Best-selling novelist JoJo Moyes on new book Still Me
As acclaimed novelist JoJo Moyes releases her latest book, Still Me, she talks to Ella Walker about saying goodbye to her Me Before You heroine Louisa Clark
ROMANCE is the skeleton on which author Jojo Moyes drapes her novels. It's what she racks up awards for and is what impelled actors Sam Claflin and Emilia Clarke to portray her best-loved characters, Lou and Will, on the big screen – but that doesn't make her a romantic.
"No, I'm not," she says frankly. "But I do believe in love."
Her husband, journalist Charles Arthur, brings her a cup of coffee every morning, "and that means much more to me, that daily act, than him buying me some pile of overpriced roses on Valentine's Day because he feels he should", she points out.
In fact, the couple, who live in the Essex countryside ("in the middle of nowhere") with their three children, often forget Valentine's Day entirely – "and then have to sheepishly apologise to each other, but we've got to a point where that's just not what it's about for us".
Romance, of course, provides the blueprint for the 48-year-old's latest novel, Still Me, though. It's the final instalment in her Louisa Clark trilogy, following the success of Me Before You (2012) and After You (2015).
Book one saw scatty, unadventurous Louisa fall for strong, stubborn Will, who opts for euthanasia after becoming paralysed in a motorbike accident. In melancholy book two, Moyes set out to explore "how you would cope with having been part of the end of somebody's life".
And book three?
"I see it as the right-hand side of a horse shoe – coming up again," she says.
Lou has emotionally and physically moved on from Will – although her signature stripy tights remain intact – to New York, as a personal assistant to Agnes, the lonely wife of a phenomenally wealthy businessman.
Between tailing Agnes round Central Park and extravagant charity events, Lou's paramedic boyfriend Sam, home in England, becomes increasingly distant.
"In our society, whether it's here or in the States, it's becoming more and more polarised," says London-born Moyes, explaining the novel's intrinsic fascination with class and money.
"As a novelist, you're always interested in tension, and there's just a huge tension if you look at the lives of the haves and the have-nots."
Setting Still Me in New York, a place where that financial difference is "really naked", was a cinch, she says.
Writing it involved a trip or two to the States for Moyes who, as a former journalist, says: "I just don't believe books come to life unless you can truthfully convey to the reader how things look and smell."
A New York friend-of-a-friend, she adds, "very graciously gave me tea in her apartment", which meant she got to peek inside a suite like Agnes', overlooking Central Park, and glimpse a "completely different world", one insulated from everything by dollar bills.
"The people who inhabit those buildings, they glide across the Earth, they don't actually touch the ground. They go from their building into limos and get whisked into rarefied spaces and salons, and then they come out again; you won't catch them taking the subway," says Moyes.
Fiction, she hopes, has the power to bridge the gaping divide. "I like the fact some authors can really imagine their way into lives very different from their own, which, if it's done responsibly, is a good thing," she muses.
"For children, especially those who might not be being brought up in ideal circumstances, the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes is doubly important because that's how we learn empathy, and without empathy we become crazy, damaging, narcissists."
Reading also provides an escape. "For a lot of people, life has got harder, so all the more reason to find half an hour in your day to sit down and read," says Moyes, who recalls how, last summer, she took a day to sit in her garden and read a book from start to finish.
"I honestly felt like I'd had a holiday. I was so removed from everyday life," she remembers.
"It's important to free your imagination and let it enter new realms."
Hence why the closure of a public library – and a community's fight against it – threads determinedly through Still Me.
"Libraries are literally one of the only places left where you can educate and entertain yourself for free," Moyes says passionately.
"They're a completely egalitarian space and when we lose them, we won't be able to replace them."
Her own mum took her to the local library every week. "I would change my four books and try not to read them within two days," she recalls with a laugh, acknowledging how exciting it was when the librarian scanned and stamped the inside pages.
When it comes to what drives her reading now, it's all about being moved, even if she doesn't see her own capacity to make people feel things – and the Lou Clark trilogy is notoriously weepy – as "a super power at all".
"I recently read a book that made me laugh my head off on an aeroplane, to the point where I was vaguely embarrassing my family," says Moyes.
"I can remember every book that has ever made me cry, and while I'm a huge admirer of some literary fiction, and people's facility with language, for me, I'd much rather be moved by something and for that book or that character to stay with me."
Currently, she's reading Mary Beard's Women & Power ("my daughter read it first and said, 'You have to read this book'. I like the fact my daughter's recommending me feminist texts") and is already in the midst of her next novel:
"It's going to be completely different. It's loosely based on a true thing that happened in America after the depression – and I can't say any more than that."
First, she must disentangle herself from almost a decade of writing Lou Clark, whose heroine's adventures have encouraged her to have a few of her own, including learning to drive a lorry, scuba dive and, more recently, jump into a water-filled sinkhole in Mexico ("that was quite scary – I didn't jump off as high a point as my children because my legs shook too much").
"She's changed my life in many ways," says Moyes affectionately.
"I will miss her a lot."
:: Still Me by Jojo Moyes is published in hardback by Michael Joseph, priced £20 (ebook £9.99)