Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, took time out from her vacation to tell us about how her life has changed, her favourite bookstore, why she hates misbehaving cyclists who ride on the pavement and why she had to be at the Lennox Lewis/Evander Holyfield fight.
How did life before Eats, Shoots & Leaves (ESL) compare to your life now?
Of course it was a blessing, the popularity of that book. It has given me financial security, and a strange new role as a kind-of byword for strict grammatical correctness – which is odd, because I’m not an expert on grammar, and never pretended to be. In material terms, the difference is that I now have two homes, and a slightly better car. In day-to-day terms, I have a beloved assistant who runs my website. I’ve spent an enormous amount of time travelling and speaking – which I certainly never expected to do. But in some ways it’s been a strain and I’m glad that the mad initial phase (in which I had to make a lot of big decisions) is over. We live in a culture that seems to worship fame and success, but is at the same time incredibly unkind to famous and successful people, so I tried to retain a bit of control over how much I appeared in newspapers and so on. Fighting the publicity machine, I have to tell you, can be pretty hard going.
Were you surprised that the book took off in North America?
Yes, because I didn’t know that American education had abandoned the teaching of grammar and punctuation at the same time as the UK. All the Americans I knew seemed to have been taught “diagraming”; and I assumed this was still a venerable feature of American education. But it turned out there was the same level of dismay about the state of written English in America as there was in the UK. However, even knowing that American people were crying out for a book on punctuation doesn’t quite account for the peculiar success of ESL in the US. The received wisdom in publishing is that British humour doesn’t go down in America, and that Americans can’t bear to read a book from overseas that hasn’t been specially re-written with American vocabulary. The enthusiasm for ESL just seemed to sweep those considerations away – and the fact that I get questions from audiences such as, “Could you explain ‘poncey’, please, Miss Truss?” and, “What is ‘disinfecting the S bend’?” proves that American readers are willing to just get the gist sometimes.
Has Eats, Shoots & Leaves been adopted by schools and teachers?
I believe it has, yes. And I know it’s on a lot of university reading lists.
Would you have liked to be an English teacher?
Yes, probably. When I was at the age to make that decision, however, I was a very shy person, and wouldn’t have been able to stand up in front of a class, so I never considered it as a career.
Have you ever been challenged over any of your writing about punctuation?
My own punctuation is challenged all the time! And The New Yorker took a lengthy (and dismayingly witless) pop at ESL for being inconsistent over commas. The trouble is, editors do not agree – which is, of course, something I covered in ESL, naming it as one of the special delights of the subject. The main criticism levelled at me now is that, since I represent a “zero tolerance” approach to punctuation (which was my very tongue-in-cheek sub-title), I must believe that language shouldn’t change at all, and that offenders against the split infinitive rule should be publicly pelted with tomatoes. Anyone who reads my book will know I don’t stand for that. I just want to save the apostrophe and all its little friends because they traditionally have done a useful double job unrelated to grammatical concerns: they help to clarify meaning and render tone. The idea of choosing to write in a way that isn’t clear and doesn’t have a voice is very scary to me. Also alarming is the idea of 21st century readers unable to discern the meaning and tone of the great writers of the past because print conventions (such as punctuation) mean nothing to them. Personally, I’m a bit impatient with the pure “descriptivist” approach to language, because it doesn’t seem to acknowledge that language isn’t just an academic discipline. With the rise of email and texting, everyone is writing to everyone else, these days. This moment of transition in the written word – from print culture to electronic media – is hugely important, and is already changing the way people read, write and think. It seems to me that, by writing about this topic at a time of confusion, and sounding an alarm, I am above all else treating the language as a living thing, and that the academics, actually, are not.
Tell us about the books piled on your bedside table.
Currently I’m reading Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories – which I bought in hardback, and then waited to read in paperback. As I write this, I’m on holiday in Greece, and I’ve brought a rather strange selection of holidays reads. The nearest thing I have to a beach novel is Scott Turow’s Ordinary Heroes – which, since it’s a WWII story about American soldiers (not my kind of thing), I probably wouldn’t have bought had I not met Scott Turow last year in Sacramento, and heard him talk about it. Again, this is a “reading copy”, and I have the hardback safe at home with a nice inscription. Alongside Turow, I have novels by Helen Dunmore, Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood and Pat Barker. But the main enterprise of the holiday is to get stuck into Peter Martin’s huge biography of James Boswell, and I’ll read that next. As I get older, I warm to Boswell more and more. Clearly, I am an absurd optimist when it comes to packing books for vacation, so I’m assuming there will still be time left over for Henry Hitchings’s Defining the World, a recent book about the making of Johnson’s dictionary.
What author or writer is the finest purveyor of the English language?
I’m not qualified to say. But I think the writer I admire most for his prose style is Evelyn Waugh. For humorous prose, however, you can’t beat PG Wodehouse. James Thurber is a favourite, too. None of these chaps had much time for women, unfortunately, so it shows how much a girl will forgive for the sake of a few jokes and a perfect literary style.
On your website you mention Much Ado in Alfriston, East Sussex, as your favourite bookshop. Are you a supporter of independent bookshops and secondhand sellers?
