Monday, November 14, 2011

Anthony Horowitz at The Poisoned Pen

I was eager to see Anthony Horowitz at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore. He’s the author of The House of  Silk, a wonderful book, and the first Sherlock Holmes novel to be authorized by the Conan Doyle estate. He’s also the author of the bestselling teen series featuring Alex Rider, as well as the award-winning writer of PBS’ Foyle’s War and Collision. And, he isn’t in the area very often. The last time he was in Phoenix, he was thirteen.

Horowitz admitted he isn’t one of those fans of Sherlock Holmes who knows all the dates of the stories. But, he did know about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He was born in 1859 and died in 1930, which made him both a Victorian and a modern writer. He was the first writer to have an agent. He was one of the first practitioners of cross-country skiing. Conan Doyle worked on a whaling ship. He served as a doctor in the Boer War. He was instrumental in getting two men released from prison who had been falsely convicted. He believed in spiritualism, and, unfortunately, was a victim of falsehoods in that area. He was a friend of Houdini. Conan Doyle was a remarkable man. He was also underrated as a writer, not just as a writer of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Over time, he became disenchanted with Holmes. While on holiday in Switzerland, he wrote to his mother saying he found the perfect place to get rid of him, Reichenbach Falls.

Horowitz told us he is a Tintin freak and fond of Bond. Those authors, along with Conan Doyle, were all geniuses. They all got tired of their characters. Ian Fleming killed off Bond in You Only Live Twice.

Members of the Sherlock Holmes Society are experts on Holmes. Horowitz said he is not. However, he was the one asked to write an authorized story.  So, he said he’d tell us the genesis of The House of Silk.

Last year, Horowitz had finished the last Alex Rider book. Thirteen million of the books have been sold, so it’s a successful young adult series. Normally, Anthony Horowitz doesn’t like formulas and series. He said the James Bond books and later Conan Doyle ones were just written by the numbers. He didn’t want to do that. So, he said he’d stop the Alex Rider series when Alex turned fifteen. And, he did. Alex went from fourteen to fifteen in the series, although he did save the world nine times.

Horowitz was contacted by an agent representing the Conan Doyle estate. That just means there are family members with a bit of Doyle blood. The character of Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain, so the family doesn’t have more rights to it than others. Now, the character of Moriarty is trademarked. That’s a tangled web. The rights are owned outside the family.

Anthony Horowitz looked at the project with cynicism. Usually, when people want to adapt or use famous books, they’re out to make a fast buck. Did he really want to be a part of that? There are lots of adaptations of Sherlock Holmes. Horowitz thought the recent BBC production was fabulous. He sort of enjoyed the Robert Downey, Jr. one.

So, when he was asked, Horowitz had to think about it for three or four seconds. When he was sixteen, his father gave him a two volume set of the Sherlock Holmes stories for his birthday. He read them at his Victorian prep school, and loved them. They grabbed him. It was not just the mystery element. It was the two characters. It’s the story of the world’s greatest detective, and a friendship. Here’s Holmes, this prickly, difficult, aloof, cold man. And Conan Doyle gives him a friend, a warm, affable, humanitarian. It’s the story of the interaction of those two characters.

And, Conan Doyle created a world. Billions of people recognize it, if Anthony just uses a few phrases. “Cobblestones, hansom cabs, Stradivarius, maybe liquid cocaine.” And, everyone recognizes the quotes, “The game’s afoot!” and, “Elementary, my dear, Watson,” although Holmes never said that second one.n

Anthony Horowitz became a crime writer because of Holmes. He's murdered more people than anyone you will read as the writer of Foyle's War and episodes of Poirot.

So, Horowitz wrote the five page preface, and submitted it, before signing the contract to write The House of Silk. The family loved those five pages, so then he signed the contract.

But, Horowitz had rules he followed in writing The House of Silk. Rule #1 – Be Invisible. It’s not his book. He wanted it to read as if Doyle wrote it. Anthony Horowitz has read a great deal of19th century fiction . He’s a fan of Charles Dickens,Trollope, George Gissing. He’s steeped in the 19th century, so it was easy to adapt to the language and  idiom.

