A note: Whereas I have tried to write down exact quotes in their exact context, I am a mere blogger and a bit of a shoddy journalist and my pen likes to run out when I get a bit too excited so I have to fill in the blanks. If I have misquoted or misinterpreted the intent on anyone’s views, I apologise.
Also: This is pretty long. You should probably go make a brew or something before you sit down…
I’ve been having a bit of a nightmare with the introduction to the write up of the talk by Anthony Horowitz in Cheltenham a few days ago. Every time I sat down to write it I would realise that I was dreadfully wrong.
At first, I wanted to state, with as much conviction as I can muster, that Anthony Horowitz writes books for boys. I know this is a stupid thing to say because there is no such thing as a ‘boy book’. Anyone can read what they want to read and they can enjoy what they want to enjoy and everyone should just get over it.
And then I realised that even if there was such thing as a ‘boy book’, it was what a stupid thing that was to say anyway because it’s simply not true. I know lots and lots of lady readers who simply adore everything that Mr H writes. And, while I was queuing for this event, I was eavesdropping on a wonderful conversation between two girls who were discussing the pros and cons of fancying Alex Rider in the queue. I really wanted to join in with them until I realised it would be bizarre to admit to fancying a fourteen year old boy to strangers. And also a bit illegal.
Anyway, I think the difficulty I have had writing this introduction mirrors the difficulty I have had while reading Mr H’s books. My relationship with them has kind of resembled a rollercoaster.
I read Stormbreaker a few weeks ago and I adored it. It was so exciting and fresh and interesting. And then I picked up Raven’s Gate and, again, I really enjoyed it. Then I picked up Evil Star and, well, I guess that’s where I had a bit of trouble. I’m not sure what it was but something just didn’t click with me. Whether it was because of the characters, or the story, or whether it was just because I wanted more kissing in the story, whether it’s just because I have horrible taste in literature or maybe it was difficult to get into the story because it’s practically impossible to imagine oneself in Peru when sandwiched on a crammed TransPennine Express service. It also didn’t help that there are so many adverts for Oblivion in Manchester Piccadilly station as if they were placed there solely to mock me. I really wanted to like it but… I figured, you can’t win them all, can you?
But after listening to Mr Horowitz talk at Cheltenham, I realise I have definitely made a grave mistake and I have written them off far too quickly.
Aaah, I hear you say, the talk. When are you getting to that bit of the blog post?
Right… about…. now.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go camping with an incredibly successful YA author? No? Um… ok, well you’ve just ruined my introduction. If yes… then hurrah. Because if you class sitting on some metal seats a few feet away from someone as “camping” then Mr Horowitz and I genuinely went camping. Also, it was absolutely chucking it down which is pretty much a given if you go camping in the UK.
So as I retrieved my notepad and settled down in the aforementioned metal seats (that shuddered if anyone moved an inch) and listened to the excited chatter of adolescent boys and the slightly damp rustle of anoraks.
Nicollete Jones, the children’s book editor of The Times, was the lady who was interviewing Mr Horowitz today.
If you’ve ever been to see a writer discuss their book, you may have heard authors say that their book was the book they “were meant to write.” Luckily, Mr Horowitz finds that phrase as “nauseating” as we do and yet he insists that, with Oblivion, it’s true. Mr H explained that it took him “thirty years to write it” and at a large amount of words (sorry, I didn’t write the exact number down because hello! My name is Jo and I am a shoddy journalist) it was “the fattest book his publisher had ever published.” And I can vouch for that. I nearly lost an eye when I knelt down to tie my shoe lace and someone walked by with a copy in their hands.
He explained that children nowadays always have five other things they should be doing, whether it’s homework or watching TV or messing around on Facebook, so if you want your reader to get interested you need to “grab them by the throat” and make them interested.
Ms Jones then asked him what inspired him to write some of the issues in Oblivion, which (I’m guessing by the way the questions were geared, I haven’t actually read it yet so this could be a horrible lie) explores important questions about society and the environment.