Of course, yes. Most of my friends are involved in bookselling. Much Ado is run by friends, and it’s a fabulous shop selling new and second-hand. The owners just love books, and it really shows. Another favourite shop is City Books in Hove. That’s not to say that I don’t buy books from the chains as well, but I do feel it’s important for the future of publishing that there’s a competitive bookselling culture. When the Waterstone’s takeover of Ottakars was still in the balance, I went with the Society of Authors to the Competition Commission to argue against the formation of one monopolising chain. And recently, I’ve supported a move by the independent publishers to band together to help independent booksellers, by offering them better discounts. I’m very impressed by the system of independent bookshops in the US – which are the ones targetted by author tours, of course. Whenever people commiserate with me about touring, I do have to explain that, in a way, I’m only doing what I would do on holiday in any of the cities: i.e. go straight to the bookshops. Powell’s in Portland, Tattered Cover in Denver, Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi – these would be holiday destinations for me.
Do you have plans for another book?
The next book to be published in the UK is A Certain Age (from Profile Books, February 2007), a collection of 12 dramatic monologues I wrote for BBC radio. I don’t expect it to be a bestseller, but I’m really glad it’s being done, and that BBC Audiobooks will be doing tie-in commercial CDs. The monologues were written as two series: first, in 2002, a series of six for women in their early forties – one a mother, one a sister, one a daughter, and so on, each defined by a different close relationship. These were performed by some terrific actresses, and were released on audio the following year. Then, in 2005, I wrote a matching series for men (a father, a son, a brother), and we got another stunning bunch of actors into the studio. My favourite kind of writing is for actors, and I’ve stuck to radio deliberately, because it’s all in the voices and the words, and you don’t get a lot of interference from executives. The big drawback with radio is the ephemerality of it – so to have the scripts published is wonderful. I’ve started putting some of my radio scripts on my website too.
Meanwhile the children’s book of Eats, Shoots & Leaves – a very funny and beautifully-illustrated picture book showing how commas “make a difference” – is out now, to be followed next year by a similar book on apostrophes. The provisional title for the apostrophe book (demonstrating how the apostrophe makes a difference) is The Girl’s Like Spaghetti. You can’t say I don’t stick my neck out, can you?
Besides punctuation and politeness, what else are you a stickler for?
I honestly don’t spend my whole life disapproving of other people, or insisting that they change their ways. However, there is one thing that currently annoys me very much, and that’s the behaviour of cyclists, who weave their way across pedestrian crossings, hop up onto pavements without warning, and whizz the wrong way down one-way streets. I feel absolute fury when cyclists shave past me at speed, and will happily spearhead a reclaim-the-pavements campaign on behalf of pedestrians everywhere.
If you could travel back in time and destroy one thing at its moment of creation, what would it be? (Mobile phones, Microsoft…)
Well, obviously, at this precise moment, the safety bicycle, circa 1875?
Some people will be unaware you were also a sportswriter. What sporting drama or personalities inspired your best writing?
I never felt I was a proper sportswriter, more of a guest. In my columns for The Times, I was always supposed to represent an outsider’s view. However, I did do it for four years, and The Times made quite a big deal out of me: at one time (when the paper was still a broadsheet) I found myself writing the whole of Monday’s large back page – well, all of it except for the crossword. I wrote best, I think, on soccer and on golf. I got quite knowledgeable and very opinionated. And of course I enjoyed startling know-all blokes at dinner parties by knowing more about the latest football transfers than they did.
Probably the most exciting and interesting assignment was to see Lennox Lewis fight Evander Holyfield at Madison Square Garden. I had never been interested in boxing, and expected to find the whole thing distasteful, but The Times team had a week in Manhattan before the fight (visiting gyms, meeting Don King, watching the weigh-in and the “tale of the tape”), and by the end of it I did something quite out of character: I phoned the sports editor in London and insisted that, if there turned out to be a limit on tickets to this fight, I absolutely had to see it. I would not put up with watching it on a TV in a bar, I said heatedly. I would not do (pah!) “colour”. Perhaps I had just absorbed some of the testosterone flying freely around, but I felt this necessity to witness the fight very strongly, and expressed it strongly too. When chaps put their lives on the line, I said, attention must be paid. So I think I wrote pretty well about that fight, especially when it was judged a draw. I believe I said that this decision “stank”, which is a word I don’t think I’ve used on any other occasion.
Your home town of Brighton is home to many famous people. Where do you rank in the pecking order?
I don’t know. Not very high. Brighton is a rather flamboyant place, and I’m quite mousey, so I expect the town is quite ashamed of me really.
We see you had O and A levels in Religious Knowledge. Were they useful?
I think it’s pretty useful to have knowledge of the Bible if you want to understand where a lot of English literature comes from. It helps with art and music as well. I was never religious myself; I just thought I ought to know stuff that previous generations had known. I probably would have carried on with it academically had some level of faith not been required.
Looking back, I wish I had studied more of the Bible, actually. I know Kings and a few of the prophets, quite a bit of the Apocrypha, and St John’s Gospel, but not much more. I absolutely loved Religious Knowledge as a subject, contended with a girl called Ruth Ottewill for top position in the class (we each used to get around 90 per cent), and was annoyed that it was regarded as a not-so-serious A level, usually recommended to duffers. At university, I remember saying to my third-year tutor at University College London that something-or-other in Paradise Lost was like the “high places” mentioned in Kings, and he said, with awe and joy, “You know your Bible?” Even in the 1970s, it seems, it was rare for an undergraduate to know anything about the Old Testament.