A perfect setting for a murder mystery...
With the Alderney Literary Festival kicking off this Friday, Emma Pinch spoke to the biggest star of the event, author Anthony Horowitz, about his writing career and how two St Anne’s pupils persuaded him to visit the island...
ANTHONY HOROWITZ doesn’t really do school visits any more.
To say the author of the wildly popular Alex Rider novels, creator of Foyle’s War, writer of myriad Poirot plots and Midsomer Murders, a Bond book, and screenwriter for the new Tin Tin film is a busy man is bit like saying Donald Trump doesn’t lack in self belief.
But when Year 8 students Ethan Gillingham and Tobin Collier wrote with an invitation to visit their school for this year’s first young people’s literary festival it was an offer he couldn’t pass up.
‘Although I very seldom do school visits any more because I’m too busy, their letter just made me smile,’ he reveals. ‘It did a very good sell on the island. I like islands very much – particularly very small ones. Alderney sounds like it would be the perfect setting for a murder mystery.’
London-based Horowitz chooses his words with precision and delivers them with force and energy. His accent is cultured. He’s worked with director Peter Jackson and hobnobbed with Spielberg. It’s hard to reconcile the successful, urbane author with the overweight, lonely boy who made up stories to escape the untrammeled misery of his schooldays. But the two are not unconnected, he says.
‘I went to a very horrible prep school when I was young,’ he says.
‘The only room in the school where I felt comfortable and even safe was the library. Aged nine or 10 I was drawn into reading and telling stories was an escape. It was a very hard and brutal environment. In the English private school system you’ve either got to be clever or sporty and I was neither so I didn’t succeed on either front. And I was quite a plump child so I was bullied because of my weight. I was a very under-confident child and I was a rich and spoiled child. I was considered by almost everyone to be a total failure in every respect.
When I read I could be who I wanted to be. To this day books are a refuge for me.
‘I’m not saying I was completely a victim in all this – I was not a particularly nice child – but in books and in telling stories I could be who I wanted to be. Stories became a lifeline and I determined at age 10 that I wanted to be a writer. It’s all I wanted to do in my life and it’s been a driving force now for 50 years.
‘I’m asked if I would have been happy not to have gone to that school and not to have had the unhappiness and not been a writer but to me they are connected.’
It’s easy to understand how James Bond would have appealed to the young Horowitz and would later become the inspiration for teenage super spy Alex Rider. Horowitz realised a dream when he was commissioned by the estate of Ian Fleming to pen a new James Bond novel – Trigger Mortis, published in 2015.
‘I was about 10 years old when the first James Bond came out, Dr No, and that had a huge impact on me. This idea of an exotic place and a spy, and beautiful women and amazing food and adventure and excitement struck a chord with me. Although Alex Rider is very dissimilar to James Bond – they have very little in common – James Bond was the inspiration for him.’
Is there anything of Horowitz in Alex Rider? Emphatically not. ‘The best thing about Alex Rider is that he is the exact opposite of me in every way.’
Setting himself challenges and being alert to new ideas is key to the longevity of his career. He is two books in to a 10-piece murder mystery series which has Horowitz himself as the detective’s sidekick.
‘When you’ve done as much writing as I’ve done and as much work as I have the secret is, I think, to keep challenging myself to do things that are difficult, do things that are unexpected and not to do the same thing over and over again,’ he explains. ‘Writing is itself an adventure; I don’t want it to become a routine.’
How does he know which ideas will work? ‘If it’s a good idea it doesn’t go away. Every day I have probably 30 or 40 ideas a day for stories or lines or jokes or whatever and don’t write them down. I think the test is if they are still there, months or years later, I have to write them.
‘Magpie Murders, which has probably been my most successful adult novel, was an idea I had 20 something years before I wrote it. If you go back to one of the early episodes of Midsomer Murders you will see one of the characters reading Magpie Murders. I actually had the prop made when I had the idea for the book. I didn’t write it though until 20 years after that. Because I wasn’t ready to do it then.’
His passion for the written word is as fresh as ever. If anyone can inspire school-aged minds to get creative on paper or at a keyboard, it’s surely Horowitz.
‘One thing that has not changed in my life with being married, being successful, whatever and being older is that I love writing,’ he enthuses. ‘I love every aspect of writing. I love fountain pens, and ink, and paper, I love thinking up stories, I love words, I love reading great literature. I read Dickens and Trollope and also Steven King and Sarah Waters, I mean there are so many writers I admire and love. Some of them are more high-brow than others, but this has been a lifelong passion and so what drives me is simply a love of what I’m doing and nothing else. In a world that seems increasingly difficult to understand, fiction is still the great solace, still the great escape, still helps me to understand the world I’m in.’
His message to children – and any aspiring writer – is to believe in themselves.
‘I get nervous of giving advice. If someone sells a lot of books it doesn’t make them an oracle. The one thing I say is believe in yourself and not to give up. I could easily have given up given the lack of encouragement I got when I was very young, but I didn’t. I believed that inner voice that said I would succeed and here I am. For me whether you want to be a writer or a doctor or a pilot, if you believe in yourself you are very likely to achieve it.’
- Anthony Horowitz is presenting a talk at the Alderney Cinema on Saturday 30 March. Tickets cost £10 and under-18s go free.
- The Alderney Literary Festival is in its fifth year and runs from 29-31 March. It features a total of 11 authors, presenting 13 talks. The history-focused event will feature novels and biographies spanning Roman and Tudor times to the 20th century Raj, the aftermath of the Spanish civil war and the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands.
The letter sent by Ethan and Tobin of St Anne’s School:
Dear Mr Horowitz,
We are writing to you from St Anne’s school in Alderney; our names are Ethan and Tobin and we are in Year 8. We have both read most of your books. Ethan has read a few of the novels from the ‘Alex Rider’ series while I have read them all! The school we go to is the only school on the island – it’s very small – with only 128 students in total and an extra 34 staff that work hard to keep our school going.
We would love for you to come to our Literary Festival in March; you could come for an all-expenses-paid long weekend and stay in the famous Braye Beach Hotel: a lovely beach-side hotel. There will be many opportunities for you to sell your books and meet the young people, as well as the adults, of Alderney.
We have an extremely impressive history, dating back to the Romans (… they were always roamin’ everywhere!). There are Victorian and German Forts and many bunkers which you can explore! Relying on a container ship for food can be very exciting (because it’s different) and sometimes annoying (sometimes there are no chips for tea!). However, a lot of the isolation of the island is spectacular. I am looking forward to my first winter on the island. I hope the sea is rough and I can see some epic waves smash over the breakwater!
The Alderney Literary Trust holds a literary festival each year and writers come from far and wide.
This year we hope that’s you!
From Ethan and Tobin
P.S. Please write another ‘Alex Rider’.