Webchat with Anthony Horowitz
This is an edited transcript of a live webchat with best-selling author Anthony Horowitz, who came to the Towers on 10 November 2009. He answered questions on his writing, his influences, his childhood and 'fessed up to a shameful deploying of his children involving book shop displays.
Q. Jackstarbright: Hello Anthony. I thought, given my Mumsnet nickname, I should be your first poster! So, on behalf of my Alex Rider crazy ds, what happened to the plans to film Point Blanc?
A. Anthony Horowitz: Jackstarbright? Is that really your name? Nice to start this session with a questioner who sounds so familiar! Disappointing answer, though, as there are no immediate plans to make a film of Point Blanc. Stormbreaker did very well in Europe but, for reasons that are beyond me, had no proper distribution in the USA – and, the sad truth is, you can't make large-scale films without American finance. After Crocodile Tears comes out, we'll see, but frankly I'm not holding my breath.
Jackstarbright: Thanks for your reply (although ds will be disappointed). Stormbreaker was an excellent film. I liked the way you adapted the book. Point Blanc has the potential to be even better. And yes 'jackstarbright' has been posting on Mumsnet for several months now! We are looking forward to Crocodile Tears...
Anthony Horowitz: Jack. I agree. I would love to see Alex back on the screen but, on the other hand, films do have a way of spoiling books and I quite like the fact that Alex lives on in the imagination. I'm sort of easy either way.
Q. Fruitshootsandheaves: Anthony, I don't think we've read any of your books. Which one would you recommend to start with and I will tie my children to a chair until they read it suggest it to my children (they are 8, 12, 14 – oh and 16 but it's best not to worry about her!)
A. Anthony Horowitz: Fruitshoots, what a great question! What a great family! For the eight-year-old, it's got to be Granny, one of my earlier books - rude and funny in the style of Dahl. The 12 and 14-year-old could surely discover Alex Rider, starting with Stormbreaker. Then there's my horror stories (two collections) or Raven's Gate and the Power of 5 series for the 16-year-old and her parents. Sorry for all this self-promotion but you did ask!
Fruitshootsandheaves: I am such a bad mother because I have no idea what my children are reading! After saying we haven't read any of your books, I have just found the whole series of Alex rider books on DS's book shelf. For my penance I shall read them all tonight.
Anthony Horowitz: Fruitshoots, your message is doubly insulting. First, nobody could describe reading the Alex Rider books as a "penance". They should be a pleasure! And secondly, shouldn't you be watching part two of [his ITV drama series] Collision tonight? Don't tell me you missed part one?
Q. Mudandmayhem: My eight-year-old has two questions: could you please write a book about what Alex does in his spare time, and when is his birthday?
A. Anthony Horowitz: Actually, Alex doesn't have a lot of spare time as he's always so busy saving the world. But, left to himself, he would play football, go on long bike rides and - of course - he would read! His birthday is meant to be February 13th (when my second son, Cass, was born). But when you read Crocodile Tears, you may see that I've slightly mucked it up...
Q. Mallenstreak: My son used to not like reading very much. However, since September, he has read ALL of the Alex Rider books and can't wait for the new one! He reads over an hour every day and really enjoys the adventures. Would I be able to order a signed copy of the new book anywhere? Thanks.
A. Anthony Horowitz: Mallenstreak, I'm delighted that Jago is enjoying my books. Crocodile Tears is out next week and you can get signed copies if you're near Edinburgh, Birmingham (Dudley) or London – which is where I live. That's probably not very helpful, I'm afraid.
Q. PandaG: What age group did you have in mind when you started to write the Alex Rider series? My DS is nearly 10, has not yet read any of the series but is likely to read them soon. I've read a couple, and will want to read ahead of him, just so I know what themes are coming up, so we can discuss them – and because I enjoyed Stormbreaker and read it in one evening!
A. Anthony Horowitz: PandaG, I suppose the age range for Alex was vaguely eight years and up but, in truth, I don't think too much about my audience. A lot of it is instinctive, although occasionally my publishers and I will tussle over levels of violence and things like that. I'm glad you read the books, too, as I always have parents in mind and feel that I'm writing for them, too. I loved reading with my sons (rather than before them) and still believe that it's the best way to get on a level playing field with your children. They won't be so keen to share their computer games with you in later life.
