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Anthony Horowitz: "I’m not peddling my views to ten-year-olds"

The Books Interview.

You’ve been very busy. You’ve just published Oblivion, the last book in the Power of Five series for children. You’ve also written for television, as well as a Sherlock Holmes novel last year. How do you do it?

I love doing it. I’m excited by it and every project that I take on is something I really want to do. I’m now old enough and successful enough to be able only to take on things I really want to do.

Also, I never do two things in one day. Today, I’ve been writing a screenplay. Yesterday, I was finishing the third episode of Foyle’s War for ITV.

Do you use a different part of your brain when writing for children and for adults?

Children’s authors see life in fairly simplistic terms – this is a book, at the end of the day, about good versus evil. I’ve always seen life as a constant balance between these two opposing forces.

I do believe quite strongly in evil. I think certain political figures [and] certain business people have been a force for evil. I know that’s very simplistic but it’s how I see it. So if I sat down to write a political thriller in the style of Robert Harris, I’d just write trash.

One business person in particular came to my mind when I was reading Oblivion!

Obviously, the three main characters are heavily influenced by the Murdochs. That’s only because these things [phone-hacking] were going on while I was writing. In the Alex Rider books, every main character was drawn out of the news, too.

The sense of crisis of the past three or four years pervades the novel, doesn’t it?

Yes. The whole end-of-the-world atmosphere seeps into the novel. The novel was written at a time when, every day, you’d read in the paper about some sort of collapse. Was it going to be the banks, the European Union, Greece? Was it going to be the newspapers, politicians . . . ?

Oblivion opens with the evocation of a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape. Were you influenced by dystopian literature?

There were two books I couldn’t avoid thinking about: Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Once you get into the world of dystopia, it’s hard to avoid plagiarism, because other people have had such powerful visions.

In your books, you broach some big issues – environmental catastrophe and financial collapse, for example. What are the dangers in writing about such topics for children?

The danger is that you forget that your first duty is to entertain, to write books that are page-turners.

You should try not to proselytise. The Alex Rider books were always political. Oblivion and the Power of Five likewise. I can’t help the fact that, as I get older and think more about things, it creeps into my work. But I’m not peddling my views to ten-year-olds to try to change the way they see things.

You say you don’t want to proselytise but presumably you feel some sort of obligation as a children’s author to be a public figure, an advocate for reading?

The more the books are successful, the more I feel a responsibility to become a positive influence for young people. Although if I could see myself now at the age of 20, I’d be horrified at the notion of being an example.

But I do get very nervous when writers like me get vocal about political issues and get up on soapboxes, because the end result can be very messy. I’ve just been invited on to Question Time and I’ll probably do it. I’m doing it because it’ll be an adrenalin rush and not because it’s a good idea – it isn’t.

The Power of Five books have been less commercially successful than the Alex Rider series. Why do you think that is?

No writer can really sustain two huge – I hate the word – franchises. Alex Rider was what clicked and what got kids excited in my books and what they are loyal to in their hundreds of thousands, whereas as the Power of Five series has always attracted a bit more of a clique.

What will you do next?

There’s one more Alex Rider book contracted. I’ve got the next Sherlock Holmes novel to write and more TV and film. So there’s plenty still to do.

Anthony Horowitz’s “Oblivion” is published by Walker Books (£16.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis