British author Jojo Moyes has written her fair share of complicated relationships—war brides, illicit affairs, a widow being stalked by her neighbor—but in her 10th novel, Me Before You, she introduces her most intriguing couple yet. Will Traynor is a former finance whiz and daredevil who was paralyzed after being hit by a car on a rainy day. Louisa Clark is a former coffeeshop clerk who becomes his caregiver. After a rocky start, the two develop a deep and life-changing relationship. We asked the London-born author (who now lives with her family on a farm in the countryside) a few questions about the new novel and its memorable characters.
Louisa and Will are complicated, multilayered characters. Did you always know they would fall for each other?
Unusually for me—I've written 10 books—Lou and Will were both crystal clear in my head before I even started the book. I knew them inside out. That meant that all I had to do was to put them in different situations and sit back and see what happened. It meant that the book was actually a pleasure to write. And their growing feelings for each other felt entirely natural. I wish it happened like that more often!
There are a lot of humorous moments in Me Before You, but the novel deals with some very serious, heavy topics. How did you balance the gravity of Will’s condition with the humor in the novel?
I knew when I started writing this book that it had the potential to be quite bleak and dark, so I knew it had to be leavened with a lot of humor. It was a bit nerve-wracking balancing the two without making a serious subject lightweight, so it's been very gratifying that it's been received as well as it has.
What kind of research did you do for the book?
I did a lot of reading, and I read a lot of newspapers. Assisted suicide has been a huge issue in the U.K. so there was a lot of material. As for the quadriplegics, I spent time on a lot of chatrooms for quads and their carers, I asked questions, and I watched a lot of YouTube videos that they put up about their daily lives. But when I was writing it I had two people close to me who required 24-hour care, so I was already familiar with a lot of the routines and efforts needed. The carrot-feeding scene, for example, came from something I had done.
"I also wanted to show how an accident like this—and a decision like this—sends ripples way out into the lives of other people around him."
How important was the setting of Me Before You? What does the village add to the story?
The village—with its class divisions—makes explicit the huge divide between Will and Lou. I found after I moved out of London that the divides do still exist in English village life in a way I hadn't expected. There is usually quite a gap between the Big House in any village, where a family may have lived for generations, and those who live in the workmen's cottages or council houses. But I didn't want the reader to see Will purely as an object of pity, so it was important that he had some advantages—and money and background were two of these.
There are only a few pages of the book devoted to Will’s “former life” in the present tense; the rest is told through memories or flashbacks. How did you decide to structure the story this way?
Even though only a short part of the book is devoted to Will's “former” life, I thought it was important to give a hint of what he had lost—and who he was before. It is easy to see the severely disabled as “other”—and I wanted to emphasize that he was just like anyone else—albeit probably wealthier and better looking! But also, it's just a tight little story with a small cast, set over six months. I didn't want it to sprawl, like some of my other books—I wanted that sense of urgency.
Most of Me Before You is told from Louisa’s point of view, but there are sections from the perspective of Mr. and Mrs. Traynor, Treena and even Will’s professional caregiver Nathan. Yet there is no section from Will’s point of view. How did you come to that decision?
It was mainly for structural reasons. I couldn't let the reader inside Will's head early on, or it would have spoiled the twists for the reader, and the tension that comes from not knowing quite what was going on. However, I also wanted to show how an accident like this—and a decision like this—sends ripples way out into the lives of other people around him.
For some, the ending of Me Before You will come as a shock. If it's possible to explain without giving too much away, why did you decide to end the book the way you did?
I agonized about the ending. I changed my mind at least twice, and even considered writing a book with two endings—and allow the reader to choose. Ultimately, I wrote the ending that I felt was true to the characters.
Please tell us you’ve been to Mauritius. How did you choose this tropical location as the vacation spot for Will, Lou and Nathan?
I did go to Mauritius! And it was one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. I have travelled to a lot of places, but it felt like the most suitable place in terms of the attitudes of the population, who seem to have an inbuilt grace, and the idea of a paradise island where Lou could feel she and Will were isolated and protected for a little while.
Before transitioning to writing novels full time, you were a journalist for many years. Did you always know you wanted to be a novelist? How did your background in newspapers help you prepare for your current career?
I wrote stories from a young age—my mother's attic is full of old exercise books full of long handwritten stories about amazing young girls and their telepathic ponies—but it was when I was working nights that I really started trying to write novels. Working in newspapers helped me in lots of ways: It teaches you to work to a deadline, to pick out what is important in a story, to think about your use of language. Mostly it teaches you to listen, and to find stories all around you.
Speaking of stories, where do you look for inspiration?
I’m usually inspired by something I overhear or see. Me Before You was inspired by a news story I heard on the radio about a young quadriplegic who persuaded his parents to help him end his life. The Last Letter From Your Lover, the book I wrote before that, came after I overheard a group of women trying to decipher a text message on a mobile phone. I don't make whole books out of the one element, but it usually triggers of a chain of thoughts, or ties in with other ideas that I've been working on.
You’ve built quite a following, both in England and the U.S. What writers do you most admire and why?
Oh it changes week to week. This year I have loved Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette, and Andrew Miller's Pure. I love Kate Atkinson consistently, and I'm also a sucker for George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series.
What can we expect from you next?
I've just had another book out in the U.K., The Girl You Left Behind, which is an epic love story that begins in Occupied France in 1916 and ends with a court case in the modern day. And right now I'm working on something a little more like Me Before You—a road trip between a single mother and her children, and the man whose house she cleans. But nothing is quite as it seems. . .
Read our review of Me Before You.