What made you want to be an author?
Well, when I was only ten years old, I discovered I loved telling stories (and reading them) so even at that young age, it was obvious to me what I was going to do. Also, to be honest, I was no good at anything else.
Did you enjoy school?
Unfortunately, aged eight to thirteen, I went to a really horrible boarding school in north London and the only minute I actually enjoyed was finally walking out. After that I went to Rugby School where I was lucky enough to have three brilliant teachers who helped bring out the writer in me. The three of them introduced me to great literature, drama and poetry. They gave me opportunities to write for the school newspaper and magazine. It’s why I always say that a bad teacher can spoil your day but a good teacher will change your life (and most modern teachers that I meet seem to fall into the second category).
How many books have you written?
I’ve written over fifty books, and counting. About forty of these are for children but I also write for adults (James Bond and Sherlock Holmes) as well as TV shows, films and plays.
What is the first book you wrote?
I was lucky – my first book, The Sinister Secret of Frederick K. Bower was published when I was 22. That’s very early. The book was about a fabulously wealthy but thoroughly nasty boy called Frederick, and it’s one of the very few books of mine that’s now out-of-print. My favourite chapter involves a warehouse on the Thames full of powdered mashed potato. Water breaks through the wall and mixes with the powder and the whole of London gets smothered in the resulting explosion of mash.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Inspiration is everywhere. I can have ideas walking the dog, reading the newspapers, overhearing a conversation on a bus.I’m very lucky because I get to travel a lot and often I’ll cross the world to get a real sense of the place that I’m writing about. I’ve been to Antarctica to get a closer look at the desolate landscape that I wrote about in the closing chapters of Oblivion. You can watch a video about my journey to Antarctica on Youtube.
Do you have any writing tips for an aspiring author?
This is something I’m asked quite often and my advice is fairly simple…
- Read lots of books! The more you read, the better you write.
- Enjoy you’re writing. If you’re not enjoying it, something has gone wrong.
- Believe in yourself…never give up! I think this is the most important advice of all.
Was there anything which put you off becoming an author?
No. It was all I ever wanted to do. I still love writing.
Is it true that you have travelled to all the places in the Tintin books (except the moon)? If so, why?
It’s almost true. I’ve gone all over the world to write the Alex Rider books although I couldn’t get to Murmansk which is where Skeleton Key ends. It was too far and I didn’t have time. But visiting the places helps me to describe them realistically. And sometimes I see things which give me ideas I might never have had otherwise.
You've written two official James Bond books. How much of a challenge was it?
It was a challenge because the Bond novels mean so much to so many people that I didn’t want to disappoint them. Also, Ian Fleming is such a brilliant writer that I really had to raise my game to come anywhere near his level. But I’ve always loved Bond and it helped that I was able to include original Fleming material – unseen stories – which inspired me. I have to say that I loved writing both books and would seriously consider a third…if I’m asked.
My favourite authors include
harles Dickens, Stephen King, Sarah Waters, Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle – and, of course, Ian Fleming! Quite a variety.
What is your favourite book of all time?
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
If you were stuck on a desert island which books would you want with you?
I actually got asked this on the real Desert Island Discs – and I chose a Greek dictionary because I’m trying to learn the language and if I was stuck on my own, I’d want something that I couldn’t finish too quickly. But if I wanted books to read I’d choose all my favourite authors plus one or two major non-fiction books such as Bill Bryson, The History of Almost Everything and William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
Where did you grow up?
Stanmore, North London
Did you really get a human skull for your 13th Birthday?
Yes I did. I was fascinated by the human body, especially the brain and where it lives!
What for you are the stand-out career highlights so far?
I’ve been writing for so long that there are quite a few! But they’d have to include: being invited onto Desert Island Discs, working with Steven Spielberg, watching Stormbreaker being filmed, speaking at the Albert Hall to 5,000 people with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, being asked to write a James Bond novel (and then another), working with my amazing wife on Foyle’s War. All in all, I’ve been extremely fortunate.
Do you have a favourite genre to work within?