Q. RTKanga: Hello Anthony. I really enjoyed Collision last night – very interesting idea. I have a question from my son who is a huge Alex Rider fan: in Alex Rider who/what is your favourite character/gadget, and also, if you could have a gadget, what would it be and why?
A. Anthony Horowitz: So glad you enjoyed Collision and thanks for mentioning it. My favourite character is Alex, of course - although I like Yassen, too. My favourite gadget was the exploding bubble gum (Bubble 07) but, for myself, I might choose the mosquito cream (ask him - he'll know what I mean).
Q. Doobydoo: Hello Anthony. My son would like to know if/when there will be a fifth book in the Power of 5 series?
A. Anthony Horowitz: Here is a Mumsnet exclusive, Doobydoo. The first sentence of the last book in the Power of Five series: "The line of black Cadillacs cut through the very heart of the city, stretching the entire length of its main avenue." The bad news is that, so far, it's the only line in the new book as I haven't really got into it yet! So, in answer to your question, I think it's probably a couple of years away. My next book is a collection of horror stories, coming out in 2010.
Q. Deadworm: Ooh -- what are your horror stories called? My 14-year-old is reading Stephen King and, although I'm ok with that, the stories are a bit uncomfortable for a youngster.
A. Anthony Horowitz: Thanks for asking, Deadworm. I asked my 16-year-old son, Cass, for a title for a collection of horror stories that was both scary and funny. He thought for about 30 seconds and then came up with "More Bloody Horowitz", so that's what it's called. I agree with you about Stephen King, by the way. I do think some of his books are good for younger readers (try The Dead Zone) but others can be too unpleasant and intense. My horror stories, of course, are perfectly judged!
Deadworm: Thank you very much. "More Bloody Horowitz" is great title. Will get it. It is really lovely to hear your passion for writing and stories in all your comments here. And I'm glad you don't think much about the ages of your readers: I don't like the suggested age-banding schemes for children's books. Thank you very much.
Anthony Horowitz: Totally with you on age banding. My main objection is that I sometimes work with young offenders, aged 18 and up, who read my books. A cover with an age band will only embarrass and discourage them. Leave well alone. Parents and children are smart enough to work out the age range for themselves...
Q. Louise 2004: Questions from my son (a big fan!)... Is there going to be a new Diamond Brothers book? And is there anywhere in South Africa you would recommend that I to visit (we're going there on holiday next year)?
A. Anthony Horowitz: Yes, there will be one last Diamond Brothers book and thank you for asking, as I really like Nick Diamond and think he's occasionally overlooked – thanks to Alex. It will be called Radius of The Lost Shark and will be set in Australia. I'm in Sydney next year and will be starting the research. As to South Africa, Cape Town is amazing, of course, and you must do the drive along the coast to Port Elizabeth: it's beautiful. Allow two or three days. Stopped at a hotel along the way with a sign that read: 'Beware of the Hippopatmi'. We thought it was just a joke to amuse the tourists but about a dozen of them crossed the lawn that night. It's quite a famous place, so you should be able to find it. I loved the Cape of Good Hope so much that I took off all my clothes and dived into the freezing water in a moment of madness/elation. And if you don't mind spending a small fortune, a safari is unforgettable. Finally, avoid Sun City!
Q. Playdoughfree: Hi Anthony, My ds1 (11) would like to know which of your book characters is most like you?
A. Anthony Horowitz: I'm afraid that none of the characters are really like me, apart from Tim Diamond, the dim detective in my Diamond brothers books. Sorry to disappoint your 11-year-old but I'm nothing like Alex Rider. Much older, for a start.
Playdoughfree: Thanks for your reply, Anthony. I just texted it to my son and he replied: "If he's not like any of his heroes, is he like one of his villains - maybe the one with the world tattooed on his head?" Hope you're not...
