AFPL Q&A: Lynne Truss

Our new Q&A feature is back, this time with British author Lynne Truss. You may best know her for her humorous book about punctuation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, but she has written several other nonfiction and fiction works. She has been building a name for herself as a great writer of comedic mysteries like Cat Out of Hell and her latest, A Shot in the Dark, which is the first in a planned series and has been receiving glowing reviews.

What would you most like people to know about your latest book, A Shot in the Dark?

I suppose that it’s a funny crime novel set in Brighton, England in 1957. One of my favorite reviews said that the book exuded “heartwarming coziness” while at the same time “boasting Game of Thrones levels of violent death” – which slightly overstates the gore factor, but I thought was very funny. The book is designed to entertain readers who enjoy old-school detective stories, and who also like a bit of seaside nostalgia, but the main thing is the introduction of the four main characters, around whom the series will revolve: young Constable Twitten (very clever and keen); Sergeant Brunswick (dogged; keeps getting shot); Inspector Steine (vain; in denial about crime); and Mrs. Groynes the cockney char-lady (cleverer than she appears).

Did you expect Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a book about punctuation, to become such a hit?

Absolutely not! But no one did. When the book came out, the reaction from the media and the public was a huge surprise. It was as if people had been waiting, waiting, waiting for someone to write it. For me, it was like being in the middle of a feeding frenzy. It took me quite a while to recover.

What are you working on now?

Well, luckily, I have more of the Constable Twitten series to write. The second is already written and edited (for publication next year: The Man That Got Away); the third I will start after Christmas. In the meantime I’m writing stories for BBC radio. I was asked a couple of years ago to write a run of 10 stories set in an imagined place on the South Coast, which I called Meridian Cliffs – because the Prime Meridian, based at Greenwich, leaves English soil there, so it’s a kind of crossroads in time and space. It’s a windy and bleak settlement, founded just around the end of the First World War, with commemorative names such as Anzac Road and Caterpillar Valley. Anyway, having started off writing ten 15-minute stories, I have now done 26. I read them myself on the radio, and I love doing them, but I am now reining it back a bit for the sake of the Twitten books. [Ed. – You can listen to select episodes of the show here.]

What are you reading?

I just finished reading Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, which I loved. Also, I met Mick Herron at a crime-writing event in London recently, so I have started reading his “Slough House” novels – he’s a very entertaining writer, and the seedy milieu of the base for washed-up spies is beautifully done. Next in the pile is William Boyd’s Love is Blind. But this run of novels-for-pleasure is unusual. Normally I’m reading things that I hope will feed into the Twitten books: autobiographies of people prominent in the 1950s, books about the police or crime reporters, or about famous trials.

Do you remember the first story you ever read and the impact it had on you?

I don’t know if it was the first story I read, but I do remember a very early reading experience that was quite disturbing: a story about ornaments coming to life at night-time, and (oh no) a beautiful horse ornament breaking its leg. Just recollecting that, I feel I should book in for some therapy.

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?

The first story I wrote (I think) was for the BBC magazine The Listener, where I was literary editor in the late 1980s. I volunteered to write an inversion of It’s a Wonderful Life for the Christmas issue, in which a building-society employee is shown how the lives of everyone around him would have been better if he’d never been born. Cynical, eh? But his timid wife would have been a famous artist, the home-owners he helped wouldn’t have ended up in terrible debt. The story was told from the point of view of the angel struggling to put a positive spin on things, and in the end pushing the bloke off the bridge. It was read on the radio by Michael Williams, husband of Judi Dench, which was thrilling.

Where is your favorite place to write?

I have a purpose-built shed in the garden which is now basically Twitten House, with a big bookcase with all the background stuff, and a day-bed for when things get too much for me. Other people dream of houses in France, trips to Monte Carlo, etc, but having a quiet shed with books in it has always been my dream.

Which of your characters do you think you could be good friends with?

What a good question. I do love all my four maincharacters, but it’s Twitten that I most identify with, I suppose. He’s the powerlessone that people don’t listen to, and that seems very familiar to me. He’s alsovery polite. I love Brunswick for his honesty, and Mrs. Groynes for her wit, andInspector Steine for his simplicity. It did occur to me once that the three mencould be seen, in Freudian terms, as the ego (Steine), id (Brunswick) andsuper-ego (Twitten). Which doesn’t help me write them much, but is satisfyingto think about.

Constable Twitten in A Shot in the Dark is a very funny, very memorable character, who or what inspired him?

I do like a clever-clever character confused by conventions. At first (when the characters started out in a radio series), he was just the new boy, the keen outsider. But he grew. I love his enthusiasm and his refusal to pipe down. Lots of detectives in the British genre are so tired, and their lives are complicated, and their livers are giving out under the strain of alcoholism – whereas Twitten, aged 22, is all schoolboy excitement.

Most of your writing is a blend of humor and mystery, what drew you to write that style of book?

I think it was a natural choice for me. I always enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels, and also Carl Hiassen. I know I’m not the first person to do it.

What’s the strangest thing you have ever had to research for a book?

I’ve researched quite a bit about bomb disposal for the next Twitten book, because one of the characters was a Captain in the Royal Engineers during the war. German bombs often didn’t explode and had to be defused and removed. Terrifying.

What’s something you are really good at that few people know about?

I don’t point out mistakes in punctuation.

Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?

I do sometimes read books about writing, which are always helpful. Stephen King’s book On Writing is one that I always recommend to people. He uses a brilliant archaeological image about how a plot emerges (for the writer, but also for the reader) – that you first find a bit of something poking up out of the sand, and then you brush away carefully until you’ve revealed what it is, and then gradually you can lift the thing out whole.

What little known book do you wish everyone would read?

I am a bit of a bore about the British crime writer Anthony Berkeley, who also wrote under the name Francis Iles. His two books from the early 1930s – Malice Aforethought and Before the Fact – aren’t as well known as they should be.

You used to be a TV critic, and our patrons love British television, are there any shows that you think they should keep an eye out for?

Recently there have been some tremendous adaptationsof novels. I loved the BBC’s Decline andFall and also Howards End (NB: no apostrophe!). Everyone here got veryexcited about the thriller series Bodyguard,which was written by the same man who writes the fabulous Line of Duty, but personally I quibbled with it quite a lot.Personally, I’ve been watching a lot of Netflix (sorry). I loved the series Mindhunter, about the growth of FBIprofiling techniques based on interviewing serial killers in the 1970s. It mademe realize what a super-brain young Constable Twitten is, back there in 1957.

You can order A Shot in the Dark through the library hereon Amazon here, or at your favorite local bookshop.

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