When Jojo Moyes began writing her ninth novel Me Before You she had no home for it, after having finished her contract with the publisher of her previous eight books. “I really wrote the book not knowing if it was going to find a home because of the controversial subject matter. I wrote about 20,000 words and then I had a massive crisis of confidence. Not in the book itself, which was easy to write, but I just thought: ‘Is this going to be considered to be bad taste? Is it just really bad subject matter for this day and age?’ ”
For Me Before You is, on the one hand, a simple love story about two people who meet in highly unusual circumstances; and on the other, a story about the controversial and highly topical subject of assisted suicide.
The novel is narrated by Lou, a 26-year-old girl with an eclectic dress sense who has recently been made redundant from her job as a waitress in a local café. Looking for work at the job centre she takes a position described as “care and companionship for a disabled man”. The disabled man is Will, previously a high-flier in the City, now a quadriplegic who is back living with his parents after a motorcycle accident. Will is so angry and frustrated with life that he’s planning to take a drastic step.
Moyes describes the book as “a story about someone who has lost the will to live and a woman who decides to change his mind through a series of adventures. I’m really wary of using the word quadriplegic [to describe it] as I feel that people will make assumptions about it. What people are left with when they read this story is the fact that it’s a love story. As Lou says halfway through, the fact that he’s in the chair is the least important thing about him.
But, Moyes says, "what is making me weirdly optimistic is I don’t think I’ve ever had a book that’s been as well received by the people who have read it so far.” Indeed, the word most of her early readers have used is “uplifting,” she says. “So I’m hoping that it’s not a depressing book, although the subject matter might seem a bit off-putting.”
Moyes traces the spark for the novel to the 2008 news story about Daniel James, the 23-year-old rugby player who asked his parents to take him to Dignitas after becoming virtually paralysed in a rugby accident. “I’m not saying it’s right, I want to make that really clear. This is not a how-to manual, but I do think these choices are complicated and I do feel passionately that we shouldn’t judge somebody else for making them. If there’s a message to come out of [the book], that’s what I feel.”
It seems quite a departure from her earlier books, most of which had a significant historical strand. She agrees to an extent, but points out that “perhaps more than some other writers I write a completely different book every time”.
Where Me Before You does differ, she says, is in the humour: “Because it was such dark subject matter I felt really strongly that there had to be a lot of levity in it. You had to have a lot of stuff to break that up because nobody wants to read something that’s just desperately miserable.”
Moyes is one of only a handful of authors to have won the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Romantic Novel of the Year Award twice. When The Last Letter from Your Lover won in 2011 it provided more than just a confidence boost: “I was very nervous about whether I was going to have a long-term career in publishing,” she says candidly. “The Last Letter was a book that I poured everything into in an attempt to stay in the game, basically. And to have people, my peers, announce that they didn’t just like it but they really liked it . . . It was really important for me to be seen as somebody who was still worth it.”
As well as winning the RNA, The Last Letter from Your Lover sold in 12 countries, and she’s received two offers for the film rights. “I feel like, with luck, I’m entering a new stage of my career. It’s about finally, after eight books, feeling like what I do has some value. Unless you sell millions I think it’s very hard as a writer not to feel anxious about what you put out. I always feel I could do better.
“It’s not enough to put out a good book. You have to put out the best book you’ve ever done.”
Me Before You is out now, published by Michael Joseph.