Anthony Horowitz: Playdough, you have a very amusing son. I probably am more more like the villains than the heroes in some ways; I do enjoy creating them. But definitely not Kasper with all the tattooes. Maybe General Sarov (Skeleton Key)? I always have to remind myself that Alex is 14 and I'm 54, so we can't really be compared. The bad guys, of course, are closer to my age...
Q. Pointydogg: Anthony, do you now enjoy the fact you had such an interesting but pretty unpleasant childhood? Do you think it provided a lot of your motivation and ideas for writing or would you have ended up a writer regardless?
A. Anthony Horowitz: I have to be careful when I talk about my unpleasant childhood, pointydogg. After all, I had wealthy parents, a stable family life, a solid education. So what's to complain about? Well, Orley Farm in Harrow-on-the-Hill, mainly, one of those vile 1960s prep schools that seemed determined to destroy – emotionally and psychologically – as many of its alumni as it could! I definitely had an odd childhood and I think it did steer me unerringly to my present career. I knew, aged eight, that I would be a writer, partly because it was the only thing I was any good at but also because, even at this very early age, I was seeking refuge and escape in stories. The library was my lifeline. I can still remember everything about it, from the colour of the wooden panels to the layout of the shelves. It was the only place in the school where I felt alive.
Pointydogg: Kids love the violent black humour of Edward Eliot (I-didn't-get-where-I-am-today-Dad), especially his grim public school day tales. Did your own public school experiences influence how you approached your own children's education?
Anthony Horowitz: Edward Eliot was largely based on my father, Pointydogg! I'm not sure he'd have been amused. My children had a fairly different education to mine, although I did send them to private schools. Not sure if I should feel guilty about this. They went to a nice day school in Hampstead until they were 13, then went to boarding school. But in their case - unlike mine - it was a choice that they made with me. I just woke up one day and found myself in the misery of Orley Farm and that was that. Also they enjoyed their school days, unlike me. Does this all sound a bit defensive? I think my boys are great, so should have no regrets...
Q. Helen Mumsnet: Hello Anthony. My DS2 who is 10 would like to ask you what books you liked to read when you were 10? Were there any good boys' books then or did you have to read boring girly stuff like Heidi? <motherly, Heidi-loving shock>
A. Anthony Horowitz: Hello, Helen. You ask me what books I was reading aged ten. Well, not being terribly bright, I actually began with Tintin. I loved the world of the books, the bizarre characters, the mix of humour and adventure. Also, there weren't too many words! The first books I enjoyed were the Willard Price series: Elephant Adventure; Crocodile Adventure etc. They're still in print and although some may disagree with the premise (two boys travelling the world to capture animals for their dad's zoo), I'd recommend them. They're full of natural history and there are moments of peril and daring escapes that would even make Alex Rider gasp. Crocodile Tears was certainly inspired by Price, as was Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, the excellent series by Michelle Paver. I also read Valiant and Hotspur!
HelenMumsnet: Oh, yes to Willard Price - much loved in our house, though we tend to skip over the bits about "uncouth natives" rather quickly...
Anthony Horowitz: Helen - too true. Willard Price (like my other hero, Hergé) did live in less enlightened times. But I think these old-fashioned attitudes are still worth exploring in some ways...
Q. Antoxo: What are your thoughts other children's authors - thinking of Charlie Higson, Michael Morpurgo and Jacqueline Wilson - and which others do you rate?
A. Anthony Horowitz: Other authors? There are so many good ones around! Michelle Paver is excellent. I really liked Patrick Ness's first book, though it is perhaps a touch too violent. Darren Shan is always good for a laugh. Lots of bloodshed. Morpurgo is at his peak...
Q. JustineMumsnet: What books would you recommend for a girl who's basically read every book for her age group and is keen to move on to adult fiction?
A. Anthony Horowitz: I'm no expert here (I had two sons) but I do think it's tricky to find the "next step" - the missing link between children's books and adult fiction. My boys loved Robert Cormier, a writer I'd recommend to anyone - particularly the oddly-titled but shocking I Am the Cheese. They also enjoyed Stephen King but your daughter might dislike the violence and you might dislike some of the bad language. How about classics like To Kill a Mocking Bird (which has a compelling story)? The Go-Between by LP Hartley is a fantastic book. Golding? How about even trying Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice or it that too much of an ask? The danger is that you can put young people off great literature by introducing them to the wrong books too early. Is this at all helpful?
