Jojo Moyes was driving her children home from school when she heard a news story on the radio about a young rugby player who had persuaded his parents to take him to Dignitas after several years as a quadriplegic. “I couldn’t understand how any parent would agree to do that and because I was a journalist a long time ago I needed to know more. The more I read the more I realised it wasn’t a black and white issue. It felt like a book I needed to write.”
So Me Before You was born. It’s an unconventional love story with a hero, Will, who doesn’t want to be alive and a heroine, Lou, who agrees to accompany him on his final trip.
Moyes was at a tricky stage of her career. She had spent 10 years not troubling the bestseller lists and her publisher, Hodder, was underwhelmed when she pitched the idea. “I don’t blame them,” she laughs as we chat over coffee at her kitchen table. She didn’t want the financial uncertainty of writing out of contract so she switched to Penguin, which loved the concept—though it wasn’t sure that it would sell. “I didn’t really think about the sales aspect,” Moyes says. “I just thought: ‘This is a book I need to write.’”
Three years on, its success has been extraordinary: nine million copies of Moyes’ books have been sold worldwide; she has been number one in nine countries—including Germany for a record 46 weeks; three of her titles appeared on the New York Times bestseller list at the same time; and she outsold Jo Nesbø in Norway. The film of “Me Before You” has just wrapped and will be out next summer.
Moyes explains the effect of all this: “It’s changed my entire life and my family’s life. It’s enabled my youngest child, who is deaf, to go to a private school with small classes, which is absolutely vital to him. It’s meant that I have the confidence to just keep writing.”
She wasn’t planning to write a sequel, but the multitudinous letters, emails and tweets she received from readers pleaded to know what happened to Lou. “I suppose because I started work on the [film] script, the characters never disappeared from my head in the way that they do with other books,” she says. “I was wary because there is nothing worse than a half-arsed sequel. And then I had a moment when I sat up in bed at 5.30 in the morning and thought: ‘But what if this happened?’ And that was it.”
After You (Penguin, September) picks up Lou’s story in The Shamrock & Clover, an Irish-themed airport pub where she serves drinks to nervous fliers clutching enormous Toblerones. Lou wears an emerald green uniform and has to listen to her boss “bleating about spend per head and footfall” in between upselling bar snacks and cleaning up vomit in the toilets. All to the soundtrack of “Celtic Pipes of the Emerald Isle Volume III”. It’s both despairing and very funny.
I ask Moyes how she researched the novel. “I’ve been in a lot of airports over the past couple of years, but everybody knows someone who is having to deal with that kind of crap. The management structures, the targets, the endless upselling of things, the general dreary corporatisation of everything.”
The heroine of The One Plus One, Jess, is a cleaner. Is Moyes drawn to portraying women stuck in menial jobs? We don’t see a lot of them in literature. “I’ve done all those jobs. I’ve been that barmaid, I’ve cleaned those toilets. I don’t think fiction always recognises the lives of genuine people. That’s how I grew up and I totally understand it—and I probably softened it a bit. It’s the world I’m interested in. It’s a grubby old world out there.”
Lou is literally and metaphorically stuck in the airport, watching other people set off on journeys while unable to see a way forward for herself. Her grief for Will is so raw that she feels as though she has lost a layer of skin and the novel tracks her slow progress towards finding a way to live. Moyes says: “The thing that interested me about grief was the expectation that you would mourn terribly, then you go through all these stages, then you move on. Everybody I know who has had to grieve someone says it doesn’t work like that.”
A book about getting over grief may not sound like a barrel of laughs but it is truly hilarious, as well as being full of Moyes’ trademark warmth. Much of the humour comes from the Moving On Circle support group that Lou’s father insists she attends. Moyes says: “I was struggling with that sense of stasis that comes with grief: I’ve done this twice in a book, where somebody has died and as a writer it takes you much longer than you think to pull your characters out, and then the whole book becomes suffused with sadness. The Moving On Circle was my way of trying to combat some of that sense with some light relief—we needed some humour and some earthy humour in there to cope with the other stuff. It’s a very British response to laugh when bad things happen: you cry and laugh, or vice versa . . . or possibly at the same time.”
In the time since Moyes first conceived the idea for Me Before You, she has detected a shift in social attitudes towards euthanasia: “I think possibly people are more sympathetic to the idea of it because more and more people have had to cope with a loved one who has suffered an unimaginable end. Pretty much everybody I know, including me, has a relative with Alzheimer’s. If you live with those situations it’s very hard to maintain a moral absolute on them.”
I like working and it’s very difficult to put a break on yourself when you are having fun
The film adaptation of Me Before You will bring these issues to an even wider audience. Moyes worked on set and found the whole experience extremely positive: “It was quite tricky writing the script, because you have to get used to everybody having an opinion on the work you’ve spent six months doing. But I’ve never had to have any of those fights where they try to turn the main characters into something they weren’t, or try to rewrite the ending. I still remember the first day when I turned up at the pre-shoot. I thought it was going to be eight people and a dog, and there’s 120 people, food trucks and cranes, and there’s Will walking down the road in a smart suit. I thought: ‘Okay, These people don’t just exist in my head anymore.’”
Moyes has also delivered a screenplay of The One Plus One, and thinks screenwriting will be part of her ongoing work; she says she loves the collaborative nature of it. She’s also thinking about her next book, but first she needs a holiday: “My brain at the moment is a bit fried. I haven’t had more than a week off in three years. I like working and it’s very difficult to put a break on yourself when you are having fun.”
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