Success won't spoil her, full stop
Lynne Truss's bestselling book on punctuation has sold half a million copies, but fame makes her feel like crying, she tells Elizabeth Grice
It's enough to make struggling writers weep. Lynne Truss is about to come into a small fortune from the proceeds of her phenomenally successful little book on punctuation - and what is she planning to splash out on? An office chair. Congratulations from well-wishers are pinging hourly into her inbox and how does it make her feel? Like crying. She could go out and indulge her late-flowering interest in "nice jewellery", but what is her dominant emotion? Anxiety: she is nervous of possessing anything that is going to make someone else jealous.
Lynne Truss: 'when it first started taking off, I was rigid with fear'
The postman rings the bell of her narrow house in Brighton and she rushes back in clutching a Jiffy bag. She rips it open in such a frenzy that I expect, at the very least, a diamond-encrusted bracelet to fall on to the carpet. "Ooh, the uni-ball II !" she gasps. "This is how sad I am. My favourite pen - 99p each and you can't get them anywhere. I had to contact Mitsubishi Pens direct. They've sent 30."
Truss clearly has some way to go before wealth goes to her head. "If I had a couple of hours in the Burlington Arcade, I think I could go absolutely nuts," she says, trying not to disappoint. But you know she wouldn't. What she really wants is to sink into the black leather of an Aeron office chair, take up a uniball II and start making notes for her next book.
What will it be this time? Another historical novel? A witty book on grammar - the sequel her fans are begging for? The real luxury of making £750,000 from her bestselling Eats, Shoots and Leaves, she says, is that it buys her time to decide. At the beginning of the year, Truss, 48, was in despair over her finances. Her last comic novel, Going Loco (1999), had been a flop. She'd given up journalism to write radio plays for the BBC, and discovered they hardly kept her in cat food. She had re-mortgaged her house. And, when her computer packed up, she couldn't afford to replace it, so her mother bought her a new one. "I was very worried about the future," she says. "Where would I be in 12 months' time if I carried on like this? Should I move house?"
A year ago, at a Christmas party, her former publisher, Andrew Franklin, said he had heard her talking on the radio about punctuation. The subject would "make a nice little book" for his company, Profile Books. Truss, a woman of many wild enthusiasms (the ruled Post-it note is her latest), is passionate about correct English in general and punctuation in particular. She renounced every other responsibility, except her two ancient cats, and wrote the book in six months - taking only a £15,000 advance because her previous sales record had been so dire. "I thought if I made a small profit, it might cancel out my publishing reputation as a sort of Typhoid Mary. It was time to be viable again."
Considering the esoteric nature of the subject, Profile Books gave Eats, Shoots and Leaves a flamboyant initial print run of 15,000. Then everything went wonderfully mad. Bookshops couldn't get enough; universities were putting the book on reading lists; people were gossiping about commas and hyphens. Her small volume shot to number one in the bestseller lists, where it has remained for two weeks. "Every day, the publishers would ring and say: 'We're going to do another 50,000'," says Truss. "When it first started taking off, I was rigid with fear. The adrenalin was horrible. If someone wrote an email saying it couldn't happen to a nicer person, I would just sit and weep.
"When you are a child, you imagine this kind of thing. But when you are grown up, you know it doesn't happen. People ask if it is like my wildest dream. Not at all. I have not had dreams like that since I was 13. I don't know how to deal with it at all." Next month, the print run will reach 540,000, and in the spring, the book will be published in America - by which time, Truss could be feeding her cats caviar.
Although Lynne Truss has spent more of her adult life as one half of a couple than as a singleton, the image of her as a badly dressed, spinsterish cat lover who finds men an inconvenience persists. This is entirely her own fault. At the end of a long-term relationship with a man who loved making a drama out of a crisis, she started to write columns of crazy humour about the single life, then turned the material into a book: Making the Cat Laugh. She was only thirty-something at the time, but managed to make herself sound menopausally dotty.
So, when Robert McCrum, the Observer's literary editor, said the other day that he hoped poor Lynne's personal life would improve as a result of her hitting the jackpot, he can't have been alone. Truss was indignant. "I find that arrogant and patronising." She's irked by the get-a-life brigade. What's wrong with her life? "I am really happy. And I was happy in relationships as well. I am very glad I didn't have children. I like being master of my own destiny. When you have children in common with somebody, you cannot extricate yourself. And I like to be able to extricate myself."
The reason she resents being pitied is that, on big, personal issues, she has always acted decisively. From the age of 18 to 30, while she was working towards her First in English and making her career in the bookish branch of journalism, she lived with her boyfriend. Suddenly, she cut loose. "Something traumatic happened when I hit 30. I felt desperately that this wasn't good and couldn't be for ever. It was a massive effort to leave and I've always felt very bad about it."
There were patches of living alone, then co-habiting, before she embarked on something in between: a five-year love affair with a man (unattached, big house) who lived in Yorkshire - from Brighton, a journey of 275 miles, door-to-door. "It was fantastic; always party time. We were always so pleased to see each other. I used to cry every time he drove off and every time I left him. But, no, it wasn't quite real."
It took the early death of her elder sister, Kay, from lung cancer to make her realise that, once again, she would be better off on her own. "You need someone who is absolutely there for you, and I couldn't ask him because we didn't have that kind of relationship. I just thought: this isn't good enough."
At the same time, she chucked in her star job as a humorous sports columnist on a national newspaper - and, with it, a regular income. Being sent all over the world, doing the "funny stuff", as if she were the archetypal sport-ignorant female, had begun to jar as Kay became more and more ill. "She needed help. I went with her to quite a few appointments, but my job kept me away from her a lot and I felt very guilty that, even when she was obviously dying, I was at Euro 2000, phoning rather than being there. I think I gave up far too late. After she died, I went quiet for about three years."
But the sisters, seven years apart, had not been close before Kay's illness and Truss admits that Kay was jealous of her prominence - the big shows, the picture bylines. "She would say: 'People keep telling me you're in the paper.' She didn't like it. Brutally frankly, I'm glad she's not seeing what's happening at the moment. This may be an ungenerous thing to say, but I know she would have hated it.
"Kay was the good-looking one and very aware of it. She dressed well for every occasion and was terribly well groomed - lovely hair and nails. Everybody else felt inadequate." At her funeral, Truss found that most of Kay's friends didn't even know of her younger sister's existence. "So, she wasn't going round being proud of me."
Then, as now, Truss was frightened of provoking jealousy. It's what makes her so insanely cautious about the book's success one minute, and giddy with repressed excitement the next. "Assuming that this money really happens," she says, "I don't want to buy things - I want to travel with it. Go to the South Seas or something [there's a book brewing about the Cook voyages].
"If they sell every copy, it will be £750,000. But they will hold back quite a lot. Even so, it could easily be £500,000. So, I shall have to watch out for gigolos!
"Gigolos will be queueing at my door. But they will have to win my heart with a uni-ball II and a striped Post-it note."