Anthony Horowitz's Spy Writing Secrets

Anthony Horowitz likes secrets - worlds we are not meant to see, locked doors, villains, hidden agendas, and spies.

So SPYSCAPE turned the tables, asking Horowitz about his private world, the secrets of his writing process, the inspiration for his spy stories, and his advice for struggling writers.

Anthony Horowitz
Anthony Horowitz is a life-long Bond fan who has published three 007 novels himself

The writing process

Do I have a writing process? I try not to get into too much of a routine - I want to make each day different if I can. But I generally start around 8 a.m. I try to avoid breakfast as I work better if I’m hungry. If I’m in Orford, I’ll go over to the little house where I work and sit down at my desk with extraordinary views of the river and the Ness.

The huge Suffolk skies are amazing. Every time I look out of the window there’s something new and more beautiful to inspire me: a cloud formation, an arrow’s head of wild geese heading south, a passing boat, a rain squall, a lonely avocet. I pick up my pen, think about what I have to do, where I am in the book, what I want to achieve… and start writing. The rest of the day is punctuated by walks with my dog, green tea, and too many biscuits.

Anthony Horowitz's Spy Writing Secrets

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Anthony Horowitz likes secrets - worlds we are not meant to see, locked doors, villains, hidden agendas, and spies.

So SPYSCAPE turned the tables, asking Horowitz about his private world, the secrets of his writing process, the inspiration for his spy stories, and his advice for struggling writers.

Anthony Horowitz
Anthony Horowitz is a life-long Bond fan who has published three 007 novels himself

The writing process

Do I have a writing process? I try not to get into too much of a routine - I want to make each day different if I can. But I generally start around 8 a.m. I try to avoid breakfast as I work better if I’m hungry. If I’m in Orford, I’ll go over to the little house where I work and sit down at my desk with extraordinary views of the river and the Ness.

The huge Suffolk skies are amazing. Every time I look out of the window there’s something new and more beautiful to inspire me: a cloud formation, an arrow’s head of wild geese heading south, a passing boat, a rain squall, a lonely avocet. I pick up my pen, think about what I have to do, where I am in the book, what I want to achieve… and start writing. The rest of the day is punctuated by walks with my dog, green tea, and too many biscuits.

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Alex Rider books
Alex Rider Books
Horowitz’s Alex Rider series has sold an estimated 19 million copies.

The early years

I never, not for one minute, considered giving up - although it’s true that success took a long time to arrive and I did at one stage think that my children’s books weren’t going to find the audience that I knew was out there. Alex Rider changed all that.

Seeing my first book in print was, of course, a thrill, but I think one thing I’ve learned in life is that getting published does not equate with success. Quite the opposite: It can be the start of a long and frustrating journey. Self-belief is the key. Every writer knows rejection. Every writer is afraid of failure. But we’re not quite as alone as we might think, and the writers who succeed never let their doubts get in the way of their work.

Among the first writers that I loved were Hergé (Tintin), Ian Fleming (Bond), and Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), and all of them have played a huge part in the writer that I have become myself. I cannot imagine a writer who does not read. The authors I admire most and whose works I read now include: Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, Robert Harris, and Stephen King. I’ve been reading a lot of Japanese murder mysteries during the past two years. Keigo Higashino is brilliant.

 

Anthony Horowitz
Certainly, I can’t start writing until I know the end,” Horowitz tells SPYSCAPE.


Inspiration

All the Alex Rider stories begin in the real world. Even the more fantastical elements - such as clones, nanotechnology, or GM crops - are carefully researched, often based on real stories that have appeared in the news.

Many of the characters are based on people I read about in the newspapers or see on TV or even meet in person - although I have to be careful about saying who they are. I don’t want to get sued! I read a lot of books. I meet a lot of people. This has given me a broad understanding of the world in which I live and so I don’t necessarily need to research too heavily the stresses of Alex’s life… his PTSD, for example. Some of my writing is intuitive… based on truth but not researched to death!

The blueprint

I plan the books very carefully so I know almost everything about the plot. Certainly, I can’t start writing until I know the end. But at the same time, I leave myself “wiggle room.” For example, I might know that Alex will get into danger in Chapter Six - but I may not be 100% sure what that danger might be.

And often I’ll have to think for days or weeks before I can work out how he escapes. As I’ve already mentioned, a newspaper story might be my first inspiration, but the rest of the story develops in my head, sometimes over a period of months. In many ways, it’s my favorite part… thinking up ideas.

 

Anthony Horowitz
Alex’s character is based on Horowitz’s son and on a friend’s son. (Photo Credit: Jack Lawson)

Alex Rider secrets

Alex Rider was inspired by James Bond, but from the start I tried to make him as different to Bond as I could. He’s not patriotic. He doesn’t even want to be a spy. He’s very young! The whole point of the character is that he has been manipulated by adults who aren’t completely trustworthy. It’s no coincidence that Alan Blunt, the head of MI6, is named after a famous traitor. I based Alex partly on my own son, partly on the son of a friend. He has got very little in common with me!

It’s hard to describe how happy I am with the IMDb TV series of Alex Rider. Obviously, the books mean a lot to me… there are more than a dozen novels and they represent 20 years’ work. They changed my life. Somehow, with the TV series, everything has gone right. First of all, there’s the casting of Otto Farrant who for me is utterly brilliant. He brings so much inner life and veracity to the character. He’s brilliantly supported by his “family”, Ronke Adekoluejo (Jack), Marli Siu (Kyra), and the wonderful Brenock O’Connor who plays his best friend, Tom. 


Otto Farrant as Alex Rider
Otto Farrant stars as Alex Rider on the IMDb TV series of the same name.


I also take my hat off to Guy Burt who has adapted the scripts and has stayed faithful to their spirit while adding so much vision and originality of his own. You have no idea how hard he’s worked getting it right. I could go on and on about the production values, the direction, the tone, the set pieces… but what really matters to me is that people love the show. It’s been a hit all over the world and I can’t wait to see what people think of Season Two.

Advice for struggling espionage writers


The advice I would give is this: Very few people know the secrets of the spy world so there’s no need to be 100% accurate. Don’t exhaust yourself trying to find “the truth.” Do you really think the Circus, as described by John le Carré, or Box 88 invented by Charles Cumming actually exist? The point is that they feel right.

Both authors had experience of spying, which most of us will never have, but we can read fiction and non-fiction books about espionage, we can watch documentaries and spy films, we can look at the newspapers and the internet. All we have to do is add our imagination and own the world that we create. Believe in that world. Immerse yourself in it. Own it. It’s yours.

The future

My next big project? Hopefully more Alex Rider, of course.

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