Jojo Moyes: What is the Thing That Makes Me Happy?
On Empathy, Success, and the Surprises of Writing for TV
The first time I interviewed Jojo Moyes, in 2010, she shared multiple memorable anecdotes: How, at 14, she worked at her East London neighborhood stables, used her wages to buy Bombardier, her first horse—and then went home to tell her mom the news. How, at 17, she left home and supported herself with various jobs including mini-cab controller, market-stall-holder, typist at a bank and copywriter for a travel company—gaining incisive insights into everything from basic work-place discipline to the vagaries of human nature—before heading to university and, from there, into journalism.
How, working The Independent’s night desk, she would spend her days writing fiction: “I had this Bridget Jones life where I knew all my neighbors,” she told me. “I used to feed chapters under their doors and say, ‘What do you think?’ and then they’d say either ‘Oh, yeah…’ or ‘More, more!’ and before I knew it, I’d written a book.” A kind rejection from an agent—“‘look, it’s not publishable, but you’ve definitely got a voice; you should keep going”—provided impetus: Moyes hit the publishing motherlode with 2002’s Sheltering Rain, a fictional account of her grandparents’ love story.
And then she told me how, over a lunch with fellow novelist and buddy Sophie Kinsella, Moyes admitted to having doubts about her then-current work-in-progress, a novel about a quadriplegic man and the woman who cares for him. Kinsella not only urged Moyes to stick with the book, but, in my favorite detail of that particular story, Kinsella went home, told her husband about the book and then called Moyes to say, “Henry says you should do it too!” That book, of course, was the bestselling Me Before You, a stratospheric success story that put Moyes on the global map: the tale of the love forged between Louisa Clark and Will Traynor not only struck a chord with readers, it has, in the five years since it was published, led to a successful film—featuring Moyes’ screenwriting debut—and two follow-on novels, the second of which, Still Me, is out now.
Still Me sees the engaging, irrepressible Louisa re-locating to New York City to be a personal assistant to Agnes, the wife of a wealthy businessman. Louisa navigates the rarified world of upper-crust Manhattan, not to mention Agnes’s mood swings, arrogances and secrets; she grapples with the pitfalls of maintaining a long-distance relationship with her London-based boyfriend, Sam; and, after an initially stalled start, finds a soulmate in the unlikely form of the elderly and reticent fashion maven Margot De Witt (in one nearly-ice-breaking moment, they begin to bond over Biba). Best of all, Louisa’s glorious black and yellow stripy tights—a spot-on gift from Will in Me Before You—make a welcome and critical appearance.
“I do have a pair left over from the movie promotion,” says Moyes when we connected via Skype recently. “And I went to Brazil earlier this year and there were hundreds of girls who came to the signing wearing these black and yellow stripy tights and it made me so happy: for me, the stripy tights are the ultimate example of a woman dressing for fun rather than dressing for a man.”
It becomes crystal clear in Still Me that while Will may have been the catalyst for Louisa to open herself up and learn from others, the events of Me Before You and 2015’s After You didn’t suddenly complete Louisa and render her fully-formed. She’s still growing, learning who she is—and who she wants to be—whether it’s via the sometimes-hurtful actions of her bosses, or by participating in the community-focused action of new friends Ashok and Meena as they work to save their local library.
“This book took about a year of thinking through before I started writing it,” says Moyes, who dedicated Still Me to her daughter. “And the reason why was that there’s been some seismic changes going on in the world. The thing that I’ve become increasingly aware of is, I might not be able to be a solution to anything but I don’t want to be part of a problem. In writing Louisa’s last adventure, as I saw it, I wanted to make sure that the message I was sending to all these girls who have come to feel that she means something to them was the right message. In doing that, I often think of my daughter who is now 19: I ask myself, ‘What is she going to take away from this book?’ Sometimes it takes people time to work out who they are, and it was really important to me that this book is not so much about Louisa being moved by somebody else’s plight or looking after somebody else or having her future tied to someone else. It’s about self-determination, about her finally working out what is going to make her happy, what is going to bring her fulfilment. Because I think it’s a question a lot of women, especially younger women, don’t even ask of themselves. I wanted this book to say, to my daughter and to others, that it’s okay to go out and find your own path, work out what’s going to make you truly happy. Because ultimately, you’re only ever going to be happy if you’re doing the thing that you love.”
Moyes has found that thing she loves. A writer who can tell compelling stories in pretty much any context—check out her acknowledgements pages, for one—also holds a deep and abiding affection for her characters, major and minor, nice and not so nice. In Still Me, part of Louisa’s story is sparked by a slow-blooming friendship with the curmudgeonly Margot De Witt, a character Moyes originally created in a short story.
