The Saturday Interview: Lynne Truss: Nation's Surprising New Comma-Tator

Article excerpt

Byline: Jo Ind

This time last year Lynne Truss was a freelance writer hiding in Brighton and worrying about whether she had enough money to support her cats, when - voila - out came her book on punctuation and she became rich, famous overnight (or so it seems to those of us who had never heard of her before).

Eats, Shoots and Leaves, The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation has sold 1.5 million copies, topped the bestsellers list for more than six months, and earned Lynne enough money to keep her cats in caviar for the rest of their nine lives; which is pretty amazing for any book but downright extraordinary for one which is about commas, apostrophes and semicolons.

In the little hard-backed book, which has been the talk of the literati, 49-yearold Lynne pulled off the stunning feat of making punctuation funny.

The self-conscious reader finds herself laughing out loud and then laughing all over again as she realises it is none other than hyphens and question marks that is making her chuckle.

Whether Lynne is writing novels, doing sports journalism, creating radio plays or penning a book on punctuation, her style is one of self-deprecating humour.

For those that appreciate her capacity to put herself down, her success is a little worrying. Will it suit her? Will she lose her literary voice? Can she continue to be self-deprecating when everyone around her is writing her up as a publishing phenomenon?

'Oh, I think so,' says Lynne, who is in Birmingham to promote the re-issuing of three of her previous novels and a collection of her journalism.

'It's linked to far deeper, personal things than that.' Phew!

'The things about success is that it's all in other people's terms, in a way. People ask me what it's like being famous and the only difference is that you have people asking you what it's like being famous.

'What IS strange about being successful is that your past is viewed in a different light; people think that you were a failure before.

'What I was doing before was a personal success. I was writing novels that had warm reviews and that sold a few thousand copies. I thought I was doing quite well.'

Nonetheless, Lynne would be the first to admit the success of Eats, Shoots and Leaves was such a surprise that she is still reeling in the after-shock.

She has described it as 'Un. Bloody. Believable.'

On reflection, she attributes its popularity to timing. She had written about being single in her book Making the Cat Laugh and about the work/life balance Going Loco before those subjects became the talk-pieces of the day. With Eats, Shoots and Leaves she hit on the issue of bad punctuation just as the wave of public concern was reaching its crest.

'It was an original kind of book,' she says. 'It was bringing together all kinds of different material into one book. It wasn't a style guide. It wasn't just about how to use punctuation. And it was funny.'

Being funny is an enormous pleasure to Lynne.

'Making people laugh is a great joy,' she says. 'I like doing radio comedy because you just sit around all afternoon laughing. I do have good times with laughter.'

Besides knowing she has made people laugh, what pleases Lynne most about the success of Eats, Shoots and Leaves is neither the fame nor the money. 'Two things made me cry,' she says. 'One was my old university offering me a fellowship, which is the sort of thing every swot dreams of.

'The other was my publisher offering to re-publish my back list so I had all my books out together.'

Lynne was brought up in a working class family in a council flat near Richmond in Surrey. Her father was in the army and her mother did clerical type jobs.

She passed her eleven plus, went to grammar school in Kingston, and then got a place to study English at University College, London.

'I was a bit of a poetry reader,' says Lynne, 'but I was quite normal in other ways. …