Bad guys and teenage spies

Author, journalist and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz on why he writes

Author of the Alex Rider and The Power of Five series, screenwriter and University of York alumnus, Anthony Horowitz requires no introduction.

When he graduated from university in 1977, the hugely successful young adult writer “had absolutely no ambition to write for young people whatsoever”. During his time at York, he flourished in what he called a “fantastically creative environment”, spending his three years “writing plays and books and poetry and all sorts of things”. But he makes it clear that while York was conducive for his craft, it was not where he started writing: “I was a writer before I came to university,” he explains, “I was born a writer; there was nothing else for it.”

The city of York also played a part in his writing: it provided the setting for the first book of his Power of Five series, Raven’s Gate. “Power of Five came about because of my love for Tolkien growing up and wondering if it was possible to write a book similar to Lord of the Rings in some ways, but set in the real world,” he explains, “if it were possible to have mythical creatures fighting each other, but in the streets of York.”

Horowitz at York Festival of Ideas 2014

The Alex Rider series, on the other hand, was born out of his love for Ian Fleming: James Bond with a fourteen-year-old protagonist. The political milieu of the time also proved an influence, the Iraq War in particular: “They were inspired by the sense that we can no longer trust the government or intelligent services; that we were, if you like, children who can no longer trust adults.”

“Alex Rider was  inspired by the sense that we can no longer trust the government; that we were, if you like, children who can no longer trust adults”

Horowitz is interested in the ambiguous position in which fourteen and fifteen year-olds so often find themselves growing up: “I’m interested in that brief window in your life when you’re neither a child nor an adult; where you’re not yet independent, where you can still be taken out of your comfort zone very easily, but where you have nonetheless the beginnings of the adult you will become.”

Alex Pettyfer as Alex Rider in Stormbreaker (2006)
Alex Pettyfer as Alex Rider in Stormbreaker (2006)

The ages of his protagonists are carefully calculated: “Young children like to read about children older than them. It’s as simple as that. If my character is twelve, fourteen year-olds are not going to read about him.”

On the final installment of The Power of Five series, Oblivion, which presents a dystopian world where evil supernatural forces have taken over governments, he describes it as “a collection of all the bad things that are happening in the world in one book.” And in this world monsters aren’t to be taken at face value, “The Old Ones, these mythical creatures, do appear in the book, but the book is not about people in armour with horns pointing their finger and sparks coming out. What the books are about are conglomerates and industry and politics and the people who are destroying the world, and I think that’s what makes a book stronger. I just had no particular interest in doing devils and witches. The point is that they are the monsters.”

Night Rise from The Power of Five series
Night Rise from The Power of Five series

Given the chance, Horowitz would pursue his social critique further. “I’d like to write a huge novel, like a 19th-century Dickens novel, set in the 21st century,” he says. “I’d like to write something that was more based on character and society and less on violence and chases. I’d like to write a book that was more meaningful. But I know my limitations, I know what I’m good at, so whether I will write that book or not remains to be seen.”

At other end of the literary spectrum, Horowitz meanwhile questions adults who enjoy reading young adult fiction. While acknowledging the right to read whatever one wants, he admits: “I personally find it slightly strange when adults, en masse, read young adult fiction. And even when Harry Potter was at its height, the sight of fully grown men immersed in the world of Hogwarts, I thought it odd, to be honest with you. There is so much wonderful fiction out there that is for adults, why not start there?”

“In schools I would have fewer exams, fewer league tables and more discovery about what writing has to offer”

We go on to discuss literary education in schools. “I think teachers are doing a pretty good job and they don’t need people like me to criticise them,” he says. “If I could change anything in schools it would be the libraries. I would make every single school in the country have a librarian. It’s not at the moment statutory, but it should be. I would have much more time allocated to reading texts for pleasure rather than taking paragraphs out for exams. And I would have fewer exams, fewer league tables and more discovery about what writing has to offer.

“My feeling is that the syllabus is too narrow. I’m sorry that children can come out of school and have never read poems by some of the poets that I love.”

While working in an eclectic range of media and genres, Horowitz  holds “meeting young people who like [his] books” as the most rewarding thing about his profession – even now as he is “stopping writing for young people to a large extent”. He is at his most sincere as he reiterates: “I love the idea that I’ve been a tiny part of people’s lives.”