My Life In Books: Jojo Moyes
My Life In Books: Jojo Moyes

My Life In Books: Jojo Moyes

Jojo Moyes is a novelist, screenwriter and journalist. Her novels, which include bestsellers ‘Me Before You’, ‘After You' and 'Still Me', have been translated into 46 languages, have hit the number one spot in 12 countries and have sold 51 million copies worldwide. With her new book ‘Someone Else’s Shoes’ published this week, we sat down with Jojo to find out more about her reading habits, favourite authors and top book recommendations…

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Character is everything. Even if you have the best plot in the world or the most beautiful writing style, if you don’t have characters people find compelling, they won’t remember the book. I love doing all the groundwork on characters. I write down all their histories – I want to know what’s in their handbag, what’s in their fridge, what they want out of life, what their background and upbringing was. Once I’ve got those down, more interesting things happen to them. If you have someone who’s obsessive about punctuality and they meet someone who’s always late, that’s a lot more interesting than two punctual people meeting at a train station. I like to work out where the tensions are going to come from and take it from there. 

I never intended for Me Before You to be a trilogy. I didn’t even think the book was going to be successful. I wrote it after I’d written eight books – none of which had been a bestseller – and my publishers were clearly no longer feeling it. I could tell they were losing faith in my ability to succeed, so when I wrote Me Before You, it was without a firm publishing contract – it was just a story I felt I needed to tell. But the holy grail of publishing happened, which is that it became a word-of-mouth success. I then wrote the film and, while I was doing that, I kept having lead character Lou Clark in my head and I found myself wondering what would happen after the key event at the end of the book. As an ex-journalist, I’m really interested in the aftermath of an event. Once I knew I was writing a second, I knew there had to be three as I saw it like a horseshoe shape. I wanted to bring Lou down for book two and explore what grief does before bringing her back up for book three and have her learning some lessons about what she actually wanted from life. 

I never dreamt of being an author. But I was working at the Independent when Bridget Jones was turned from a column into a book. It was the first time I saw somebody I knew turn into a writer. There was an explosion of ‘chick lit’ at the time, which meant people who wouldn’t normally have a voice suddenly had a platform. I’d written three books on and off – none of which had been published – and it gave me the push to try again. I’ve always written stories – even as a child I’d write tales about girls with telepathic ponies and adventurous islands. But I didn’t grow up seeing myself as an author, as I didn’t know any – apart from a man at the end of our street called Sheldon who wrote a book on voodoo, which seemed incredibly exotic! For me, writers were men in black polo necks in galleries in Paris. And it was only when I worked at the Independent and saw Helen Fielding take off with Bridget Jones that I realised it could be people like me.

I’ve just finished a brilliant book called Conversations on Love by Natasha Lunn. In it, she speaks to lots of different people from psychotherapists to writers about all kinds of love – sibling, parental, romantic – and it’s interesting in terms of the patterns people get into. My daughter was coincidentally reading it at the same time, and we were both highlighting things and sending them on to each other. It’s made me see things in a really different way. 

Another recent read that had a really big impact on me is Tomorrow, and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. It’s one of those books where, unless you’re a gamer, it sounds impossible. I heard it was about computer games and thought it really wasn’t for me. But my daughter read it and told me it was the most extraordinary book she’d read in years. It’s not about computer games at all – it’s about creativity and power dynamics and friendship, and it has one chapter that made me sob like a baby. Any book that can make the reader laugh or cry gets my vote.

Even if you have the BEST PLOT IN THE WORLD or the most BEAUTIFUL WRITING STYLE, if you don’t have characters PEOPLE FIND COMPELLING, they won’t REMEMBER THE BOOK.

The book from my childhood that will always stay with me is The Black Stallion by Walter Farley. It was made into a film when I was young, and it’s about a boy and a horse who are shipwrecked on an island, and the imagery of both the film and the book have stayed with me throughout my adult life. There are often themes in my books that come back to that one story. 

I’ve really got into audiobooks over the last few years. I spend so much time walking with my dogs, and that can feel quite lonely when you live in the middle of nowhere, so I listen to books. I’ve found that a really good audio version of a book can take it to whole new places. My favourite has been Elton John reading his Me autobiography. I laughed hysterically about how audacious and rude it was – it was magnificent. I love autobiographies in general – one of my favourites was Andre Agassi’s. It was extraordinary, and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t especially love tennis. It covered everything from his relationship with his father to his relationship with himself – and his hair! The next memoir on my list is Alan Rickman’s diaries. I’m probably not going to read Prince Harry’s Spare, because I feel like I’ve already heard enough. When you know about someone putting Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream on their genitals, that’s probably saturation point!

