Sunday, March 29, 2015

Lynne Truss: Dealing in the Slightly Surreal

The Writer's Life

Lynne Truss started her career as a literary editor. She's been a journalist, a television and book critic and has written extensively for the page, stage, radio and screen. Her book Get Her Off the Pitch details the four years she spent as a sportswriter for theTimes (London), and The Lynne Truss Treasury is a compilation of her humorous columns and three of her comic novels. Truss is probably best known for Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a mega-bestseller that made people care about punctuation and also spawned several illustrated children's books on the topic. Truss has a fondness for gothic fiction and the work of British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Her latest, Cat Out of Hell (see review below), is a mystery novel infused with humor and supernatural elements that focuses on talking cats, their many lives and the possibilities of their retributive behaviors.
Why return to fiction? And why a mystery novel?
In the 1990s, I wrote three novels in about six years, and my intention was to keep making a living from journalism while writing novels. Then a number of things happened around the year 2000, mainly that my sister died, and I gave up my job. For a while I concentrated on making radio programmes (mainly comedy) for the BBC. One of these programmes was about punctuation, and this led directly to writing Eats, Shoots & Leaves. The reception was truly phenomenal--but suddenly I was known as a nonfiction writer! All along I've been continuing to write stories and plays and dramatic comedies, so when I was commissioned to write a gothic novella for the Hammer imprint in the U.K., it made me very happy. I had written short stories in the comic-gothic mode. I like dealing in the slightly surreal. It seemed like a very natural next step to write a comic-gothic novel.
How did the story and themes arise in Cat Out of Hell
I knew from the start that it would be about talking cats. But when I started the book, all I was clear about was the structure. I wanted to start with a man on his own, poring over a folder of documents, pictures, sound recordings and so on, and being drawn into a mystery that he thinks does not concern him. So the first section would be the documents; the second would be narration; the third would take place in the present tense (e-mail exchanges, heightening the tension); the last would be narration of the dramatic climax. Once I had the structure, the story evolved to fit it. I'm working on a follow-up book at the moment, and the structure is different, but is still crucial to what kind of story will be told. As for the story and themes in Cat Out of Hell, the "many lives" element was one of several aspects of cat lore that seemed to offer gruesome possibilities! I'm quite pleased with my explanation for the belief that cats have nine lives. I also hope that cat owners will feel differently about a few other behaviours (such as purring), but I mustn't give too much away.
What role have cats played (or do play) in your domestic life?  
I had two, much-beloved cats for over 20 years, and I used to write about them quite a lot! I loved their indifference. One of my favourite columns began, "No Valentines from the cats again." After they died, I waited about 18 months and then took in two rescue cats, which was a bit of a disaster. They were semi-feral, I think. They didn't miaow. They didn't like to be stroked. They looked down at me from the top of the stairs like creatures from another planet. I'm sure the experience of having these cats for a couple of years fed into Cat Out of Hell! (Luckily, someone actually asked to have them, and I couldn't have been happier to see them go.)
But anyone who lives with cats knows the mystique they have. However close you get to them, they keep a lot in reserve. And the intelligence of animals is always fascinating. They are clever enough to recognise the sound of your car, but not clever enough to understand that when you put them in a basket, you're not actually trying to kill them. I find cats funny, I suppose. I think you can tell that I love them from the way (in Cat Out of Hell) Alec admires the cat called Roger. The two cats, The Captain and Roger, represent the sort-of Id and Superego of cat nature. One is all instinct and violence; the other all intellect and wit. 
Was Cat Out of Hell as much fun to write as it is to read?
All writing is scary to me. I wrote 24 episodes (in all) of a comic detective series for the radio here, and before each one I would have the internal debate: "I can't write this!" "Of course you can write this." "No, I can't write this." "But you're the only person who CAN write this." But you're right that in many ways writing Cat Out of Hell was just fun. There are passages that still make me laugh out loud--and they did delight me when I wrote them. It's a cliché that comic writing is a quite serious business--but it's true that it's a craft: it's about the timing, precise wording, and so on. You can buff it up. But writing in the comic mode isn't all craft; it's also about being alive to comic possibilities, and a funny idea popping into your head is sheer joy.
Your work certainly reflects how much you enjoy the craft of writing.
You would imagine that the enthusiasm would wear off, but in my case it really hasn't. Perhaps it's because I got going quite late (I was in my mid-30s when I wrote my first novel), I've always felt that it's a big privilege to be a writer. No one in my background had the luck that I've had. I was the first person in my family to go to university; the first not to have a boring job. Somehow I never forget that.
Gardening figures prominently in your comic novels, In One Lousy Free Packet of Seed and in Tennyson's Gift.
It's an odd thing. I have no special knowledge of botany, but I am terribly interested (thematically) in the idea of growth, so I think that's why I return to the subject of plants sometimes. When I started One Lousy Free Packet of Seed, I really wrestled with the idea of whether a comic character has to stay the same forever, or whether it can develop. So the idea of dormancy became a bit of a theme. I liked the idea of seeds--all that potential being contained in something so inert! As for the flower symbolism in Tennyson's Gift, it's in all Victorian art and poetry, so I took it on board. The fact that one of the little girls in Freshwater at the time was called Daisy (symbol of innocence) helped it all come together.
Will there be additional books featuring cats in your writing future?
I am currently writing about a demon kitten (for the next novel), and I get up each morning thinking, "I can't wait." I'm about 10,000 words in, and it's beginning to take shape, but I've got a lot of options still left open, such as: Will Roger return? 

