I think of when I write these books are what you call the loyalists, the fans, because they’re people who absolutely love these books and for a writer to come barging into the room and to trample on the things they love is not acceptable, it’s unthinkable. So I write very carefully and one of the great things about the books Trigger Mortis and The House of Silk – they were both very well-received – was that the people who were the greatest fans of the characters were very happy with them.
In your newest book The Word Is Murder, you’ve inserted yourself into a story for the first time. What was that process like? Did it feel vulnerable or fun to do in a way previous fiction had not?
When I had the idea of putting myself into a book, my publishers were very nervous, my wife was very nervous and I was quite nervous too. Because there’s a very thin line between doing something new, doing a new form of whodunit and going on an ego trip. My publishers were very nervous that the Anthony who would come in this book would be…unattractive, really. So I was quite apprehensive about doing the whole thing but the truth of the matter is that the main character of the book is not me, I’m just the narrator of Daniel Hawthorne’s life. Yes, there are passages about me but they’re only about me as a writer, not as a human being particularly. And I’m happy with the way it worked out. In the next one of this edition, after The Word is Murder, I’m not going to be quite so upfront. Now that I’ve set it up, it’ll be easier to do sequels. The main books will remain about Hawthorne, not about me.
You’ve spoken in the past about having a difficult childhood in many ways. How much did that spur you into building a fantasy and writing made-up worlds?
Yes, but you know I walk through the streets of Jaipur or other parts of the world and see children with all kinds of difficult lives. Let me be clear. I had a very privileged, rich childhood and it’s wrong of me to complain about it. I suppose at the same time, even rich children can be unhappy…children can be unhappy for many reasons.
There’s definitely a link between that and writing a children’s book in the first place. Why would a 22-year-old man, which I was then, write a children’s book? I still don’t know the answer to that question. But it must be something to do with...I call it an unsatisfactory childhood, which is what I had. And certainly the fantasy elements…I’ve always been fascinated not by what I’m faced with but what I can’t see. For example, (points to a door in a dimly-lit corner of the room) I’ll be sitting here talking to you and want to know what’s behind that door. I think that’s a lift. I love that it looks like a door but it seems to be some kind of secret lift. Then I start asking myself: “Where does it go? What’s underneath?” I want to know immediately. That’s how I was as a child, that’s how I still am as a man.
You write for people across age groups. With children’s writing, while you can obviously introduce complexity in certain ways, do you find yourself restricted by language or do you find children’s writing opens up a whole new form of experimentation that writing for adults might not offer?
I like language, I love words and I try and write well for children as well as adults. I try to have sentences that have a nice ring to them, that have some balance and I do use words occasionally that challenge children. It’s just something you have to be careful with – there are children who can read Tolstoy and there are children of the same age who find Tintin difficult. And I want all children to read because a life without reading, a life without fiction...I can’t imagine it. So I take care. There’s always another word, sometimes it’s not as good of a word but that’s the the time to dip into the richness of the English language. There are so many words for anything you want to say.
Are there areas you don’t touch when writing for children? Are there any taboos in children’s literature?
I don’t think anything is taboo. Writers should be free to write what they want to write and not feel like there is anything that they need to worry about. Having said that, there are things you can write that are going to stop you being published and there are things you can write that are going to upset and annoy people, and if you want to write that, go ahead but it probably won’t do you much good. So you do, of course, have to be careful and responsible. In my case, for example, I don’t write about sex and sexuality because I think childhood – my readership up to the age of 14 – I think it’s great that they don’t have to worry about these things yet. That’ll come. I think books should be happy. Why throw problems at children – painful divorce and terrorism and drug addiction. I read Paro Anand’s book No Guns At My Son’s Funeral before coming here. It’s a book about terrorism and I thought it was a brilliant book. But that’s not what I write, it’s not what I want to do with my books.
What do you think is missing in the world of children’s books right now? What do you wish people were writing more of?
Children’s literature is in a very healthy place, I look forward to what comes next. But I’m very aware of being an older writer now. I wish there were more young twenty-year-old writers coming through and getting successful. When children get to the age of 14 or 15, they often drop off reading. I wish there were more books that engaged children of 14 through to 22. There were books like that when I was growing up and there are fewer now.
Why do you think that is? Do young, skilled writers want to engage with more literary forms of writing? Does that that plays a role? Also, not everybody can write books for children...
When I sit down to write, I don’t think, “what do children want to read?” You can’t answer that. Children in Delhi are not going to exactly the same as children in London, or even Liverpool. Children all over the world are as different and varied as adults and I think there’s a danger to try and target them as a stereotype of liking certain things.
I also believe children’s books come from a strange place inside you. They come from that inner child. When I write – and people often ask me who I write for – I write for my 14-year-old self. These are books I wish I was reading when I was 14. And I do sometimes get depressed with literary or other adult writers who take a shot at writing for children because they think they can do it. I feel that they sometimes fail simply because they have made it a target.
I began by saying to you, “I don’t know why I began to write kids books.” I really still don’t know why. I think most of the children’s books I’ve admired have been by writers who had this curious thing in them. Look at Lewis Carroll, actually don’t look at Carroll, I hate Alice in Wonderland. But look at Dahl. Roald Dahl’s children’s books come from a strange malevolence in him. I’m not sure he was a totally nice man but he wrote these wonderful books that came out of his soul and yet when he tried to write adult books, particularly My Uncle Oswald, something went badly wrong. And that’s fascinating. That he’s such a great children’s writer but not such a good adult writer. I am trying to be both but it’s never going to be easy.