Anthony Horowitz is a whirlwind of literary activity. Children’s author, screenwriter, playwright, occasional journalist, even one-time librettist (he once penned the lyrics for a sadly as yet unstaged Dr Seuss opera) – the man is, to misquote Gilbert & Sullivan, the very model of the modern major wordsmith.
Even if you haven’t yet heard of Horowitz himself, there’s a good chance you’ll know his work. Alongside his most famous literary creation, teenage spy Alex Rider (the first edition of which, Stormbreaker, was released as a film in 2006 with a transatlantic cameo cast featuring everyone from Ewan McGregor and Stephen Fry to Alicia Silverstone and Mickey Rourke), Horowitz has written the fantasy Power Of Five series (of which the most recent edition, Necropolis, was published this year). He is also the man responsible for developing and scripting a trio of British detective series – Foyle’s War, Murder In Mind and Midsomer Murders.
We meet with him in Dubai, just after the press conference to announce the final line-up for next year’s inaugural Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature (EIFAL), an astonishingly heavyweight roll call of writers across pretty much every one of the seven continents including, fittingly, the Middle East (see below). Horowitz has flown in this morning from New York where he has been overseeing the opening of the off-Broadway production of his play Mindgame (‘I’m probably being slated by Time Out New York right now,’ he sighs with a smile). Despite the long flight and resultant jetlag – ‘If I feel alienated and bizarre, it’s entirely down to jetlag and nothing to do with Dubai,’ he jokes – is resolutely charming and happy to chat.
Horowitz’s affinity with the written word is longstanding. First published at 23, he has been ‘writing stories since I was eight’, going public with them a few years later when he was banged up in an oppressive British boarding school (‘It was very violent,’ he says, ‘just a rotten, horrible place’). Reading and storytelling were a means of escape – the metaphorical made literal in young Anthony’s fictional web: ‘The stories I was telling were escape stories,’ he recalls, ‘about two boys in the school who ran away every night and went somewhere else. I guess that’s what I’ve been doing my entire life – running away.’
Writing may have provided Horowitz with an early escape from what he calls ‘emotionally a very barren childhood’, but it has certainly been the route to adult success. Even in his so-called grown-up writing – the multiple and various screenplays he pens for screen and stage – the child’s fascination with narrative and entertainment is, he says, imperative.
‘I’ve always had this belief that an adult watching television is quite similar to a child reading a book,’ Horowitz notes. ‘You don’t sit down and watch television for a heavy cultural experience, you watch it really in the same way that a kid reads a kid’s book – entertain me! I think there are a lot of similarities between the two.’
Perhaps, but the writer also admits that in genre terms the twain rarely – and even less successfully – meet. ‘All my TV writing is for adults,’ he admits. ‘I don’t do TV for kids. I have tried writing one book for adults [The Killing Joke, 2004]. I found myself floundering, it didn’t work.’
So does he think that the genre chooses the author rather than the other way round? ‘Well, I never planned to write children’s books,’ he replies. ‘It never even entered my mind. I wanted to write films, theatre, television – all of which I have now done. But for me, anyway, when a story comes into my head, I know in which compartment to put it. And as I say, I think the bulk of my work was ideally suited to children’s literature.’
It’s interesting to note that even now, in his fifties, with a happy marriage and family life doing much to redress the balance of those damaging early years, such a core part of his work remains aimed at that initial, influential peer group. (And when he’s not conjuring up teenagers who outwit their adult tormentors, he’s killing them off in his murder-mystery screenplays.) As Horowitz says, what works especially for him about Alex Rider is the fact that he is a ‘recognisable’ teenager: ‘He’s been lied to, manipulated, he has no [loyalty]… Certainly that’s the pleasure of writing them for me, the fact that he doesn’t want to have these adventures.’
Horowitz will be sharing Rider and his other characters with a new audience when he returns to Dubai for EAIFL in February next year. Alongside the twin joys of escaping the bleakness of his native Britain for a dose of sunshine in February (‘not a bad idea, frankly,’ he says with a smile) and the ‘flattery’ of being invited to join EAIFL’s stellar line-up, is a yen, on Horowitz’s part ‘to find more challenging audiences, to go to places where my books aren’t so well known.’
It’s also a chance for the author to challenge a preconception or two. ‘You know, we have a stereotypical view of Dubai,’ he says with a smile, ‘which is footballer’s wives and the Palm and skyscrapers, and I’m looking forward to getting beyond that. That’s another good reason to come to a literary festival, because it’s a fast way to find out something about a culture without the stereotypes.’ As ever, Horowitz is fast-tracking, racing to get ahead. We look forward to playing catch-up with him again soon.
Roll up, roll up
Just a few highlights of the 50-strong cast of authors attending EAIFL, this list reveals the huge diversity of talent coming to Dubai in February.
Margaret Atwood Undoubtedly one of the festival’s biggest draws, Atwood is the prolific and hugely influential Canadian author of novels including The Handmaid’s Tale and the Booker Prize-winning The Blind Assassin.
Khaled Al Khamissi Acclaimed Egyptian writer and filmmaker. His hugely successful first novel, Taxi – written in Arabic and translated into English – tells the story of modern Cairo through the eyes of the city’s drivers.
Louis de Bernieres The epic blockbuster novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin won De Bernieres the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1995 and was later turned into a Hollywood film, starring Nicholas Cage.
Rajaa Alsanea One of the Arab world’s most modern writers, Alsanea’s first novel, Banat Al Riyadh (Girls Of Riyadh), revealed the lives of young Saudi women and has been called the Sex And The City of the Middle East.
Chimamanda Adiche First novel, Purple Hibiscus, set in the turmoil of Nigeria’s recent past, won Adiche the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize. The follow-up, Half Of A Yellow Sun, scooped the Orange Broadband Prize.
Jung Chang Chang’s biography, Wild Swans, charted the development of 20th century China and gained various accolades, including the British Book Award. Her most recent work is a powerful biography of Chairman Mao.