Katy Guest: There has been a lot of talk recently about comic writing, after this year’s Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize was withheld because (the judges said) no book submitted was funny enough. Your new novel, A Shot in the Dark, is full of warm and clever humour. What kind of reader were you thinking of when you wrote it, and how were you hoping they’d respond?
Lynne Truss: That’s a good question! I think it would be dangerous to aim for any sense of humour different from one’s own – but perhaps that’s the lazy way of saying I write to make myself laugh. I know my humour is characterised as “gentle”, because it’s not vicious about people, but I’m fine with that. For me “gentle” is not a dirty word. I have absolutely relished having an authorial voice here, instead of putting the jokes into just situations and dialogue. There is a little passage early in the book about how Sergeant Brunswick always insisted that the popular bandleader Edmundo Ros [sic] went to school in Brighton, and how nobody believed him. And I add, in brackets, “He was, in fact, mistaken.” I don’t know why, but that line makes me laugh every time.
KG: What’s your view of the current state of comic fiction? And who do you read/ listen to/ watch when you want a good laugh?
LT: I love John Finnemore’s work on radio; I wouldn’t hesitate to say I hero-worship him. I revere ‘Paddington’. Probably my most revisited comic novel is ‘Decline and Fall’ by Evelyn Waugh; there is a talking book of it read by Michael Maloney that I have listened to umpteen times. I always take a random Wodehouse on a holiday, and if it turns out to be the one with the cow-creamer again, I’m secretly thrilled to bits. I love Michael Frayn’s work. What I’m wary of (and turned off by) is comedy used for point-scoring: for a while, as a female “comic writer”, I would be asked to sit on panels with wise-cracking comediennes and I would just sit there looking miserable; I was completely at sea.
KG: There are two very different, very funny journalist characters in this novel – they read as though you wrote them fondly but with mischief. What do you miss most about working as a journalist, and as a sports reporter? And which aspects of the job were you glad to leave behind?
LT: Yes, much has been made about the killing of the theatre critic! I’m sure there is a deep Freudian reason for me killing off former versions of myself – theatre critic was a job I aspired to in youth. As for the crime reporter Harry Jupiter, he came out of the research I did into 1950s crime: I couldn’t get over how self-important crime reporters were at that time, so he’s loosely based on a real man named Percy Hoskins. I do miss journalism, because the people are quick and bright, and always know what’s going on. Writing about sport for The Times was a great privilege – and a great test, if you like. But the lifestyle wore me down, and in the end I escaped. The thing fans don’t accept about sport is that it’s a branch of entertainment that (cleverly) reserves the right not to be entertaining.
I love writing for radio. Your words – and sometimes even your voice – go straight into the mind of the person listening. It’s the least mediated medium!
KG: What are you making of the World Cup? How did working as a sports reporter change the way that you watch and/ or play sports?
LT: See above! I’ve watched quite a bit, and after years of having to wait dutifully for the whistle, I now have the luxury of leaving a boring match after ten minutes to water the garden. My one educated insight into the England squad in this World Cup is that in the tournaments I covered (from 1996), you used to hear the word “unthinkable” a lot. It would be unthinkable to exclude a big-name player from the line-up, for example, even though he’d contributed zero so far. But this time, there is no “unthinkable” element and I’m glad. Football is soaked in stupid logic of that sort. You still get Alan Shearer saying in the analysis bits, “He will do it, Gary, because he has to do it.” It’s utter balls.
KG: What were your formative experiences of the police procedural or detective film or novel?
LT: I was born in 1955, so what I remember vaguely on television would be ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ and later ‘Z Cars’ and ‘Softly, Softly’. There was also a series called ‘Gideon’s Way’ in the 1960s, based on novels by John Creasey – I bought a box set a couple of years ago, and they’re pretty good stories. Commander Gideon is played by John Gregson – who, in A Shot in the Dark, gets to play Inspector Steine in the film about the famous Middle Street Massacre in Brighton. When I was in my twenties, I went to see the 1948 film ‘The Naked City’ at the National Film Theatre, and was really spooked by the resounding closing commentary, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” I knew that line! Could I be recognising it from a past life? But then I worked out my parents must have watched the spin-off US television show when I was small.
KG: What are the unique challenges and satisfactions of writing for radio, as compared to writing for the page?
LT: I love writing for radio. Your words – and sometimes even your voice – go straight into the mind of the person listening. It’s the least mediated medium! Also, when writing for your own voice, you can dispense with all the clues about (say) how a line of dialogue should be read, so you can be even more direct. The challenge is that you have no idea if anyone is listening. In the past two years I have written twenty short stories for Radio 4 set in the fictional Meridian Cliffs on the south coast. An enormous undertaking. The writing and performing of the stories has been a great experience. But then they are broadcast, and it’s just silence.
KG: How annoyed do you get these days by rogue punctuation and bad grammar?
LT: Genuinely, not much. When I wrote Eats, Shoots & Leaves, I had just seen a gigantic sign for MAGAZINE’S, BOOK’S – and it made me very anxious. But I’ve never been one for pointing mistakes out, which is why it’s been a bit frustrating the past few years, having to turn down offers from broadcasters to comment vociferously on every new offending sign. Just last week I was asked to comment on the mis-spelling of FAECES on a sign in Brighton (apparently it said FEACES instead), and I didn’t even reply. I’m not in the business of telling people off. I just really enjoyed writing about the difference you can make to your writing if you use the right punctuation.
I feel all my experience in different forms has come together here: column-writing in particular has given me a lot of nerve when it comes to springing narrative surprises
KG: You’ve written journalism, radio dramas and adaptations, novels, scripts, novels and non-fiction books. What other kinds of writing do you fancy doing? And what are you working on next?
LT: I only know I will never write poetry. I sometimes look back wistfully at the moment I was asked by The Times to try parliamentary sketch-writing – which I turned down because (classic female reason) I was scared of appearing stupid, and also scared (classic working-class insecurity) of being scorned or cold-shouldered by the Old Etonian types who traditionally do that job. But my aim now is to stick with writing this series of crime novels. I’ve already submitted the second one, due to be published in June next year. Sometimes I do wonder whether I should have been more serious about fiction from the start, and stuck with it. My first novel was published about 25 years ago! But on the other hand I feel all my experience in different forms has come together here: column-writing in particular has given me a lot of nerve when it comes to springing narrative surprises.
Lynne Truss’s new novel, ‘A Shot in the Dark’, is published by Raven Books. Buy here.