Rule #2. He would not break the envelope. He wouldn’t add things to the story that Doyle wouldn’t have included. Did you know that American experts on Sherlock Holmes are called Sherlockians, and British experts are Holmsians? So, Horowitz wouldn’t add a romance. There was no other woman that interested Holmes in Conan Doyle’s books other than Irene Adler, so Horowitz didn’t add one. Holmes actually only uses drugs in one book, The Sign of Four. He only took them that time because he was bored, and he wasn’t going to be bored in The House of Silk.

Rule #3. No special guests. Holmes has met many famous people in pastiches. Queen Victoria, Tarzan, Hitler, and Dracula have all made appearances. But, Conan Doyle didn’t do that, and Horowitz didn’t either.

Rule #4. No new information. The world was going to be exactly what Doyle gave us. Although Horowitz did call Lestrade by the name George, since Conan Doyle did refer to him as G. Lestrade.

And, rule #5 was that the story would be narrated by Watson. Watson narrates all but four of the stories by Conan Doyle. Two are narrated by Holmes, and two by others.

In The House of Silk, Watson is much older. It’s 1915. He’s writing from a retirement home, and Holmes is dead. There’s a poignancy to the book, a sadness. It’s more analytical. It’s modern, fresh, and fast-paced. There are action sequences. Anthony said he enjoyed writing the horse-and-carriage chase.

Horowitz told us it was an absolute joy to write the book. He spent four months in the house with those two guys. It took him almost a year to write an Alex Rider book. But, he had 80% of the plot for The House of Silk before leaving the meeting. He didn’t have to search for words and ideas while writing this book. It was weird. Conan Doyle was into spiritualism. Anthony doesn’t believe in it, but sometimes he felt as if Conan Doyle was guiding him. Horowitz had an autographed book beside him, and he felt a guiding presence.

All of the Holmsian and Sherlockian people have been supportive. Horowitz said there will be no second book. He thinks The House of Silk is his best book, his best work. He’s proud of it. He cherry-picked all the best from Conan Doyle, and has the characters in it; Mrs. Hudson, Moriarty, Mycroft, Lestrade.

Horowitz is going to write another book set in the 19th century, in Holmes’ world, but it’s not going to be a Sherlock Holmes book. Watson won’t be in it, but Holmes will make an appearance.

Anthony Horowitz is working on a number of projects. He wants to do another series of Foyle. He’s writing another kids’ book. He’s writing a Tintin script. He’s also writing an Arsène Lupin script for Warner Brothers.

Asked if he thought The House of Silk might be optioned for TV or movies, he said there are problems. There’s the BBC series, and a third movie with Robert Downey, Jr. has just received the green light. So, it would be difficult to do another series.

But, Horowitz has a dream cast for Holmes and Watson. He’d like to have Daniel Day Lewis play Holmes and Kenneth Branagh as Watson.

Barbara Peters, owner of The Poisoned Pen, asked Anthony how he became involved in Tintin. He said two years ago, he was asked to write the dialogue for the computer game of Tintin. He said he writes books, things that matter, not computer games. But, when Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg ask, you don’t say no. So, he’s working on the script for Tintin 2. Tintin was always loved more in Britain and Europe than in the U.S. Tintin was a journalist, and Horowitz wanted to be a writer to be like Tintin.

Then, Anthony was asked about Foyle’s War. He said his wife, Jill Green, was the producer. He wanted to tell us the origin. Horowitz worked on a series that was originally going to be called “Barnaby.” But, Horowitz said the star was actually, Midsomer, the place where the murders occurred. So, the series was called Midsomer Murders.After a while, he got tired of the series. There were too many murders, and he  was frustrated. He was dissatisfied because he spent three months writing an episode, and viewers spent two hours watching. It was ephemeral.

Horowitz wanted to write about more than a murder mystery. He wanted to widen the scope to life. He wanted to write about the Second World War. He knew the stories his nanny told him. She had been a WAC driver, and lost her boyfriend in the war. She became a nanny to a rich kid (Anthony), and told him stories about her experiences during the war. They all seemed to revolve around young men and alcohol.

