Jojo Moyes Up Front: An Interview with the ‘Me Before You’ Author

Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin in ‘Me Before You’/Image © Warner Bros.

“Me Before You,” the movie adaptation of Jojo Moyes’s bestselling 2012 novel, lands in theaters on June 3 with director Thea Sharrock at the helm. We recently caught up with Moyes at a press event for the film to chat about adapting her novel for the screen, the difficulty of the subject matter, the importance of humor, and more.

SIGNATURE: What was the inspiration for Me Before You? It’s such a fascinating and difficult concept, what brought you to it?

JOJO MOYES: The thing that I’ve learned is that you have to write the story that is just lodged in the front of your head. You can’t write something cynically. You can’t write something you think is for the market. I heard this news story back in 2008 or 2009 about a young athlete in England who had been left quadriplegic after an accident and several years later persuaded his parents to take him to a center for assisted suicide. At the time, I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I didn’t understand it on any level. So, I started to read more about it and I realized that it just wasn’t as black and white as I wanted it to be. You like to think that if you suffer some catastrophic physical accident that you’d be like Christopher Reeve – that you’d be the amazing, graceful person who found a way through. I’m not sure I would be that person. I think I would be very angry for a long time. I spoke with a nurse who deals with this kind of spinal injury and she said that only twice in her career had she met men who just refused to accommodate it, who just refused to find a way through. That fascinated me because I thought about what it would be like to be that man’s mother, what it would be like to be the person in love with him, what it would be like to be him. I just knew it was a story I had to tell.

Effectively, this is just the story of two people. It’s about how you can change somebody and how you can accommodate them when they refuse to be changed. It’s about choices. It’s about quality of life and who gets the right to decide what that might be. But, mostly I think it’s a love story between two slightly mismatched people who made me laugh a lot while I was writing them and that sounds unlikely given the subject matter. But, they did make me laugh.

SIG: Would you say that the humor is important to the experience?

JM: Well, I think that was key. I’d written eight books before this one with not a single laugh in all the words I’d written to that point. What I realized, though, was you can pull a reader, or an audience, a long way down as long as you make them laugh as well. So it was really about maintaining that balance and being respectful to the subject matter at the same time.

SIG: In terms of the subject matter, how deep did you go into your research for “Me Before You”? There are two very complicated and sensitive topics: quadriplegia and assisted suicide.

JM: I had two relatives at the time who required twenty-four-hour care to stay alive, so a lot of the day-to-day stuff that you read actually comes from my personal experience or their personal experience. I went online and spoke to quadriplegic communities to find out what their preoccupations were and also to find out the opinion of their caregivers because the caregivers are an absolutely key part of the story. One thing that I’ve found to be a relief is the volume of email I get from caregivers – and also from quadriplegics – saying they felt I was telling their story. One of the things that I love about the story is the number of women who fall in love with Will. The disability becomes the least important issue, they almost forget that and just go “I love Will Traynor.” [Laughs.] You only have to look at my Twitter feed. Every morning I wake to women going, “I hate you! How could you do that to him!” Yeah. [Laughs.]

SIG: This is your first time writing a screenplay, correct?

JM: Yes, although they’ve created a monster. I’ve now gone on to adapt two more. I loved the process.

SIG: What was the most surprising part of the process?

JM: It was the steepest learning curve I have ever been on in my life. I did not ask to do the screenplay. In fact, I assumed they would want me as far away from the process as possible because we’ve all heard the stories. [Laughs.] But, I think they felt that the book has such a particular tone and the balance is so delicate between humor and tragedy or between the love story and the more contentious aspects of the story – you have to keep a rein on all those things. They said to me, “Would you like to have a go?” And I’m one of these people that just says yes before I think of all the reasons I should say no. [Laughs.]

SIG: Writing a screenplay is obviously a different animal than working on a novel. I’m sure there were some moments, story elements that you had to cut. Kill your darlings, so to speak. What was that like?

JM: That was the hardest bit. You have to really work at finding the essence of your story. Of course, as the writer you’re originally wedded to the idea of all the things that you think are absolutely vital to the film. Then you put them together and realize you’ve written a screenplay that is 380 pages and no one’s going to sit through that. There were some scenes we had to lose that we agonized over for a good six months. Like the maze scene.

SIG: I was surprised that wasn’t in the film. It seemed like an important moment in the book. Why was it removed?

JM: This was one of the key moments where I learned about the difficulties in translating a book to a movie. I originally wrote that scene in, I wrote it in multiple drafts actually. The more we did it, the more we realized that in the book it’s almost a throwaway line. It’s described in very opaque terms. When she first says what she thinks happened, you kind of go past it and then go, “Did she just say what I think she said?” Then you have to go back. It’s something that she’s buried, something she’s suppressing. When you try to build the maze scene visually, with that horror of what happened, it becomes a much weightier thing and it almost overtakes the film.

SIG: Would you say it’s the difference in presenting that moment onscreen as opposed to on the page?

JM: Yes, because you can’t do that visually as a throwaway or in such opaque terms. There was no way we could find to do it that was respectful to the topic. Lou just can’t say, “Oh, I think I had this terrible thing happen to me a few years ago, but I’m fine now.” It would just be ridiculous. I would say that’s the one scene Thea Sharrock and I agonized over for the longest time. In the end we felt that because of time constraints, the most important story was the one between Will and Lou and that people who loved the books will just take that as part of her backstory that we couldn’t include.

SIG: What do you hope audiences will take from the film? Is it different at all from what you hope readers take from the book?

JM: I hope that the two are as close as we can get. My favorite thing is when people Tweet me after early screenings and they say, “I’m crying and I’m sort of laughing. I feel really angry. But also uplifted. And I don’t know how I feel!” I haven’t had responses from people so far saying, “Well, that’s the most depressing thing I’ve ever seen.” People seem to be happy when they come out, uplifted. Ultimately, it’s a message of hope.