Sometimes a character appears in an author’s imagination fully formed. All the writer needs to do is offer him or her a blank page on which to play.
So it was for British writer Jojo Moyes, who hit the bestseller list in America for the first time with her tear-jerking ninth novel, Me Before You. Will Traynor and Louisa Clark, the central characters in the word-of-mouth hit—which has sold more than 5 million copies since it was published in 2012—came to Moyes fleshed out, ready for action. And as Moyes prepared to revisit Lou in the sequel, After You, that sensation resurfaced. Sometimes, lightning strikes twice.
“It’s the same thing again, where all you have to do is put yourself in a room with a new situation and it’s easy to write,” she says, during a telephone call to her home in London.
This time, the character who hit the ground running is Lily, a teenager who shows up on Lou’s doorstep. Lou has embraced new experiences since Will’s death, including an extended stay in Paris and purchasing a condo in London. But she’s become stuck, unable or unwilling to move forward.
Lily might provide just the push Lou needs.
“They never left me, those characters. Normally, you move on to something else,” Moyes says.
This is the first time Moyes, the author of a dozen books, has written a sequel. “I’m wary to be seen as writing [this book] because Me Before You had done so well,” she says. “But literally I had one of those moments where I woke up at 5:30 in the morning and sat bolt upright.”
Even with that epiphany and her so-believable-they-seem-real characters, Moyes says she was well aware of the pressures of writing a sequel as compared to a stand-alone book.
“I felt the weight of expectation. Everything I did in this book, I almost could hear the readers saying, no, I don’t want that to happen!”
Fear not, readers—Moyes was careful that Lou’s character stayed consistent from the first book to the second. But that means Lou’s decision-making skills remain the same, and she doesn’t always operate in her own best interest.
“Everyone kind of assumed she’d sail off into the sunset and live a new life. But knowing Lou, she’s a sensitive soul. She might do that initially, but what she’d been part of would not be easy to walk away from,” Moyes says.
After You is an immersive experience, inviting readers back into the homes of the characters they fell in love with in Me Before You. They’ll experience the mourning that follows a devastating loss, and the glimmers of hope that propel the brokenhearted forward. And, like Me Before You, After You is a book that is best leapt into without knowing much about the plot, which explains the slight vagueness Moyes uses when discussing it.
“It’s partly a book about what happens when you’re left in the wake of somebody else’s decision, whether that be a divorce or the decision for someone to take their own life,” Moyes says. “I’m always fascinated by the way people are entitled to follow their own path.”
While Lou remains a central character, readers will again visit the Clark and Traynor families in all their glory. The quirky Clarks serve as a lighthearted counterpoint to the grief-laden Traynors, whose marriage has crumbled after the loss of their son. Will’s death weighs heavy, and his presence permeates After You as his loved ones make decisions informed by his life—or their loss. “[T]he moment you opened the box, let out even a whisper of your sadness, it would mushroom into a cloud that overwhelmed all other conversation,” Lou thinks as she tries to decide how much to tell a new acquaintance about her past.
From that, readers might draw lessons of their own. Moyes is a believer in the power of fiction to change hearts and minds. “Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned from fiction,” she says. “One of the greatest things you learn from fiction is empathy. If you can’t empathize with someone else’s position, it makes a rigid adult.”
She’s not concerned with maintaining appearances with regard to what she reads; recent titles include a thriller by fellow Brit Lee Child and Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton, a collection of photo essays based on the blog of the same name.
Nor is Moyes worried about how her own work is classified. “I’ve never pretended that my books are literary fiction. But what I do believe is you can write commercial fiction that is quality. I know what I put into my books, how hard I work with the language, to make sure everything has a proper rhythm,” she says.
If sales are anything to go by, Moyes has accomplished that goal. Though her novels are serious page-turners and cover a wide range of topics and time periods, they all contain memorable characters and resonant themes.
Moyes is a hard worker as well; she’s published almost a novel per year since she first started writing in 2002. Now that After You is out in the world, the author is planning on taking a bit of a writing break.
“I’m not going to think about writing another book until the end of the year. I just don’t have the mental space,” she says.
She’s been busy with movies recently: The film adaptation of Me Before You, which stars Emilia Clark (“Game of Thrones”) as Lou and Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games) as Will, is set to debut next June, and Moyes has a screenwriting credit.
“I’m also moving house. Before I spoke to you, I spent an hour painting a floor. I thought to myself, oh, the glamorous life of an international bestseller,” Moyes adds, laughing.
In the meantime, she’s looking forward to taking her three children along for the After You American book tour.
“American audiences are so demonstrative. English audiences are usually not as demonstrative,” Moyes says. (She has carried observations like these into her work; in After You, Moyes writes of Lou’s reaction to Will’s father: “If he had been anybody else I might have hugged him just then, but we were English and he had once been my boss of sorts, so we simply smiled awkwardly at each other.”)
There’s one more national difference that’s pretty important to a best-selling author like Moyes.
“In the United States, if they ask how many books you’ve sold, you say 5 million copies, and they break into applause. In England, they’re like, oh, stop showing off.