When Eats, Shoots & Leaves came out, and people wanted to know the story behind it, I found that I couldn’t tell that story without talking about the death of my sister in September 2000. Not because I particularly wanted to bare my soul in public, but because her death changed my life and created the conditions for the book to be written. Because the first thing I did, when she died, was to give up my contract with The Times.
Since 1996, I had been a well-paid part-time sportswriter; during that four-year period, I’d had time to write radio plays and also a novel and a non-fiction book; I felt professionally very fulfilled; I also had a nice boyfriend and was rather happy. But when my sister died, I knew I couldn’t do the sports writing any more, principally because there’s no lonelier place to weep than the press box at White Hart Lane. So I decided to stay at home and concentrate on my radio career. I loved the medium of radio, and I had commissions already waiting to be done. For the next three years, therefore, I wrote plays and scripts, gave talks and presented features – all of which led me to an even greater sense of professional fulfilment, but also, unfortunately, to the brink of financial ruin. The more work I got from radio, the worse off I appeared to be. I finally had to remortgage the house in order to keep going, because I couldn’t bear the idea of giving up the life I’d started to lead.
So the origins of Eats, Shoots & Leaves were all contained in that strange transitional part of my life. In straightforward terms, the project came about because, in 2002, I presented some programmes about punctuation called “Cutting a Dash”. Then there was the more general influence of radio on the book, in that I wanted it to have all the Reithian values of informing, educating and entertaining. But finally it also came about – a small book, for a small publisher, for a small advance – because I wanted to be published again, but only in a very controlled and limited way. Still fragile, all I wanted to do was dip a toe in the water. Writing a book on punctuation seemed a sensible way to achieve this perverse aim: it was a book that nobody could accuse of failure, because it couldn’t possibly succeed. Of course, I knew how it would appear to other people. “At the age of 48, she wrote a book on punctuation.” If you were to read that thumbnail sketch in a novel, you would know everything you needed to know about this character’s tragic lack of ambition (and ignorance of the book trade).
But I did write Eats, Shoots & Leaves, and I very much enjoyed the process. It turned out that punctuation was the perfect subject for a book, because I could describe it, trace its origins, give the rules (in an abbreviated and idiosyncratic way), and also mount a staunch defence of it. People often say that the genius of the book was the title, and I’m glad they think so. I came up with the whole proposal for the book (including the title and the idea for the panda up a ladder on the cover) in a single afternoon, when I was a bit rushed doing other things. And I’ve always agreed with my agent that, had the book sunk without trace, we could have consoled ourselves that the title was the problem, and that nobody buys books that depend on having an elaborate joke on the back cover. I ought to advise other authors never to follow my example, because you run the danger of spending your whole life telling the same joke, over and over. However, the astonishing truth is that I still find the panda joke quite funny, even after telling it two hundred thousand times.