Crafting Imaginative Stories through Research and Self-Discovery: A Conversation with Author Jojo Moyes
This year thus far has brought us many extraordinary stories from Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys, with its concentration on familial matters, to a narrative that explores youth, sex, love and friendship, among other themes, through a fiction story of a group of friends from the 1959 era in The Interestings by Meg Wolitizer. But one novel in particular has moved people so deeply that tears were shed and emotions as well as social footings were upturned and unraveled.
The book that has caused people to think about and accept the lives of quadriplegics, as well as the decisions behind the way they wish to live or end their lives, is none other than Jojo Moyes’ unique love story Me Before You. Dealing with an unconventional yet realistic subject matter that often gets side swept into the sidelines, Moyes has created a world in which people with disabilities are treated with the same respect and social standing as those who are healthy, showcasing that they’re not all that different from you or I – a fact that many people to this day don’t seem to acknowledge. Being an inspiration to many, this novel is sure to give confidence to those who society brings down in its vast and cruel ways, whether fully agile or not. But more so than sending out a message (an aspect Moyes says she is “wary” of), she has crafted a story of friendship, love and self-discovery; a story of both a man and a woman who discover through spending time with one another that there is more to life than they had initially perceived.
Though busy with writing a new novel, the screenplay for the film adaption of the book, and taking part in a Twitter challenge given to her by The Guardian, the former journalist took the time to answer a few questions posed to her by GALO concerning the titular characters, the upcoming film and why she doesn’t think of herself as a hopeless romantic despite writing profound love stories.
GALO: Before becoming an author, you were a journalist. In fact, in a past interview you said that you had been inspired by certain news stories that focused on quadriplegics as well as those with other physical disabilities who wish to end their life through services like Dignitas (I believe it was a specific radio bulletin). In addition, two of your family members were in a similar health situation at the time you were writing this novel. How did your previous experiences as a reporter help when it came to writing your novel, and do you yourself believe that each fiction writer should always research and experience for themselves the themes, emotions or ideas they’re discussing (inclusive of human interaction) to give it that authenticity that human stories comprise, or should they rely strictly on their imagination? In other words, should a fiction writer be part reporter/part storyteller/part creator?
Jojo Moyes: My past experience as a reporter helps in that I am good at researching quickly and effectively. But it did take some years to shake the very spare prose that comes with reporting. In newspapers you are taught to write nothing but the facts — I find it very hard to “let myself go” when it comes to the writing itself. But yes, I do believe research is essential. My own favorite books are those that take me somewhere I hadn’t expected to go, that immerse me in a whole new world, and the books where that works most effectively tend to be those where the writer has done their background. I’m not sure though that you need to have experienced the emotions to write them effectively — sometimes being a writer is more like being an actor — the ability to empathize and to imagine, to stand in someone’s imaginary shoes, can be just as crucial.
GALO: The novel Me Before You deals with various themes throughout its moving and often thought-provoking plot from the value of friendship, love and family to the journey of discovering oneself. In fact, though the novel is in part a love story, the subject of discovering oneself, pursuing ones ambitions and coming out of a so-called cocoon, is a profound one throughout the novel. We see this a bit in Will Traynor but more distinctly in the character of Louisa Clark. Why did you place such emphasis on self-discovery throughout the novel, and specifically when it comes to Louisa?
JM: Because it was important that Will gave as much to Lou as the other way around. I wanted it to be clear that she was just as trapped as he was. The older I get, the more I am struck by the number of people who imprison themselves — through fear, or lack of ambition, or simply because nobody has ever told them they could break out. I know girls who have lived their whole lives in the same postcode, and I wonder what would have happened if they just met that one person who encouraged them to break out. Most of us who have led “bigger” lives can trace it back to one person or event. In my own case, I was working at a bank and leading a very “small” life until I went on a working trip to Oxford University. The people I met there and the work I did made me realize I could be anything, do anything. I broke off my engagement that same day and applied to university.
GALO: You’ve said that you identify most with the character of Louisa. What similarities and characteristics do you see between her and yourself, and what elements of yourself did you bring into her character or perhaps the things she likes or dislikes?
JM: I think every character you write is to some extent an extension of yourself, whether they are good or bad — often they are just exaggerations of our own traits. With Louisa, there’s a quirkiness of mind that is probably mine, but also a feeling of powerless and a desperation to do something in the face of suffering. She has quite a strong sense of fair play and is more roused to anger on someone else’s behalf than on her own — that’s definitely mine. The glittery wellington boots were also mine. (But I was three when I owned them.)
GALO: Me Before You was first released in the UK on January 2012, and only recently became available in the U.S. During your book tours, have you noticed any difference in the responses to your novel, or are they very much the same? Can you also share with us a particular moment that has touched you or stayed with you from your recent tour around the U.S.?
JM: The responses have been almost the same everywhere I’ve been. If I’m honest, I’ve been amazed that it’s been received so positively, as I was fearful that people would take it as a kind of “pro-suicide” manual, which it very much wasn’t. I’ve had so many amazing responses — the ones that were the most moving usually involve people who cared for quadriplegics, or one woman whose sister committed assisted suicide and who said that the book had helped her come to terms with it. But I was really knocked sideways when the Christopher Reeve foundation contacted me to tell me how much they liked and wanted to support the book. That felt very much like a validation for how it was written.
(Interview continued on next page)