“Writing,” Anthony Horowitz says resolutely, “is an adventure. Above all, it should be fun.” Horowitz, the prolific author of Alex Rider, Foyle’s War, Midsomer Murders, and much more, is someone who can speak with some authority on the subject. Now sixty-one, his black hair greying, he seems as enthusiastic about his work as ever – despite the fact that, when we meet him, he is noticeably exhausted by his current book tour for his new novel, Magpie Murders.
Horowitz’s passion for words began at the age of nine when he was sent to a preparatory boarding school by his parents. It was, he says, “a vile place, designed to do as much psychological damage as it possibly could” and it served as the inspiration for his children’s series Groosham Grange. While he was there, however, he found refuge in storytelling. “The one room in the school I was happy in was the library,” he observes, and he spent his free afternoons escaping in books (Tintin was a particular favourite, so much so that an adult Horowitz almost wrote the script for Spielberg’s adaptation). He then spent his evenings relating the stories he had read to his room-mates, risking being beaten for talking after lights out. The spark of storytelling, once lit, burned with an increasing strength. At ten years old, a young Horowitz asked for a typewriter for his birthday; suspicious of his newfound delight, his parents gave him a biro. Writing, Horowitz notes, “was alien to my family.” His father was a businessman and gave him more hindrance than support in his early attempts at authorship.
This lack of support, however, did not dissuade him from his chosen path. By university, he relates, “I imagined myself only as a screenwriter or as an author… In fact, I did almost no work at university because I was so busy writing plays and books and other things; university was a very useful resting place for me on the first steps of my career. By the time I got to York, I knew that I was going to be a writer, and everything I did there was directed towards it, including reading, of course – I studied English and Art History – so I was able to read books endlessly.” Relegating his studies to a supporting role, he allowed creativity to take centre stage in his university life. He spent much of his time walking and writing in York’s ruins and graveyards, drawing inspiration from his surroundings that he poured straight into his nascent career.
His career, when it began, was not met with fireworks. Horowitz graduated from York with no particular academic distinction, and his first novels were not met with acclaim or bestselling results; it was instead with television, writing shows such as Robin Hood and Poirot, that he found a niche, and his first taste of success. Whether the writing was going well or badly, however, he remained confident and retained self-belief; and this, he emphasises, is of huge importance to anybody hoping to become involved in the world of arts. “Self-confidence, and belief, that’s the most important thing of all. You know, nothing when I was young suggested I would be a success. I wasn’t clever, I wasn’t successful… I was set up to be a total loser, but I believed in myself and I have always believed in myself, from the very earliest times I can remember.
If you keep going, and if you believe in yourself, I don’t see how you can fail. And you need talent, I mean there’s no way around that – or actually, do you? I mean, there are writers who can barely string a sentence together but who have sold millions of copies; but again, I suppose that does come back to self-belief.”
It is evident that this self-belief, and an impassioned desire to prove his ability, is what drives Horowitz forward – almost to the point that, listening to him, one suspects that in a roundabout way he might not yet believe his own literary talents to have been proven – and that he might not yet consider his self-belief vindicated on the public stage. Despite having been awarded an OBE, having sold over twenty million novels, and having seen his TV shows hugely enjoyed around the world – New Blood, which premiered in June, drew over four million viewers – he is still constantly searching after an elusive phantom. Conan Doyle twice killed Sherlock Holmes, believing himself to be capable of more serious work; and, drawing the comparison himself, Horowitz seems a figure drowned in his own shadow, questing after a novel that will, he hopes, “finally show what I’m capable of. There’s still a better book to write. The next book’s always going to be better,” he says with certainty; “I’m still struggling, striving, I think, to write the book.”
On his desk, Horowitz keeps a skull his mother gave him when young: it is a physical reminder that death is always waiting, reminding him of how little time he has left. He turns this morbidity to wry humour, remarking on his jealousy at the famous child-spy protagonist he created: “as a writer I have a certain resentment of Alex Rider – he’s fifteen, and everybody loves him. Meanwhile, I’m locked in a room by myself getting old’, still striving after the book.” It is striking that for Horowitz, writing is almost as intense and demanding as anything Alex Rider performs in the course of espionage. Although he follows no particular routine, Horowitz writes for ten hours a day, a phenomenal amount of time, and unusual for many authors. “All I know is writing,” he declares. “I don’t know anything. I write, and I sit down in my office, and I have an idea and I write it. There are no rules, there are no preconditions, there are no precepts: it’s just writing.”
Horowitz insists, repeatedly, that he is a writer first, foremost, and last: his reluctance to put forward his own views or to claim any authority outside his printed pages is as noticeable as his confidence in his writing itself, and is somewhat unusual in this age of Twitter prominence, in which public figures often declaim to their followers. The argument that he has an obligation to make his own views known, and to use his considerable influence for causes that he believes in, is “a dangerous area,” he acknowledges. His work hitherto, especially in novels, has been “not profoundly serious”: but nevertheless, there is a temptation to “stand up on a soapbox and talk about the evils of the world, and direct people”, despite it being one he resists vehemently. “I get quite depressed,” Horowitz says, “by children’s writers on soapboxes, thinking they have a right to tell people how to behave. I think that it’s an inevitable part of growing older that you want to share your experience, that you want to guide younger generations.” He attempts to downplay the impact that he, as a well-known and widely read author, has had upon many lives. He reluctantly acknowledges that he has “had an influence”, especially in encouraging people to read. “I’m proud of that”, he nods, yet he refutes the idea that he has been more than “a tiny part of their life, a molecule in the bloodstream.”
“It is no longer my world,” he says, and to intervene in its affairs is “the beginning of the end”: his focus remains on writing. One topic on which he was willing to share his thoughts, however, is that of private schooling. The victim of an undesired and decidedly un-enjoyed private school education himself, he has “come to think, in my old age, that private schools do not help, in terms of the social fabric. The existence of private schools, and the privileges that they afford a minority of young people, are manifestly unfair; life would probably – broadly – be better off without them.” He is not, however in favour of banning them, despite several moments reflection: “if people want to spend their money educating their children in a certain way, it’s their right to do so.” He is, he goes on, “opposed to all forms of social engineering, speaking broadly.” It is perhaps possible, he allows, to make a “sort of socially engineered cauldron, where you’ll have an absolutely perfect balance, but I’ll bet you any money you like that it’ll be a horrible place to be. Because it won’t be… natural. The way society works,” he says carefully, measuring his words, “It’s not attractive. There are people who do horrible jobs, and who aren’t paid enough for it, but that’s the world we live in.”
This view, realistic to a fault, is one that could easily lead to a pessimistic perspective. However, Horowitz’s confidence in the future of society, regardless of issues that he finds troubling, shines through in a heartening manner. Horowitz acknowledges sincerely that his generation has been “incredibly selfish, and self-obsessed,” and that his peers have caused great harm to those who are now approaching and entering the world of work. And yet, he is still “incredibly optimistic about your generation, your abilities to get through – the world is always going to get better. No matter what happens, the world is always, always going to get better. Every generation will outshine the generation before it. That’s just the nature of life, and that’s what I accept.” That is the nature of it for Anthony Horowitz. It is reflected in his books of death and intrigue, and in the reluctance of such an erudite, considered man to speak about what he thinks: his writing has sold millions but must always get better, and the world is in a bad state but will improve. He, meanwhile, must “write my worries, and keep quiet about my hopes”, and, speaking with him, you get the feeling that there are many more worries to come.