Former Hong Kong reporter Jojo Moyes on her big break as a hit novelist

Persistence finally pays off for former Hong Kong journalist turned successful author Jojo Moyes

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 October, 2015, 6:15pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 October, 2015, 6:15pm

Jojo Moyes didn't quite believe she'd hit the literary stratosphere until she received an unusual Facebook message. In it was a photograph of a young woman's wrist with the tattooed words, "Just Live". Moyes raised a hand to cover her mouth in surprise: it was a line from one of the last chapters of her 2012 international bestseller Me Before You.

"I just wanted to respond, 'Oh, my God, is that permanent?'," says the author, who has written 14 books. Moyes has since received many more snaps of wrists, shoulders and ankles inked with lines from the book. "I've been told that a lot of people have decided to change their lives radically as a result of reading MBY," says Moyes, 46. "But when they send photos of their tattoos, I just want to say, 'Please don't do that because of me'. It makes me come over like someone's mum."

Yet, three years after publishing the unlikely hit about a quadriplegic love story - a novel that "was supposed to have killed my career" - the mother of three has had to get used to it. As one of her British literary friends told her, "You've written one of those books."

Indeed she has: not only have six million copies of the book flown off shelves, Moyes recently wrapped up work on Me Before You the film, for which she wrote the screenplay and rewrote lines on the set, which she describes as a learning curve. She spent weeks in England and France consulting on the MGM production. There, she buddied around with Sam Clafin ( The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) and Emilia Clarke ( Game of Thrones), who star as Will Traynor and his paid companion Louisa Clark.

Being on the set was one of the many dizzying and surreal moments the once-struggling author has experienced in recent years.

"To arrive on set that first day and see your characters sprung to life and walking, talking, breathing in front of you - that's mind-blowing," says Moyes, a former South China Morning Post reporter, who lived in Hong Kong during the mid-1990s.

In Bel-Air, California, earlier this month, Moyes told a charity lunch gathering of her exhausting book tours in America, Europe, and even Dubai - and her decision to write a sequel, After You, which was published last month.

The story follows protagonist Lou one year after Will's death, as she comes to terms with the loss of a great love and struggles to move on with her new life as a bartender in an awful Heathrow airport bar - with a new man. "Most characters leave you after an amount of time - by necessity you move onto the next book and your head fills with new people," Moyes says, explaining her motivation for writing the sequel. "But because of the volume of emails from readers, Louisa never left me. Once I started work on the film script, I found I was thinking about her every day. Slowly, I wanted to know what she did with her life, too."

Despite featuring many of the same characters, Moyes found writing the sequel anything but easy. "I wanted the book to be honest," she says. "I didn't believe that someone as sensitive as Lou wouldn't struggle to absorb what she had been part of. But I also wanted to move everybody's story on, and address the themes that had been at the front of my mind - the cost of individual decisions on other people, the challenges posed by social media to teenagers, feminism."

Moyes was also nervous about how readers would react to what Lou did next. "It almost paralysed me at various moments, realising that many people were going to have very strong opinions," she says.

After You entered the New York Times bestseller list at No3 to glowing reviews. Bobbi Dumas, of America's National Public Radio, said: "The genius of Moyes…[is that she] peers deftly into class issues, social mores and complicated relationships that raise as many questions as they answer."

Success has not radically changed her, Moyes says. "What have I bought? Very little, initially. I was too busy to spend it."

She and her family have moved into a much larger, 17th-century home in the countryside near Cambridge, but her favourite purchase has been a large massage chair to soothe her back.

But before the international tours and guest slots on breakfast television, "it was hardly a secret that I was drinking in the last chance literary saloon", she says. "I wrote Me Before You without a book contract, as my former publishers were wary of it."

Moyes had been considering ditching her laptop and retraining as either a psychotherapist or a mounted policewoman. "We had even built an extra room on our house to take in lodgers," she says.

The only child of two artists, London-born Moyes was used to financial hardship as a child. Her parents separated when she was young, and she spent her time living between two households.

Her professional writing began when she was a student at Royal Holloway, University of London, first penning wedding stories for a regional newspaper and then landing a scholarship from The Independent to attend a postgraduate journalism programme at City University, London. After a short stint there, Moyes, then 25, was enticed to give Hong Kong a try by her then-boyfriend, who had relocated to the city at the time.

Her year at the SCMP brought a blur of fascinating stories: "Journalistically, living in Hong Kong gave me access to a whole different world, and the wider perspective that comes from living in a culture that is nothing like your own," she says.

Although she began writing fiction as a child - her first story at age nine was about a telepathic pony - she says she could write nothing creatively while abroad. "It was as if there was so much noise, so much activity, that there was no room for my imagination. I remember really noticing when I returned that it was only then that I could start writing fiction again."

The frivolity and fun of being an expat might have had something to do with her distracted state - on weekends, Moyes ate, drank and spent a lot of time in Shek O.

"The energy of Hong Kong stuck with me," she says, "That unapologetic striving for success that can be frowned on in the UK. And the food. I loved everything about Hong Kong."

Catching wind of job possibilities at The Independent, Moyes headed back to London, where she joined the night desk. Then, during her free hours in the afternoon, while everyone else was at work, she began to write.

Her first three novels remain in a drawer somewhere, but her fourth novel, Sheltering Rain, sparked a bidding war among British publishers. After that, she left her newspaper job and began novel writing full time - a good decision considering the books that followed, Foreign Fruit (2004) and The Last Letter From Your Lover (2011), earned her two Romantic Novelists' Association's Romantic Novel of the Year Awards.

In 2002, Moyes and her journalist husband, Charles Arthur, a former technology editor at The Guardian and The Independent, moved to the Essex countryside to a farmhouse with chickens, dogs and horses. They have three children, Saskia, 17, Harry, 14, and Lockie, 10.

On a good work day, Moyes will drive to her office above a pub in their small town, and spend an eight-hour stretch at the computer. But she admits that's more of an ideal than a reality these days, with her book touring and publicity work overrunning her schedule.

The energy of Hong Kong stuck with me. That unapologetic striving for success that can be frowned on in the UK. And the food. I loved everything about Hong Kong
Jojo Moyes

Now that she is on a major roll with her novels and screenplays - Me Before You, the film, is slated for release in June 2016 - anonymity may well become a thing of the past.

She shrugs off such thoughts - and the trappings of success.

"If anyone took a message from my career it would be about the power of persistence. I always tell my children that there will always be obstacles and setbacks.

"What differentiates people is the degree to which they are prepared to pick themselves up and try again.

"And who knows," she says, with a smile, "one of these days I still may retrain as a psychotherapist."