Author and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz is appearing at Ilkley Literature Festival next week. Chris Bond caught up with the former York University student.
THERE can be few writers as prolific, or successful for that matter, as Anthony Horowitz.
Since making his literary debut at the age of just 23, Horowitz has become one of the most sought-after names in the business, juggling teenage fiction with writing for TV, film and stage.
He’s the creator of Midsomer Murders and the Bafta-winning Foyle’s War, and also worked on ITV’s acclaimed Poirot. His novels include the bestselling Sherlock Holmes titles, The House Of Silk and Moriarty, and the Alex Rider series which became a publishing sensation. If that wasn’t enough he’s also the latest writer to take on the Ian Fleming mantle with his James Bond novel, Trigger Mortis.
He’s now written more than 40 books during a career spanning 36 years and his latest novel Magpie Murders, published yesterday, is a smart whodunit that doffs its cap to the classic cosy crime stories of the Agatha Christie era, while at the same time adding a dark contemporary twist.
“It’s the whodunit to end all whodunits,” he says. It’s a bold proclamation, but as someone well versed in the crime writing tradition Horowitz is well placed to make it.
His interest in crime fiction stretches back to his teenage years and he still finds it endlessly fascinating. “It grips people and there’s a unique relationship between author and reader. If you look at Arthur Conan Doyle he ended up hating Sherlock Holmes and killed him off only to bring him back because readers were so upset.”
Horowitz was hooked on stories from an early age and it became a way of coping with being at boarding school. “I was writing stories from the age of about 10. I loved the escapism that books and writing gave me,” he says. “My first great love as a 12 year-old boy was Tintin.”
He asked his father for a typewriter for his birthday but instead received a fountain pen (he still uses one to this day). But his father also introduced him to another famous fictional figure who Horowitz quickly came to idolise.
“He bought me a Sherlock Holmes book when I was 17 and in a funny way Sherlock Holmes and James Bond have guided me through my career, because the Alex Rider stories are straight out of James Bond,” he says.
Following his unhappy time at boarding school Horowitz went to study English and Art History at the University of York in 1974.
“I still visit the university and give talks to the students. I probably feel closer to the place now than I did when I was there 30 years ago.”
Horowitz received an Honorary Degree from the university six years ago, something he calls a “huge privilege”, and says the place is unrecognisable from his own student days.
“They still have the lake, the ducks and the central hall but there are so many new buildings. It’s got the best TV centre for students probably in the country and every time I go back I wish I was studying there now rather than back in the 1970s.”
He looks back fondly on his time there even if he didn’t scale the heights academically speaking (he left with a 2:2). “I didn’t work hard enough,” he admits, “though I did write plays and books,” he offers by way of consolation.
He believes university education in this country has changed as a result of the introduction of tuition fees, and not for the better. “There’s much more of a focus on jobs and careers now and I think you lose some of the experience of going to university because it should also be a time to explore things, to be creative and find out who you are.
“It’s a brief hiatus before the world of work takes over and that’s why I’m opposed to tuition fees,” he says. “I spent three years at university learning to become a writer and I owe it a great debt.”
Within a couple of years of graduating he’d had his first novel published, a children’s story called The Sinister Secret of Frederick K Bower.
“It remains a perennial mystery that my first novel was a children’s book. Perhaps it was because of my unsatisfactory childhood and I was trying to recapture something of my youth. But it was a bit of an empty field back then. This was long before JK Rowling came along and apart from Roald Dahl there wasn’t really anyone else,” he said.
His career took off while he was in his 20s. He “lucked in”, as he puts it, when he was offered the chance to write for Robin of Sherwood in the mid-80s. “It happened to be one of the biggest and most watched shows on the box and I became a staff writer. I had a wonderful time working on that.”
Since then his career has flourished and Horowitz has shown he’s equally adept at writing novels as he is writing TV scripts. “Whether it’s an Alex Rider story or a TV script I don’t tend to write for different audiences, it’s more about the story. You can’t sit and write a bestseller, you just have to write a story you believe in.”
His creation of Alex Rider in 2000 set the publishing world alight. Alex is a teenage boy sent around the world as MI6’s secret weapon, with gadgets ranging from explosive zit cream to a customised mountain bike. The reluctant young superspy made his debut in Stormbreaker and since then the teen spy series has become a global phenomenon selling an estimated 13 million copies worldwide.
The variety of his work is hugely impressive. But surely he hits the proverbial brick wall from time to time? “I’ve not really had writer’s block, I don’t really believe in it. You can get to a point in a novel where you don’t know what’s coming next but if that happens you go for a walk, or visit an art gallery, or watch a film. You clear your head and the ideas will come.
“I’m fortunate because I’ve got so many different projects on the go at once that if I get stuck I can move on to something else and come back to it.”
During his career Horowitz has seen the way we watch TV and read books revolutionised by technology. We now have e-readers and can watch TV on demand from our tablets and laptops.
But he’s unfazed by these fast-moving changes. “I’ve reluctantly become an older writer, I still use a fountain pen for heaven’s sake, but the fact we can now read books on our phones is brilliant. If every child at school could have their own e-reader it would be wonderful. We’re only just starting to mine these opportunities.”
He says it’s the same with television which he believes has been enhanced, rather than dumbed down, by technology. “We’re seeing one great drama after another at the minute and I really think TV is going through a golden age right now.”
And he feels that he still has plenty left in his own literary locker. “I’m very lucky, I’m 61 now and I have the same sense of excitement and passion as I did when I was 16.
“The secret of writing is knowing when to stop because you don’t want to bore readers. But at the same time I love what I’m doing and I still have a lot of ideas.”
Magpie Murders, published by Orion, is out now. Anthony Horowitz is appearing at the Clarke Foley Centre, Ilkley, On October 14. Tickets are priced £7. For more information visit ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk or call 01943 816 714.
Ilkley Literature Festival highlights
This year’s Ilkley Literature Festival runs until October 16. Here are some events still to come:
Sir Tony Robinson – No Cunning Plan. October 9. The actor, presenter and author talks about his varied career that has ranged from Blackadder to Time Team.
Juliet Barker – Bronte Letters. October 11. Acclaimed author and Bronte biographer, Barker examines how the sisters became literary icons.
Susan Calman – Cheer Up Love. October 12. The popular stand-up comedian discusses depression and why we all need to talk more.
Alastair Campbell – Diaries: Never Really Left, 2003-2005. October 14. The Keighley-born former Labour Party spin doctor talks about life in government.
Jenni Murray – A History of Britain in 21 Women. October 15. The Barnsley-born broadcaster, best-known as presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, discusses the important role played in this country by women.