MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
We literally do not have enough time to recount all of the Anthony Horowitz books and screenplays for both television and movies. But for our series, Thrilled to Death, we'll stick to his thrillers and specifically the books that chronicle a skateboard-riding spy for the British secret service, a plucky teenager named Alex Rider. The "Alex Rider" series almost rivals "Harry Potter" in the hearts and minds of young adults worldwide, and like "Harry Potter," the series has legions of adult fans.
Well, Anthony Horowitz joins me now from London to talk about that series.
Welcome to the program.
Mr. ANTHONY HOROWITZ (Author, "Alex Rider" novels): Thank you, Michele.
NORRIS: You know, at one point, a school librarian was trying to explain to me why your books were so popular, just how popular they were, and she pulled a few out of the stacks in her library, and they were well loved. They were beaten up, and the covers were sort of torn back.
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NORRIS: Why do you think children, boys in particular, love these books?
Mr. HOROWITZ: Well, first of all, let me say that I do love it when I'm signing books and a kid brings along a book that is completely battered and it's been in the bath and it's got coffee stains, whatever. You know, I think that's really great. You know, it's more fun in a way than seeing them crisp and new.
Why do the kids have this passion for these books? I suppose it's partly down to the character. I mean, Alex was created at exactly the right time, the sort of very alienated but attractive and heroic young guy who somehow manages to survive on his own wits against all the adults. I think that's very much how young people feel these days, and so it was exactly the right time for it.
But I'd say the other thing about the books is they're very, very accessible. You know, when I write a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, I'm always remembering that, you know, that kids have lots and lots of other things to do. So I reach out, I grab them. I hook them. I hold them. I keep the pace moving as fast as I possibly can, and maybe that's another reason why the books have had the success, you know, both in the UK and the USA, that they have.
NORRIS: Now, there's a lot of suspense in these books. They move very quickly, and sometimes they're a little bit spooky. A typical "Alex Rider" reader is younger and just maybe been introduced to some scary themes. But how do you find the right balance for a young reader that -so the books are scary enough to get their juices flowing but not so scary that they have nightmares and wake up screaming for mom and dad?
Mr. HOROWITZ: Well, Michele, I'm very proud of the fact that in the sort of 15, 20 years I've been writing children's books, I have never yet had a complaint, not from a parent about, you know, levels of violence or levels of fear.
There's got to be violence in the books. There's got to be threats. There's got to be danger. You've got to feel that Alex might not even survive the book, but at the same time, it can't be so horrible, so dark and so unpleasant that it upsets the readers or, you know, gives them nightmares. That's not why I'm in the game to do.
And I should say that as the books have continued, they've become a little more demanding each time. They should start with "Stormbreaker" or "Point Blanc," they're very, very easy reads. They're very light. By the time you get to the more, sort of recent ones, "Crocodile Tears," "Snakehead" and coming out next year is "Scorpia Rising," the very last one in the series, I am aware that the books are more demanding. But I think - I hope that my readers have grown with me.
NORRIS: You turned to storytelling at a very young age as a way to help escape what sounds like a somewhat unhappy childhood. Do you find yourself drawing on the young Anthony Horowitz to help you write about Alex Rider?
Mr. HOROWITZ: I think the honest truth is, is that the day I stopped drawing on the young Anthony Horowitz is the day I became successful as a writer. Because a lot of my early books do very much use elements of my childhood and play over the fact that I was brought up in a very strange, unemotional family and I went to a very horrible school. And I write about that in a humorous way and an entertaining way because I've never been one to sort of try and sort of seek therapy through writing or whatever.
But the day that I created Alex Rider was the day I created somebody who was utterly alien to me, who is fitter, smarter, better looking and just better equipped in every sense of the life that I had ever been. I mean, always a kid that I wished I had been rather than the kid I was. And so the moment he sprang onto the page for me in "Stormbreaker" was the moment that my fortunes turned and my sales began to add those zeros.
NORRIS: Where did Alex Rider come to you? How did he arrive in your psyche?
Mr. HOROWITZ: I had all these books I've written, like 15 or 20 books, and they've done pretty well by any standards but not really well, not spectacularly well. After these books, I've always said, what could I do next? What could I do that was different? And I remembered seeing the James Bond movies when I was a kid and how much I had loved them in the early days of Sean Connery. You know, you mentioned that I didn't have a great childhood, but that event, once a year, going to this movie and escaping into this extraordinary world was in many respects the high point for me.
As time had gone on, I just felt that James Bond was getting too old. And it long occurred to me that Bond had lost his way and that it would be so much better, just a simple thought, wouldn't it be great if Bond was a teenager? So cut forward now to 15 books later and that thought comes into my head again and I began to plan "Stormbreaker." And that was the book that did everything for me.
NORRIS: The "Alex Rider" series was supposed to end in 2009, but fan outcry seemed to change your mind. And now you're at work on what is supposed to be the last book in this series. Is it truly the last book? Is there still room for appeal?
Mr. HOROWITZ: Michele, I can tell you without any doubt at all that there's no way forward the book is without any question the end of a long journey that I've been taking. I have to tell you that I - that it makes me very sad to think that. I wrote the last words of it a few nights ago, in fact, and sat there looking at it and thought, goodness, have you really done this? That makes nine in the series. And then that is it.
And it makes me sad, but I really believe this, that it's best to quit while you're ahead. Don't go on writing formulaic books simply to make money for your publishers and for yourself and to supply, as it were, the market. I like to think that each book in its own way has been as good as or better than the one before, and I'm happy to quit on a high note with a body of work which I will look on and feel is about as perfect as it could have been and not to write that one book that sort of spoils it.
