British writer Anthony Horowitz has written more than 50 books, including the Alex Rider teenage spy series, as well as episodes of Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War and Poirot - but long before he gained any recognition in the UK his books were winning awards in France.
In an exclusive interview with Ellie Fullalove he describes how the country that first embraced his work continues to inspire him
A number of your works over the year have featured France - there’s Point Blanc (the Alps) and The French Confection (Paris) - why the interest?
Because I speak pretty good French, it’s a country I always enjoy visiting. I think when you have a language, it does enhance the pleasure of going to the country. I ski in France and used some of my memories of Courchevel for that book (Point Blanc). I also know Grenoble pretty well.
You have to remember that for very many years before I became well-known in England, my books were very well-known in France. In France, I was receiving awards and was very well-treated. This has left me with a very strong fondness for the people and the culture of France, as well as the food and the climate. Indeed I used to feel a little bit puzzled and even depressed that in my own country I was a prophet without honour.
Were you surprised by the success of your books in France?
We’re talking 20, 30 years ago. A book of mine called Le Faucon Malté which in English is The Falcon’s Malteser had been read by French children for two or three decades and is still available today. It’s from the Diamond Brothers series. Indeed the French prefer the Diamond Brothers to my Alex Rider books.
Hugh Laurie’s spy spoof The Gun Seller (Tout Est Sous Contrôle) has also gone down well in France.
I did see that. The Gun Seller has been much bigger in France. In England it came and went in the blink of an eye and was I think dismissed. He will know, no doubt, what it is like.
You finished your new book Crocodile Tears in Nice. Do you find the south of France particularly inspiring or good for relaxing?
I do indeed. I stayed in Nice for one month, or just above Nice. My editor flew down to the house in order to finish the final changes while I was there. I would love to have a property there. Unfortunately, prices are now so insane that it is impossible. I’ve always been very happy there and have a great love of the food, the climate, the art. To walk in the footsteps of Picasso and Dufy and such, to have lunch at La Colombe d’Or - these things make you feel like a writer.
I read the Alex Rider short story Incident in Nice and found your description of the area remarkably familiar. Why is it so important to you that the details are specific?
I’m very keen about writing about places that I know or have visited, rather than trying to imagine them. I think it gives the books a certain sort of sharpness of focus which is important and lacking if I just imagine stuff. That story was actually written first of all looking at the view. Because it was about parasailing, I went down to the beach and experienced it. I was able to describe what I saw when I was up in the air and, of course, what I felt.
Was it the first time you had parasailed?
Yes - and the last, I hasten to add.
Another relatively recent trip to France involved a reunion of secret agents in Paris - that sounds interesting.
I was very pleased and privileged to be invited to go to an SOE (Special Operations Executive) reunion in Paris. One meets people in their eighties and nineties who have a youthfulness to them, an energy that is remarkable.
I write a television series called Foyle’s War. People say it’s a history programme, I say: ‘No, it isn’t. These people are still with us. We must not start calling it history yet.’
Meeting these people just impressed upon me how true that is. I’m hoping to write a new television series that has the SOE very much at its heart.
You have also worked on Midsomer Murders, which is shown in France where it is called Inspecteur Barnaby. How would you explain its appeal in France?
The French always seem to have enjoyed, as in my own children’s books, policier murder mysteries.
There is that aspect of it and that rural, rather backward view of England does seem to play very well on the continent. It seems to chime in with the European view of us as being a backward country.
On the other hand, Foyle’s War isn’t even shown in France and that I don’t understand at all.
I’m disappointed particularly in Foyle’s War - it was inspired by France. It’s a policeman solving crimes in the Second World War. I’m certainly very puzzled with Foyle’s War. One episode, The French Drop even takes place partly in France.
How much time do you spend in France nowadays?
Not enough. I was in France last year about five or six times, Paris a couple of times and four weeks in Nice. Then I was down for my birthday. That was in the wonderful Colombe d’Or [in Saint-Paul-de-Vence], which is one of my favourite hotels in the world. You cannot go there and not be happy. In February last year I went to Carcassonne - that’s the time to go. Walking round those ramparts with nobody in sight, you could have been back in medieval France. It was wonderful.
How did you pick up the language?
I started with school boy French, up to A-level. Although I wouldn’t call myself a fluent French speaker now, I am fairly advanced. In that time, of course, speaking to French audiences, at French schools, going on French radio and television, I began to use French more and more.