“I find short stories really difficult,” Moyes says. “But every now and then you write a story where you fall in love with the character; you create someone and then you think, ‘Damn, that’s a 1,500-word short story! I wish I could have continued it.’ So as soon as I knew I was going to do this book, I had to bring Margot into it. One of the things that really fascinates me about human nature, especially in relation to Margot, is the way that we build walls around ourselves, and then we tell ourselves stories to support those walls. Margot made choices early on in her life that she then had to persuade herself were the right ones. I really notice this the older I get—I look around me and the world is divided pretty clearly into two sets of people: those who can self-analyze, and those who can’t even open the lid. It’s like Pandora’s box: if you open the lid, the whole world is just going to explode.”
A particular empathy with her characters shimmers palpably through each of Moyes’ novels. The success of the Me Before You books has overshadowed her other work (“Frankly,” Moyes says, “they’ve succeeded on a level that’s too nuts for me to even get my head ’round; I can only just be delighted”), but whether she’s telling the tale of a lonely, horse-mad teen (The Horse Dancer), exploring the resiliency of familial ties (Silver Bay) and the connectivity of love (The Last Letter from Your Lover, The Girl You Left Behind) or recounting a madcap road trip (One Plus One), her unwavering appreciation of her characters, qualities and faults alike, fits seamlessly with an authorial insistence on facing contemporary issues head on. These approaches, together with Moyes’ adherence to in-depth research as well as a canny sense of humor, bring her novels to vibrant life.
The elemental relationship between books and empathy has always been apparent to Moyes. “One of the things I feel really strongly about,” she says, “is that you cannot learn empathy unless you learn to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. And what purer way to learn how to exist in someone else’s shoes than from a book? It’s the easiest way to teach children how to think about someone else. We’re currently being led by people with a singular lack of empathy, and that is at the heart of a lot of our world’s problems at the moment. Library closures is part of what really worries me about what is going on in the US and the UK right now, especially in the UK because we’re further down the line than you are when it comes to closing our libraries: we’re losing the absolutely fundamental fairness and equity involved in provision of libraries that we won’t be able to replace once those institutions are gone. There are no other public places where you can come for free and elevate yourself in a safe space. It was so important to me as a child to have my local library. My parents didn’t have money to buy me books every week, and I remember the absolute joy of going every week to get my four books and then trying to eke them out until the next Saturday. Closing our libraries, we’re losing something that will never ever be replaced because we don’t have that Victorian ethos anymore of focusing on the greater good.”
It’s clear that Moyes hasn’t lost a smidgen of that “bloody-minded determination” she thanked her parents for in Sheltering Rain’s acknowledgements. Since the publication of Me Before You, aside from traveling “almost incessantly” for work, she’s also published two standalone novels as well as writing screenplays for One Plus One and for one of her short stories, “Paris For One.” She’s currently working on her 14th novel—“a very feminist story with a lot of resonance for things that are going on politically right now. It’s about the importance of facts and the importance of truth and it’s based on a true thing that happened in the middle part of the last century”—as well as a half-hour television comedy pilot for Warner Bros.
“It’s completely different to writing novels,” she says, of her new screenwriting outlet. “I have such huge admiration for people who do this work because it’s so much more about trying to build your jokes around this very specific, prescribed structure; it’s so much harder than just wanging on in a book where you have all the freedom to set stuff up as you want. I think the thing I’ve learned over the past three or four years is you’ve got to be in love with the process, that’s the key. Because if you fixate on the end result—and this applies to writing books as well—you are going to be a hostage to fortune and you’re going to disappoint yourself every time because that’s the thing that’s out of your control. So I’ve just tried to really love the process and I’ve loved learning screenwriting, even though I’m on such a steep learning curve. The trick is balancing some of this stuff out and it’s a trick I haven’t actually mastered yet. But I love it—I’m 48 years old and I get to learn new stuff. It’s amazing.”
Shortage of downtime aside, Moyes thrives on her work, grounded family life, a long-standing network of encouraging colleagues—“the loveliest thing about my writer friends is the way we all support each other no matter whose star is in the ascendant. I think we’re all old enough to understand that everyone rises and falls; the friendship remains constant”—and a deep appreciation for well-executed humor. “We live in bleak times,” Moyes says, “and to make people laugh is an absolute joy. It’s not that hard to make people cry; it’s a lot harder to make them laugh. There’s a book I absolutely loved this year, Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny. That book made me laugh so hard, partly because I felt like the lead female character was me and that this writer had actually drilled into my head and pulled all my thoughts and behaviors, and that made me frankly hysterical because I’d never seen myself in print before. If someone can make me laugh, that’s it, I’m indebted to them.”
A marked willingness to laugh at herself reveals part of Moyes’ personal success; a learned ability to make her way in the world, Louisa-style, drives that perception home. “It’s still hard to be a woman in this world and demand stuff,” Moyes notes. “It’s a difficult message that we’re taught from birth, that that’s not the thing that you do. For Louisa to do it just felt really important, and it took me a while to get there. Sometimes I think it takes us kind of 40 years to work that out, ‘What is actually the thing that makes me happy?’ To say, ‘What do I want to see? What do I want to do?’ rather than, ‘How is the world looking at me?’ Your gaze outward,” Moyes says, “is so much more important than the gaze on you.”