Note: This interview is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this 
Q&A as originally published on Shelf Awareness  (3/24/14), click HERE

Cat Out of Hell

Roger--a sarcastic, well-read, talking cat who solves cryptic crosswords--is the star of Cat Out of Hell, an adventurous, gothic mystery novel that straddles a fine line between humor and horror, good and evil, life and death. Roger's story is complicated and at times absurdly comical and far-reaching. Readers, however, are in good hands with Lynne Truss (Eats, Shoots & Leaves), who launches her narrative with Alec Charlesworth--a lonely widower, a former Cambridge librarian--who retreats to a North Norfolk coastal cottage to grieve the death of his beloved wife. As dreary days wear on, Alec opens an e-mail sent to him by a former colleague he scarcely remembers, Dr. Winterton. Attached is a mysterious document called "Roger," a compilation of notes, screenplay pages, JPEGs, videos, audios and file transcripts. 

Alec tries to decipher why these materials were sent to him and their meaning. He focuses on a recorded conversation between Roger and a man named Wiggy. Alec learns that Wiggy is also a grieving widower, whose sister and her dog have disappeared. Wading through the files and putting all the pieces together, Alec begins to suspect the chilling story of Roger and his chilling past may link several mysterious deaths. Furthermore, it may even expose a complex plot involving the dark side of cats, their many lives and their intricate--sometimes retributive--behaviors. 

Rich characterizations and the inventive structure of Truss's clever, comic novel all serve to enhance this endearing, insightful and often wicked mystery that ratchets up suspense and intrigue while exploring aspects of mortality.
Melville House, $24.95  Hardcover, 9781612194424, 256 pp
Publication Date: March 3, 2014
To order via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (3/20/15), click HERE

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Murder at the Book Group

Maggie King entertainingly darkens the common perception of book clubs (a benign assembly of readers who've come together to discuss books) in her quirky debut, Murder at the Book Group. The story begins when normally even-keeled, vain Carlene Arness hurls the cozy mystery under discussion into a fireplace. "This book sucks," she exclaims. "There should be a law protecting the reading public from such trash!" The shocked members try to placate irate Carlene, who is also a mystery novelist, then rationally discuss and analyze the plot, which has to do with cyanide slipped into the teacup of an unsuspecting victim.

When the group breaks for refreshments, Carlene suddenly drops dead. Remarkably, her death is deemed the result of cyanide poisoning. When a note is discovered, Carlene's death appears to be a suicide. Many in the group, however, suspect someone killed her and forged the note--or is this kind of thinking the result of having read too many mystery novels? The quest for both who done it and why unearths a host of insidious rivalries and romantic entanglements.

The narrator, Hazel Rose, is a computer programmer turned aspiring romance novelist who cofounded the book club with Carlene. Carlene's death gives Hazel's banal existence a much-needed jolt, but her search for a would-be killer is riddled with snags when Carlene's friends, family and acquaintances offer compelling details of Carlene's multiple identities, surprising secrets and sordid love affairs. The amateur sleuth's pseudo-investigative skills and her interactions with a cast of well-drawn, small-town characters reveal a deception that ultimately coalesces into a study of human nature and the limits of perception.

Murder at the Book Group by Maggie King
Pocket, $7.99 Mass Market Paperback, 9781476762463, 400 pp
Publication Date: December 30, 2014
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (1/6/15), click HERE

This review was also featured (in a longer form) on Shelf Awareness: Book Trade (12/18/14). To read the longer review click HERE

Sunday, March 8, 2015

A Spool of Blue Thread

Family life never grows old in the hands of Anne Tyler, a master of domestic fiction who returns to familiar terrain in her 20th novel, A Spool of Blue Thread. This time around, Tyler (The Beginner's Goodbye) focuses on the Whitshank family of Baltimore, Md., launching the story with a call from wayward son Denny, who, at age 19, drops an attention-getting announcement on his parents, Abby and Red. He then hangs up and disappears from their lives--and the lives of his three siblings--for years. 

Tyler characterizes the Whitshanks as "one of those enviable families that radiate clannishness and togetherness and just... specialness," and Denny "trailed around their edges like some sort of charity case." Years later, when the entire family--including Denny--finally reunites in Baltimore, stories of the past are retold when Abby and Red's future living arrangements are called into question. 

The common thread binding the generational tapestry of the Whitshanks is the family home built by Red's father in the 1930s; the warm, inviting nature of the house comes to represent the family. In flashbacks, Tyler delves into the history of Red's parents and how Abby and Red met and married in 1950s. The stories of those who inhabited the residence deepen the meaning of the present-day predicament: with Abby and Red growing older and more infirm, the four disparate siblings and their spouses urge the couple to dismantle their bedrock, their beloved home, and make alternate living arrangements. 

Abby and Red's decision will not only affect their lives, but the lives of their children--particularly the two sons who struggle to reconcile their distinct places in the fold. Tension builds in this multi-generational saga as Tyler stitches together an intricate, insightful story about family history, memories, rivalries and long-held secrets.

Knopf, $25.95 Hardcover, 9781101874271, 368 pp
Publication Date: February 10, 2015
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (2/10/15), click HERE

This review was also featured (in a longer form) on Shelf Awareness: Book Trade (2/6/15). To read the longer review click HERE