Q. Inghouls 2: Despite being an avid reader, ds1 (10), like many boys, doesn't particularly enjoy writing fiction. When your boys were young, did they follow in your footsteps and enjoy literacy? If not, did you get involved in their literacy homework? Do you have any tips on how I can encourage my son to write imaginatively and interestingly without the accompanying moaning, groaning and sneaking off to play football?
A. Anthony Horowitz: Can I say first, Inghouls, that, in a way, I'm quite glad this conversation is aimed at parents rather than children. I talk to children all the time but think it's important to engage adults in the conversation, too. From my experience, if parents aren’t interested in books, it’s unlikely their sons/daughters will be. As to your question, I'm not 100% sure it is possible to encourage your son to write and, as someone who was very rotund and unfit at the age of ten (and onward), I would be more inclined to encourage his football playing! Sorry if I'm sounding like an agony uncle here. How to write more imaginatively? Read. When I read books that I love – Dickens, Stephen King, Stiegg Larsson, whatever – I find myself inspired to write well. It's sort of infectious. And if you really want one other piece of advice, I'd say make sure he writes about what he enjoys (football perhaps). I don’t think it's possible to write well if you're not enjoying it.
Q. StewieGriffithsMum: Your books are invariably promoted only for boys to the point where someone at a major high-street retailer suggested it wasn't "acceptable" reading for my daughter. I think we do a great disservice to all children by genderising books but specifically girls, who seem to get dumped with crap about fluffy fairies and lovely ponies, whilst boys get the real adventure books. Has the gendered promotion of your books been a problem? Do you write for specific gendered audiences?
A. Anthony Horowitz: Dear SGM, please could you tell your high-street retailer from me that he or she is an idiot! Anyone who discourages a child from reading anything is clearly heading in the opposite direction to the rest of the world and, for what it's worth, the Alex Rider books have a huge female following. I'd say that around half of my emails and fan letters come from girls. I noticed that, in her conversation with Mumsnet, Jacqueline Wilson mentioned that she has boy readers too and that's exactly how it should be. Of course, there is a certain amount of sexual stereotyping in children's literature. Don't expect to see an Alex Rider novel with a pink cover any time soon. But I've always been slightly suspicious of the boy/girl debate (why is it always boys who supposedly don't read and why is it only boys that we seem to worry about?) and I'm even more suspicious of your retailer. Give me his or her address and I'm heading round with a brick...
Q. Peachyincarnivalfeathers: From my eight-year old-son: what's the trick to getting a good title? I like yours very much; they are exciting. DS2 has dyslexia and struggled to learn to read, so cheers for getting him excited about books. I am asking a second question but it is for a second child if that is OK? (Still works out at 0.5 questions per Peachy son!) "Dear Anthony, I am nearly ten and want to write books when I grow up. I write lots and lots already at home about monsters and mythology but what is your best tip for someone like me?"
A. Anthony Horowitz: Titles are tricky - and no mistake! Sometimes they come easily (Snakehead fell into place when I came across the name in a book about eastern gangs). But sometimes they can take ages. Crocodile Tears, for example, had about a dozen titles before I came up with the one on the cover and even now I worry that nobody knows what it means. I just look for powerful words that collide in a meaningful way. Ice Storm + Breaker. Or Skeleton + Key (which has several meanings).
To your second child: My advice to you as a young writer is as follows. Read! The more you read, the better you'll write. Write! A little every now and then - don't stare at a blank page. Writing should be fun. Get out and have adventures. You need something to write about. And most important of all - believe in yourself. Never give up! Good luck...
Q. cocolepew: Anthony, my Dd is 11 and would like to be an author. She has just asked how did you start writing? Did you start from a young age?
A. Anthony Horowitz: Cocolepew, I started writing when I was eight and, in all honesty, I knew then that there was nothing else for me. How did I start? I simply picked up a pen and and an old ledger and began scribbling stories, plays, poems, whatever. I remember asking my parents for a typewriter for my tenth birthday. It's odd because there were no other writers in my family and my father was always trying to persuade me to "go into business" like him. It was an impulse from the very start and still is today. I'm only happy when I'm writing.
