So one of the big problems with writing biographies is you rarely get to read stuff for fun. In the course of researching Sweetness, for example, I probably went through, oh, 50 Chicago Bears-related books.
That takes a helluva lot of time.
Hence, when the wife recently raved about an “amazing” book she was recently reading about some dude in a wheelchair, I nodded, sighed and—to be honest—pretty much ignored her. Wheelchair? Who had time for a wheelchair book? I’m deep in research.
Then, however, I had a flight. A long flight. So I opened up the ol’ Nook and started reading “Me Before You,” by Joj Moyes. I read and read and read and read and read—and could not put the dang thing down. Narrative—amazing. Dialogue—terrific. Character development—tremendous. This wasn’t just a book. No, it was an experience. One that left me both wanting more, but completely fulfilled.
When I was done, I located Jojo on Twitter and, it turns out, we spoke once before, for an article she wrote several years ago. Small world.
Anyhow, I’m thrilled to bring you Jojo Moyes, Essex, England resident and this week’s Quaz. Her new book, One Plus One, was released in the U.S. on July 1, and she’ll be touring the States beginning July 5. You can see her full schedule here, follow her on Twitter here, and visit her website here. She has no idea who Ariana Grande is. But, hey. No one’s perfect.
Jojo Moyes, dreams come true. You’ve been Quazed …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So Jojo, I just read “Me Before You” and loved it. Absolutely, positively loved it. As did my wife and, apparently, shitloads of people. Which leads me to ask this: What—if anything—don’t you love about it? Now that the book is done, out, digested—are there parts you don’t feel amazing about? Word choices you regret? Any writer’s remorse whatsoever? Because lord knows, I always have tons of the stuff …
J.M.: Okay—this may be an annoying answer, but I’m going to be honest. This is the only book I’ve ever written (and I’ve written 11) that I didn’t hate afterwards. There’s actually not much I would change about it at all. I did find a few small things when I was adapting it as a script, but I can’t remember what they were, so they can’t have been major. It’s actually the only book I’ve written that I can read and re-read, too. Mostly once I’m done, I don’t look at a book again, except to read from it in public. I’m too busy thinking about the next one, and all I can see is what I want to change.
My husband is my first reader. Mostly he reads a book, makes lots of really frank suggestions, and I don’t talk to him for two days, admit he’s probably right, and then set to rewriting. This was the first of my books where he just sat back and went: “Yup. I like that.”
J.P.: Today, I sat in a coffee shop with my laptop and tried to churn shit out. I’ll be back at it tonight, probably in the nearby diner, after my kids go to sleep. Jojo, how do you write? Where do you write? Do you churn out 5,000 words at a time? Do you slave over 50? How does it work for you?
J.M.: It’s a constant struggle to find the time not just to write, but the time to think about what I’m going to write. I probably spend 70 percent thinking time to 30 percent writing. I used to write after my kids went to bed, but two of them are teenagers now and frequently go to bed after I do, so I’ve taken to starting at 6 am before everyone else gets up. I try to write 5,000 words a week, in a mixture of bed, coffee shops (although other people talking makes me really crabby) and my little office, above a hairdressers. Some weeks I manage more, mostly I manage less.
J.P.: How did you get the idea for “Me Before You”? I mean, I get nonfiction ideas, especially in sports. There’s this great quarterback, no one’s ever done a book on him, he’s quite popular—bam! But, with fiction, where does the concept derive from? And what makes you think, pre-anything, it’ll both work as a narrative, and ultimately sell?
J.M.: Most of my books come from snippets of things: news stories I’ve read, or heard, or bits of conversations I’ve thought about afterwards. The best ideas for fiction, I’ve found, are when a story you’ve heard just won’t leave your head. That’s when I start trying to work out how to turn it into fiction. “Me Before You” came from a news story I heard in 2008 about a young sportsman who was left quadriplegic and persuaded his parents to help him commit suicide. I was so shocked by it, and I couldn’t rationalize it, and that’s why I needed to explore it further.
I never know what is going to sell. I don’t think you can anticipate the market like that, or it comes across as calculating. When I wrote “Me Before You,” I would describe the outline to publishers and you could see them actually recoil a little bit. Like: “It’s about a quadriplegic who wants to DIE? Who’s going to want to read that?” But I just had a really clear idea of the story in my head, and faith that I could write it. Luckily, it turned out okay.
