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Charlie Higson and Anthony Horowitz on their inner children and literary lives

12-Oct-2009 • Young Bond

Megan Walsh of The Times listens in when Anthony Horowitz meets Charlie Higson for a pre-festival lunch.

Anthony Horowitz and Charlie Higson, with their heroes Alex Rider and Young Bond, are the two titans of boys' fiction. Before they go head-to-head at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, they met for lunch to break the ice.

Anthony Horowitz We're always shoulder-to-shoulder on the book shelf. You can't find Higson without Horowitz leaning against him.

Charlie Higson Muscling me off the end!

AH I'm told Stephenie Meyer is the one to worry about. Have you read her books?

CH No, they're supposed to be all right. But if you're going to do a vampire story, it should be scary. It's like Anne Rice with kids. There's this split now where vampires are for girls and zombies are for boys.

AH Is that because of you? [Charlie Higson's new zombie novel, The Enemy, has just been published.]

CH No, it just seems to have happened. Vampires and zombies are essentially the same thing. They bite you and infect you with something to make you undead.

AH But your zombies are adults who don't infect children.

CH No, they eat them.

AH Your book says it all; adults are the enemy.

CH It's nice to mix it up and have some bad kids in there, but if you want to spin out into full-on fantasy it's much more exciting for kids to be up against adults.

AH My favourite villains in the Alex Rider books are the adults in Snakehead who organise the transplant of his organs. I rather like the smiling villain. The series was inspired by manipulative adult politicians, in particular Tony Blair's Labour. It seemed exactly the way bad adults behaved to children.

CH Well, all the classic Bond villains are suave, well-off, powerful men doing what they say will be “best for us”, even if it meant releasing a deadly virus to kill mankind.

CH We were both inspired by Fleming.

AH We're both sort of the same age, aren't we?

CH Yeah, growing up in the Sixties, James Bond was it.

AH I met the producer of the Bond films 25 years ago and he told me that he had this sequence in which Bond was going to knock out four people who would end up skewered on each of the legs of an upturned bar stool. That's when I knew that I'd never write a Bond film. Maybe that was the moment Alex Rider was born. Also film, in my experience, is well worth avoiding. It's like being a deck hand on the Titanic; you can keep on polishing, but it won't change the direction of the boat.

CH For me it's the same with a book. When I finish it, I think, well, I like this book but it's not what I meant to write at all. Do you work out your plots in advance?

AH About 80 per cent. I'll leave a gap and I'll say: “Chapter 16, Alex is captured by the bad guy and put in peril. Chapter 17 he escapes.” And I won't know until I get to there what the danger is and what the escape is.

CH When you're writing a series, you're always planning ahead. I had the last Young Bond worked out from the beginning because I knew that I had to deal with the problem of why Bond left Eton.

AH One of the most attractive things about writing for younger people is that they immerse themselves. They want to know how the gadgets work; they want it all. I remember the pain of closing the cover and starting it again. I think you lose that as you get older.

CH This is a fantastic age to write for. Just before they hit that unresponsive teenager stage, they're very open and honest. I used to read myths and legends - the King Arthur stories, Robin Hood and a lot of historical fiction. If the main character didn't have a sword, I wasn't interested. I hated books about kids leading ordinary lives. I thought “why would I want to read about that? I could be doing that!”

AH I have the same love of myth and legend. One of my secret projects, if I live so long, will be to rewrite the whole of the Trojan war in the manner of the sword in the stone. To do a sort of semi-adult, semi-children's version of it.

CH I might do that now. In fact, we should have rival Trojan war stories out at the same time.

AH Absolutely. The question I'm always asked is are we in competition; is Alex in rivalry with Young Bond? And the answer is definitely not, because Young Bond is not a spy as such.

CH He's a classic 1930s outdoorsy action adventurer - whereas Alex Rider is much closer in spirit to the James Bond movies or the books. All the gadgets and things.

AH Gadgets are the one thing I didn't want to put in. I reluctantly created Smithers and tried to make him as different as possible from Q. Gadgets in the Bond books are few and far between.

AH Where did Horowitz, the villain, come from? I assume you took it from The Spy Who Loved Me, rather than your comrade and fellow author?

CH Both! If there's a villain called Horowitz in a Bond book and you in the world, I couldn't resist it!

AH You can be sure that in Alex 9 I'll come up with something for you. I have the eighth Alex coming out this year and it doesn't get any easier. Gadgets, villains trying to take over the world... it was hard to find something that Alex hasn't done.

CH Was Alex Rider the first writing you did?

AH I wrote my first children's story when I was 22 and to this day I still don't know why I did it. But it's fantastic that it has become honorable to be a children's writer, thanks to J.K.Rowling. When I first started writing, I would do anything in my power to avoid telling people I wrote for children. It felt slightly shameful, slightly shabby. Now, of course, no one thinks twice about it. It's almost the next rock'n'roll. Also, children choose the books they want to read. Children's books belong to children; they're not something that your auntie picks out for you at Christmas any more.

CH It's a fantastic time; there are so many good books that you know are destined to become classic children's fiction. I find that less so with adult fiction. Ian Fleming thought that the success of his books was down to the fact that he had an adolescent mind; I think I have a pre-adolescent mind. I still love all those boys' things. I love playing with my kids' toy soldiers and I love gladiator stories. I try to get that excitement into my books.

AH I get quite scared of people talking about their inner child.

CH I didn't mention my inner child!

AH You carefully avoided it. Like you, I still have a great love of childish things: in my case, it's magic tricks that I play with endlessly. And there are still things that I respond to as I would a 13-year-old. I guess that's true of every successful children's author - it's just whether it's healthy or unhealthy. For us two I hope it's OK. There is nothing of me in Alex Rider. Nothing.

CH The only bit of Young Bond that I can relate to is the loner aspect.

AH Were you a loner?

CH I was very shy and was left to my own devices to wander about the woods with my dog. That aspect of being able to be confident in one's own company helped, but really you write all of these adventures to live out your fantasies.

AH I think Alex is everything I wasn't and would have wanted to be

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