Q. thedollyridesout: Anthony, my daughter is eight and wants to be an author. What advice do you have for her?
A. Anthony Horowitz: See earlier answer. 1) Read 2) Write - a little every now and then. 3) Have adventures so you have something to write about. Break a few laws...but don't get caught. 4) Believe in yourself. 5) Never give up.
Q. Kizzie: Where do you do your writing and do you have to be in total peace and quiet or do you like listening to music when you are working?
A. Anthony Horowitz: I can write anywhere, just about. My favourite place to write, though, is Orford in Suffolk, where the views of the River Alde endlessly inspire me. Generally, I like to have noise around me, to feel connected to life. I do sometimes listen to music but it has to be the same music (Vivaldi or Chopin) which I play endlessly. I can't have words in my ears, so no songs.
Q. personanongrata: Hi Anthony. How do you fit it all in, what with the novels and the TV writing?
A. Anthony Horowitz: personanongrata, I guess I have no life at all outside writing. No. That's not true. How do I fit it all in? It's a very long day when you're on your own all the time and you'd be surprised how much I can get through in ten or 11 hours (before my wife gets home and I have someone to talk to). Again - see earlier answers - I love what I do so it's easy to lose myself completely in my work in all its different forms.
personanongrata: Thanks for your answer, and sorry if you've already covered this in other answers (am keeping half an eye on webchat while meant to be working!). Do you switch between writing projects during your day, then, or just work on one thing at a time?
Anthony Horowitz: I have a strict rule: only one project a day. I never switch, for example, between Alex and Foyle [from his TV series, Foyle's War]. They inhabit such different worlds!
Q. Antoxo: What is your favourite part of writing a book?
A. Anthony Horowitz: I love every aspect of writing from thinking up the ideas (often while walking my chocolate Labrador in Suffolk) to planning and structuring, to research and so on. Perhaps most of all I love the act of writing, the scratch of the nib on the paper - I use a computer only for the second draft - and the sight of the pages mounting up. I never have writer's block. I can't wait to get back to my desk and start work. Except it isn't work. It's a total passion. How else could I survive 35 years as a writer?
Q. Daisymoo: When is the next series of Foyle's War going to be shown?
A. Anthony Horowitz: Thank you for asking about Foyle's War, Daisymoo. It will be back on the screens next year with three episodes, of which I wrote two. The Russian House tells the terrible story of what happened to the Russian PoWs who were repatriated at the end of the war. And The Hide is based on a bizarre unit called the British Free Corps – British PoWs who were persuaded to fight for the Nazis. The stories take place between VE day and VJ day when the war was still, technically, continuing. Contrary to rumours, the new series is not called Foyle's Peace!
Q. RTKanga: I grew up just outside Hastings and I wondered what made you choose Hastings for Foyle's War? I also love something I saw about Midsomer Murders: that when you couldn't think what to do next, you killed someone - it's deffo the most dangerous place in the country to live!
A. Anthony Horowitz: RTKanga, I chose Hastings for FW because it was as close to the front line as you could get while still being in England. Also, to be honest, we couldn't afford London (originally, the series was going to be called The Blitz Detective and it was going to be set there). And it's true about Midsomer Murders, I'm afraid. Whenever I got to an ad break, I killed someone in a slightly desperate attempt to make sure the viewers would come back. Seven murders in one episode was my record.
Q. Roisin: Hi Anthony! I too have two avid Horowitz readers at home. We saw you at the Hay Festival this year and were all exhausted by your energy and enthusiasm. You said at least 4 times as many words as any other speaker at the Festival. I work in a secondary school in a variety of roles, including literacy intervention with disenchanted 12 to 14-year-olds and am continually looking for ways to encourage and motivate them. I would like to get hold of a small amount of genuine television/film pre-prep material: scripts/screen plays and storyboards. Do you think I have any chance of doing so? Would my best bet to write directly to the director of a particular series/programme? Or do you have any other advice that would help me succeed with this?
