Irish backstop –
Anthony Horowitz, the once famously outspoken author of more than 100 books, including the phenomenally successful Alex Rider teen espionage series, says he once went through a phase of firmly subscribing to the traditional, if informal, bargain struck between author and interviewer.
“Your interest in me, for which I’m very grateful, helps me to publicise my book, but at the same time you need something to write about, some decent copy for your readers to enjoy,” is how the bestselling writer and creator of TV hits such as Foyle’s War assesses this pact between authors and journalists.
On a video call from his London home, he says this is why, in the past at least, “I was not worried about being slightly controversial . . . ”
I do sometimes think of writing as autocannibalism. I’ve spent the last 35 years devouring myself, and I do think actually that writers are peculiar. You do need to be slightly peculiar to want to write
But, even apart from the pandemic, we are living through very different times, which means the author’s enthusiasm for providing headline-grabbing copy in interviews has waned. This shift is noticeable when in the middle of our conversation I probe him on controversial topics such as cultural appropriation. His remarks, while always thoughtful and interesting, seem unusually restrained.
In this cancel culture era, is Horowitz deliberately censoring himself?
“I am more careful now than I was,” he admits. “We are in an atmosphere that is more fractious than it used to be and I don’t want to engage in that . . . Look, my job at the end of the day is to promote my books and get people to read my books and to tell people how good the books are. And for me to mouth off about things which, after all, I know as much about as the next person in the street doesn’t help anybody.”
So let’s talk about the books, then. And the TV series. And the plays. The 65-year-old, who had his first book published in his early 20s, is the creator of the Alex Rider series for younger readers; those novels have sold over 20 million copies and rising. He is also the writer responsible for television hits such as Midsomer Murders and a raft of Sherlock Holmes books and James Bond novels for the Ian Fleming estate.
“The novelty never wears off,” he says. “I am as excited now about writing as I used to be.”
The latest novel, Moonflower Murders, set in the English countryside, features Susan Ryeland, the same female protagonist who featured in his other recent blockbuster Magpie Murders. It’s a complex plot, a novel within a novel, where the reader gets to grapple with the whodunnit both in the main narrative and through an entirely separate detective story which Ryeland has been called in to decipher in order to solve the murder. They are both gripping reads, a clever conceit by Horowitz, who pulls off the tricky structure beautifully.
At one point in the novel a character describes writing as a very “strange” profession, saying writers must be self-obsessed with “monstrous” egos and be, at the same time, “people pleasers”. Is this Horowitz’s own view?
“I do sometimes think of writing as autocannibalism,” he says. “I’ve spent the last 35 years devouring myself and I do think actually that writers are peculiar. And I use that word carefully. I mean, not in not in a negative way necessarily, but I think you do need to be slightly peculiar to want to write.”
My father thought the idea of being a writer was ridiculous. You know, you’re going to be a lawyer, a businessman, you’re going to be something that makes money. The idea of being a writer he ridiculed from the start
An avid fan of the detective novel genre, he has written murder mysteries almost from the beginning of his career. “When it comes to writing books, particularly books as big as this one, I’m just trying to do things that haven’t been done. I’m trying to play games with the genre,” he says.
Recently his wife, the hugely successful producer Jill Green, who works with him on TV projects (Horowitz describes her as “magnificent”), lauded him as a polymath. He disagrees with his wife of over 30 years on this point. “I am a zeromath. I am only able to do one thing and that is tell stories.”
He says he realised at the age of 10 he was “talentless” except for this ability. He has spoken and written extensively in the past about his miserable experience at boarding school, where he was an overweight, lonely child. “At school, telling stories to the children in the dormitory where I was sleeping and finding for the first time I was popular, that I had something that people liked . . . ”
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It was an “odd” talent, he says, coming from the privileged, if austere, background he had, “a strange sort of Jewish north London family. . . my father thought the idea of being a writer was ridiculous. You know, you’re going to be a lawyer, a businessman, you’re going to be something that makes money. The idea of being a writer he ridiculed from the start. He wasn’t a bad man but he couldn’t see it.”
“What father could ridicule a son for an aspiration,” he muses. “It seems so crazy. I think the only way it’s translated into my life has been a rigid determination to support my own children in anything they want to do.” He speaks lovingly of his two grown sons, Cassius and Nicholas, and his happy family unit, so different from the one he grew up in when he was sent off to boarding school at the age of six.
The plot of Moonflower Murders touches on prisoner reform, a charitable issue he has been involved with for years. He’s also been patron of an anti-bullying organisation.
“Look, I was in a violent prep school where it was a survival of the fittest thing . . . if everybody’s picking on another boy, and it’s not you, you join in, because then it deflects . . . When I talk about my childhood, I didn’t say I was the perfect child who was put upon. In fact, if it wasn’t for writing, I probably would have turned into a horrible human being.”
In his more controversial past, Horowitz has been vocal about cultural appropriation and the criticism of writers such as American Dirt author Jeanine Cummins who tackle subjects beyond their immediate experience. Horowitz himself has said he was once warned off including a black character in a book after being told by an editor it would be inappropriate because he was white. At the time he called it “disturbing”.
“I have an idea of writing a short story,” says Horowitz. “It’s about a meeting of 12 people, where gradually you realise that every single one of those 12 people is 65 years old, Jewish, white, London-based writer and you realise the joke is that I am just writing 12 versions of myself, because that is where that argument leads.
“The whole point of writing is to emote and to empathise and try and understand . . . I think also, in this conversation, that you cannot have rigid rules. It is possible for a great writer to write a great character who is not of his or her ethnicity or of her or his origins, but it is also possible for a writer simply to exploit other ethnicities and to exploit other types of people simply for commercial reasons . . . and there’s a fine line between those two things.
“So, therefore, an all embracing argument . . . seems to me to be unwise and beyond that, to be a more complicated question than a tweet or even an interview will allow.”
For a self-proclaimed zeromath, his work ethic is astonishing. He is currently three chapters in to his next Hawthorne murder mystery, writing a new play – “theatre has not been a hugely successful area for me, but I live in hope” – jotting down ideas for the next Alex Rider book while also working on the TV adaptation of that series and finishing drafts of the Magpie Murders screenplays, also for television.
Before he goes, we talk again about his concerns around speaking his mind. He blanches slightly, for example, when I ask him about the Borris Festival of Writing and Ideas – he used Borris House as an inspiration for one country home in the new novel – thinking for a moment I am asking about Boris Johnson.
He is reluctant to go “close to the line, which incidentally we have done once or twice in this discussion. And then that worries me . . . what will you do with it, how will it all come out . . . ?”
“Don’t worry,” I joke. “I think you might have frozen during the most controversial bits.” (Our internet connection has been a little unstable during the call.)
“Oh, thank God for that,” he laughs. “Actually, it’s a button I have under the computer, whenever I start talking out of turn, I just press the button.”
An hour spent with Horowitz is entertaining, engaging and fun. He’s charming and interesting and yet I can’t help wishing I’d interviewed him in less self-censorious days. Those days may well come again. In the meantime, probably wisely, Anthony Horowitz is keeping his most incendiary, nuanced and interesting thoughts for those closest to him. Lucky them.
Moonflower Murders is published by Century on Thursday
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