Confessions of a polymath


London-based writer Antony Horowitz has written more than 40 books; his much-loved Alex Rider adventure series has sold over 19 million copies. The creator of the TV series Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War, Horowitz was awarded an OBE for services to literature at the beginning of this year. In 2011, his acclaimed Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk, was published. It’s follow-up, Moriarty, launches in October.

Your website describes you as “a born polymath” – you write books, TV series, film, plays and journalism. How do you juggle everything?

I have basic house rules – for example I would never work on two or three different things on one day. It’s a question of compartmentalising and being completely immersed in whatever the work is at the time.

Where do you think the urge to create comes from?

It’s almost impossible to say. I’m the only writer in my family and I can trace my family back hundreds of years – and there’s never been a writer or an artist of any sort – there’s just me. And when you think that I was a very stupid kid, and I wasn’t very successful at school or bright or anything, and then one day I picked up a pen and my life changed, and it was just a moment of recognition that that’s what I was and would be and wanted to be. And there was nothing else. Where that came from is one of life’s great mysteries.

How did your upbringing shape your writing and what you’ve written about?

My upbringing was fairly wretched in most ways. I hate hearing wealthy people talk about unhappy childhoods because they should be so unlucky to have wealthy parents and a good education and a comfortable house and good food, but nonetheless, my upbringing was unsatisfactory in many ways in that it was very emotionless, marked by a truly horrendous school I was sent to when I was eight, [and] very peculiar parents. I think that was why I wrote children’s books – because my own childhood was so flawed. In my early children’s books I wrote about my parents and about my family and myself quite a lot. And although those books are OK and some of them are still in print, once I’d dropped it all and got rid of that baggage and moved into Alex Rider and into a different world that wasn’t just mine, that’s when my career took off. So it’s quite interesting that I think obsessing about my childhood and obsessing about my school and all the rest of it did me damage and it’s good to have got it behind me and to be able to move on.

Tell me about your writing process. Do you ever write in longhand?

Always. I like fountain pens in particular and I find the act of writing – by which I mean the physical act of writing: scratching a nib on paper, the sense of the pen balancing in your hand, the flow of the ink – I find it very, very satisfying, much more so than tapping on a computer which, apart from anything else, does terrible damage to your body. To me the most pleasurable part of writing, in a way, is that physical contact. Then I go to the computer for the second, third, fourth drafts.

Does it go up to that many drafts normally?

Four maximum. I think that if you keep rewriting and rewriting you eventually diminish what you’re doing – you’ll suck the energy out of it so it’s a case of just getting it right and then stopping.

How do you keep coming up with ideas – how do you keep creative?

I have a lot of ideas. When I’m travelling, when I’m meeting people, when I’m daydreaming, when I’m reading the newspapers, when I watch television or read books, ideas are just generated the whole time and I suppose I find unreality more attractive than reality. I suppose the words “what if” are the two most important words of my life, and I apply it to everything. Everything on the face of it can become quite dull. Reality can be at times quite bleak. Unreality and fantasy and imagination are always rich and rewarding – so that’s what I prefer.

Which author has been your greatest influence?

Charles Dickens primarily. He’s my favourite writer. He is, by a factor of 50 or 100, a better writer than I am and ever will be … I love the way he can cut between humour and social comment and horror and adventure and passion and so many different things muddled together and somehow tell a story. I love the surprises in his narrative. I suppose I’m driven by story. I admire style and I like to see how great writing can be – it’s nice to have a target to know how far you’re falling short of it.

What books or characters resonated with you as a child?

Tintin was my favourite character because Tintin was a writer and that was the most exciting thing about him – when I decided to become a writer I realised I could have adventures because I could go to all the different places that Tintin had been to.

You’ve been working on the next Tintin movie. Tell me about the screen-writing process, and how that differs to writing prose.

Well, I’m not sure that screenwriting is writing – actually; [film] screenwriting is adapting to a series of insane instructions and trying to survive. I’m not talking about Tintin, incidentally – I’m just talking generally. What do you do when you are confronted with insane notes by a producer – and you either agree and do what you told, or you’re fired? It’s not like a book, where every decision is based on your own judgment. When you’re writing a film, you’re making judgments really to survive. So I’m not terribly crazy about writing films. Television is another matter, though – some of the best work now that’s on the screen is on the small screen. And doing a show like Foyle’s War or any of the TV I write there is still the same authorship and the same dedication that you get with a book. And that I find very exciting. It helps if you own the production company – which my wife does, so I’m fairly comfortably off there. But of all the writing I do, books are the most valuable because nothing is more important than reading to the development of a human being.

What are you proudest of writing?

Alex Rider, because [the series] seems to have got a lot of kids reading, and it seems to have played a big part in people’s lives.

What advice do you have young writers?

The first is to read – if you don’t read, you can’t write; it’s as simple as that. You have to read; you have to keep yourself current with what other people are doing; you have to expand your language; you have to immerse yourself in the great pool of literature.

Write a little bit, and often, but don’t become obsessive – if you’re young, in particular.

Get out, have fun, have adventure, and do something illegal but don’t get caught. It’s advice I give quite seriously because if you live a safe life you’ll only write safe books – so do dangerous things: extend yourself; stretch yourself. Experience is very important to a writer.

Enjoy your writing. If you’re not enjoying the writing then something’s gone wrong.

And the fifth — and most important piece of advice — is to believe in yourself.

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