I do find I get a lot of pleasure writing very tricky, complex mysteries that (I hope) completely fool the reader.
Who or what inspires you?
Everything, really. Everywhere I look, everyone I meet. I love walking my dog in Suffolk along the River Alde and I find the landscape and the huge skies endlessly inspiring. As I walk, I think of the ideas I’ve had and turn them over in my head. That’s when I’m at my happiest.
Which of the book series that you have written is your favourite?
That’s tricky! I suppose the answer would have to be Alex Rider because it’s been such a big success. But I’m also fond of The Power of Five series which is less well known but which took me ten years to complete! Do give it a try…
Where did you think up the idea for Alex Rider?
The inspiration for Alex Rider was bubbling away years before I even put pen to paper. I used to love going to the James Bond films but when Roger Moore played the part, he got older and older until he was 57 which was surely far too old to be a secret agent. I remember thinking: “Wouldn’t it be great if Bond was a teenager.” It was in that moment that Alex was born. Of course, I did everything I could to make him as different to Bond as possible. He’s not a patriot. He’s a very reluctant hero. But that’s where it all began.
What is your favourite Alex Rider book or adventure and why?
Stormbreaker is one of my favourites because it’s the first book and introduced me to Alex. I’m fond of Scorpia because it has such a great evil organisation. But if I had to pick just one it would probably be Russian Roulette. Alex isn’t in it much – it’s mainly about Yassen Gregorovich, who works as an assassin-for-hire. I find him a fascinating character and I was glad to tell is story.
At what point did you realize that Alex Rider was a phenomenon?
I can’t really remember. The whole series sort of blossomed. Stormbreaker, as I recall, sold about 25,000 copies, which was quite a lot. But then Point Blanc, the next book in the series, sold 50,000, then Skeleton Key 100,000. At the same time, more and more countries were translating the books and as I travelled, people told me what the books meant to them. But in some ways, my life didn’t change particularly. I still spend a lot of time in a room – working!
What role did you have in the tv series and did you have a say in the casting?
If you look at the credits, you’ll see I’m an Executive Producer – which means that I read the scripts, visited the set, got to meet the cast and so on. I was in the room when Otto Farrant (Alex) and Brenock O’Connor (Tom) were cast and I thought they were both great. I didn’t write the scripts, though. They’re the work of a talented writer called Guy Burt.
20 years on and Alex Rider is going strong! What do you love most about Alex?
Well, obviously I’m delighted by the continued success of the books and I can hardly believe I’m still writing them twenty years later. What do I love most about Alex? Well, every time I write another book I find myself coming up with new ideas, new gadgets and pieces of action that have never been done before. The climax of Nightshade, for example, is one of the most stectacular action sequences I’ve ever constructed and that’s what really excites me. As a character, I love the fact that although Alex has only aged eighteen months in thirteen books, he’s become much deeper, a little darker, more thoughful. I always enjoy writing about him.
What was your inspiration for the Power of Five series?
The inspiration came from a thought I had one day. Would it be possible to create a book like the Lord of the Rings, or Narnia, or even Star Wars, but instead of going to a fantasy world (Middle-earth, or a Wardrobe or a galaxy far, far away) could I do it here and now, in the real world…in the High Street round the corner from where you live, just out of the corner of your eye. I like to think that tremendous battles with monsters and demons and warriors could actually be taking place right now without anybody noticing.
You've written in several different genres - suspense, mystery, adult, childrens': were these conscious decisions to move between genres or was it simply due to artistic/creative inspiration, and the different ideas you had?
I never had “a career plan” and for what it’s worth I still have no idea what exactly started me writing children’s books. My first TV show happened by chance. The producers of Robin of Sherwood needed a junior writer and that ended up being me. At any one time, I have dozens of ideas in my head. I still love stories. They don’t slot into a single genre or format so I find myself writing all sorts of different things. But I’ve always thought that writing should be an adventure. I like to surprise myself.
What has been the proudest moment in your writing career?
Getting your first published novel in the post is something you never forget. But being given an OBE for services to literature at Buckingham Palace wasn’t bad either.