Article published on July 23, 2015.
JoJo Moyes was in conversation with Rowan Pelling at the Curious Arts Festival.
I haven’t read any JoJo Moyes but it’s obvious that she is held in high esteem by the substantial turn out in the big marquee. Turns out she has won the Romantic Novelist Award not once but twice which nobody else has managed to date. This is something of a surprise to Ms Moyes as she doesn’t perceive herself as a romantic novelist. Indeed, outside the UK she isn’t perceived as such either, it’s only in this country where her book covers have that romantic feel. Over the course of eight titles with Hodder she felt that they had slightly lost faith in her, and she was honest enough to say ‘you can only be the next big thing for so long before somebody else comes along’. So it sounded as if moving to Penguin from Hodder was something of a no brainer, but in fact they seemed to have no great expectations of her first book with them either.
That first book turned out to be Me Before You, a watershed book for JoJo herself, a book she just felt she had to write. Fortunately fellow writer Sophie Kinsella and husband agreed this was a project she had to see through, even though the proposition was rather daunting. The inspiration harked back to news coverage of a 24-year-old rugby player who had had an accident on the pitch and become a quadriplegic. Reading about how his mother and father gave in to their son’s desire not to continue living by taking him to Dignitas in Switzerland made her realise that this wasn’t, couldn’t be a black and white issue. After all, how could any mother willingly let her child die? (At this point I felt a little affronted on behalf of fathers everywhere but got over myself fairly quickly.) And so the book came together until apparently JoJo arrived at two possible endings. Rather than offer both (a la Great Expectations, among others), she is convinced the ending she chose affected the sales success of the book. Topping off this self-belief came when she heard Me Before You had been selected for the Richard and Judy list – her legs went wobbly and she had to lie down on the bed, hyperventilating.
Entertainingly, Rowan moved things on to the disparity between those summer reading lists in the broadsheets compared to what is selling on the High Street ie what people are really reading. JoJo is a big admirer of commercial fiction and was sure that contributors to those lists weren’t reading such highbrow stuff. However, the downside of being pigeonholed as ‘commercial’ was that she had never been asked to do six page interviews. (I sat quietly thinking, ‘Oh yes you have, but we couldn’t get to you’. However now is probably a good time to try again.)
We moved on to her modus operandi when writing where she revealed she has an office above big Frank’s hairdressing shop. Apparently she pitches her next book to him and he gives her a frank (sorry) opinion of whether or not it appeals. Big Frank may not know it but he is also the source of useful conversations to help her books along. Indeed, it would probably be of interest to big Frank’s clients to know their hairdresser’s chair conversations can be easily overheard upstairs. In fact, when they get really interesting JoJo has been known to lie on the floor to hear better, only to find herself waking up sometime later because she’s nodded off.
The motivation for latest book, The One plus One, was the feeling that mothers get a raw deal in fiction. Whether it be the nasty stepmothers in fairytales, the missing one in Harry Potter or even something like The Goldfinch where she’s blown up in the first chapter, her feeling is that mothers are on a hiding to nothing. Add to that her cleaner who arrived in a foul mood having had the door slammed in her face by another client who was on a phone call and obviously didn’t want to be overheard. Since the cleaner had no intention of listening and the client didn’t even bother to apologise later the true state of the relationship between client and cleaner was only too apparent. Add to that an extended road trip and you have the latest title which is riding high on the bestseller lists.
As I say, I haven’t read any of Ms Moyes work before but came away with her definitely added to my list.
Guy Pringle, July 2105
OIR: Boswell Book Festival by Sheila A Grant