Anthony Horowitz: Growing up in public

Anthony Horowitz put his unhappy childhood behind him to create the junior spy Alex Rider. Now, he tells Barry Forshaw, he's turned his attention to adult fiction
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The Independent Culture

The lean, tanned figure in linen jacket and jeans, sipping Diet Coke in his north-London garden (nearly 50, but looking like a man in his thirties), is hard to reconcile with the gawky, overweight child he describes himself as having been. Similarly, Anthony Horowitz's easy good humour and personable manner suggest that the desperate unhappiness of his childhood, where conspicuous wealth clearly failed to keep misery at bay, is a demon that has been well and truly staked. But has it?

The lean, tanned figure in linen jacket and jeans, sipping Diet Coke in his north-London garden (nearly 50, but looking like a man in his thirties), is hard to reconcile with the gawky, overweight child he describes himself as having been. Similarly, Anthony Horowitz's easy good humour and personable manner suggest that the desperate unhappiness of his childhood, where conspicuous wealth clearly failed to keep misery at bay, is a demon that has been well and truly staked. But has it?

"Not really," says the author of the phenomenally successful Alex Rider series of children's adventures. "I'm still dealing with the baggage of those unhappy years. I think a lot of my life has been a reaction to what I went through as a boy. I'd even say it's something that has a resonance for me every single day, even though I'd say I love my life - and my multiple careers - today."

As the fitful sun beats down on his rambling Crouch End garden, his teenage sons talk excitedly indoors, preparing for the next day's trip to Peru: research, according to Horowitz, for the next novel in the Rider sequence. "A dirty job," he smiles, "but someone's got to do it." Before the packing's finished, however, Horowitz has a meeting with his film producers, who, as well as filming his screenplay of The Gathering for flavour-of-the-month actress Christina Ricci, are to finally bring the Alex Rider books to the screen.

The five books are a potential cash cow for everyone concerned. Horowitz comments wryly that "All JK Rowling had to do to ensure her young English heroes weren't turned into American brats for the Harry Potter movies was to make the merest suggestion. I may end up having to accept an American child actor for Alex, but I really don't mind. After all, the accent's no problem for anyone these days, is it?"

But before meeting the film people and packing for his Peru trip, Horowitz has to talk to this newspaper. "Ah, The Independent. I'm really glad that the paper's anti-war stance didn't hurt sales. I'm interested in seeing how you'll report the Tories' claims that they were never completely on board over the war. But you don't want to talk politics, do you?"

Actually, it would be very easy to talk to the affable Horowitz on most subjects. Looking in through the windows of the conservatory at his sons, he says, "I'm trying to avoid talking about the awful childhood I had. As people learn I came from a privileged background, their sympathy for any unhappiness I might have had is, shall we say, limited."

But it isn't too long before Horowitz is discussing the withholding nature of his relationship with his father. "Auberon Waugh was apparently allowed into his father's presence by the nanny for a brief period each week. Evelyn Waugh always made it clear that his work was his priority; my equivalent of that was tension at the dinner table. If I were insufficiently entertaining, I'd be summarily dismissed.

"Having a high-achieving father hardly provided a role model for me," he says, "unless your role model happens to be a multi-millionaire whose money vanishes into various Swiss accounts, never to be seen again, and who dies of a heart attack at the age of 55.

"Well, I suppose one legacy might be that in many ways I don't really trust that everything in life will continue as one might wish it to. For instance, I'm mortally terrified as to what response my first adult novel will get. I've read many bad adult novels by children's authors - and, I might add, vice versa - and I fear a few knives may be being sharpened for me."

That first adult novel is The Killing Joke (Orion, £9.99), a scabrously funny black comedy in which bottom-feeding actor Guy Fletcher hears a sick joke about his actress mother (and is viciously headbutted for his objections). He then sets out on a phantasmagoric quest to find out where such jokes originate - and makes some bizarre discoveries.

