It’s always come down to two things for Jojo Moyes: writing and motherhood.
The London native worked as a journalist for 10 years, including time at South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and The Independent in the U.K. But once she and her husband started a family, she aimed for a more managable work-life balance and decided to try her hand at a different kind of writing. In 2002 her first novel hit U.K. bookshelves, and for almost a decade she made a rather quiet, sustainable living writing books marketed largely to romance readers.
She started drawing more notice—and more mainstream fiction audiences on both sides of the pond—with 2011’s The Last Letter From Your Lover, an intricately plotted tale of parallel romances spanning decades.
This post is by Jessica Strawser. Strawser is the chief editor of Writer’s Digest magazine, where she often has the privilege of penning WD Interviews featuring writers she has long admired, including Alice Walker, David Sedaris and Stephen King. Her 15-year career in publishing has also included editing roles at a trio of nonfiction book imprints and even a brief stint in marketing and public relations. She’s also a writer of women’s fiction represented by literary agent Barbara Poelle, and—having first started querying agents for an entirely different, unsold novel back in 2011—is thrilled to be looking ahead to her 2017 debut novel, Almost Missed You, forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband and two young children. Connect with her on Twitter @JessicaStrawser.
And then, she struck a nerve.
Me Before You was the surprise smash of 2013. It tells the story of plucky, working-class Louisa “Lou” Clark, hired in spite of her total lack of experience to care for Will Traynor, a handsome, adventure-seeking executive paralyzed in a freak accident. As an unlikely bond develops, Lou discovers that what Will wants most in the world is something that will shatter hers. He wants to die. And he wants her help.
Transcending the hot-button right-to-die debate, the book has sold more than 5 million copies worldwide. Come June, it will also be a feature film, for which Moyes wrote the screenplay and worked grueling days on set to adapt the script scene by scene. Her subsequent novels, The Girl You Left Behind (featuring parallel love stories, set during WWI and in the present, that have a piece of stolen artwork in common) and One Plus One (following an ensemble cast on a road trip) have been immediate international bestsellers, and much of her backlist has now been released in the U.S.
But it’s still Me Before You that draws overwhelming volumes of reader mail. And Moyes—now 46 and living on a farm in Essex with her husband, a writer for The Guardian, and their three children, ages 10, 14 and 17—still personally answers every letter. “Sometimes people are sending you a page of very emotional stuff about their lives, and you can’t just say, ‘Oh, thanks for reading the book!’ You have to answer them properly,” she tells WD. “And I suppose because I was a fairly unsuccessful author for so long, I also feel an obligation because, you know, there’s always a part of me thinking, Thank you for buying my book!”
Now, Moyes has gifted those fans with something more: a sequel. After You meets Lou a couple of years after Me Before You leaves off.
In our full-length interview in the January 2016 Writer’s Digest, Moyes talks about navigating career turns with grace, relearning to write a novel with every story, and nurturing her books and children above all else.
Here, in these bonus outtakes, she talks more about her forays into screenwriting, how her writing routine has evolved, and more.
You wrote the screenplay for the Me Before You movie adaptation, and I read that you worked on set—what was your involvement, exactly? And what were the highlights and challenges of that experience?
I had never written a screenplay before, so I was very much on a learning curve, but I think my kind of writing is probably well suited to screenplay because I’m very visually driven. In fact, when I write scenes I have to play them out in my head first, cinematically, before I can be sure that they’ll work. So that was a sort of natural step. But, it is a much more technical craft—you have to be so mindful of so many things, and the shape of it and the form of it and the time constraints and the character constraints—there’s so much that has to be cut out. I find it fascinating.
It was a privilege to get to learn a new skill at an age when you think you’re kind of honing the thing you’ll do for the rest of your life. And what I found on set was that it becomes a different skill again, because you’re adapting daily the script to the needs of the director, the needs of the actors, the needs of the environment. For example, one day we were filming in a castle and it was so windy that there was no way you could ignore the degree of wind—it couldn’t go unremarked upon. So your challenge then is to reference the weather conditions without it becoming weird or seeming out of place. Every day I was changing lines depending on what the actors could do with them, or how they worked best, and I really loved that. It was pretty much the most exciting three months of my working life.