Because of the number of years in which I was well-known in France, I found myself frequently visiting salons de littérature.
Michael Morpurgo was another author who used to come out with me on the road. At that time, he too had very small reputation in Britain but was revered in France.
We used to find ourselves in the most beautiful parts of the country, eating wonderful food and drinking excellent wine with people who admired us and having a wonderful time. We would just look at each other and share the bizarreness of this experience. Even now, when we meet up in London, we often think back to the days in France.
Of course Michael has had huge success with War Horse now and become revered in Britain. We both smile and remind ourselves that once we used to sit over a glass of wine and mope.
Your son Nick is studying Chinese at university - did he gain this interest in foreign languages from you?
No, I think that’s something that’s entirely down to him. My other son, Cass, has learned good French and did a French exchange last year, also in Nice. I have taken that and the family he stayed with and turned them into a short horror story which is being published next year called My Bloody French Exchange.
Does the family know about it?
Yes, people are normally quite happy.
Your career involves lots of international travel. Having seen the world, what makes France so great?
It’s very near - that’s the first thing to say. I’m five minutes from Kings Cross station and the Eurostar has made such a huge difference.
I think that we are at heart French, aren’t we? I mean, go back to the 11th Century and the French and the English are joined at the hip, even if there is a strip of water between us.
It’s like meeting distant relatives, if there is such a thing. They’re not the same as us but they are recognisable.
After your second novel was published in 1981 you moved to Paris to write the next one. Tell us about the move.
I spent a year living in Paris before I wrote a book there. I had a book set in Paris and I thought it would be fun to write it there while improving my French. It’s a very big country, France. Paris is not at all representative of the rest of France any more than Nice is.
What other parts of France are you familiar with?
I’ve experienced many, many different parts of France and I’ve also experienced it over relatively long periods of time.
I did a French exchange in Bordeaux, I’ve travelled frequently to the Loire valley, I spent four months living in Lyon when I was working on a very, very bad television show years ago.
Life in London is sometimes such a struggle. Things somehow seem much more colourful and more comfortable in France - strolling through a market on a Saturday morning with a baguette, the market stalls, the climate, the boules being played out in the street, that gentle pace of life.
Obviously it’s a country with problems as well, I’m not painting it as some sort of paradise across the Channel but that said, for a British person, it is somewhere very comfortable to be.
I suppose if I had a favourite place it might be Paris, I always love going to Paris, but it may equally be somewhere like Hyères, which I think is a fantastically attractive town.
If I were to buy a house in France, it would probably be near Hyères. That whole strip of coast down there is so wild and to an extent unvisited that it is remarkable.
How easy is it to switch off from your writing?
I don’t tend to switch off a great deal but I did spend an awful lot of time just reading and strolling round markets and art galleries. While I was there I read Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, the Stieg Larsson trilogy and Bill Bryson. I also wrote a short story, set in Nice, which was published in The Times.
What is the difference between screen writing and writing a book?
Writing a children’s book is rather similar to writing a television programme. When you’re writing a TV show, you have an audience of people who have come home from work, are quite tired and need to be entertained. If you bore them, they will walk out at the commercial break and not come back - that is rather similar to how I see writing for young people. If you bore them - if you put in too much description, too much slow stuff – they will stop reading the book.
Therefore the need to keep the plot moving quickly, to make it uncluttered, to keep the story at the centre of things, I think is very similar in both media.
The big difference is that in children’s books I own the whole world. In television I am a collaborator and do less work because I have so many people working with me to bring it to life.
Alex Rider is a 14-year-old spy for Britain’s MI6 and you yourself are a big James Bond fan. Are you aware of the French series, OSS 117 by Jean Bruce that predates it?
I’ve never heard of it, how funny. If it’s a spoof then I would probably not particularly enjoy it, but I have made a little note of it. I will have a look and read it in the original French.
Do you enjoy watching French films?
If I was to create a list of my favourite films ever made, number three would be a film called La Nuit américaine, translated as Day for Night by François Truffaut, which I have always loved with great passion. I also thought Mesrine was a very good modern film.
Have you written any books for adults?
The Killing Joke wasn’t a huge success I’m afraid to say, and may have taught me that’s not my forte.
Many readers retire to France and take the opportunity to write a book. How do you like to work and what tips could you offer them?
The secret about writing is to enjoy it, to not worry about being published, to not try and steer your book towards a certain type of market but to write the story that you believe in and enjoy writing it.