NORRIS: Can you do a favor for me? Can you take me inside your den or your office where you were writing and describe for me what it was like to write those last words?
Mr. HOROWITZ: I went to Orford to write those last words. I have a little tiny house on a river. It has the most spectacularly beautiful view, and I was sitting up on the top floor and the sun was setting and the river and the sky turned to blood. I mean, they really do. The colors in Suffolk are extraordinary. We got the wind all the way from Siberia. And the clouds were just gently scurrying across my vision, and everything is flat. Suffolk has no hills.
And I sat there at the window and I knew what was going to happen to me and I left the paragraph, the final paragraphs, until I was there. It's my favorite place in the world. And I wrote them, and I knew I've done it correctly, and the words were the words I wanted. I sat back and as I sat back, literally, literally, the round sun, which was a red burning disc, touched the edge of Orford Ness just behind the lighthouse. And I just thought to myself, yes, you've done it exactly right. You've timed it exactly right, Anthony. That is the end.
NORRIS: I want to ask you about the end. What happened? But I know you won't tell me.
Mr. HOROWITZ: It ends with hope. The children's author has one duty in life, I believe, and that is always to write with hope. If you're young and you have, you know, everything in front of you, it is not the job of somebody like me to come along and say, actually, life is awful and, you know, get used to it. It is a dark book and is in many ways a sad book, but I think it ends with hope.
NORRIS: Anthony Horowitz, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. All the best to you.
Mr. HOROWITZ: Thank you very much.
NORRIS: Anthony Horowitz, he's the author of several thrillers for young adults and not-so-young adults, including the "Alex Rider" series.
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NORRIS: Last month in our Killer Thriller's poll, we asked you, our listeners, to help us pick the 100 most pulse-quickening thrillers ever written. It's been a cliffhanger, but the suspense is finally over. You can find the final list of winning thrillers in the Summer Books section at our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Author Anthony Horowitz loves nothing more than when a young fan asks him to sign a battered copy of a book in his Alex Rider series — young adult fiction featuring a skateboard-riding teen spy. When it comes to his favorite thriller, he recommends Ian Fleming's "Crime de la Crime" in Goldfinger.
In our series Thrilled to Death, suspense writers talk with us about their work, and then recommend the books they love.
Author Anthony Horowitz loves nothing more than when a young fan asks him to sign a battered copy of a book in his Alex Rider series -- young adult fiction featuring a skateboard-riding teen spy. The series' ninth and final novel, Scorpia Rising, will be published in April 2011.
The series is full of suspense and can even be a bit spooky for its young readers. Finding the balance between too scary and not scary enough is one of Horowitz's biggest challenges. He says the suspense comes from the reader knowing more than the character they're reading about. There is violence in his stories, but it is always followed by a happy resolution and the good guy winning. As the series continues, the books become more demanding -- Horowitz says he hopes that his readers have grown with him.
Horowitz talks with NPR's Michele Norris about the appeal of gadgets, his sons' cameos in the Alex Rider series, and why it's important for a children's author to end with hope.
You can hear their conversation by clicking the "Listen" link at the top of the page. Below, read Horowitz's recommendation of Ian Fleming's Goldfinger.
Recommended Thriller: 'Goldfinger' by Ian Fleming
By Anthony Horowitz
I've never made a secret of how much I admire Ian Fleming. When I created Alex Rider, my 14-year-old spy, Bond was a large part of my inspiration -- so it's only natural that I should have chosen my favorite Bond novel as my favorite thriller -- and that's Goldfinger (also, incidentally, my favorite Bond movie.) In the welter of gadgets and girls, Conneries and Moores, chases and special effects, people have forgotten just how well written these books are. But when author Anthony Burgess drew up his list of the 100 greatest novels ever written, Goldfinger was on it, deservedly so.
Goldfinger is not perfect. The main plot, which Fleming delightfully refers to as the "Crime de la Crime," isn't actually introduced until chapter 16 and there's a huge flaw at the heart of it all. Why does Goldfinger let Bond live when he's so obviously dangerous? Hiring him as a sort of personal assistant-cum-secretary is patently absurd. But you can forgive almost anything when there are so many pleasures to be found between the covers.
Where to begin? First of all it has two of Fleming's most iconic villains -- Goldfinger, the squat, ginger-haired master criminal of the title, and, of course, his accomplice, the bowler-hatted Oddjob. It has the best set pieces; the game of Canasta in which Bond exposes Goldfinger as a cheat, the round of golf at Royal St Marks which turns into a mortal duel, the wonderful torture scene with the rotating saw (it was an industrial laser in the movie), and the fantastic climax at Fort Knox. It has Pussy Galore and with a name like that what more do you need to know about her? And it has one of the most memorable deaths in all of crime fiction, the girl painted gold and left to suffocate.
And of course, it has Bond himself, tired and cynical after a dirty assignment at the start of the book. The sequence at Miami airport as he watches the sun set and considers the vicissitudes of fate is writing of the highest order. A few years ago, the Fleming estate commissioned Sebastian Faulks to recreate Bond, but for me he never caught the terse, laconic style of the originals -- "snobbery with violence" as one critic memorably termed it -- and as Jeffery Deaver prepares to write the next, I fear I look forward with a certain sense of dread.
But if these new realizations drive a modern audience back to the original books, they will have done their job. We may be shocked by their old-fashioned attitudes -- the casual anti-Semitism, the misogyny, the unhealthy lifestyle. But the power of the story-telling has never diminished. I read the books and re-read them. And I enjoy them every time.
Thrilled to Death is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with help from Gabe O'Conner, Chelsea Jones and Miriam Krule.