The real challenge is: You are part of a huge machine—you can’t argue with it, you can’t negotiate with it, the needs of the machine come first. So what you’re left doing is trying to hold your ground and create something that you believe in within the constraints of that machine. Luckily for me I was working with a studio that seemed to share the same vision of the characters and the film that I did, so I didn’t have some of the uglier discussions that some writers have. But my challenges were the fact that I was doing 18-hour days, including the traveling, day after day after day, and just trying to keep my publishers happy and keep my family happy and also produce the best work that I could produce in a project that was really important to me.
Did you have your family there with you?
No, I was driving back and forth most evenings, and occasionally if I was too tired I would book a hotel and stay overnight wherever we were filming.
Are you interested in more screenwriting opportunities?
Yeah, it turns out I really like screenwriting, so I’ve gone on to adapt One Plus One for New Line, which is part of Warner Bros, so they’re currently looking for a director, and I’ve just adapted a little book I did for a literacy charity over here [in the U.K.] called Paris for One. I just handed in the first draft to my agent, and I’m trying to polish that up.
Would you pursue the same level of involvement, being on set like that?
No, I don’t think I would—mostly just because One Plus One, I’ve adapted it to be set in America, whereas the original book is set in the U.K., and realistically I just can’t leave my kids for that long. Unglamorous reasons. And they might not want me, you know—a lot of studios, it’s their worst nightmare to have the writer on set, so I have no illusions. I’ve been very lucky so far.
Is there such a thing as a typical day for you at this point? What’s your writing routine these days?
Right now every day is different. I think [after this book tour] I’m going to pull down the shutters for a bit—it’s not so much the writing time, it’s the thinking time, you know? You need clear thinking time to unravel problems and to come up with good characters. Finding two hours on a train to bash out 1,000 words is one thing, but to make sure that they are useful words is a whole other thing.
I used to get up at 6 and work for an hour and a half before my kids got up, but now they go to different schools and they get up earlier so that’s become tougher. I take myself away quite a lot, though; they’re used to me disappearing for a couple of days at a time. And when I do I’ll go to a hotel or something and I’ll just literally do room service, and I will not get dressed and I’ll work for two days solidly, and you know, if I wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning, that’s when I’ll write—and that’s my luxury, I love that, to be able to just be allowed to focus on the book, and not think about, you know, fish fingers and school uniforms and all the rest of it.
Do you already know what your next book will be?
No, I really don’t. I have a couple of vague ideas but they’re not remotely marinated.
What’s the experience of going on an international tour like? How does it inform your work?
The thing that always surprised me about [Me Before You] was the fact that in so many different countries, people have the same reaction to it. I thought that for example it wouldn’t sell in Catholic countries—the idea of the “right to die” debate might be anathema to them. That’s what has been fascinating about this experience—realizing that all these audiences are effectively moved by the same thing and see themselves in the same thing, and the emails I get reflect that.
And do you still read all your emails?
Oh yeah. I try to respond to every single one. I have an assistant now, but she forwards me all the personal ones. And I can’t pretend at times it hasn’t been slightly overwhelming … So that’s been an interesting thing to learn to balance. The big thing has been getting an assistant, because until I had her I was drowning in it. Every Sunday became a kind of ordeal as I tried to plow through the week’s emails, and it started off two hours on a Sunday and then it started to take over the whole of Sunday and then I had this permanent guilt that I wasn’t responding to people fast enough. But it’s not as intense as it was. And it does seem to be very much centered around that one book.
As a former journalist, is there anything you always with someone would ask that no one ever does?
Oh, I don’t know! I should have an answer to that! What I will say is that it’s the greatest job in the world. I can’t complain, saying answering emails is hard, or the timetable is hard, there is actually no greater thrill than going up to work and getting to play god and getting to create things that people want to read. So life is good.
To read our full interview with Jojo Moyes, check out the January 2016 Writer’s Digest now.