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Sunday, April 05, 2020

Reading between the lines

Bestselling writer Jojo Moyes on her latest book, The Giver of Stars, a story about friendship and the power of the written word.

Written by Anushree Majumdar | Published: October 30, 2019 12:38:46 am
Reading between the lines Jojo Moyes

One has got to be an absolute cynic if they aren’t moved by a Jojo Moyes book — warm and heartfelt, her lead characters always read like real people, made of goodness and flaws, but never afraid to live, even though the conditions might not always be ideal. The 50-year-old British writer of vastly popular novels, including the bestselling romance, Me Before You (2012), serves up another story of friendship and courage, and the power of the written word. Moyes was recently accused of plagiarism, which her publisher, Penguin Random House, has denied. In this exclusive interview, she talks about horses, a photograph that took her to America, and why romance novels are so easily dismissed.

Tell me about your love for horses. They are distinct supporting characters in several of your books.

I was a horse-obsessive child, even though I grew up in the middle of London. I bought myself a horse when I was 14, using the proceeds of many cleaning jobs — it gave me a sense of freedom and safety. As a girl growing up in a fairly tough city, horses meant that nobody would easily come near you; and it allowed me to explore the city in a way I could’ve never done on foot.

When did the idea of The Giver of Stars come to you?

In June 2017, I read an article in the Smithsonian magazine called ‘Horse-riding Librarians Were the Great Depression’s Bookmobiles’. When I saw the photographs of young women, their saddlebags full of books, preparing to ride out in often unfriendly terrain or reading to families who had nothing, I knew immediately that I wanted to write about them. The story contained my favourite things — books, female friendships, horses and wild country — so I flew to Kentucky because I knew I couldn’t write about a place that was so remote and yet so particular in mood and language.

A place like that is full of extremes — large swathes of the countryside but also one that is very traditional. Did it feel strange to you?

I was writing about a small town, and small towns anywhere in the world are the same; they are tightly governed by social norms, more so in a place like southern Appalachia that is so insular.

You’ve attributed your sense of empathy to books, they allowed you to step into somebody else’s shoes. Libraries all over the world are shutting down — is that you why felt compelled to tell this story?

Yes, because libraries are one of the greatest social equalisers: they are free, open to all, educative and entertaining. It’s a safe space for anybody who wants to learn. It’s a resource, that once it’s gone, we will realise what we’ve lost.
Social hierarchies and class systems appear in your books by way of the character’s occupation: a caregiver, a barmaid, a librarian.

Often, the work we do informs how we view the world. It’s impossible to grow up in England and not be aware of the class system. We judge people on how they dress, how they say the letter ‘H’, how they hold a knife and fork. It’s a form of prison, of keeping people in their place.

You wrote six novels before your biggest hit, Me Before You (2012). How would you describe the impact fame has had on your life?

It facilitated a better education for my children; I could now afford to send my younger son, who was born without hearing, to the school he needed. As writers, we don’t experience fame in quite the same way as actors, we’re known by our names on the spine of the books we write. But I was surprised in Sweden, recently, when I was getting a massage and midway, the masseuse stopped and whispered, ‘I loved your book’. I was naked on the table so that was quite an unusual time to be told that.

If love makes the world go round, why do you think that romance novels are taken so lightly?

I think there’s a degree of misogyny involved — a vast number of critics and reviewers in magazines and newspapers are male. Generations of men have grown up with the idea that they are the default, and that everything and everyone else is the odd thing. It has to do with the way romance novels are marketed and sold. People also assume that the books are written to a formula.

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