'Writing is my part-time job - I'm actually a taxi driver for my kids!'
She's sold nine million books worldwide, but Jojo Moyes struggles to find time to put pen to paper
Published 01/10/2015 | 07:00
If a book of ours was due to be released as a Hollywood film, most of us would harbour a couple of delicious fantasies around shimmying up the red carpet in our finery alongside its A-list stars. So presumably author Jojo Moyes is already planning who'll dress her, given that her international bestseller, Me Before You, will be released as an MGM film next year, starring Game of Thrones actress Emilia Clarke, and Sam Claflin of The Hunger Games?
"This is going to sound nuts, but I haven't had a chance to think that far," she laughs. "The film being made is such a fairytale, but when you have three kids, you're just skidding through each day bringing them here and there, while trying to fit in work, meeting deadlines, and your commitments to wider family and friends.
"But yeah, I'm very excited now that you mention it, and I have to remind myself to go out and get some really sturdy underwear, like a nice uplifting bra. I'll even take off my wellies that day!"
The wellies quip refers to the fact that former journalist Jojo (46) lives in a farmhouse in "the middle of nowhere" in rural Essex. Born Pauline Sara Jo Moyes in London, she's married to journalist Charles Arthur, and they have three children, Saskia (17), Harry (14), and Lockie (10).
"Writing is my part-time job," jokes Jojo, who rises at 6am to write for an hour before bringing the children to school. "My real job is being a taxi service, because we've chosen to live where there's no public transport. We basically start at 7am, and don't stop until the last child has come home from wherever, so we're happy to pay for our daughter's driving lessons - purely out of self-interest.
"What worries me is how much I'm going to miss them when they leave home though," she adds. "The kids are much better company than I expected teenagers to be. I was fully braced for them to be horrors, but actually they're pretty good fun and I really like them all. I'm sad already at the prospect of it all coming to an end."
Her low-key, self-deprecating manner belies her success, as the talented Jojo has written 12 novels and two novellas, and sold more than nine million books worldwide.
She has also written the film screenplay of Me Before You, which is an unconventional love story between an upper-class 35-year-old called William Traynor, who has been rendered quadriplegic following an accident and no longer wishes to live, and 26-year-old working-class Louisa Clarke (Lou), his carer, who he wants to help him on his final journey.
It may be a very serious subject, given that it centres on the very emotive subject of euthanasia, but Jojo treats it with her trademark empathy and humour.
In a way, its success has been a huge vindication for Jojo, because after a very promising start with her initial offerings, the books in the middle didn't achieve the same success. Her publisher, Hodder, was underwhelmed when she pitched the idea for Me Before You, so she wrote it out of contract and ultimately sold it to Penguin. It sold six million copies, went to number one in nine countries, and stimulated interest in her back catalogue all over again. Which is how she ended up with three novels on the New York Times bestseller list at the same time.
How did Jojo keep her nerve in the dodgy middle part of her career trajectory? "I'm not entirely sure," she muses. "I think it was bloodymindedness in some respects. When you have spent 10 years writing books, you're not really good for much else, and all you can do is write the stories you believe in.
"Me Before You wasn't a good bet, as books about quadriplegics tend not to be an easy sell, especially when you throw in the words 'carer' and 'Dignitas.'
"I talked to my husband about how I could end up writing a book that didn't even sell to a publisher, let alone readers, but he said he believed in me and I should write it. And everything that has come from it has been a massive bonus, as we never had any expectations around it."
It's clear that Jojo feels very much supported by Charles, whom she met in her late 20s. She may write exceptional love stories, but in real life, when asked what makes a relationship work, the author doesn't claim to be an expert.
"I'd say Charles and I are generally pretty kind to each other and we have fun as well," she muses. "I love making him laugh. I'm very focused and ambitious and he's very laid-back and relaxed, so when I get stressed out about stuff, he's a calming hand on the tiller.
"And when he's a little too laid-back, I'm the one to give everybody a kick up the backside."
While she loves living in the countryside, Jojo also enjoys spending times in vibrant cities, and has always loved escaping to her little bolt-hole in Paris. Sadly, she has decided to let it go because she is too busy to make proper use of it. However, a bonus of country living is that she gets to indulge her passionate love of animals - the family has three horses, including the horse she rides, Brian, and dog, Alfie.
