Jojo Moyes has a friend, a fellow English writer, who says that being a novelist means being paid to be disappointed once a year. Before her novel Me Before You took off in a big way four years ago, she knew exactly what he meant.
“I had been slogging away for years,” she says. “I had editors who loved what I was doing and I would get good reviews but nothing would take off. I had got to the point where I thought, Maybe it’s me. Maybe I don’t write the kinds of books that people want to read and there’s not much you can do about that.”
She had written eight novels by the time she had the idea for Me Before You, which has now been turned into a movie directed by Thea Sharrock and starring Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) and Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games). It's an offbeat romantic tale of an aimless young waitress, Louisa Clark, who gets a job caring for Will Traynor, who is paralysed after an accident. Will's life before the accident was one of cut-throat business deals, exotic holidays and a string of glamorous girlfriends. Now he is unable to feed himself, walk or have sex. It's not a life he wants to lead, and he is determined to end it.
The quirky, romantic tale with a dark “right to die” twist was inspired by a newspaper story Moyes, a former journalist, read about a young rugby player who had been left quadriplegic after an accident and persuaded his parents to take him to end his life with Dignitas.
“I pitched the story to my then publishers and they were pretty underwhelmed . . . but Penguin, God bless them, said they wanted to take me on. They thought the book would be a good step in resurrecting my career, and obviously it did a bit more than that.”
Quite a bit more, actually. Me Before You has now sold more than five million copies. The full-page New York Times review of the book in 2013 – "the kind of review you dream about your whole life" recalls Moyes – began with the line, "When I finished this novel, I didn't want to review it; I wanted to reread it". This rave notice led to a dozen movie studios getting in touch about making a film version of the novel.
"To suddenly get this wave of recognition and appreciation was overwhelming," she remembers. "If you've been disappointed so many times, you find it hard to believe your own success." When a follow-up novel, One Plus One, got to the top of the book charts, Moyes began to allow herself to believe that she might not just be a one-hit wonder. She went from feeling as though she might give up writing altogether to engaging with a vast community of new and enthusiastic readers.
“It’s probably no coincidence that my successes came at a time when Twitter was really taking off, so for the first time I felt I had a dialogue with my readers instead of a few scrappily written letters a month on Basildon Bond [stationery].”
New world view
Success has changed her world view. “I’ve had to adjust my thinking from being a bit of a catastrophist to believing that good things happen . . . but honestly, I do pinch myself most days and I don’t mean that in a nauseating way. I am very conscious, because it happened in my 40s, how much of this is down to luck and good timing, and I never take it for granted.”
When it is pointed out that women often credit “good luck” instead of hard work and talent for their success, she counters, “But the thing is, I put in just as much hard work when I wasn’t successful, so there is something about timing and luck. Sometimes you just need to find a tipping point and then you’ll be off. I know lots of really good writers who are not having success. I did always put the work in, though. I thought, If I f*** this up, I don’t want it to be because I didn’t work hard.”
Whether it's timing, luck, talent, hard work or – more likely – all four, Moyes has now not only sold more than nine million books (her first eight books, she says, pre-Me Before You had sales of about 300,000), but she is busy writing the screenplays for the movies of her novels.
Writer on set
She was surprised when MGM, the studio behind the Me Before You film, got in touch with her to write the screenplay. "I assumed that would be their worst nightmare. I'd heard all the horror stories of writers and directors butting up against each other. I think they felt that the book had such a unique voice that its best chance involved having someone as close to that voice as possible on the production writing."
Being on set was a steep learning curve, and she was glad of the advice from another friend, an experienced screenwriter, who told her the dos and don’ts of being a writer on a film set. “Don’t get in the way. Don’t make life more difficult. You are dealing with a massive machine; there is so much money involved. I worked out really quickly that the best use I could be was sitting in a corner with my laptop, and if the director needed me I would go and talk to her, and if something needed changing I would take myself off and work on it and give her a few versions.”
The film is something of a Hollywood anomaly in that all three producers, the director and screenwriter are women.
“It’s very unusual and a point of pride for me,” she says. “The thing I found interesting was how many of the crew members, often big burly men, said this was one of the happiest film sets they’d ever worked on. Thea Sharrock as a director was very collegiate and collaborative; it was much more about bringing a group together rather than imposing her will on anyone.”
Moyes says being part of a crew led by women was a refreshing contrast to her previous working experiences. “I come from a very male-dominated industry – newspapers – and then I worked by myself as a writer, so for me being with this very talented group of women was a privilege . . . I am glad it worked out well, because can you imagine the horrible way it would have been talked about if it hadn’t? It was a very happy experience, a creative joy,” she says before apologising for “gushing”.
The film, like the book, is a tear-jerker; audiences are strongly advised to bring tissues. And yet the core subject matter is about as far away from romantic “chick flick” fodder as you can get. On the right-to-die theme at the heart of the film, Moyes says “there are no right answers. It’s a completely individual thing . . . I hope what the story does, whether it’s the book or film, is make people think twice before judging other people’s choices.”
What does she imagine her own choice would be in that situation? "I would like to think if I suffered some terrible accident I would be like Christopher Reeve – you know, the person who is full of grace, who manages to find a way through and have a life of the mind and intellect and get satisfaction through my children.
“What I suspect is equally true is that I would feel very angry and embittered and like a burden, and I would be exhausted by being in pain. So while I like to think I would fight to stay alive, I think I’d like to have a choice in that situation even if I didn’t take it”.
She spoke to a British lord recently who was part of the move to resist the Bill to allow assisted suicide. She asked him why he blocked it. He told her that although he believed it was “horrific” that people were forced to live when they didn’t want to, until a way was found to “protect the vulnerable”, he could not allow the law to change. “I absolutely saw his point,” she says. “It’s an impossible conundrum.”
One of the reasons she wrote the book in the first place was because she had two relatives who needed 24-hour care to stay alive: her father-in-law, who had dementia; and an aunt with MS.
“She lived in a care home for 10 years,” she says. “I was very close to her. By the end, there was no part of her life that gave her any pleasure at all and she also lived in fear. I get very annoyed with people who, unless they’ve been through it themselves, say, ‘Well, this is right and this is wrong’. I just want to say to them, ‘Be part of the situation and then come back to me and tell me it’s black and white’. Life is complex and it gets ever more complex. All I am increasingly grateful for is not being in that situation myself and not having to make those choices.”
Moyes grew up in London and now lives on a farm in the Essex countryside with her husband, a Guardian journalist, and their three children. An idyllic life?
“Not when I’m chipping ice out of a water trough at 6am on a Monday morning. But it’s the life I always wanted. I was the city kid who always wanted to be a country kid. Now I get to walk the dogs in the morning and look out on the fields.”
And what do her children think of her success? “They were completely uninterested until I did the film.” She laughs. “Before that they spent 15 years being totally unimpressed by their mum working alone in a back room mostly in her pyjamas, and now they get to meet Sam Claflin and Emilia Clarke and suddenly it’s quite cool. The rest of my family are a bit bemused by the whole thing. They got used to me being a mid-list, whingeing failure, and suddenly my life has got way more interesting than anyone expected.”
- Me Before You is in cinemas from June 3rd