So, Foyle’s War started in 1940 Britain, and Horowitz told the stories he wanted to write. He did research. He found stories that had never been told. All the stories happened. For instance, the government did requisition ice cream vans. Someone understood they would need refrigerated vehicles to carry blood. Then, there were the secret coffin factories. It was predicted they would need a large number of coffins, and they didn’t want to reveal that. So, there were secret coffin factories. While the detective, a police inspector, may deal with one person killed in the library, such as in Agatha Christie’s stories, Foyle’War also dealt with five hundred people killed at war. Horowitz wanted to tell the bigger story about war. The murders are really secondary.

Horowitz isn’t 100% sure about the return of Foyle. The rights for Foyle are in disarray. And, he’s gone through the war, up to 1945. He has two choices. He can go back to 1944 for more stories, or go forward to 1946. If he goes forward, he’ll go into post-war Britain, the end of Lend-Lease, the beginning of M15, atomic espionage.

Unfortunately, TV drama is drying up in Britain. They want reality shows. Anthony watches American shows. They have bigger budgets.

Peters and Horowitz discussed Sherlock Holmes. Peters said Holmes is a genius detective, and we can’t enter into his world. But, Watson is not quite as clever. He’s an everyman. He’s not stupid. He’s perfectly intelligent. But, he allows us to understand Holmes.

Horowitz said Watson is a usable device. He focuses on one thing, and the reader follows him. However, Watson is missing the real action. Watson isn’t naïve. He’s an ordinary man. He’s just not a genius.

An audience member thanked Horowitz for Alex Rider, saying any boy would love those books. Anthony Horowitz said he believes that reading, and a love of story is critical to being a fully developed human being. A recent survey has shown that only 20% of kids in England graduate with a reading level over the age of eleven.

Anthony Horowitz was first published at twenty-two. He spent fifteen years writing as a children’s author, and was pretty unsuccessful. He was successful only in Belgium. He said he feared his tombstone would say, “He was popular in Belgium.” He also had a TV and movie career. His wife told him to give up the children's books, but he wouldn’t give them up. He had a slightly unhappy childhood, and was unhappy in school. Books were important to him.

Horowitz loved James Bond as story. Do you know how old Roger Moore was the last time he played James Bond? He was fifty-seven, too old for Bond. So, Horowitz thought, what if Bond was young again, a teenager? So, he made Alex Rider fourteen years old, and went from selling 10,000 books a year to 13 million. He never meant to be a crusader for young readers and literature, but he is.

At age eight, Anthony knew he wanted to be a writer. He was in English public schools in the 1960s. It was a brutal time. The boys were beaten, not treated as human beings. The only time he was happy was when he was writing. Then he went to Rugby School. In his gap year, he was an Australian cowboy. He graduated from the University of York, and went into advertising. That’s where he met his wife. He’d see her home after a date, and then he’d go back to work, and write. There was heat and light there, and he would write during the night. He was first published at twenty-two.

Now, Horowitz writes a book a year, plus TV, movies, etc. He loves writing. He spends ten hours a day writing. He’s alone in his office, just him, a bottle of whiskey, and the dog. The whiskey is for the dog. Anthony writes with a fountain pen, as Charles Dickens did. He loves the scratch of the nib, and the ink flowing out. He even showed us his notebook, and the drawings he does of scenes. He loves every minute of writing.

Horowitz said he’s fifty-six, but not cynical. Stories are important. Asked where he’ll be in five years, and what his major goals are, he compared himself to an arsonist. An arsonist enjoys fire, and smiles when he sets a fire. And, the bigger the fire, the happier he is. Anthony said he hasn’t yet set the city on fire. His goal is a bigger fire.

His biggest worry is that he’ll die in the middle of a novel. He leaves synopsis. When he flies, he wants to ensure someone has the plans for the novel he’s working on. In five years, he’d like to be writing more books, and better books. He hopes he’s doing the same thing, but better.