J.P.: You spent a decade working as a journalist—nine of those years at The Independent covering news and entertainment. What was the challenge of sliding over from reporter to novelist? Is it a natural transition? Do you report fiction, as far as background, details, etc?
J.M.: I think it has advantages and disadvantages. The advantages of being a journalist first are numerous—as you probably know. You have the ability to ‘see’ stories everywhere. You learn to listen (a surprisingly rare skill). You learn to write, and to do it to a deadline (also surprisingly rare). You can research swiftly and accurately. The downside, weirdly, is that nine years in news kind of batters out of you the ability to write much other than really factual language. It took me ages to relax and to let myself get a little more colourful.
J.P.: Your book has sold 3 million copies. Let me repeat that: 3 million copies. Which makes me say two things: A. Bite me; B. When did you first know you had a hit? Not a hit, like I’ve be lucky enough to experience (best-seller list, 80,000 sold), but a full-throttle, ass-kicking mega-hit that makes you a pretty big superstar? Was there a moment?
J.M.: Hahaha! I’m not sure there has been ‘a’ moment, more a series of moments. When it first went big in Britain, back in 2012, I was just massively grateful, as I’d had a few books that had not done too well, and I was just desperate to be able to carry on writing. But then it charted, and then the following year it sold big in the US, and then it sold big in Germany, and then suddenly, two years later, you get odd bits of news like: “Oh you’re Number One in the hardback and paperback charts in Norway.” And nobody even told you.
There have been a few moments though. One was flying to MGM in LA to talk to them about adapting it. Walking into that reception, with all those Oscars on the wall, was completely surreal. Another was turning up late to an event in Chicago and discovering that there was an actual round-the-block queue of people waiting to have books signed. I feel weird even saying this stuff, because in England it’s considered a little boastful. But I have a friend, Ol, a scriptwriter, who said to me: “You’ve written one of those books.” And that really hit me. Because we all know ‘those’ books. And it’s so far beyond what I dreamt of that I still have trouble accepting this isn’t actually a dream and someone’s going to tap me on the shoulder and I’ll be back to just chugging away, hoping I don’t’ have to take in a lodger …
J.P.: I know you’re 45, know you’re from London. But when did you first get the writing bug? What made you want to do this for a living? And was there a moment when you know, “Hey, I’m not so bad …”?
J.M.: 44! Ahem! (at least for another few weeks). And I’ve written since I was a child. I was an only child, and a massive bookworm, and it’s just how I’ve always processed the world. But I didn’t think I could be ‘a writer’ until I’d been a journalist for many years. To me, a writer was someone very cool, intellectual, possibly living in a garret in Paris.
And no, I haven’t had that “Hey, I’m not so bad’ moment yet. Occasionally I write things that I’m quite proud of, but mostly I’m just annoyed with myself that the book in my head is always better than what I manage to get onto the page.
J.P.: I read your book on a Nook (that was fun to write, actually). Are you cool with that? Do you prefer people purchase print copies? And, Jojo, what sort of adjustment do you think we need to make, here in the book world, to the digital era? Can we survive and thrive?
J.M.: I’m happy with however people read. My two boys were not big book readers, and then we bought an e-reader and it actually started them reading everything. I also love traveling with an e-reader as they’re so much lighter than six or seven books in your suitcase. And I think we are in a period of huge change, but humans are infinitely adaptable, and it’s interesting seeing writers working out how to put their own stuff out there, publishers finding new media.
J.P.: Your books have received wonderful reviews, almost across the board. On Amazon, for example, 4,417 customers have reviewed “Me Before You,” and 3,284 gave you five stars. Awesome, great, awesome. Then I stumbled upon this review: “Speaking as person in a wheelchair, with a job, a life, a passport full of stamps from interesting trips and not nearly enough free time to do half the things on my list, this book makes me want to smack my head into a wall for the stupid damage that it does to the public perception of people in wheelchairs. Ugh. And, yes, you can of course, say that this book is not about people in wheelchairs, it is about a particular character in his particular wheelchair, but seriously, where are the books about people in wheelchairs living interesting, not horrible lives, that rack up thousands of reviews on Amazon? (There’s Moving Violations – great book, nowhere near as popular as this wretched thing.) And, how many movies can you think of where the person in a wheelchair is either the villain or the subject of pity? Now, how many where they’re a regular character? How many where they’re the hero? … And this book gets so many rave reviews. To reiterate, ugh.”
