I’m just about to ask Anthony Horowitz about his reputation as a workaholic, a man famous for turning out dozens of projects a year across TV, film, journalism and books for children and adults – when he sighs and rubs a hand across his forehead.
“It took years to write Oblivion. And it left me exhausted, absolutely knackered. In some ways, it’s the book I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to write.” With touching vulnerability, Horowitz tells me he’d really like this project to show people that his writing isn’t all just japes and entertainments. “There are places in my psyche I don’t dare visit,” he says. “Places of unimaginable blackness. For me that’s the coal that burns the fire. It’s what drives me. And that’s what fuelled Oblivion.”
Oblivion is Horowitz’s much-anticipated finale of a series of five fantasy novels begun – in somewhat different form – when the author, now 57, was in his twenties. At the time, his plan was to stage an epic battle between good and evil, like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, in the real world. The series was successful in Europe but less so in the UK, so he abandoned it before writing the fifth book. A quick check online reveals fans who’ve been patiently waiting decades for the finale. “I picked it up again about ten years ago,” he tells me, “and decided to have another go.” The result is The Power of Five – five books featuring five teenagers with supernatural talents who come together to save the world.
This last volume takes us on a wild ride from Hong Kong to the Amazon rainforest, to Cairo, Dubai and the Vatican, and finally to Antarctica, where the powers of Chaos threaten to destroy this already limping and miserable future world once and for all. In the world of Oblivion people live lives of cheerless desperation, sell their children at slave markets, have their limbs replaced with prosthetic weapons as soldiers of fortune. It’s a world of environmental and spiritual devastation. “Yes, it’s dark,” Horowitz admits. “Though earlier versions were even darker. All my books take children out of their comfort zone, stripping away certainties so they have to rely on their inner resources.”
The restless mind
The longer I spend with him, the more I’m convinced that Horowitz’s brave, thoughtful, terrified, world-beating teens reflect their creator. One minute he’s a grown-up Tigger, all delighted enthusiasms; the next, he’s focused somewhere in the middle distance talking about the end of the world. Now he leaps up from the table and fetches me a book on the Antarctic. “Look at this,” he says, fairly bouncing with excitement. “Amazing, amazing place. The strange silence, the desolation… I couldn’t have written Oblivion without seeing it for myself. Not that I think writers have to visit every place they write about – what else is imagination for?”
I ask why he thinks dystopias are selling like hotcakes – is it just a marketing trend? Or are young people preoccupied with the dark future of planet Earth? He thinks for a minute before shaking his head. “No,” he says. “The end of the world is an adult fixation, adults lumbering children with their own fears and fantasies. Kids have all the excitement of facing danger and conquering the forces of evil, of being the ones who save the world in the absence of adults. It’s all good fun for them. We’re the gloomy ones,” he says gloomily. “With the experience to know how close to the brink we really are.”
And then he’s up again, searching his extensive bookcases for a collection of Sebastião Salgado photographs of gold mine workers in Brazil. I know these photographs, but only now make the connection to Oblivion, as he slowly flips the pages, stopping so I can meet the empty stares of filthy, exhausted gold miners, thousands upon thousands of them, men whose entire lives are spent just the tiniest step up, he reminds me, from slaves.
I don’t for a minute doubt that this final volume of The Power of Five contains a lifetime of reading and looking and thinking; images that have influenced the author rise up unexpectedly in the midst of some trademark bit of hurtling narrative – The Bible, Cormac McCarthy, Salgado, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. To name a few.
The World of Oblivion
Many of the ideas in Oblivion could support an entire volume of their own: The Library, in which every human life is represented
as a book, with God as a librarian; the jolly village of cannibals living lives of impeccable Englishness in the Home Counties. Whole strange worlds. It’s a book overflowing with personal passions, with huge dramatic set-pieces – and the occasional sly aside. “The line I loved,” I begin, “and I don’t know how on earth you managed to get away with it…”
He cuts me off. “The one at the Vatican?”
Yes! At the Vatican.
“I’m not quite sure how I got away with it either,” he says, with a delighted grin.
Despite the fact that cannibalism isn’t yet rife in Surrey, and Dubai has not yet become a desert ghost town, I’m beginning to understand why he’s been grappling for so long with the themes of Oblivion. The book reveals to us that the end of the world is – for most of the citizens of our planet – now. Poverty and disease, downward mobility, unemployment and economic displacement exist now on an unimaginably large scale, lurking just out of sight, just below the radar of the unimaginably rich and profligate. The planet is in deep trouble and the only hope for our future – our children’s future, in fact – lies with the children themselves, the gatekeepers of the future, with their optimism and energy and belief in a better world.
I wonder aloud whether he thinks the fans of Alex Rider will find this version of his world-view disturbing. He shakes his head, saying that his writing is like a ghost train: a terrifying flight through the dark with all sorts of horrible weird beasts leaping out at you. But then the doors open and you’re in the light once more. That’s the difference between adult and children’s books, he tells me – the light at the end of the tunnel.
Towards the end of our conversation, he tells me how relieved he is to have finished the book. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever written,” he says. “I always knew it was going to be very tough, very long, very dark and with a death at the end. I dreaded writing that death. But by the time I finished, I felt that I’d written the book I was destined to write.”
In Anthony Horowitz’s version of the world, we are all inches away from oblivion. But he’s full of faith that the next generation is going to save us. They’re the optimistic ones, after all, the ones with the energy and the passion to change the world. The ones for whom life still holds the possibility of a happy ending. “Happy enough,” he corrects me, grinning.
Meg Rosoff’s latest book is There is No Dog (Puffin), out now. Oblivion by Anthony Horowitz is out now, published by Walker.