Well, my daughter and I have just had a most interesting and enjoyable evening at the British Library, at an event in a series called Connecting Conversations. Psychoanalyst and clinical psychologist Peter Fonagy was in conversation with Anthony Horowitz, talking about his work – the Alex Rider books in the main.
Horowitz described his desperately unhappy time at an abusive preparatory school, in a regime which would now be classed as criminal, going on to say how his time at Rugby School was his salvation, giving him the belief in his ability to write.
The idea of Alex Rider was seeded when Horowitz watched the Roger Moore Bond films, and considering Moore too old (he was aged 45-57 during his Bond period), wondered what it would be like if Bond were only 14 years old. Some years later the first teenage spy appeared with only some of the character of Bond (he kept the snobbishness as children generally are snobbish); but otherwise, not patriotic, an alienated, solitary (although having friends not ‘sad’) character, relying on his ingenuity.
All the plots are based on news stories; with the added tension of a child in an untrustworthy adult world (for example the head of spies is called ‘Blunt’). With alienation from government, and a duplicitous Prime Minister, Horowitz said that the whole series should be dedicated to Tony Blair; the last 13 years of government and its betrayal of the people is exemplified by the erection of the steel barriers at the end of Downing Street, the government removed from the people.
During that period, too, in relation to adults children have been put into a strange place where they shouldn’t be: Horowitz, like Philip Pullman and others, has been vocal in his objection to the vetting scheme for authors working in schools, and questions why children are prevented from playing in the woods, kept indoors to play violent video games instead.
They discussed how Alex Rider is now psychologically a much deeper character; in Scorpia Rising, the forthcoming and final Alex Rider novel, Horowitz is struggling not to make him too troubled, the events of the novels have occurred within a year, he has only survived as he is strong.
He is currently working on the penultimate chapter of Scorpia Rising – a car chase through Cairo in the pouring rain, and Alex has a gun for the first time.
At the end of the story Alex won’t be killed off, as Horowitz doesn’t kill children in his novels (except in his horror stories), but he will be in a sad position.
He compared Alex Rider with Tintin, in that visually he has no detail in his depiction, whereas he has deliberately left Alex as a character without much detail, to be a shell which the reader can inhabit – Alex is all boys.
He finds writing “adult” fiction too cluttered with description – but he doesn’t write “children’s books”, nor does he write for boys, he just writes adventures – the reason his main character is a boy is because that is what he knows about, and the reason Alex is 14 years old is because that’s an age he finds interesting. The abstract quality of boyhood doesn’t change and Horowitz hasn’t forgotten what it was like when he was 14; he does has difficulty believing he’s the age he is, and thinks it’s weird. (He was born in 1955, the same year as me, and I can empathise: I think it’s weird too, being this old, especially counting the years backwards from your birth year – it’s got back to Queen Victoria now!)
When he’s writing he just wants to keep the narrative moving, he calls it the ‘locomotive’, that which carries the reader through the book, and he believes that even one wrong word can slow the pace enough for a reader to decide to go and do something else – and most teenagers have plenty of other things to distract them.
Now his own children are 19 and 21 he has to borrow friends’ children to read the manuscript for feedback; what he’s most worried about (especially in the later books which have become darker) is upsetting the reader, he writes for entertainment and escapism; he writes mysteries because they catch the interest of the reader more quickly, and he likes mysterious things, illusions and trompe l’oeil, for example.
Second to writing he like reading best, and he likes reading because when you read about things you get a glimpse of what is possible in the world, something you can’t do from observing the world.
Anthony Horowitz was most companionable and self-effacing, my 13-year-old daughter said that she felt he could easily be a friend speaking, and that his character coming through into his writing must be why his books are so enjoyable. She met a children’s author at school a while ago – she said he was boring to listen to, and when she tried reading one of his books it was boring to read. This resonates interestingly with Horowitz’s saying that he thinks that writing is part telepathy – if you find writing a chore that will impart itself to the reader, whereas if you find the writing exciting and enjoyable, then that, also, will come across to the reader. I think, too, a writer’s character comes through into the writing, and he gave every impression of being (for want of a better word) nice.
As an example of his self-effacement, he thinks that his success is due to luck – the luck of writing the Alex Rider books before someone else did something similar; he wrote fifteen books before Ryder and they weren’t particularly successful.
Lastly, a couple of notes: Stormbreaker is his favourite Alex Rider novel, as it’s the one he met Alex in (the plot for Point Blanc came first but the novel didn’t get written until after Stormbreaker had set the scene).
And my favourite snippet of information: two of the villains in the novels are based on Elton John and Philip Schofield.
The talk was recorded, and will be available to listen to on the Connecting Conversations website, so you can fill in the gaps and find out how much of the talk I have misremembered; there are many other talks archived there already, including Sebastian Faulks, Quentin Blake, Grayson Perry, Al Alvarez, Michael Rosen, Esther Freud, and Minette Walters.