British author Jojo Moyes is riding high on a wave of success from her novel “Me Before You,” which just came out in paperback in the States. She’s also enjoying great buzz for her latest, “The Girl You Left Behind,” (Viking), just out in hardcover. But what really has her giddy is her upcoming Madison event.
Why? “You’re putting up a new library,” she said.
Moyes, reached by phone at her home near Cambridge, England, “in the middle of nowhere,” couldn’t be happier about christening a new library, something that doesn’t happen too often in the U.K.
Here, she talks about her latest book, which takes place both in German-occupied France in 1916 and modern-day London. “The Girl You Left Behind” is named for the fictional painting at the heart of the story, which endures two world wars only to become a hotly contested commodity that threatens to demolish a budding romance.
State Journal: Have you ever been to Wisconsin?
Jojo Moyes: No. I’ve been to some fairly out-of-the-way places before, but I’ve never been to Wisconsin. This is my fourth trip to the States this year, so I figure I’m slowly working my way through the states and the towns.
SJ: What comes to mind when you think about Wisconsin?
JM: Dairy. Is that the right answer?
SJ: We do love our cheese.
JM: You’re really good at cheese, are you? That’s going to be a nightmare for me because I love cheese so much. I just came back from France and I gained about five pounds from having to try all the different cheeses.
SJ: You’ll be opening the new Central Library with a reception and a reading. How do you feel about that?
JM: Fantastic. I did the American Library Association conference in Chicago in June, and it was actually really inspiring. American librarians seem to be such a force, whereas in England, they’re really being knocked sideways by government cuts. The American system seems to be in much better shape. I love the fact that you’ve got new libraries going up.
SJ: What sort of research went into “The Girl You Left Behind”?
JM: I always do a lot of research. If anything, I can sometimes get a little too enthusiastic about research. It’s a way of avoiding writing.
It was a lot of things, really. The primary source for the background to the World War I stuff was an amazing little book I found after it was reviewed in a newspaper called “The Long Silence” by Helen McPhail. She basically tries to gather primary texts from the first world war to find out what happened to people during the occupation. It was a period I knew nothing about. I hadn’t realized that so many people were kept stuck in their own towns with limited resources. It just fascinated me. I go over to France a lot. I tried to go around some of the towns in Northern France and visit some of the museums just to get a feel. I find it really helps with the writing if you’ve actually been places. It infuses into the writing.
SJ: Was there one painting that inspired you?
JM: It wasn’t a painting, it was actually a song. I’m a great fan of Rufus Wainwright. One of my favorite songs he wrote is called “The Art Teacher.” It’s about a schoolgirl who has a massive crush on her art teacher. He’s trying to explain how much he loves Turner and she’s thinking, yeah, but I love you. And then it switches to 25 years later, and she’s this trophy wife, thinking about this art teacher while she’s wearing these smart clothes, and she’s staring at the Turner that she owns because she’s married a CEO. I loved the idea that a painting could have such a powerful sense of evocation. The fact that a painting is never just a painting, as one of the characters says in the book.
People will pursue a painting for years because they lost it during the war, because it’s a symbol of something else. It’s a symbol of love or loss or family. With me, the books come together from lots of different ideas. I used to work as an arts correspondent years ago and I wrote about restitution, the return of stolen art works, which was an issue that fascinated me. It just started to come together from there.
SJ: Did you find it challenging to write in two different time periods?
JM: Yes. I’ve done other books that have been dual time frame, but I’ve never gone back as far as the first world war, and I was very nervous that I wouldn’t be able to get inside the heads of people living in the turn of the century. Ironically, it turned out that that was the bit that was really easy to write. The bit that was really hard to write was the modern-day period. In fact, I finished the book once and ended up deleting 70,000 words, which was the whole modern period, because I decided it wasn’t good enough. I don’t want to do that again, that was really hard. I did have to have a little sit-down and a drink after that.
SJ: I imagine you shed a few tears.
JM: It’s a really tough market out there and I have this theory that you can’t just put out what you think is a good book, it has to feel like the best book you’ve ever written. I just knew in my heart that it wasn’t good enough as it was. So I did that and gave myself this horrific schedule to try to get it back on deadline. I think it’s a lot better for it. It was a painful process, but when you write you have to follow your gut and the book was not right in its first state. But I’m not doing that again.
SJ: Are you working on something now?
JM: I’m just doing the edits for my next book, which is called “One Plus One.” It’s about a math prodigy child whose mother is a cleaner and decides to try to improve her life chances. It’s about a chaotic road trip with her family and a man who decides to help them. It’s all set in the modern day and it’s a bit funnier and lighter. There might be a teary moment, too. I like the teary moments.
SJ: Who are your influences?
JM: They’re really varied. I have some constants. I love everything that Kate Atkinson writes. I love Barbara Kingsolver, she’s fantastic. I’ve loved a lot of young adult cross-over fiction, especially out of America. I just read “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio and “The Fault in Our Stars” (by John Green), and I think both of those have been massive with you. I just read “Beautiful Ruins,” which I absolutely love. It’s just great, audacious writing where you just burst out laughing on a page because it’s so good. I read everything from Scandinavian thrillers to young adult to Hilary Mantel — I don’t care as long as they’re good stories.
SJ: “The Girl You Left Behind” came out in the U.K. last year. What’s the reception been like?
JM: It’s done very well. It hasn’t been the kind of phenomenon that “Me Before You” (2012) has been. I think that’s a once-in-a-lifetime book. I still can’t get my head around the way that book has gone global. I’m writing the screenplay now for MGM. The funny thing to me is that was a book that nobody was particularly interested in when I was describing it. I showed one of my writer friends a draft of the book, and she said, “It’s a lovely little story but I can’t see who’s going to buy it.” And now I can say, (laughing) “So far, about one and a half million people.” That sounds terribly smug, but it’s so nice because it’s a book I had to write rather than writing for any market or any great sensible reason at all. To have other people respond to it in the way that they have has been just the best experience of my working life.
SJ: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
JM: I’m really looking forward to being a part of the opening of a library. We feel so sad about our libraries in England that it’s actually going to be quite a big thrill to me in a way you might not understand. I might get quite giddy and overexcited. And I’m really looking forward to trying some Wisconsin cheese.