The first time I heard of Jojo Moyes, the British journalist and novelist, was when I read an essay she wrote in the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal called “A Horse-Crazy Girl’s Separation Vacation.” Her talent for storytelling was clear in the essay and is even more apparent in her best-selling novel: Me Before You.
Me Before You (Jojo’s ninth novel) is a love story involving two people who have almost nothing in common: Louisa (Lou) Clark is a working-class girl living a simple life in a tiny village in England. Will Traynor is upper class and now wheelchair bound after an accident ended his life as he knew it – big city, extreme sports, beautiful women, and world travel. After Lou loses her job as a waitress she accepts a position as Will’s caregiver. Lou discovers that Will has his own plans on what to do with his life and she makes it her mission to show him that life is still worth living. I promise to keep the ending a surprise but suffice it to say this is one of the most romantic books I’ve ever read.
Jojo, who grew up in London, lives with her husband, Charles Arthur, the technology editor for The Guardian, and their daughter Saskia (15) and sons Harry and Lockie (12 and 8) on a farm near Cambridge. In addition to writing novels, Jojo writes for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mirror.
Speaking with me by phone from her Essex farm, Jojo shared her thoughts on a range of subjects: Me Before You, books, horses — and her fondness for New York.
What was the inspiration behind Me Before You?
It came about because I heard a news story on the radio about a young rugby player who’d been left quadriplegic after an accident, and who had persuaded his parents to take him to Dignitas, the clinic for assisted suicide in Switzerland. I couldn’t believe any parent would do that – and the story wouldn’t leave my head. And then the more I read up about the family the more I realized that things are not always as clear- cut as we would like.
In last November’s election voters in Massachusetts defeated the “Death with Dignity” Initiative, which would have allowed terminally ill patients to be given lethal drugs. Did you have an opinion about assisted suicide before you wrote Me Before You? Did it change after finishing Me Before You?
I didn’t have an opinion and to some extent I still don’t. I’d like to think that if it happened to me I could be graceful about it and find a new purpose, like Christopher Reeve, but I’m also conscious that I could end up horribly bitter. The Christopher Reeve Foundation reached out to me and has been extremely supportive of Me Before You. I think the one thing I do believe is that we shouldn’t judge someone else if we haven’t stood in their shoes.
To whom do the “me” and “you” refer to in the title?
It’s deliberately opaque – but I think of it as referring to each of them: It’s “who I was before I met you”.
MGM has acquired the film rights to the book and I know you are working on the script. Who would you like to see play Lou and Will?
They have such clear faces in my mind it’s hard to think of the specific actors to play the parts. Jennifer Lawrence and Carey Mulligan have been mentioned as possibilities to play the part of “Lou.” Some people have suggested Michael Fassbender for “Will” and I’ve also thought Ryan Gosling might be good for the part. I’m open to suggestions!
What kinds of books do you like to read? What are you reading now?
I’m a judge on the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) this year, so for the last five months my reading has been entirely dictated by the longlist. I’m currently reading The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan, which is wonderful.
Do you have a favorite book of all time?
National Velvet by Enid Bagnold.
Who is your favorite character from literature?
Oh-tough one – largely because it tends to change depending on what I’m reading. I love Becky Sharpe from Vanity Fair; Lisbet Salander from the Stieg Larsson trilogy; Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. They’re all strong female characters.
What are you working on now?
I’m on the last 20,000 words of my next book, which is a road trip about a single mother and her maths prodigy daughter. The working title is I’ll Take You There.
Where do you write? Do you have set hours?
A friend and I rent a tiny studio in the Le Marais district in Paris and I go there about every four to six weeks to write. I was just there a few weeks ago and turned out 12,000 words in three days. If I’m working from home, I typically work from 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. and then again from roughly 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. In between those times I tend to our animals (three horses, two cats and a dog).
Who would be in your dream book club?
Oh wow. I’d have Anais Nin, Hemingway, Xenophon (a Greek historian and horseman), Haruki Murakami, Jessica Mitford and Nora Ephron – Heartburn is one of my all-time favorites.
If you weren’t a journalist and novelist, what would you be doing?
I’d like to be a psychotherapist. I’m endlessly fascinated by what goes on in people’s heads and how they justify their decisions. Failing that I’d be riding horses.
When you’re not writing how do you like to spend your time?
I ride my ex-racehorse, Brian, and try to just hang out with my children without muttering: “I’ll be with you in a minute… I just need to finish this…” A dream weekend however would be spent alone with my husband in Le Marais, Paris.
Downton Abbey has a huge following in the U.S. Given its focus on class, what have you observed about class in America versus England?
In America class, such as it is, seems a little more related to money. In England, you can be as broke as a church mouse, and yet someone will be aware that you are a higher class than they are, simply because of your accent, or the kind of shoes you wear, or whether you call a lavatory a toilet.
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat: I haven’t eaten out in New York enough to have a favorite restaurant (I’m usually working and then eating room service!) but I did have a wonderful meal at the Gramercy Tavern.
Favorite Place to Shop: Saks Fifth Avenue. I usually arrive in NY and find I haven’t packed the right clothes for whatever event is coming up, and they always sort me out.
Favorite New York Sight: Pretty much any single view of the skyline. It never fails to make my heart soar.
Favorite New York Moment: Standing on Prince Street chatting to my husband on the phone and Meg Ryan walking past. Also: waiting at an ATM machine on 6th Avenue and watching a woman walk up to a suited man and pour a litre carton of cola over his head before walking away. I always wondered about the back- story to that one.
What You Love About New York: Everything. If you live on a farm in the middle of nowhere, like I do, spending a few days in New York is like getting a great injection of adrenaline. I love the food, the diversity, the sidewalks, and the fact that I can walk for miles.
What You Hate About New York: The queues at immigration!
Novels by Jojo Moyes (Click on the title to buy on Amazon):
Me Before You
The Peacock Emporium
The Ship of Brides
The Horse Dancer
The Last Letter From Your Lover
The Girl You Left Behind (coming out in the U.S. in August, 2013)