There's no excuse for her not to go out and do something physical each day, she admits, and she thinks it's very good for her mental health.
"I'm wearing a nice dress and long boots today, but am normally to be found in jeans, wellies and a farming waistcoat," she says. "I probably need to make more of an effort, as when I was packing yesterday, I realised that my make-up bag had been sitting in the car's glove box for five days."
Jojo is currently promoting her latest book, After You, the sequel to Me Before You. It picks up Lou's story, and while she admits that writing sequels can be tricky, people were very interested in what happened next for the very likeable Lou.
How did readers react to the highly sensitive storyline of the preceding book, and did she get any criticism given that it deals with euthanasia?
"I was fully expecting to get some stick, because if people read it the wrong way, they might assume I was advocating for the right to die," she says. "And actually, I wanted it to be more nuanced than that. I got thousands of lovely messages from readers who were carers or relatives of people who had a very poor quality of life, and it just seemed to touch a nerve.
"I think these issues don't go away and Lou didn't go away, so when there was a chance to revisit her, I thought 'well why not?' I don't think her story necessarily ended there."
As part of the story in the wonderful new book, Lou attends grief therapy. Jojo herself attended regular therapy sessions for a couple of years in her 30s and feels it fundamentally changed the way she viewed herself.
"I think therapy gives you tools to separate your emotions from what's actually going on," she explains. "We can all feel overwhelmed by sadness, anxiety or any number of things, and what it does is teaches you to ask the question, 'What is this really about?'
"Sometimes it's as simple as telling yourself that you're just having a sad day and you'll get over it, and other times it's about looking harder at your own patterns of behaviour. It made a huge difference to my life, and providing you can find the right therapist, I think it's hugely worthwhile."
The writer admits that if you had told her 20-year-old self about the life she's living now, she would have run around punching the air with delight. That isn't to say there haven't been difficulties, including the fact that her youngest son Lockie is deaf, but she says that their family motto is that "everybody gets something."
"For example, I can't see anything without my glasses any more," she points out. "I think that like most people with a disability in the family, you quickly stop focusing on the disability and think about all the things your child can do. Lockie is a very funny, brave, chatty individual, and we all feel blessed to have him.
"What I'm proudest of is that my children are nice people, because all I ever wanted was to create little people who were happy and kind to other people."
Jojo's fans find it refreshing that her characters are generally very normal people working in ordinary jobs, rather than the glamorous record company executive/fashion buyer/feature writer scenario so beloved of some writers. Most people don't live gilded lives, and she likes the idea that an extraordinary tale can come from what seems to be an ordinary life. People's real lives are messier than the fairytale "overcoming the odds" narrative, she says, and she thinks in making mistakes and making a bit of a mess, her characters maybe find out something about themselves.
"I didn't work out what I was good at until I was 23," she says. "I didn't go to university straight away and had a whole series of crummy jobs, and had plenty of rubbish relationships until I met my husband in my late 20s. You learn from your mistakes, and I think that me doing a lot of living is what makes the characters relatable."
Interestingly, while some people dislike getting older, Jojo says she feels happy, creatively fulfilled and more tolerant. She has a slightly overdeveloped sense of empathy, and would prefer if she didn't cry at bank adverts, but at a time when she expected to become less brave and cheerful, she finds herself far more optimistic.
"I've become less judgemental because I see that most people you meet are fighting their own battles," she says. "The best thing we can do is not judge each other and be kind, because in the age of instant judgement on social media, it would be better if we could possibly not say or do the cruel thing. Sometimes people are misguided, but most are dealing with their own stuff and are just doing their best."
Mind you, she may be more tolerant, but Jojo readily admits to being less concerned about what people think of her and less willing to put up with bad manners. Much to her children's chagrin.
"Maybe it's being 46, but I will tell someone if they've been horribly rude to someone or haven't given up their seat in a train for a pregnant women," she smiles. "It's interesting because you suddenly become unembarrassable, although of course, when I do it, my kids hate it."
'After You' by Jojo Moyes is out now (Penguin, €17.99)