Ahead of tomorrow’s cinema release of Me Before You, our editor Mickey Noonan had a chat with the bestselling author and, now, screenplay writer.
Jojo Moyes is flummoxed. “That’s the most difficult question I’ve had,” she says on being asked what she does to relax. “I’m not very good at relaxing. Sarah [Millican] pointed out to me that I’m a bit of a workaholic…” She grins. “But I’m having the best time so I find it really difficult to step away – that I’m in this extraordinary place is a gift.”
The multi-award-winning novelist is in a very good place indeed: her 2012 novel, Me Before You, has sold more than six million copies worldwide, and tomorrow its movie adaptation opens in cinemas across the globe. Unusually for a Hollywood production, and through no small determination and strong will on Moyes’ part, she also wrote the screenplay.
Warm, open and down-to-earth, Moyes is also modest. “MGM did a very brave thing and asked me to write it and, because they realised Me Before You has a very fine balance of humour and tragedy, they wanted to make sure we retained that theme and the very British aspect of it.
“I worked very hard to make sure that Louisa got as many jokes as the guys and she retained her character,” she continues. “By sheer luck we ended up with a very female-heavy production. There were three female producers, so there was this amazing collaborative atmosphere; for me to be on this crew of people on my first ever film is awesome – and it’s only now that I realise how unusual that is. If the film does well, I hope it helps Hollywood to look beyond the usual and use more women.”
As you’d expect from a writer who’s bagged the Romantic Novel of the Year award twice, Me Before You is a love story. But as you’ll know if you’ve ever read any of Moyes’ books (she’s penned 13 so far), it’s never as straightforward as that.
“I can only write about the topics that won’t leave the front of my head and I don’t shy away from the difficult ones,” says Moyes.
She’s not kidding. Me Before You focuses on Will Traynor, a wealthy young banker, extreme sports enthusiast and sometime arsehole left paralysed after an accident, who decides he wants to take his own life; and the small-town, working-class woman, Louisa Clark, who becomes his carer and wants to change his mind.
“I wanted to look at how it would be to be in that man’s shoes, to be in his mother’s shoes, and then in the shoes of someone who wouldn’t understand his decision and would want to change his mind.”
“I had a family situation at the time with two relatives who needed 24-hour care to stay alive, so it was always at the front of my head. Then, on the radio, I heard about a young man, a rugby player, who had been left paralysed by an accident. He asked his parents to take him for assisted suicide.
“I just couldn’t understand it. There’s no answer to it and there’s an increasing number of people who demand control over their own autonomy.
“I wanted to look at how it would be to be in that man’s shoes, to be in his mother’s shoes, and then in the shoes of someone who wouldn’t understand his decision and would want to change his mind,” she continues. “And to look at our attitudes towards disability and how we get it wrong; how we assume the disability is the defining quality of that person.”
Very quickly in the book, the chair becomes the least interesting thing about Will Traynor. As Moyes puts it: “He’s not different; it’s just his situation that is different.”
The response to the book has been predominantly very positive, but disability rights campaigners, objecting to Will’s desire to die, protested at the London premiere last week, grabbing headlines across the media.
“I’d had a tweet that told me that somebody was going to protest,” says Moyes. “I did try to engage as much as you can in the madness of the red carpet; I did try to explain briefly that I don’t think that is the message of the book. It’s not the story of some Everyman, it’s the story of ONE particular man,” she stresses. “We were very careful to pitch a question rather than give an answer.
“This is not a how-to, it’s not an instruction manual – it’s what it would be like to be faced with someone who makes an extreme decision that you don’t agree with,” she continues. “It’s to do with Will Traynor being a very uncompromising character. It is a tricky topic. I get that, but the thing is, what do you do? As a writer, do you shy away from something that’s controversial? No. I can’t be all hearts and flowers.
“All hearts and flowers” is definitely not something you could level at Moyes’ writing. In particular her female characters are well-rounded, flawed, real and, occasionally, as in the actual world but not so much in most pop culture, unlikeable.
“I never foresaw a time in my lifetime where women’s bodies would be a battleground and I feel like we’re sliding back.”
“I don’t think I should have to write characters that are always likeable,” smiles Moyes. “I wrote a female violinist who was a pretty bad mum for a while and people took offence at that, but, you know, some people are pretty bad mums for a while.
“We all make mistakes,” she shrugs. “If there’s any message running through my work it’s not to judge people and to be kind, because nearly everyone in my books is fighting a battle you might not understand or know about for a good few pages yet.”
Moyes certainly likes to set her characters a challenge that can often only be resolved by looking into the darker nooks and crannies of our personalities and morality that it’s mostly easier to avoid.
“Do you do the wrong thing for the right result is a question that intrigues me – because there is no right answer,” she says. “The things that attract me are those grey areas. The older I get, the more I realise the whole of life is mostly grey areas.”
Things used to be a lot more black and white or, more accurately, neutral: “My parents both brought me up with the idea I could do anything, so I believed I could do anything – fix my own car, whatever. Gender never entered my mind… until I had children and then I realised that there is a world of possibly unrevealed discrimination that you have to battle against.
“As my own daughter has become a teen, and through seeing the world around me – reproductive rights and how women are constantly told they need to channel their efforts into looks…” She shakes her head. “I never foresaw a time in my lifetime where women’s bodies would be a battleground and I feel like we’re sliding back. With the characters I write, I ask women to think beyond that.
“In terms of the quietly feminist part of me – OK, sometimes it’s a bit noisy – I believe very strongly in creating women who learn things and find things out about themselves instead of simply buying things or getting a man.”
Me Before You is released in cinemas nationwide tomorrow.
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Aged five, Mickey Noonan shoved an apple pip up her nose to see what happened. Older, wiser but sadly without a nose-tree, Standard Issue's editor remains curious about the world. Likes running, jumping and static trapeze.