Acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Lynne Truss (Eats, Shoots & Leaves) burst back on the scene with CAT OUT OF HELL, a mesmerizing and hilarious tale of cats and murder that earned a spot on the March LibraryReads List.
Now, Truss shares the fond memories she has had of libraries throughout her life, and how they have influenced her own writing:
In the reviews of Cat Out of Hell in the UK, it was interesting to see how many critics referred to Alec—the hero of the tale—as a “retired academic.” In fact, it’s very clear from the start that Alec is a retired academic librarian, which is something quite different. Alec has never taught students. He and his wife Mary have both worked at a university library—she in the great reading room, and he in periodicals. She has generously taken an interest in the readers; he has sensibly avoided them as much as possible.
While the book’s fictional library is in Cambridge, I based it on the University of London Library at Senate House in Bloomsbury, a library I have known all my adult life. I worked there as a library assistant when I first left school in 1973. As a University of London student, I used the library all through my degree. And in the 1990s I wrote a comic radio play set in the library as well. It was called “Summoned by Shelves” (a reference to the poet John Betjeman’s nostalgic memoir, Summoned by Bells). The theme of the play was classification, which is a subject I am strongly drawn to, whether in libraries or in life. Wonderfully, the classification system used at Senate House is the quite exotic “Bliss.”
In my cat novel, the library houses a special collection of “arcana”; you won’t be surprised to hear that so does Senate House. As a youthful and impressionable library assistant, I was aware of the Harry Price collection, which is the model for the John Seeward collection in the book—right down to the spooky locked cage it sits in. I don’t think I was ever sent to retrieve a book from the Harry Price, but I did find the idea of those books quite disturbing. The “stack” at Senate House is an actual tower of books, and the higher one goes in the stack, the louder the moaning of the wind. The other important resemblance to the fictional library is the existence of lockable carrels down each side of the north reading room—and here I had an extra (and personal) reason for a bit of invention.
A couple of years ago I enrolled on a graduate diploma course at the Courtauld Institute, which is part of the University of London, and I asked if I could rent a carrel in the library. For some bureaucratic reason, I wasn’t allowed to. I pointed out that many were unoccupied; it made no difference. I yearned for a carrel; I considered writing a strong letter of complaint (but never got round to it). And then, when my graduate diploma was all in the past, I found myself writing a scene in which Alec and Tawny approach a locked carrel and find a scene of… Well, I won’t say what they find. Let’s just say it was interesting to discover how cross I still was about not being allowed to rent one.
Recently I was asked to “open” a new public library near to where I live. It was such a lovely occasion, I almost wept. In the UK, libraries are closing everywhere, so to have a new library—thanks to amazing local efforts—was wonderful. I intended to make a grand speech about how the availability of books is the cornerstone of education, but in the end I told a joke about a chicken saying “book, book, book” and borrowing volumes for a frog who just says “reddit, reddit, reddit.”
I do hope you enjoy Cat Out of Hell. I also hope that a large black cat is never captured on your CCTV, roaming the reference section after dark….
With all best wishes,
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