Looking back, which experiences, jobs and personality traits do you think have really helped you? I think I do have an eye for detail. As a child, I always enjoyed those little tests in comics where you have to spot the 10 tiny deliberate differences between one drawing and another: when I went into journalism, I embraced the job of sub-editor with glee. My first job was at the Radio Times (the BBC weekly magazine of radio and TV listings), and we had a high reputation for accuracy. But I recognised even then how easy it is for a stickler to get things out of proportion. One week, a colleague changed the spelling of ‘Gorilla” to “Guerrilla” when the words “Urban Gorilla” appeared in a cast-list copy for a Stephen Poliakoff play. Thus, we went to press with “Urban Guerrilla”, and there was uproar when it was discovered that the character was in fact a man in a gorilla suit. About a year ago, I happened to see the play on TV, and when I saw the gorilla-suited man, I was so upset I had to turn it off! I still felt all the burning shame and fear of that awful day when my friend was ticked off for getting something wrong in the Radio Times.
What inspired you to write this book? It came about because an independent radio producer asked me to present some short programmes on punctuation. At the time, I wasn’t even thinking of writing a book: my sister had recently died, which had left me very bereft and also practically penniless, as I felt I had to give up my contract with The Times, where I’d been writing about sport for four years. So for a couple of years I was freelancing for newspapers and for radio, and worrying a lot about money. And then I bumped into the Profile Books publisher Andrew Franklin at a Christmas party (the first time I’d ventured anywhere since my sister’s death), and he said he had enjoyed listening to my punctuation series on the radio, and did I think there was a book in it? I remember I said no! But then we talked about it, and I remember thinking that the book might sink me altogether, but I agreed to do it because (honestly) I felt I had nothing to lose.
What was the best thing about writing this book? By far the best thing about writing it was the knowledge that no one had written a book like it before. There had certainly been witty books on punctuation, but they had been directed at people interested in grammar. Mine was just about this curious (and random) set of marks: how they came about; what they did, how to use them; how they help us. If I wanted comic examples, I had to find them myself, and I remember re-reading James Thurber’s The Years With Ross, convinced there was punctuation gold in there, but not knowing what it was. And then I found the example of the sentence, “After dinner, the men went into the living room” with Thurber explaining that (for Harold Ross of the New Yorker) the comma gives the men time to push back their chairs and stand up! And I felt very, very happy.
What was the most interesting thing you discovered when writing this book? What I loved was finally sorting out the colon and semicolon – or at least sorting them out to my own satisfaction. In the novels I wrote before Eats, Shoots & Leaves, I had always fallen in love with one of the characters, and I said, “Well, I don’t suppose I’ll fall in love with a punctuation mark!” But I did. I fell in love with the colon. George Bernard Shaw, despite being a language anarchist in many ways, was incredibly helpful when it came to the difference between semicolons and colons. His letter to T.E. Lawrence on the subject is wonderful.
What was one of the best things that happened because of this book? It literally changed my life. For a few years I would say it took over my life a bit too much, but I was always aware that the success of the book had been phenomenal, and that I was very lucky to have had such a phenomenon in my own life. At the time, the thing that made me burst into tears was when University College London gave me a fellowship.
What makes you laugh? I laugh a lot. I have been banned from certain radio programmes because I laugh too much. Unforgivably, I laugh at my own work all the time. I’ve just written a series for the radio, which is a set of monologues from creatures living in an attic space, and there’s one I’ve written as an angry Russian (it’s an edible dormouse, which is common in the former Soviet states, but quite rare in Britain, so it does make some sense), and whenever I read through it, I laugh and laugh. When I stopped attending golf events a couple of years ago, one of my Times colleagues said he would miss hearing me chuckle at my laptop all afternoon. I think he meant it kindly.
What do your bookshelves at home look like – where are they and how do you arrange your books? The house is less a house-with-books, more a library-with-beds. I chose the house principally because it had so many useful uninterrupted bedroom walls for book cases. I have a non-fiction library in one bedroom (two and a half walls); two other bedrooms have long walls of books – one has all the classics, the other has literary biographies! Honestly, I don’t dare tell you how booky my house is. But it was a great thing, when writing Eats, Shoots & Leaves, that I had my own library at home.
Please describe in detail your ideal bookshop. I have an actual ideal bookshop, which is run by some American friends in the village of Alfriston in East Sussex. It’s called Much Ado, and it is just superb. They present books knowledgeably; they love books! In Australia, I really enjoyed visiting Elizabeth’s second-hand bookshop in Fremantle – but I’ve just seen online that the shop in Fremantle has closed, and I’m really sorry about that. In Sydney, when I did some publicity in 2004, I met lots of great booksellers. They are my favourite people, and I can get quite defensive on their behalf. I think the most idiotic thing people can say is, “Oh I’d like to run a book shop like this” – as if anyone can do it.
What is something that most people might be surprised to know about you? I have never pointed out a spelling or punctuation error in my life.
What are you working on next? It’s all radio at the moment. I am working up a sitcom idea. While I love writing books that (apparently) make people laugh individually on trains etc, there’s nothing quite like having an audience of people laughing at something you’ve written while you are in the same room as them.
Read my review of ‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves’ here.