It began with just a few commas, but Lynne Truss tells Grace Hammond why she had to fight to put a full stop to the fame which came with Eats, Shoots and Leaves.
By any publishing brief Eats, Shoots and Leaves was an unlikely bestseller.
A 244-page tour through the rules of punctuation, there was no diverting illustrations and not even a whiff of celebrity. And yet when it was released in 2003, it became one of that year’s biggest hits with many bookshops unable to feed the demand. For it’s author Lynne Truss, it also meant being dragged kicking and screaming into the limelight.
“It took up about three years,” she recalls of the furore which surrounded the book. “I had to keep touring and talking about it. It was ‘pinch yourself’ stuff. While it was going on I did find it stressful, and I also thought, ‘I’ll be so happy when this is over’. I would say to people, ‘This isn’t going to last forever, I’ll get through this’.”
It was the loss of anonymity which Truss found most difficult to deal with. Originally a sports reporter, she had given up that job due to stress linked to the death of her sister and was asked to write Eats, Shoots and Leaves after making a programme about punctuation. She agreed, reckoning it would be a bit of a diversion, but for a while it threatened to railroad her entire career.
“When something is as successful as that, people make assumptions about you,” says Truss, who like her most famous book is clever, droll and perfectly punctuated. “They start saying, ‘Oh, you’re only interested in the apostrophe’, but I’ve always been interested in lots of things.
“I’d written novels, plays, I’d done sports writing and there I was with what I thought was a fantastic portfolio of interesting things to write about. It was like I was deliberately scuppering my whole career, because suddenly people were thinking that I was only interested in punctuation.
“I could see there was a role that was opened for me to be a kind of Barbara Woodhouse figure that turned up on telly and just told people off about their punctuation, which is something I absolutely didn’t want to do.”
Truss had to consciously distance herself from the book and despite the circus which surrounded it, she now doesn’t regret writing it.
“It set me up in lots of ways. I had much more money than I ever expected to make and actually I still love the book. If I didn’t, I’d feel very conflicted. The main thing was not to do more. Lots of people thought I should keep writing books which tap this same audience.”
Since Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Truss has written Talk to the Hand, about rudeness in the modern world and Get Her Off the Pitch: How Sports Took Over My Life about her time as her reporter. However, it’s her latest book, which should finally draw a line under her role as first officer of the grammar police. Cat Out Of Hell, a Gothic horror novella, is part of a collaboration between Hammer and Arrow books.
“I grew up with Hammer films,” she says. “We’d go to all-night horror flicks and we think we were above it all, but as you get older, you’re imagination is much less robust in that way.”
In Cat Out Of Hell there’s mystery surrounding a missing woman and a talking cat who sounds like Vincent Price. It’s doing nicely on Amazon, but is unlikely to repeat the Eat, Shoots and Leaves phenomena. However, you get the impression, that’s just fine by Truss, who is single, lives happily in a large house on the outskirts of Brighton with her dog, a Norfolk spaniel called Hoagy.
““I’m not a loner, but the problem is that I want things to be perfect and lovely and exciting. I know people who go out and get a partner in quite a practical way. I still hope I can meet someone and fall in love, but I’m not waiting. I just get on with my life.”
Cat Out of Hell by Lynne Truss, published by Hammer, priced £9.99 is out now. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 01748 821122.