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Books were my way out of a bad life


KIDS’ STUFF: Horowitz, one of the authors taking part in this year’s 'Sunday Independent' literary festival, is best-known for his Alex Rider series of adventures about a teenage boy though the protagonist of his new book is a 14-year-old girl

KIDS’ STUFF: Horowitz, one of the authors taking part in this year’s 'Sunday Independent' literary festival, is best-known for his Alex Rider series of adventures about a teenage boy though the protagonist of his new book is a 14-year-old girl

KIDS’ STUFF: Horowitz, one of the authors taking part in this year’s 'Sunday Independent' literary festival, is best-known for his Alex Rider series of adventures about a teenage boy though the protagonist of his new book is a 14-year-old girl

Anthony Horowitz is threatening to disappear in an accident of his own making. The bestseller author, deviser of tricky escapes and sticky ends, is contemplating the freedom that would come with staging a car accident through which to despatch of his public persona, so that he could start writing again as a complete unknown.

As creator of the hit Alex Rider series, Horowitz is one of a handful of writers living the publishing phenomenon dream, spearheaded by JK Rowling, who have transformed the arena of young adult and children's novels into the Hollywood of the literary world, with the potential to turn writers into megastars.

With his place in the firmament secure, Horowitz will be joining the stellar line-up of authors taking part in this year's Sunday Independent sponsored literary festival, Books 08. "I'm really looking forward to it. Martin Amis is coming this year, isn't he?" He asks with raised eyebrows and pursed lips that reveal how impressed he is with the calibre of literary celebrity with whom he will share the billing. "I love going to Ireland. I've been many times. It's always too short, but I always look forward to going back."

Horowitz's Alex Rider novels attract the kind of slavish and frenzied fandom that has led to inevitable comparisons to Harry Potter. But Horowitz had been labouring away for years as a children's book author, publishing about 15 novels before hitting the big time.

"When Harry Potter happened, my first thought was to be slightly miffed. Y'know -- whoever this Rowling is has cracked it and it should have been me. But of course I was a huge benefactor from it, because Rowling changed the entire industry and changed the world of children's books."

Greeting me in his fashionable apartment in Clerkenwell in central London Horowitz apologises for being tired, and explains that he has finished a script for the ITV drama Foyle's War, which he created with his wife, the television producer Jill Green. Not bad considering it is only 11 in the morning. But then, Horowitz is well known for his discipline (he writes for 10 hours a day) and the volume of his output.

We sit in the sunshine on his enormous new landscaped balcony. The pad itself is every bedsit scribbler's loft-living fantasy: enormous rooms, open-plan kitchen and a couple of imaginative touches such as a hidden staircase behind a bookcase. Somewhere in the house is the Alex Rider story factory -- an enormous office where Anthony sits daily and, looking out over the London skyline, dreams up plotlines and daredevil adventures.

But the best-selling worlds he has created are in some ways a cage of his own making, albeit a very comfortable, beautifully decorated one.

He has produced seven instalments in the Alex Rider series, which detail the adventures of a teenage spy who has been reluctantly recruited into MI6. Horowitz has also branched out into the hugely popular fantasy genre. Necropolis, the fourth book in his Power Of Five series (about the trials endured by five children with special powers who have been charged with protecting the world from ancient forces of evil), is due out this autumn. In it, Anthony takes the challenging step of having a 14-year-old girl as his protagonist. It's a new task that has helped to reignite some of his wonder at the process of writing. He is frank about the ways in which creating a bestselling franchise brings pressures and constraints.

"It took me a very, very long time to get established and become well known. I would say I wrote something like 15 books, over 15 years, before I wrote Alex Rider. And it was always striving to do better, and wondering, why aren't these books better known and maybe the next one ... . It's very different now when the responsibility is so different. The sense of 'will this be the book that disappoints people' rather than 'will this be the book that makes my name'.

"I have to fight harder to hang on to my enthusiasm and my excitement. Writing is still a huge pleasure for me, but if ever it doesn't become that, if it becomes a chore, if it becomes, you know, the demands of Walker Books for another book... I think that would be the time to stop."

He is highly aware of the pressure of expectation that rests on him, and the perils of departing from type. He mentions his hero, Ian Fleming, and his ill-fated attempt to branch out from a tried and tested formula.The Spy Who Loved Me, which was written from a woman's perspective, "was a disaster, everybody hated it. And, in fact, the last James Bond books, all of them, have a sort of a tired, desperate quality, as he tries to avoid the formula that has made the earlier Bond books so great. One after another, because they don't deliver."

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To avoid this fate, he has the get-out clause of killing off Anthony Horowitz. That way he could sidestep the restrictions imposed by having such a big audience who know exactly what they want from him. It is, in fact, a ruse he has used before, writing a television script under the name of Simon Ellis, a character of his own imagining that he embodied throughout the time he was writing. "Unfortunately, I had to come clean in the end -- I couldn't sign the contracts under a false name. But it was a good piece of work. And it was partly good because it wasn't written by me."

This is, it turns out, an abiding theme with Horowitz; the idea of using literature as a means of moving out of his present circumstances. It's why he became interested in books and writing in the first place. They were a means by which he could escape the constraints of his strange, and mostly unhappy childhood. Horowitz was brought up in north London by wealthy parents, but while material comforts were replete, he has often described his early family life as emotionally barren. This was compounded by the fact that he was sent off to a particularly miserable boarding school that left indelible scars on his psyche.

Anthony's father was ostensibly a businessman but also worked as a fixer for Harold Wilson's government. In one surreal anecdote from his early life, Horowitz remembers being dragged into one of his father's mysterious business transactions -- delivering half a million pounds by motorbike to an associate across London. His father died when Anthony was 21. It emerged he had racked up huge debts and sequestered all his money under a false name in a European bank account. Unable to track it down, the family was left bankrupt and his mother, aged 50, had to go out to work.

"I obviously didn't have a particularly happy childhood despite being very upper class and privileged and wealthy and such. And when I hear myself talking about an unhappy childhood I have to remind myself that many people would kill to have a childhood like mine. Therefore, why in the hell should I complain? I'm not really complaining, though, I'm just merely pointing out that my writing began because I was in a foul, brutal, sadistic school, where I was being psychologically trounced and crushed by a collection of perverts and sadists who these days wouldn't get a look in at school. Quite right, too. One of the ways I think society has improved is in children's rights to not be buggered and bullied. So my whole writing began as an escape from that and the tension: weird family, weird parents, weird upbringing. Foul school and stories and books as the lifeline out of it. I guess it has continued throughout my life that I've never been particularly comfortable with who I am, in the sense of the posh accent and the Jewish background and all the rest of it. That the stories are always about escaping from who and where and what I am. And remain so to this day. There's a sense of desperation to the writing, the sense that -- let's get out of life and into a book."

For more information about Anthony Horowitz's appearance at Books '08 go to www.bookevents.ie. Watch out next week for our fabulous Alex Rider competition.

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