A. Anthony Horowitz: I hope you enjoyed H-on-W as much as I did. I think it's my favourite festival, particularly if the sun is shining. I'm not sure how you can get scripts and pre-production notes as I don't think they're in the shops (although I did notice recently that there is a new series of books analysing popular TV shows). I'll be happy to send you a script or two if you write to me via my assistant, Olivia Zampi, at Greenlit Productions, 14-15 D'Arblay Street, London W1F 8DZ. We don't really do storyboards, by the way. We can't afford them!
Q. Mollyroger: Anthony, how do you think the modern James Bond films compare with the older, more "classic" ones. My son, who is 12 adores James Bond films but, it seems to me, the more recent films have lost their innocence. Which is your favourite and why?
A. Anthony Horowitz: Mollyroger, very happy to engage with you about all things JB. Of course, I prefer the Sean Connery Bond films: they were the ones I grew up with and nobody bettered Connery in the part. I did like Roger Moore at the time but, looking back, I do cringe at some of the "jokes" and the central performance. The later Bond films struck me as increasingly unsatisfying: the stories just didn't make any sense and things like John Cleese's ill-considered appearance as Q made me want to hide behind the seat. I did like the first Daniel Craig film but thought it didn't really work as a Bond film. Yes, it had lost its innocence, its joie de vivre. I was also surprised that they were allowed to show a female agent drowning in front of our eyes. This was unpleasant and - given how many ten-year-olds there were in the audience when I went to the film – completely inappropriate. Even so, Casino Royale had lots of good things in it. Then came the second Craig film, Quantum: for me the worst Bond film ever made, a feeble rip-off of the Bourne series, directed in a way that was more inclined to induce nausea than thrills. Glad I got that off my chest!
Q. Nickelbang: Dear Mr Horowitz, when are you next doing a UK tour? I have a (fairly new) independent children's bookshop and would dearly love to have you visit us...
A. Anthony Horowitz: My next UK tour starts on Thursday, nickelbang. I'm in Edinburgh, Birmingham, London and Dublin. Also spending two weeks in the USA. You don't say where your bookshop is but, if you let me know – contact Walker Books – I'll try to look in if I'm ever in your area. Without wishing to sound ingratiating, I do have huge respect for independent bookshops because they play such a vital part, in particular, in children's literature. They know their audience and know what to recommend. And, with the disastrous price slashing that goes on in the main chains and supermarkets, they need all the support they can get. I try to visit as many as possible. So if I'm anywhere near, let me know!
Q. Deadworm: Hullo Anthony, Both my sons have enjoyed reading lots and lots of your books, so thank you! DS2 would like very much to know when the next Power of 5 book will be available. We saw your promotional video for Crocodile Tears (in your fabulous flat) and thought you looked a little nervous. Do you enjoy or dislike all the promo work that comes with being a novelist and takes you out of your secret study.
A. Anthony Horowitz: Again, I'm very happy that you have two sons who read my books, deadworm. I'm intrigued that you thought I looked nervous in that video – you may be right. I hadn't really prepared for it and was having to make it all up as I went along. Not one of my greatest outings.
As to the other part of your question, I do sometimes wonder about the whole circus that now surrounds authors: the need to fill theatres and more or less perform stand-up comedy routines to keep children entertained for an hour. Unfortunately, these days it goes with the territory – if you want to sell books, you have to get out there. I shouldn't complain though. I love meeting the children who read my books (there's nothing quite as addictive as a young person's enthusiasm) and I enjoy my occasional appearances on radio and TV.
Deadworm: Thanks v much for your reply Anthony. On second thoughts, the video just looks crammed with enthusiasm for the book, rather than nervous!
Q. Kittykitty: Have you ever gone into a bookshop and tactically rearranged the books so yours are all at the front?
A. Anthony Horowitz: Every writer in the world has rearranged his or her own books so I'm guilty as charged. Worse than that, I used to send my children into bookshops when they were tiny - they used to hate it, crossing the road whenever they saw a bookshop looming up! I can't do it any more. I once got caught by the manager at Waterstone's, Bath - she recognised me - and I was so embarrassed, I almost died.