A FEW years ago, JoJo Moyes, now 45, thought she’d have to give up writing. Her eight novels had been well reviewed, but her sales had started to slump. And when she decided to pen a book about a quadriplegic who wants to end his life at the Swiss Euthanasia Clinic, Dignitas, she did wonder if the book would sound the death-knell of her career.
Released in 2012, Me Before You became an instant bestseller, entering the English charts at number three.
“I nearly fell over when I heard,” says JoJo. “And a lot of people have told me they wouldn’t have picked the book up, if they knew what it was about. But my new publishers, Penguin, were clever in the way they packaged it. It was picked up by Richard and Judy, and it sold, really, by word of mouth.”
Her new book, The One Plus One looks like doing even better. It went straight to number one, and I’m not in the least bit surprised. It’s a gorgeous read centring on a road trip. Jess; a cleaner, is a single Mum to Tanzie, and her stepson Nicky.
The young Tanzie is offered a 90% scholarship to a private school, because of her maths prowess. In order to raise that remaining 10%, Jess enters Tanzie into a maths competition, but how can she get the family to Scotland? Enter Ed, a rich computer geek. He isn’t the obvious saviour; and the road trip — reminiscent of the one in the movie, Little Miss Sunshine — only accentuates the gap between him and the family; but can such opposites find a common ground? “I love that conceit of people forced into proximity,” says Jojo.
Anyone who had taken a long haul flight will know that you either end up loathing the person beside you, or knowing their entire family history.
“I wanted to explore the issues between the rich and the poor, too, and look at the poor’s lack of life chances. Tanzie is a maths genius, but does she have a chance in school? She’s offered a 90% scholarship to somewhere suitable, but if you’re living on the breadline, raising 10% seems as impossible as making up the whole 100%.”
Ed has the money, but not the sense. It’s Jess who comes across as the more worldly character.
“Ed is typical of people in IT,” she says. “He’s in an industry where an awful lot of people who know very little about business have been propelled into positions of great power. Techno geeks are the new royalty in business, but because Ed has no real experience of the business side of things he makes a catastrophic error.”
Many recent novels have explored the dangers of the internet; In The One Plus One, we’re shown that, sometimes, it can be a force for the good. Nicky is bullied because he’s different.
Ed, helping him, by hacking into his bully’s account, and encouraging him to blog, gets him out of trouble, and wins him friends.
“The internet gets a lot of bad press with trolling, and people behaving badly, but it also brings about friendships formed by acts of generosity. I’m active on Twitter and Facebook, and periodically you see these amazing acts of kindness. Some time ago a little girl had a bucket list of things she wanted to do before she died, and disparate people from all over the country volunteered things for this family they didn’t even know.”
Ed tells Nicky, that it’s all a question of finding your tribe; that resonated with me, hugely.
Jojo found her tribe in the (London) Independent newsroom.
“The minute I walked in I felt, ‘Oh I understand these people, and they probably understand me’; it was the same in publishing. It’s very important because when I was growing up I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere. I certainly didn’t find my tribe at school.”
Life has changed for JoJo since the success of Me Before You.
“For someone like me who has been plugging away for a number of years, to have a huge readership who are quite vocal is wonderfully rewarding,” she says.
“I have had some extraordinary experiences in the past two years. I flew out to Los Angeles and met with MGM, because the book is set to become a film. I’ve written the first draft of the script. Every day, it seems, something amazing happens. And it’s nice not worrying about money, the way Jess has to.”
Great though all that is, it has made life a little tougher. Jojo does so much touring these days — last year she toured the USA four times, and this year it’s been the turn of Germany and Norway — that it’s hard for her to find the time to write.
“I could do without my six am starts,” she says. “But with all the promotion and travelling I need to get 500 words done before my kids get up. My husband is a night owl, so I am a little sleep deprived, but the rewards are good, so I won’t complain!”
All of Jojo’s novels explore life issues, and have great plots; but it’s her lifelike characters which lifts them into a realm of their own. And that could be because the author puts them through a kind of literary boot-camp.
“There’s the kick the dog test and the fridge test. And I ask how they would respond if someone took their parking space, or if their heart is broken. I do this before I start the novel, and throw more tests at them if the narrative feels a bit dead and flat. That way I find out who the characters are.”
Jojo lives happily in Essex with her writer husband and three children, aged 16, 13 and nine.
“I was dreading the teenage years, because I was a horror as teen, but I have been pleasantly surprised. Teenagers are great fun; I like them. They get a raw press, but I wanted to show, in the novel, that they don’t have to be moody and sulky and get in to all kinds of trouble.”
The One Plus One has gone straight to the top of the bestseller lists. What does Jojo plan next?
“I have tentatively started writing a sequel to Me Before You. It’s nerve wrecking, and I will only do it if it’s as good as the original and standS on its own. There’s nothing worse than a lazy sequel.
“I’ve been cooking the idea in my head for about three months. If it sticks and I find myself revisiting certain images, I will write it. If the images fall away it means it’s not compelling enough. The sequel might not be the next book, but I’m sure I’ll write it at some stage.
“With The One Plus One there was one image that really struck me. A friend who is a cleaner told me an employer had slammed a door in her face, with her nose just inches away. He hadn’t even acknowledged it afterwards. It was such a shocking thing to me that somebody could treat an employee like that. I start with the image, but there are usually some issues hanging around as well. It all congeals into a literary lump.”
Writing though, never gets easier.
“I always think it will, but it never does. I always try and challenge myself and make sure each book is a little different. You can’t put out your best work otherwise. There’s a danger it would be lazy and stereotypical.”
Of her three children, just one is thinking of becoming a writer.
“My littlest has just written his autobiography. He wrote it when he was just eight. He called it, The Calamities of My Youth. It made me laugh so much when I read it. I’m going to make it into a book for him.”