The woman bringing back the weepie - author Jojo Moyes
It's been a while since we've had a good cry at the cinema, but there won't be a dry eye in the house during Me Before You, the film adaptation of Jojo Moyes' hit novel. Here, the author talks to our reporter about love stories, impossible dilemmas and Marian Keyes
'When I'm writing, I want people to feel something. I was so nervous watching for the first time, I was watching people's heads trying to see their reaction," author Jojo Moyes says of her hit novel-turned-movie Me Before You. "When the lights come up and people have been sobbing, it's the best feeling in the world!" she laughs.
One thing that's been missing from our cinema screens in recent years has been a good weepie. Often derogatorily referred to as "chick flicks" and, perhaps more accurately, women's films, sentimental movies were a staple of Hollywood's offerings in the 1950s thanks to melodramas by Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli. The sub-genre reared its head again in the 1980s thanks to the likes of Beaches and Terms of Endearment, but with the exception perhaps of The Notebook and My Sister's Keeper - both adaptations of novels - we haven't been going to the cinema to bawl much of late. But all that is about to change with the release of the Me Before You movie.
It tells the story of a demotivated twenty-something named Lou who's hired to help look after a young quadriplegic man named Will. Unbeknownst to Lou, she's something of a pawn in a game; Will has decided to end his life, but his mother, who can't bear the thought of her son giving up on the world, hires the pretty, light-hearted young woman in the hopes that she'll open his eyes to the possibilities of staying alive. It's sweet, it's funny and it's incredibly emotional, thanks in part to the fact that it's not just the simple story of boy meets girl, but a morality tale that will cause anyone who sees it to ask themselves some difficult questions.
So, what inspired Moyes, a moderately successful novelist before this 2012 book - which sold some 3 million copies worldwide and last year spawned a sequel, After You - to write about something as controversial as the right-to-die argument?
"I heard a story on the news about a young rugby player who became quadriplegic in his 20s and persuaded his parents to take him to Dignitas," she says. "And it just wouldn't leave me. As a parent, I know that I would fight like a lioness to save my children, but it's just not black and white.
"At the time I had two relatives who required 24-hour care, and living with that situation, you find yourself asking questions all the time about quality of life. How do you give pleasure and hope to someone who doesn't have any, who's suffering pain, degradation and humiliation? In my experience, the only people who have answers on that are people who have never been close to a situation like that. It's just such a murky area. And as a novelist, there are two things always high on my mind - questions that have no answers, and the messy situation of ordinary human life."
I ask if she's heard of the case of Marie Fleming, the Irish Multiple Sclerosis patient who fought for the right to end her own life with the assistance of her partner and was denied it, eventually dying peacefully at home. "I hadn't actually, but we have so many similar cases in the UK and it's one of those issues that I think will never go away," Moyes says. "There are medical advances keeping people alive, but we still don't know how to make their lives pleasurable and humane."
However, Moyes doesn't see her work as political. "The most political statement I can make is that I don't want people to judge one another. Be kind and put yourself in someone else's shoes, because we live in such a judgemental society as it is. None of us know what it's like to go through certain experiences, so it can be easy to take a simplistic line and judge."
Born in London in 1969, Jojo worked as a journalist for 10 years both in Hong Kong and the UK at The Independent. She says she always wrote stories, however, it was only after she'd been working in journalism for several years that she thought a career in fiction might be possible.
"I started writing books when I worked nights. It was pre-internet, and I had nothing to do during the day! If the internet had been around when I was working, I'd never had gotten anything done. Then I'd had a baby, was working on the news desk and I didn't absolutely love it. I'd written three entire books that nothing had come of, and then finally I managed to write three chapters of a book that got picked up, and that was Sheltering Rain."
In 2002, her first published novel ensured she got a book deal, but Jojo had eight novels published with a pretty steady success rate before striking gold with Me Before You. Why was this one such hit?
"I wish I knew," she retorts. "I'd have done it 10 years earlier! Oh, I think it was a number of things - there's a lot of humour in it, perhaps for the first time in my books. I knew if it was too dark, the reader wouldn't come along with me, so it needed to be leavened with humour. I also had one of those rare moments where the two lead characters dropped into my lap fully formed. That doesn't often happen, and is a joy to write.
"Also, because it was dealing with such a complicated issue, the quality of life when it's prolonged by medical advancements. I think with Me Before You, it's very easy to put yourself in the characters' shoes, but still not have a clear answer."
Moyes thinks we live in a world nowadays where outrage is the norm. "Humans in social media age are very fond of declaring something right or wrong, and this book and film will not allow you to do that. It was important to have characters in the novel who were opposed to what Will wanted to do. It's a controversial issue, and you can't address it without people holding very strong moral and religious beliefs."
She adapted her own novel for film, something that's said to be notoriously difficult. "I assumed it would be studio's worst nightmare to have me do it, I was just happy to be part of the process. Then they said 'have you thought about adapting it yourself?' I said yeah right! Then we had a meeting in LA, and suddenly, it was happening. But thankfully, the studio, the director and I saw the story the same way. It wasn't just me, there were other people involved and I knew it was in safe hands."
The film adaptation is very true to the book. Moyes had some say in the casting, and was thrilled when Game Of Thrones star Emilia Clarke signed on as Lou opposite The Hunger Games' Sam Claflin. "I think they whittled it down to three actresses, and the moment I saw Emilia, that was it for me, and I really hoped everyone else felt the same way. Luckily they did - half the crew was in love with her. She's warm and funny and chaotic, like Lou."
Irish readers will no doubt be delighted that in one scene, Lou is reading a Marian Keyes novel, and in real life the two authors are friends. "I think Marian is just who Lou would be reading at that point in her life. I'm a huge admirer of Marian, and it's a joy of my life that we've met for tea a few times. Her work is so smart and witty."
Moyes also makes a cameo appearance herself in the movie, á la Hitchcock, although blink and you'll miss her. "I'm a passenger on the bus when Lou goes for her interview with Will's mother!" she laughs.
The promotional juggernaut has been churning for Me Before You - Warner Brothers even sent out tissues to journalists to promote the movie. So, what does Moyes think of bringing back the weepie to cinemas? "It's an emotional book, so if you're not crying then I've failed. When we were filming those scenes, I was crying so much they posted it on the company newsletter!"
'Me Before You' is in cinemas nationwide from June 3