Romance is the skeleton on which author Jojo Moyes drapes her novels. It’s what she racks up awards for and is what impelled actors Sam Claflin and Emilia Clarke to portray her best-loved characters, Lou and Will, on the big screen – but that doesn’t make her a romantic.
“No, I’m not,” she says. “But I do believe in love.”
Her husband, journalist Charles Arthur, brings her a cup of coffee every morning, “and that means much more to me, that daily act, than him buying me some pile of overpriced roses on Valentine’s Day because he feels he should,” she says.
In fact, the couple, who live in the Essex countryside (“in the middle of nowhere”) with their three children, often forget Valentine’s Day entirely – “and then have to sheepishly apologise to each other, but we’ve got to a point where that’s just not what it’s about for us”.
Romance, of course, provides the blueprint for the 48-year-old’s latest novel, Still Me, though. It’s the final instalment in her Louisa Clark trilogy, following the success of Me Before You (2012) and After You (2015).
Book one saw scatty, unadventurous Louisa fall for strong, stubborn Will, who opts for euthanasia after becoming paralysed in a motorbike accident. In melancholy book two, Moyes set out to explore “how you would cope with having been part of the end of somebody’s life”. And book three? “I see it as the right-hand side of a horse shoe – coming up again,” she says.
Lou has emotionally and physically moved on from Will – although her signature stripy tights remain intact – to New York, as a personal assistant to Agnes, the lonely wife of a phenomenally wealthy businessman. Between tailing Agnes round Central Park and extravagant charity events, Lou’s paramedic boyfriend Sam, home in England, becomes increasingly distant.
“In our society, whether it’s here or in the States, it’s becoming more and more polarised,” says London-born Moyes, explaining the novel’s intrinsic fascination with class and money. “As a novelist, you’re always interested in tension, and there’s just a huge tension if you look at the lives of the haves and the have-nots.” Setting Still Me in New York, a place where that financial difference is “really naked”, was a cinch, she says.
Writing it involved a trip or two to the States for Moyes who, as a former journalist, says: “I just don’t believe books come to life unless you can truthfully convey to the reader how things look and smell.”
A New York friend-of-a-friend, she adds, “very graciously gave me tea in her apartment”, which meant she got to peek inside a suite like Agnes’, overlooking Central Park, and glimpse a “completely different world”, one insulated from everything by dollar bills.
Fiction, she hopes, has the power to bridge the gaping divide. “I like the fact some authors can really imagine their way into lives very different from their own, which, if it’s done responsibly, is a good thing,” she says. “For children, especially those who might not be being brought up in ideal circumstances, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is doubly important because that’s how we learn empathy, and without empathy we become crazy, damaging, narcissists.”
Reading also provides an escape. “For a lot of people, life has got harder, so all the more reason to find half an hour in your day to sit down and read,” says Moyes. “It’s important to free your imagination and let it enter new realms,” she says.
Hence why the closure of a public library – and a community’s fight against it – threads determinedly through Still Me. “Libraries are literally one of the only places left where you can educate and entertain yourself for free,” Moyes says. “They’re a completely egalitarian space and when we lose them, we won’t be able to replace them.”
Her own mum took her to the local library every week. “I would change my four books and try not to read them within two days,” she recalls with a laugh.
Currently, she’s reading Mary Beard’s Women & Power (“my daughter read it first and said, ‘You have to read this book’. I like the fact my daughter’s recommending me feminist texts”) and is already in the midst of her next novel.
First, she must disentangle herself from almost a decade of writing Lou Clark, a heroine whose adventures have encouraged her to have a few of her own, including learning to drive a lorry, scuba dive and, more recently, jump into a water-filled sinkhole in Mexico.
“She’s changed my life in many ways,” says Moyes affectionately. “I will miss her a lot.”
Still Me by Jojo Moyes is published in hardback by Michael Joseph, priced £20 (ebook £9.99). Available now.