Mr H explained that Alex Rider, his first series if you didn’t know, was “written at the same time as we became untrusting of our government”. This being the time of the Iraq war and the people in charge weren’t exactly the most trustworthy bunch. Even though I have only read the first of the Alex Rider books, I definitely got the sense that the people who were supposed to be in charge… weren’t always the one you should be trusting.
But going back to The Power of Five, he discussed the fact that with all the headlines in the papers from various different Inquiries and what not that there is a general sense of, well, unease brewing. And it was this sense of “imminent something” that prompted him to write this series. If you know the series, this is where the Old Ones come into it and it’s what he wanted to capture when he wrote them. Not everyone should be trusted, not everyone is what they seem.
He explained that this book was written for readers eleven and up because anyone below that may be “traumatised” by the profound questions he wanted to ask or, I guess perhaps more appropriate, explore in this story. He then went on to say that he wasn’t a “green writer” but that he liked to hint at these issues in his books. And I loved that, because, to me anyway, there is nothing worse than reading a book and being clobbered over the head with the writer’s views on a subject, even if you agree with them or not. I think what makes Mr Horowitz and other writers like him so interesting are that they don’t avoid the difficult subjects but they introduce them in a way that their readers can make up their own mind and they encourage the discussion that would inevitably come next.
He said that, unlike Alex Rider which came about from wanting to write something different and “completely new”, he wanted to write a book (Oblivion) with “something of me” in it, as opposed to simply just adventure and constant peril.
However, if Oblivion is like anything else I’ve read by Anthony Horowitz… I’m pretty confident we’ll get adventure and constant peril too. Especially when he described it as “Lord of the Rings set in the real world.” And if that doesn’t make you want to read this book, I have no idea what would.
Ms Jones then asked him about the research he did for not only Oblivion but the whole The Power of Five. I mean, just in this series his characters have travelled to all sorts of exotic locations like Peru, America, Hong Kong and even Yorkshire!
Oblivion, if you don’t know is set in Antarctica and Mr Horowitz actually went there to write the story and set the scene. Here we were treated to a video that Mr H filmed while he was over there.
I mean, I can’t even write anything if there’s a slight breeze blowing through my room, let alone an actual blizzard raging outside my window. He explained that his motivation for writing in a library in a in a research facility in the Antarctica was to give himself an “edge”. Seeing as his story was set at the “edge of the world, so it was only right to come to the end of the world to finish it.”
All this about writers travelling to all the corners of the earth to research their writing gives me an amazing idea for the story I want to write next. Basically, it’s about a girl who… well, she goes to a beach and drinks cocktails in the sun.
You would read that book, don’t lie.
The Power of Five is an incredibly international series and because Mr Horowitz is such a successful writer all over the world, he said he gets invited to a lot of international book festivals. And also, and I loved this, one of the reasons he loves this so much is because he gets to “find the next place to destroy” in his books!
In respect to the characters in his books, Mr Horowitz explained that Pedro was perhaps the most difficult to write because he was so far removed from himself. I’ve always admired writers who can convey a character that is so different to anything they know and do it convincingly.
And then he went on to talk about the female characters in his books which I found really interesting because the thing that struck me (and please bear in mind that I haven’t read all the books in The Power of Five) in these stories was how few ladies there are in this series. I always get annoyed when people say that male authors can’t write (convincing) female characters because two of my favourite all time lady characters are written by male authors. Obviously, as I have yet to meet Scarlett, I can’t say anything about Mr Horowitz but he stated that “he can do demons but not girls.”
Which made me chuckle a little bit because…. Well… there’s not that much of a difference between a fourteen year old girl and a demon. Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything. But ok, I was a bit of a terror when I was fourteen.
