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Lynne Truss

Lynne Truss found fame with her phenomenally successful book on grammar, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. She talks to Tina Lofthouse about going to school in Kingston, her new novel and coming to Richmond Literature Festival…

So tell us about your connections with the area?
I grew up on a council estate in Petersham, went to school at the Orchard Junior School in Petersham and then Tiffin Girls. Situated as we were between Richmond and Kingston, I remember working out that when my parents said “up town” they meant Richmond (so “down town” must mean Kingston). But when I asked if that was the case (had I cracked a code?), they had no idea what I was talking about! As a teenager I had Saturday jobs in both Richmond and Kingston – in Richmond, at Salisbury’s the handbag shop near where Waterstones is now; in Kingston at Colliers the furniture shop in Fife Road. My first forays into music were to the Hanging Lamp Folk Club in Richmond. Those were the days. I now live on the south coast, just along from Brighton. But until three years ago, when my mum died, I still visited Petersham a lot. It will always be where I feel most at home.

Tell us about your new novel: A Shot in the Dark is the first of a series of comic crime novels (“The Constable Twitten Mysteries”) – inspired by my own Radio 4 series Inspector Steine.
It’s set in 1957 in Brighton, which I found a very rich source for the radio series, and I find that it just keeps on giving! I love the seaside setting, and I’ve very much enjoyed the process of recreating the characters in this very different form. Writing something that works as both a funny book and a proper crime novel is the goal. But although the plots are very important, what I really want is for people to fall in love with the characters.

Looking back at the success of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, did the response surprise you or did you realise that it was a book ripe to be written?
The response was immediate, so it was quickly clear that something very unusual was happening. But when I was writing it, all I was really aware of was that no one had written this book before (otherwise I’d have been able to consult it!) My actual plan with Eats, Shoots & Leaves was to produce a book so very modest in intention that it couldn’t possibly fail! Once it started to take off, I was mainly very, very anxious. But people were so nice about it! It was a book people were definitely waiting for.

What is in the pipeline next for you?
Alongside the Twitten books, I’ve been writing short stories for Radio 4 – with another south coast setting – an imaginary place called Meridian Cliffs. I’ve written 23 stories, and read them myself. But as far as I can tell, almost no one has heard them, which is a bit disheartening, as I think they might be my best work ever! I’m doing three more for next year. But the main thing is the Twitten books now.

And your favourite books?
I think the book that meant the most to me as a child was a poetry anthology called The Children’s Treasury edited by Louis Untermeyer. There was a copy at school, and I really coveted it; getting it as a present for my birthday was wonderful. It was a beautiful hardback costing twenty-one shillings! As an adult, I find I return to Dickens (favourites are Bleak House and Great Expectations), but for sheer joy I am a bit addicted to Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall.

Who first inspired you to write?
I think it was an inner urge! But my dad always talked about “when I write my book” – I think that despite the humble beginnings, I always thought I would write. In my thirties I was working in literary journalism, which meant editing book reviews, and I seemed a long way from actually writing a book myself. I was just too aware how many good ones were out there; plus, I was aware that a lot of writers were a) middle-class and b) related to other writers, so I felt I was sort-of ruled out before I started. It had been fashionable in the 60s to be a working-class writer, but in the 80s and 90s, it wasn’t. So I actually did therapy (cognitive analytic therapy, which I can recommend), and it was very helpful. I have never stopped writing since!

Lynne will be speaking at the Richmond Literature Festival on Sunday November 11 at East Sheen Library, 7pm.