Meeting Anthony Horowitz is probably the closest any of us will ever get to meeting someone who thinks like James Bond. Handsome, approachable and undeniably upper class, the creator of teenage super spy Alex Rider has a feel for adventure and an ability to charm that even 007 would have envied. Daniel Craig may have bigger muscles and the real MI6 agents may have better computer skills, but when it comes to understanding pace, people, and creative ways of killing, Anthony Horowitz wins every time. His Alex Rider novels are some of the most popular children’s stories on bookshelves today, and have been described by one critic as "every bored schoolboy’s fantasy only a thousand times slicker and more exciting". Sales of Snakehead, the latest instalment, have been so brisk that it is currently ranked 15th in amazon.com’s children’s bestseller list in spite of the fact that it won’t be released until 31st October.
But despite his double-0 mindset, Horowitz insists that he has nothing in common with his fictional creations. Indeed, he attributes much of his success to his conscious efforts to distance himself from his writing. "I think the biggest mistake any children’s author can make is to base anything or anybody on his own experiences or the experience of his own children," he says emphatically. "I’m writing about universal children, for universal children. Alex Rider has got absolutely nothing to do with me at all, except for the fact that I happened to write him."
As our conversation progresses, however, I begin to realise that the line between fact and fiction is not nearly as clear-cut as it seems. Like so many successful children’s authors Horowitz had a miserable childhood. Born into a very wealthy yet emotionally distant family, he was brought up by nannies and packed off to boarding school at the age of eight. "In my early books, yeah, I was using my own childhood," he concedes. "I think in all the books of course I’m escaping from it still, and reacting to it. Why did I become a children’s writer in the first place? Well, having a miserable childhood probably helped." It certainly did: Horowitz’s hated grandmother is brutally satirised in Granny, while his nightmarish experiences at prep school, Orley Farm, form the deliciously sinister backdrop for the Groosham Grange novels. Today, Horowitz claims to have "dumped all that and moved on". Yet his heroes remain outsiders who have been orphaned or abandoned. The Diamond Brothers, Alex Rider and even the heroes of the Power of Five books are all forced to take control and survive on their own wits, resisting unwelcome manipulation by malevolent members of the adult world.
But to draw too many conclusions from these similarities is to deny Horowitz’s talent. Alex Rider may be an orphan, but he is also a highly athletic teenage spy who speaks several languages and is equipped with gadgets that ordinary teenagers could only dream of. He can even kite surf and snowboard on an ironing board (which Horowitz assures me is at least theoretically possible). The truth is, Alex appeals to teenagers in general, not just those who happen to have had a rough time at boarding school. Horowitz is the author of 38 books and several screenplays, many of which have little or nothing to do with his own life. In his latest book, City of the Dead, the main character is a girl, something Horowitz is not and has never been. "I’ve always been quite nervous of creating a female character," he reveals. "I’ve resisted it for years; I thought I would muck it up totally. But I’ve created Scar and I’m really happy with the creation. She’s got a vitality that my boy characters don’t have. She doesn’t quite do what I think she’s going to."
While Horowitz is rightly proud of his heroes, he’s passionate about his villains. The moment I mention Nightrise, the corrupt corporation which lends its name to the latest Power of Five novel, Horowitz sits up straighter. Abandoning his glass of merlot, he tells me, "The bad guys are without a doubt the most fun a writer can have. Heroes are actually quite boring. By their very nature they have to be fairly straight-laced." Horowitz’s villains are, of course, some of the most relevant in children’s fiction today. Where JK Rowling contents herself with giving Lord Voldemort Nazi overtones, Horowitz looks to today’s political and social leaders in an attempt to create more complex villains. "I think villains have moved away from sort of stock children’s villains, who do tend to be Long John Silver with a curious disability or something, to more politically motivated villains," he explains. "That’s the huge difference between my later books and some of the books that have gone before it. In Evil Star the villain is a freak with a giant head, but he’s also basically Rupert Murdoch. The people who are causing the problems of the world aren’t pantomime villains any more, but are in corporations, in politics, in power."
Of course these days the personification of evil is a risky business. Insistence on political correctness means children’s authors have to be careful not offend. Charles Dickens may have got away with describing Fagin as "a very shrivelled old Jew" who enjoyed counting his money and consorting with small boys, but very few authors would take similar risks today. Before the collapse of the Berlin Wall things were easier, Horowitz tells me. "Villains were either Nazis or Communists, and that was pretty much that. Creating villains in the 21st century is getting harder and harder." Herod Sayle, the villain in the very first Alex Rider book, Stormbreaker, is a case in point. In the original novel, first published in 2000, Sayle is described as the son of a failed hairdresser from Beirut. In the American version which came out a year later, he is reborn as the son of a failed oral hygienist. Apparently the original description was potentially homophobic. But the biggest change is seen in the screenplay, also written by Horowitz and released last year. Lebanese Herod Sayle is transformed into Darrius Sayle, white trailer trash from California. Middle Eastern villains, it seems, are no longer acceptable. So what’s left for children’s authors? Expected to produce believable bad guys, but constrained by excessive political sensitivity, they are faced with an increasingly difficult creative task. For Horowitz the solution is a simple one: entertainment. "My original aim has always been to entertain," he tells me. "But if you are an intelligent person, and I hope that I am, you also have to look at the world and in some way reflect it. The secret is not to start writing political books, or to start propagandising young people. It’s to still write adventures and excitement and chases and violence and jokes and all the rest of it, but to inform all of that with what you see and believe." And with these words Horowitz blows away all those politically correct politicians and "thought blocking" aides in much the same way that James Bond might get rid of an enemy, setting the rest of us free to think about and even comment on religious, racial and cultural issues. Provided we aren’t too boring about it, of course.