I’m always getting book recommendations from Twitter. If I see people I like and respect talking about a book they’ve enjoyed, I’ll be curious. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I don’t really read reviews in the broadsheets anymore, because I end up getting cross as they tend to treat commercial fiction as a poor relation. And there are some astonishing writers who write commercial fiction – Lisa Jewell and Marian Keyes write incredibly complex, emotional dramas and deal with really dark subjects, but do so accessibly. A mistake a lot of people make is to assume that that’s easier to do than literary fiction – that’s not true at all. Both those writers are absolutely at the top of their game. Marian Keyes on depression is finer than anybody I’ve ever read. I never understood clinical depression until I read The Mystery of Mercy Close. I sat in bed shaking with tears. I read it six or so years ago, and it’s really stayed with me. 

The sign of a good writer is when they never let you down and you’ll read anything they write. I read very widely – everything from literary classics to thrillers – and if I feel like I’m in safe hands and that the author isn’t going to make me want to throw the book across the room because it’s got a weak ending or a character has done something totally unbelievable, I’ll stay with them. I’m a very loyal, repeat reader. Comfort reading is a great thing. I love Lee Child, although he’d probably kill me for calling it comfort reading! But sometimes you just want to read something muscular, where the good guys are going to win. And I love anything with a twist. 

The best adaptation out there has to be the 90s Pride & Prejudice with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. I don’t think it can be bettered. It was magnificent – I think I still have it on video! Beyond that, I also loved My Cousin Rachel with Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin and The Constant Gardener, also with Rachel Weisz. That also made me sob – that final scene is so haunting.

The sign of a GOOD WRITER is when they NEVER LET YOU DOWN and you’ll READ ANYTHING THEY WRITE.

The book I’ve given away a lot over the last few years is Three Women by Lisa Taddeo. It’s a non-fiction book about the romantic travails of three very different women. It’s a deep dive into desire, sexuality and what it’s like growing up in this world while trying to come to terms with what you want. What’s fascinated me is what a Marmite book it’s been – some people have been obsessed with it and have seen themselves in it, and others were infuriated by it! It’s fascinating, because we have such a lower threshold for tolerance of women who aren’t immediately sympathetic compared to male characters. I actually fan-girled Lisa after I read that book, tracked her down via her publisher and made her have drinks with me! I’ve never done that before or since, but I just really wanted to know who this woman was who was able to write something that deep and that brave. She’s a friend of mine now – and has since written some excellent fiction.

I had a really bleak 2019. I separated from my husband of 22 years, my mother was dying of cancer and I got very depressed. Someone recommended a book called When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön, an American who became a Buddhist nun. She writes in a very accessible way about the art of coming to terms with things that are out of your control. I found it comforting, as she speaks a lot of sense and helps you reframe what you’re going through, but she also has a very soothing voice. I used to listen to it on audiobook at night and she would send me to sleep – in a good way. 

One of the funniest books I’ve ever read was Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny. I laughed so much on a plane reading it that my family pretty much disowned me. It was the embarrassing snort-your-tea-through-your-nose kind of laughter. It was partly because the character I was laughing at felt like me – I felt like she’d lifted the top of my head off and looked inside. 

The one book everyone should ready is National Velvet by Enid Bagnold. It was written in the 1930s and is a story everyone knows because they’ve seen the film starring Elizabeth Taylor. But the book is excellent and so much more interesting – it’s sly and funny and strangely modern in the way it depicts relationships, especially with fame and the press. The thing that always stands out to me reading it 90 years on is that the subject matter is about a girl who achieves a ridiculously unlikely feat of athleticism, but it is facilitated by her mother, a former cross-channel swimmer who’s now obese and at war with her own body. She’s unsentimental and not traditionally maternalistic, but she has a strangely loving relationship with her slightly oddball daughter. It made me think about how, in fiction, mother-daughter relationships are always presented as problematic – or the mother is killed off at the start of the story. Seeing two women helping each other feels radical. No one thinks to read it because they’ve seen the film but it’s beautifully written – and it’s also very funny. I’ve read it every few years since I was a child, and it’s one of those books where you get something different out of it every time.

My new book is called Someone Else’s Shoes, and it’s more light-hearted than my usual style. I wanted to write something that was like the kind of things I’ve wanted to read over the last couple of years. During the pandemic, I found it really hard to watch or read anything that was dark and depressing. I found myself gravitating towards capers and romantic comedies. I wanted to write something that mirrored what I wanted to read. It’s a story about two women in their late 40s who accidentally switch gym bags at a very crucial point in both their lives – and the impact it has on them for the following couple of weeks. I wanted to entertain with this book in its purest sense and I really hope readers get a bit of joy from it.

Someone Else’s Shoes by Jojo Moyes is available to buy here.

Inspired? Read Jojo’s picks here…

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