And, Anthony Horowitz had the perfect ending for the program. He reminded us he never told us his final rule for writing The House of Silk. Never for publicity purposes be photographed wearing a deerstalker hat or holding a pipe.

Anthony Horowitz’ website is

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz. Little, Brown and Company. ©2011. ISBN 9780316196994 (hardcover), 294p.


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Fascinating! I'm a big Holmes fan, and I love that Horowitz established rules to write his book by. I can't wait to read this one. Good insight about Watson being a window to Holmes and what makes him tick.

Liz said...

You had sold me on the book already. This confirms it's a good choice. Thanks.

bermudaonion said...

I'm really excited about this book, so I appreciated your sharing the details of this event. It sounds like it was fabulous!

Lesa said...

It's a terrific book, Elizabeth. As I said in my review earlier, Horowitz captures Watson's voice perfectly. The atmosphere, and his story if wonderful. Aren't the rules interesting?

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Liz. You won't regret it.

Lesa said...


It was a terrific event. I wish everyone could have been there to hear Anthony Horowitz. He is a fascinating speaker. It may appear to you that I did a complete job with this recap, but he spoke so quickly that I know I missed something.

Anonymous said...

Great review. I'm going to have to reserve this one at the library. Thanks for fixing the font. It's so much easier to read now.

Miranda James said...

Lesa: I have this on my pile to read and am looking forward to it. One gentle correction however: Conan Doyle was born in 1859, not 1855. I always remember this because he's 100 years older than I am. :-)

Lesa said...

Thanks! There will be some December posts with the old font. They're already scheduled to post. But, I'm glad you like this font. And, I'm glad you're going to read the book!

Lesa said...

Thanks! Appreciate the correction. Probably I didn't catch the date correctly when Horowitz was talking. I changed it, "Miranda." I hope you like the book as much as I did!

Karen C said...

Loved this post! I ordered The Silk House after I read your review and now can be found lurking around the mailbox, awaiting its arrival!

Lesa said...

Oh, good, Karen! And, we didn't give anything away. I hope your book arrives soon.

Anonymous said...

Ah, I wish I could have been at this event. I absolutely love Foyle's War and would be so excited to see more episodes. As far as I'm concerned, the development of MI5 and all that would be fascinating.

I got HOUSE OF SILK on my Kindle and look forward to it. And, yes, I do like Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes. I also liked the updated version Sherlock. Look forward to seeing how those work out in the new season.

I also love the Alex Rider books. I recommended them many times to boys and girls. James Bond as a teen, indeed.

By the way, we just booked a trip to AZ in early February. The 4th to the 11th. Luckily, Deborah Crombie is scheduled at the PP. Would love to see you during that time!

Lesa said...

Hi Kay,

Can't wait to hear what you think of the book. I think you're going to love it.

I'll be in LA Feb.6-8. Back to work on the 9th. I'm waiting to hear from Barbara Peters as to whether Deborah Crombie wants to do Authors @ The Teague on the 9th at 2 p.m. We'll have to get together for dinner on the 9th or lunch on the 10th. I can meet you somewhere on the 10th if you want to do that. We can play it by ear, and see what events are going on at the Pen.

Anonymous said...

Oooh, hope she decides to do the Teague as well. I could come to both! Yes, we can figure out lunch or dinner or whatnot as time grows closer.

Dana Stabenow will be at PP on the 11th, but too late for us. We'll leave that morning. I'd love to see her sometime. Her new book combines her two series. Fun, fun!

Lesa said...

You're right, Kay. It's all fun. I'm sure we'll work something out.

Anonymous said...

Hi, did you know that he has actually written a book called The Poisoned Pen? It's about Shakespeare and it has the same plot as his Sherlock Holmes novel. Greetings!
Jonas Degraeve

Ceska said...

I haven't liked any of the Sherlock Holmes pastiches I've read since, The Seven-Per Cent Solution---till now. This was beautifully written in a voice so Doyle, I thought a OUIJI board had brought him back for one last book. Only one paragraph was off key. One in a full-length riveting, just one more chapter book. Bravo. The game is truly, once again--afoot.