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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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

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