Article published on November 12, 2015.
On Sunday 11th October, I attended my final event at this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival, with the lovely Jojo Moyes whose much-anticipated sequel (After You) to the bestselling Me Before You was released in September. After a characterful and surprisingly amusing reading – given that it focused on grief counselling – Jojo admitted that there had been no plans to write the sequel initially, although she felt that the ending of Me Before You was as much a beginning, but the response to the novel was such that she could not ignore it. Neither could she let it go.
Indeed unlike other novels where by the end of writing the characters have left you and you have to move on, the flood of emails and messages that she received from the first week after the book’s release in 2012 both from readers wanting to share their own stories but also ask about Louisa – the protagonist’s – future, the characters never left Jojo’s head. Coupled with this, the fact that she began work on the screenplay of the novel further kept the characters alive.
Jojo had no hesitation at working on the screenplay, despite the fact she’d never done anything of the sort before. She looks on the whole experience with immense fondness, and she even makes a cameo if, she acknowledges, she makes it past the cutting room! So keep your eyes peeled when the movie is released next year.
Whilst Jojo is adapting a further two of her books for the screen, she confessed she wouldn’t give up writing for screenwriting, believing that to survive the film industry as an author you can’t become dependent on it. Plus, she acknowledges, that whilst some stories make great books and some make great movies, the two do not always cross. In terms of After You, writing the novel was something of a struggle. It took a while to come up with the plot and initially she wrote a different book to that which became the final version, with Louisa as a paramedic but she admitted it ‘sounded like a bad episode of ER’ and as soon as she gave her a job dressed as a leprechaun in an airport it all came together – naturally!
In addition, Jojo struggled with the critical voices she kept hearing in her head. The downside to having characters who readers are so invested in is that the readers have very strong opinions and Jojo would find herself questioning her decisions to such an extent that it became paralysing. It was the advice of Marian Keyes to put herself in a bubble that allowed Jojo to push on. And Jojo is happy that the final product is packaged in a more gender-neutral way, admitting that since the advent of e-readers men have started reading her books because ‘they’re free of the shame of holding a pink cover’.
She worries, too, that the name chick-lit hints at something disparaging, that does a disservice to the writers and she struggles with how to identify her own writing. Responding to recent arguments that the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction is no longer relevant, Jojo, who was a judge in 2013, defended the prize and hit back at the fact that male writers regularly recommend other male writers and the literary pages of the broadsheets continue to be uniformly male.
In spite of this, Moyes herself is blazing a trail and she cites Me Before You as the book that changed everything. With After You, her global sales are set to cross the 10 million mark and that’s before next year’s debut film release. Chick-lit, women’s popular fiction, commercial fiction, whatever you want to call it, Moyes is proving that there’s more to it than meets the eye.