After three decades as a writer of crime and adventure stories, Anthony Horowitz has an impressive catalogue of work behind him that comprises television series Foyle’s War and Poirot, film The Gathering and numerous novels, primarily for young people, including the hugely popular Alex Rider series, based around the adventures of a 14-year-old spy.
He made his playwriting debut with Mindgame, which premiered in the West End in 2000 and on Broadway last year, and now Horowitz is one of 12 writers commissioned by the National Theatre to write a play for and about young people as part of this year’s New Connections festival. Performed by schools and youth theatres across the country, one group has been selected to perform the play at the National Theatre itself during New Connections week, 1-7 July.
Horowitz – whose own childhood was as dark as his writing can sometimes be – talks to Caroline Bishop about his inspirations for A Handbag, a funny yet disturbing piece about a group of young actors who are not all they seem…
How did your working with New Connections come about?
AH: Connections actually approached me about five years ago the first time, and they’ve approached me I think almost every year since then and asked if I’d like to write for them which I’d always wanted to do but never had an idea. And what happened this time that made it different was that I’d been doing a few young offender institute visits and had noticed the use of drama within [them] and that inspired me to write the play.
One of the great things about working for Connections is that it is completely open. It is 45 minutes and that is the brief.
Is that freedom beneficial?
AH: Well in some ways it makes it more difficult because I find that if I am asked to write something like a television drama series based on a detective or something ideas spring to mind, but when the canvas is completely blank it’s actually more difficult, not more easy, for me anyway.
What is A Handbag about?
AH: What it’s about is a group of young people who are rehearsing a performance of [Oscar Wilde’s] The Importance Of Being Earnest and as the play continues you begin to question who these people are and where they are and when you learn that – the play reveals itself little by little – all sorts of other questions arise as to why they are doing it and what it means to them. I was quite surprised, particularly at the first read-through, to realise what a sad play it was. I mean it’s a comedy but it has a certain sadness to it as well.
Did you write it with fans of your books in mind?
AH: I suppose the answer really is no. I think the Alex Rider books and the other books that I write… they are more sort of superficial. I don’t want to knock my own work but… This is theatre and I think theatre is such an interesting form to write for, it gives a much more deeply thought piece.
Have you been involved in the productions of your play around the UK?
AH: There have been 25 productions of the play around the country so I haven’t been involved in very much of what’s been going on, but I did go with the National Theatre to Buxton just before Christmas, where they had a weekend where I met a lot of the people who would be putting on the play and worked with them and talked it through and answered questions and watched readings of it and I’ve seen it read two or three times by different groups of kids. I went to Croydon, a school there, and saw a really rather brilliant production of it.
Have you been surprised by their interpretations of it?
AH: I think I’ve been surprised by the high quality of what I’ve seen. I’ve seen quite a few recordings of productions because the NT showed me DVDs of productions. I’ve seen productions where it’s been all boys, I’ve seen productions where it’s been mixed, I’ve seen actors from different ethnic backgrounds performing it and I’ve found that very interesting. One of the things that’s always excited me is how the characters have come to life. It was really very exciting to see that what I had written worked.
Is it not strange to see your work on the page come to life?
AH: It’s not so much strange so much as…. It makes me very nervous in a curious way because it’s so immediate. When I write a television play I don’t actually see the result of it until months after it. This was much more immediate. You see what works and what doesn’t work straight away. I found myself questioning every line much more and as I say I was quite surprised by it as well because I hadn’t realised quite what I had written.
I think the thing that I noticed with audiences as well, everybody laughed for the first 10, 15 minutes and they laugh all the way to the end, but the laughter becomes more strained as you realise that actually something very sad is going on.
Your most famous character is 14-year-old spy Alex Rider. Can you put yourself quite easily in the mind of a teen?
AH:I can’t quite do that but I can remember being 14 myself and I haven’t forgotten my own weaknesses and the mistakes I made and how I was.
You had an unhappy childhood but you describe it in a very tongue in cheek way…
AH: It’s funny, when I talk to young offenders about how ghastly it all was they can’t help but be amused; somebody as wealthy and privileged as myself should have had such a botched childhood. And that is actually a way of connecting with the people I sometimes talk to. I can’t pretend that my life was horrendous when I was young – as I say it was enormously privileged – but it was also very unsatisfactory.
Is that why your stories are quite dark?
AH: I think there’s an element of that, yes. I’ve often thought that if you are going to write for young people it does help to have had an unhappy childhood. A lot of writing comes out of tension and I think the tension has helped.
You have children [two boys aged 20 and 18]. Have they helped you with your writing over the years?
AH: They have been extremely helpful. We are a very close family, they have been very much involved in my work and certainly I have used some of their experiences in my books.
My younger son Cassian is my best critic. He is fearless, he will tell me what’s boring, what doesn’t work, what’s naff or – his favourite word – what’s ‘cringe’. And I listen to him very carefully.
You have written for the stage before in Mindgame, which went to Broadway last year after a West End premiere in 2000. How was that experience?
AH: I have to say that I found writing for commercial theatre quite a hairy experience to say the least. It’s a very hostile environment, a commercial theatre. I think too many people come to these plays almost to judge them, to kick them down, and one of the pleasures of working for Connections was a sense of optimism, of belief in the material.
How different is it writing plays to novels?
AH: Well I write so many different things: I write books, I write television films and theatre and they are all different and they are all the same. At the end of the day I immerse myself totally in whatever I’m writing; I don’t necessarily put different hats on or change the rules particularly, but I am very aware of the environment in which they are going to come. It’s difficult to explain. I’m absolutely focused on the characters, the story, the shape of the piece, the structure of it and what I’m trying to say in it, and somehow, more intuitively I guess, I’m aware of what I’m writing for. So you know in a stage play I won’t have spitfires flying overhead, to put it crudely.
The big difference was for me was a sense that this play mattered in some way. I put value on all the things I write because I think reading and literacy are terribly important and therefore even though the Alex Rider books are somewhat light and superficial they are nonetheless well crafted, I hope; I’ve put a lot of thought into them. But with a play there’s an extra element of seriousness, an extra element of needing to get it right. Because at the end of the day, to have a play performed is an enormous privilege.
Will you write more plays now?
AH: Absolutely. I always wanted to work in theatre, from the age of about 20 I think that was what my aim was, to be a playwright or even a theatre director. That’s where I began; something went wrong, I took a wrong turning and ended up with everything else I have done. For me it has been a sense of full circle, that I am back where I wanted to be.
Do you have any ideas for new plays?
AH: Well I’d like to do another play for Connections if they’ll have me back, and I’d like to write a play perhaps with a larger cast next time because it’s very rare to get the opportunity to write for lots of people.
For full details of all the plays in the National Theatre’s New Connections programme visit www.nt-online.org