Looking back to 2003, everyone involved in the publishing of Eats, Shoots & Leaves has reason to be proud, but at the time we were as surprised as anyone. Who knew there were millions waiting for a funny book on punctuation? Certainly I didn’t. My last novel had sold poorly (and I’d received a large advance), which made me poison as far as another publishing contract was concerned. So I decided that the next book must have intrinsically modest aims. The punctuation idea seemed ideal. Surely no sane publisher could ever say to me: “Lynne, I have to tell you that your book on punctuation has failed.”
I was 47, living in Brighton, working freelance. It wasn’t an easy time. For all of the 1990s I’d been under contract at the Times, first as the TV reviewer and latterly as a high-profile sportswriter. But in 2000 my sister died and I resigned my job because whenever I ventured out of doors I burst into tears. By Christmas 2002 I felt strong enough to attend a social event in London – and there I bumped into Andrew Franklin of Profile Books, who had by chance heard Cutting a Dash, a radio series I’d presented. “Do you think there’s a book to be written about punctuation?” he said. I replied, honestly, no, there were several fine books on punctuation already, and I wasn’t an expert. But he persisted, and a year later we went to the same party with a No 1 bestseller on our hands.
Various accidents of timing made me write Eats, Shoots & Leaves the way I did. My age meant that I had simply read a lot. I knew, for example, that James Thurber’s The Years With Ross contained wonderful stuff about commas; I knew that Nicholson Baker held views on the semicolon, and that Emily Dickinson was in love with dashes. My background (editing) gave me a practical understanding of the subject, and a romantic attitude to print. My desperate need for money meant that I had to write it in one short concerted burst of effort. But most significant of all, I think, was the fact that for four years I had been writing about sport. At that time, male sportswriters tended to write from a position of lofty omniscience, which I found incredibly tedious. This all got into Eats, Shoots & Leaves.
I was not expecting much on publication in November. “You realise you’ll be torn to pieces by every revise sub in Fleet Street?” said one journalist acquaintance, while my own mother suggested printing a warning on the cover: FOR THE SELECT FEW. But by Christmas it had sold 570,000; all in all, worldwide, it sold more than 3m.
Luckily I was old enough – and jaded enough – not to take any of the experience as either normal or deserved. It was a fantasy version of publication. But it happened, and now I’ve got a nice house to sit in and write comic crime novels, so I’m not complaining.
• Lynne Truss’s Murder by Milk Bottle is published by Raven.