As a fellow writer, I wonder two things: A. Do bad reviews hurt you—as they almost always hurt me? Like, is your skin thick enough to worry little; to move on without a second’s thought? And B. Were you at all concerned about how quadriplegics would react to the book?
J.M.: I hadn’t seen that. I’m not entirely sure what to say. Nobody likes to think that their book is going to actively upset people.
But as the writer says, this was not a book about all wheelchair users, just one. I was concerned before I wrote it—I didn’t want people reading it and thinking that was a future I advocated for anyone disabled (especially as I have a disabled child myself). I actually wanted to discuss the issue of autonomy and personal choice—even when it flies against what we are comfortable with—and I’ve actually had so much positive feedback from both quads and their carers that I am reassured that generally people have just enjoyed reading about a wheelchair user who was three-dimensional, and smart, annoying, sexy. I wanted the wheelchair not to be the thing that you thought of when you thought about him.
A lot of people just contact me to say it has opened their eyes to a lot of the issues quads face, which I”m glad of. The head of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation contacted me a while back to say he wanted to support the book for exactly that reason. That’s good enough for me.
J.P.: You’re insanely good with dialogue. I mean that—as good as they come. As a writer, what’s the key to this? Do you pay attention to how folks talk? Do you try and hone in on conversations? What?
J.M.: Very kind of you to say so. Yes, I really do pay attention to how people talk (this is a polite way of saying I’m really nosy and spend a lot of time eavesdropping). I think that it’s easy as a writer to write dialogue that is quite stylised, and expresses how people would like their fictional characters to talk. Real life conversations tend to be far messier and (in our house, anyway) have a lot of dark humour. Basically I just try to write how people I know actually talk to each other.
J.P.: A couple of years ago you interviewed me for a piece on Internet bullying. With your increased notoriety and book success, have you experienced some of this? Thugs? Assholes? Etc?
J.M.: I did! And you were a great interviewee. (I still love the story of what you did to that troll). And the answer is—without wanting to bring it all down on my head—surprisingly few. I try very hard not to answer any trolls back though. Just block and move on, that’s the way. Life is too short to sit there messing up your blood pressure because of some armchair warrior.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JOJO MOYES:
• You have the happiest first name of all time. What’s the story behind it?: I am named after a Beatles song—Get Back. My parents were huge fans. I’m a little concerned that Jojo was a man, but …
• Three memories from your first date: Hah! With my husband? Um … whisky, an ambulance, and I can’t tell you any more!
• Celine Dion calls. She wants you to co-author her autobiography, titled, “Celine: I’m Amazing.” She’ll pay $25 million, but you have to live with her in Las Vegas for a year, sleep in her (admittedly king size) bed with her, paint her toenails every morning and live on a diet of tuna, Dr. Pepper and stale rye bread. You in?: Totally, if my kids can have visitation rights. But not for the money. It would be absolutely fascinating. Oh hang on, I just read the bit about the sleeping in bed. Hmm.
• How do you come up with the names of your characters?: I just stare at my bookshelves and pull out whatever names on spines I haven’t used yet.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Traveling Wilburys, The Telegraph, Paris, Woody Allen movies, former Cincinnati Red first baseman Dan Driessen, Ariana Grande, A Streetcar Named Desire, Lionel Messi, Kitty Kelly, glue sticks: Is this like some weird Rorschach test?. Paris, A Streetcar Named Desire, Lionel Messi, The Telegraph, Woody Allen movies, Glue Sticks, The Traveling Wilburys, Kitty Kelly, Dan Driessen, No idea who Ariana Grande is. Sorry!
• How’d you meet your husband?: At work, when I was a journalist. Neither of us got out much.
• How do you respond to the, “I have a great book idea and I’d love to talk to you about it …” e-mail?: I use the Stephen King defence: I’m so sorry but my lawyer has advised me not to read anybody else’s work, in case I unconsciously steal your ideas.
• Would you rather live for eternity or die at 90?: Having had three loved relatives in care homes, I do not want to live for either eternity, or 90. I’d like to live for just as long as I am lucid and independent.
• Grossest thing you’ve ever seen?: If I answered this truthfully, your blog would drop 50 percent of its readers.