"I wanted to write a kind of comic thriller," says Horowitz, "and I toyed with various professions for my hero, but finally decided on having him work in the lower echelons of television. I know that world well from working on shows such as Foyle's War and The Midsomer Murders [for which he wrote scripts]. So all the details came easily; these are my people, after all. I had to work much harder on the one-liners, but it's gratifying to find that those who've read the book so far are talking about much involuntary laughter. I may have got it right. The sex, in the book, though - what there is of it - that's another story. I think I might find myself nominated for the Bad Sex Award."

The scene that Horowitz refers to is, in fact, one of the funniest in the book. Guy and Sally (his companion on the quest to find the joke source) break into a Fun House in a shuttered amusement park, and make love on a field of plastic balls. Distorting mirrors grossly exaggerate breasts and genitals. "It's liberating to deal with adult themes, having written so much for younger readers. Not that I found myself chafing at the bit, desperate to pen steamy sex scenes that I couldn't put into the Rider books. In fact, I find it easier to deal with violence in the children's novels. My young hero does get hurt, and I try to deal with real pain, not glamorise it."

The easygoing author is philosophically set up for both triumph and disaster, treating both impostors just the same. As is the case with his expectations for his screenplay for the Ricci movie, which he accepts may be a winner or a dud. "I realised early on that everything I'd heard about the treatment of writers in films was right on the nail. I soon found myself persona non grata. Still, I can console myself that I'm having my taste of a grand tradition. Writers from Scott Fitzgerald and Faulkner - not that I'm comparing my skills to theirs - onwards realised their work is considered by far the least important thing in a movie. But things may be changing. I saw Spider-Man 2 with my sons, and as well as having all the requisite fireworks, it's actually surprisingly well-written. Perhaps producers are finally realising that the writer need not be the lowest figure on the totem pole."

Not for the first time, Horowitz pulls a "better-shut-up" moue: "I shouldn't badmouth the experience of working on that film - and I can't really comment on the finished product, having only seen a rough cut on an iffy DVD I got hold of abroad." He adds that "the producers are the people who are steaming ahead with the Alex Rider film, and it's in all our interests not to tread on each other's toes. With The Gathering, we've got an ace in the hole with Christina Ricci, who has a reputation for making very good movies."

Horowitz's large shaggy dog, Lucky, lolls at his feet. His son, Cassian, lets him into the conservatory, as Horowitz stretches his legs."My boys are invaluable to me in getting the details right in the books - Alex Rider is a junior 007. In all modesty, I can say I'd done it all before Charlie Higson committed to the new James Bond Junior series, which was offered to me." He points out that "Alex's brand names are not Martinis and cars, but the right kind of skateboard and other teenage accoutrements. I've got to get all that stuff right!"

Is Horowitz sanguine about young readers maintaining the current boom, or is the success of writers such as himself and Rowling a bubble fated to burst? "I certainly hope not! But the auguries are good: there are many kids who now regard reading as an integral part of their lives. Unfortunately, of course, they're mostly middle-class kids, like mine. I would really love to extend children's reading right across social boundaries - and to some degree, I feel I'm doing that with the Alex Rider books. Kids are very concerned with not doing things that are considered 'uncool', and I'm told that reading my books is, apparently, not infra dig for many youngsters.

"Actually, it irritates me when adults deliver jeremiads about how children are reading fewer books. But think about it. How many adults do you hear pontificating in this fashion who don't actually read themselves, except, say, Hello!? I think motes should be removed from a few eyes before we start calling today's kids a post-literate generation."

Biography: Anthony Horowitz

Anthony Horowitz (born in 1955) was brought up surrounded by servants in the family mansion in Stanmore, Middlesex, the son of a millionaire whose fortune proved untraceable after his death. His first children's book was published to modest success in 1979, but his Alex Rider novels have garnered sales exceeding one million in the UK alone. The recent Scorpia (Walker) had a first print run of 250,000, and a film deal for the Rider books has been signed. Horowitz has maintained a separate career as a television scriptwriter for such series as the Bafta-winning Foyle's War and Poirot. His first adult novel, The Killing Joke, is published by Orion next week. He lives with his TV producer wife, Jill Green, and their sons in Crouch End, north London. Series two of Foyle's War will be shown again on ITV from tonight.

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