Byline: ALISON ROBERTS
WHEN her book about punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, was first published, Lynne Truss barely expected the initial print run of 15,000 to sell. But then something peculiar happened. People started to talk about it; thousands more books were printed and sold; and Lynne herself became dangerously addicted to the up to the-minute sales figures available on the Amazon website.
"I was logging on to look at them several times a day," she says. "I got very intense.
Every so often I'd think, oh I'll just have a quick check and see how the book's doing, which is really quite a sad thing to do." She pauses and looks down at the table, aghast.
"That's really quite a sad thing to do."
Still, they made astonishing reading. A cri de coeur on behalf of all "sticklers" who stamp their feet at a misplaced colon or a nonsensical comma, Eats, Shoots and Leaves has sold a whopping 1.5 million copies worldwide. The book spent 27 weeks at the top of the UK best-seller lists, off and on, and is currently in its third week at the top of the US equivalent.
By anyone's standards, this is what you call a "publishing phenomenon", and although she won't get her hands on the vast amounts of cash the sales have generated until the end of this year, the humble comma, semicolon and apostrophe have made 48-year-old Truss a very rich woman indeed.
At one stage, she was bouncing off the walls of her house in Brighton, amazed by the " fantastic news" she was getting every day. "I didn't know how to process it all," she says.
"My friends couldn't keep up ... in fact, I haven't actually been living my life for some time now. I mean, it's not identifiably my life any more. I still live in the same place, I still have the same cats, but I haven't been doing any of the normal things I associate with my normal life."
What she needed in those early days of brain-popping sales, she fully admits, was a man about the house. Before she was famous for being a stickler, Truss was famous for being single (she wrote a column for a national newspaper called Single Life in the days before such columns were commonplace) and with no one at home to stop her revelling in her own achievement, she went a bit potty.
"I couldn't believe it wouldn't somehow end in tears," she says now. "I'd swing from one state of mind where I'd think how marvellous it all was to another of acute anxiety. And of course there was no one there to say, come on, let's forget this and go for a pizza. Let's have a beer. Stop checking Amazon: you've done it once today already and that's quite enough.
So I really did miss that, having someone to share it with."
Now that's she a literary phenomenon, her publishers are reissuing a book of collected first-person newspaper and magazine columns written in the early 1990s. Read in one go, they make her sound much older and much dottier than she was back then (midthirties), like an old lady with wrinkled tights and smudged lipstick. But they're masterfully comic, and like all good observational writing, strike a definite chord over and over again. Lots of women, and some men, told her she was writing about them at the time, including the film director and current National Theatre boss Nick Hytner.
Truss started to write Single Life shortly after the break-up of a serious relationship.
In fact, she's that rare newspaper heroine: a woman who loves being on her own and says so with gusto.
"I was in a very good state of mind for writing that stuff," she says, "because I'd just split up with this chap and I felt rather wild. It was a wild time. I was just so relieved to be on my own, and I lost lots of weight and I went to the gym. I was phenomenal for a while."
You can only hope the ex-boyfriend regularly spied her from a distance with her slim new figure, oozing self-confidence.
"He tended to make a drama out of a crisis, and he was in the columns but only ever obliquely. …