Lynne Truss on life, career and her latest foray into comic horror novella writing
PUBLISHED: 16:05 28 April 2014 | UPDATED: 16:05 28 April 2014
Jim Holden www.jimholden.co.uk 07590 683036
Lynne Truss became a household name when she wrote a surprise bestseller about punctuation. Its success gave her financial independence and opened new creative doors
When Lynne Truss’s little book on punctuation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, became an international bestseller, she promised herself that she wouldn’t get pigeonholed. “I knew I’d have to guard against being stereotyped as only being interested in apostrophes,” she says. “So although occasionally I do get a feeble joke along those lines, it tends to come from me. I think I outlived it. Besides, the genre I helped create is pretty well exhausted now, so it would be a bit odd to jump on my own bandwagon.”
Lynne’s strategy was to strenuously do other things – from novels and short stories, to radio dramas and humour columns. But her most recent project is arguably her biggest departure yet. Cat Out of Hell, the latest title in Random House’s Hammer imprint, is a mesmerising comic horror novella about two cats with supernatural powers and some seriously hapless humans.
Recently featured as a ‘Book at Bedtime’ on Radio 4, the novel, her first in 15 years, opens with Alec, a retired librarian, who retreats to a cottage by the sea after the sudden death of his beloved wife. While sifting through papers and manuscripts passed to him by a colleague, he is introduced to Wiggy – a man who claims to have been visited several times by an evil, murderous, devil-worshipping cat, who is part of a feline conspiracy as ancient as time itself.
The unfolding story is expertly pieced together from a number of viewpoints through email exchanges, a screenplay and a more conventional first-person narrative, and the results are compelling and hysterically funny.
As for the horror – well, horror-lite might be a better adjective – though Lynne assures me she did delve into the darkest recesses of her mind.
“I always feel as if my imagination isn’t quite under my control, so I don’t think I should go into horrible stuff – murders and what have you – because I have a moral duty to keep it to myself,” she laughs. “That said, my wonderful editor did embolden me to go further than I would have done, urging me to take jokes out when the book gets quite scary, and to let the reader have the horror.”
Lynne, 58, was having a tough time of it herself when she landed the commission that would change her life. When her sister, Kay, died from lung cancer in 2000 at the age of 52, she was grief-stricken, quitting her job as a sports columnist for The Times, ending a long-term relationship and retreating to her Brighton home to live life at a different pace.
“I couldn’t deal with people,” she later admitted. “I didn’t go out for about three years and wanted a lower profile.” Her problems were compounded by money worries. Having relinquished the well-paid newspaper contract, she plunged into the uncertain life of the freelancer and reluctantly remortgaged her home.
Then, at the end of 2002, she met Andrew Franklin, the managing director of Profile Books, at a party, who said he’d enjoyed Cutting a Dash, her Radio 4 series on punctuation, and wondered if there might be a book in it. Lynne said no, but she started researching the subject anyway, and before long she was smitten.
“My attitude at the time was that it was quite dangerous to associate oneself with sticklers and pedants, and risk being dumped on for getting it all completely wrong. But I was at a weird, ungrounded point in my life when I felt that nothing mattered very much, so I went for it in quite a bold, gung-ho manner.
“While I was writing it, everybody thought it was commercial suicide to spend time on it because obviously it wouldn’t sell. My mother said: ‘You’ll have to get a sticker printed on the front that says, ‘for the select few’.”
But the cynics couldn’t have been more mistaken and her zero-tolerance approach to punctuation became the surprise number one bestseller in 2003. Perhaps no one was more surprised than her publishers, who had to radically rethink their modest initial print run of 15,000 copies.
Does she know the latest sales figures? “It was three million three years ago. Maybe it’s three million and 26 now,” she quips. “It was a bestseller in English-speaking countries everywhere. There was something very surreal about how much people loved the book, but when I was writing it I was very aware that I was producing it for readers who cared about this sort of thing.”
Sadly, she acknowledges, she was waging a losing battle. “It has had no effect,” she says. “Thanks to the scourge of SMS texting, webspeak and general literacy teaching, there isn’t much hope that things will go backwards [and, by extension, improve]. Although my campaign message was, ‘let’s keep these marks and bring them back’, I was obviously whistling in the dark. Somebody said the book was an epitaph for the English language and that really struck home. It was rather chilling.”
Perhaps the book had a more lasting impact? “Yes, it was a great blessing and must have opened doors,” she says. What pleased her most about the book’s success was that an old university friend offered her a fellowship, “which is the sort of thing every swot dreams of”, and her publisher decided to republish her backlist, which made her cry with joy. “They were all out of print and it was a real sadness.”
When the first royalties came in, she ended her mortgage payments, treated herself to a Volkswagen Beetle convertible and put the rest in the Bradford & Bingley. Last October she moved from her old stamping ground in Clifton Hill, Brighton, to Ovingdean. “I’d run out of book space,” she jokes, by way of explanation. “I haven’t really plugged into the local scene yet, but I do feel, at last, as though I have a good life-work balance.”
She was drawn to Brighton in the early Nineties when she decided to get away from the distractions of South London while writing her first novel. “I’d only been to Brighton two or three times, but I felt I knew it, so I rented a studio flat in Montpelier Crescent and commuted for a year.
“When I finished the novel, I went for a celebratory walk along the seafront with a bag of chips, and decided to move here lock, stock and barrel.” What attracted her? “Brighton makes me smile,” she says. “It’s a bit cheeky and blokey, although it has a sinister underside. When you wander down North Laine you feel you couldn’t be anywhere else.”
Brighton is also the inspiration for her long-running Radio 4 comedy series featuring Inspector Steine, which was triggered by the opening rolling caption at the beginning of the original film adaptation of Brighton Rock, that claimed that Brighton was now (in the Fifties) free of crime.
“I wanted to write about a celebrity police inspector who innocently, and touchingly, believed precisely what he had been told at the movies,” says Lynne. “The locale is very important to me – it’s like another character – and all the characters have Brighton names, such as Sergeant Brunswick, Constable Twitten, Mrs Groynes and so on.
“Brighton also features prominently in the storyline. At the end of the fourth series there was this continuous story about a seagull attack on the town and an unexploded mine on the beach. Sweet Talk Productions, which makes the series, is based in Brighton, so I often meet the cast and production team for script meetings at the producer’s house near Seven Dials.”
Lynne remains as indefatigable as ever and has just completed six monologues for Radio 4 entitled Gossip from the Garden Pond. Sandi Toksvig, James Fleet and Amanda Root will be among the all-star cast.
Closer to home, book lovers will be able to catch her in conversation with the American author Lorrie Moore at the Charleston Festival on May 25. What drives her to work so hard? “The love of words,” she says simply. “I love creating an effect with words. And when I’m writing I have a very confident voice, which covers up a lot of neuroses. When I’m writing , I’m confident. That’s why I like it.”
Cat Out of Hell by Lynne Truss is published by Hammer, £9.99
My Favourite Sussex
Restaurant The Ginger Pig in Hove Street, Hove - the food is delicious and they have a nice attitude to dogs. You can also park nearby.
The Crescent on Clifton Hill Seven Dials, Brighton - This used to be my local pub and I still like it.
Much Ado Books, Alfriston - The owners, Cate Olsen and Nash Robbins, are really in touch with what’s being published and have such good taste. It’s also a beautiful shop.
From the train when you cross Balcombe Viaduct. The thrill of it always makes me put my book down.
Place to visit
The greensward along Ferring seafront.