Leading on from that, when he asked about the target audience that this last book was written for, Mr H stated that he “doesn’t think about the market” when he’s writing. He explained that, instead of focussing on what he thinks people would enjoy, he wanted to “serve the story”. I loved this and found it really refreshing for an author to write the book he wants to write as opposed to just writing it because of the pay check.
It was obvious that his family experiences are a great influence for his writing. He then told a brilliant story about how the jellyfish scene in Stormbreaker was inspired by one of his holidays with one of his sons (he has two, by the by) was stung by one! He described how his son was writhing on the sand and while he was trying to be the sympathetic and caring dad, he was thinking about dashing to get his notebook and jotting it down. It was hilarious… but I’m guessing probably not for his son. For him it was probably, you know, agony. But it provided a really great scene in Stormbreaker, which I am sure provided a lot of comfort for his son.
Going back to Oblivion (I swear his talk was more coherent and fluid than I’m portraying it, by the way) but staying on the subject of family, Mr H said that he often gives his manuscript for his sons to read and give him feedback on. He said that when he gave his youngest son the draft of Oblivion, he kindly informed him that the last 40k of the story was “no good”. So Mr Horowitz re-wrote it…. And “promptly disinherited him”!
I am extremely aware that I have rambled on a ridiculous amount on this write up but it was so interesting and so much was covered. But I am going to wind it up really soon. The talk ended with him explaining what’s next for him (including a new Sherlock Holmes book, for those who are fans of The House of Silk I have to say it sounds brilliant and really exciting and includes a WATERFALL… hint hint, some more of Foyle’s War and a new YA book about a teenage assassin in which he wants to explore “truly evil in a character”. I mean, how fascinating does that sound? Very, that’s how much) and answering some questions from the audience about Alex Rider, writing for films and his favourite Bond (Sean Connery, fyi).
But I’m going to tell you one last story which is perhaps the best way that an author could react to criticism.
A few years ago, Anthony Horowitz wrote a collection of short horror stories. Now I’ve not read them, so I may be explaining this wrong but basically there are 8 stories that Mr H has written. However, there are 9 stories in the collection. The 9th story was one that was, shall we say, added in just before it was sent to the press by a psychopathic, homicidal lunatic who was hiding in the publisher’s office (amazing, no?). The gist of the story was that if you take the first letter of each sentence it reads “I am going to murder you soon”.
A bit creepy, yes, but also brilliant. So basically, a girl picked it up and read it and was horrified thinking that a psychopathic, homicidal lunatic was lurking outside her house ready to kill her and the girl’s mum wrote a letter to Anthony Horowitz saying how traumatised her daughter was and how he should never have written in and how he should be ashamed of himself, etc etc.
So Mr Horowitz was a bit upset (and probably a bit proud) that this poor girl had been reduced to a quivering wreck because of one of his stories because, as he explained, authors have a “responsibility” when they’re writing stories to not make it gratuitous and horrible*. In order to try and make amends to the girl, he wrote her a heartfelt letter explaining that the story wasn’t true and how he was sorry it scared her so much.
However, what she didn’t know, was that if you took the first letter of every sentence of the letter… it read “I’m going to murder you too.”
I have to admit, my full on cackle came out at that point.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get any pictures or my books signed because, and I can almost hear the ‘I told you sos’ from all you e-book naysayers, I have all my Horowitz books on my Kindle. Needless to say, my incoherent ramblings don’t do Mr Horowitz any justice. It was a fascinating talk and, like I mentioned waaaaaay up there, has convinced me that I need to give The Power of Five another chance sooner rather than later.
*This doesn’t count as part of the write up because I told you it was going to be a quick thing but it was too interesting to leave out. Basically, Mr H said that he when he writes he likes to think of a ghost train: he knows that while he has the reader in his clutches he can scare them as much as he wants but he likes to have “optimistic” endings, similarly in the way that when you go on the ghost train you are scared while you’re on the ride but you always know that the doors will open at the end. I really loved that.