QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
“Afterward he wouldn’t be entirely sure what had made him stop. . . . Perhaps it was just to convince himself, against all available evidence, that he was not entirely an arsehole” (p. 78).
Jess Thomas doesn’t need to be a maths whiz like her daughter, Tanzie, to know that she’s broke. Ever since her husband, Marty, left two years earlier, the twenty-seven-year-old single mom has struggled to care for Tanzie and her stepson, Nicky, with her meager earnings as a cleaner and bartender. Still, Jess always manages to smile and hold strong to the belief that everything will work out. But when Tanzie gets the chance of a lifetime to attend the posh private school St. Anne’s, Jess—who gets zero child support—has no idea how she’s going to pay for it.
Though Jess’s finances are already strained to their limits, she fears that if Tanzie can’t go to St. Anne’s, her odd, bookish daughter will get bullied at the local school she’s slated to start the next year. Jess has good reason to worry: Nicky—who wears eyeliner and dyes his hair black—is regularly terrorized by a local gang.
She’s already feeling uncharacteristically down when she arrives to clean Ed Nicholls’s beautiful, slate-floored vacation house. Jess finds Ed obnoxious in the extreme, but it feels like the last straw when he rudely slams the door in her face. Ed, a London-based software developer, has big problems of his own: he’s currently under investigation for insider trading, the company he has helped build is under threat, and he has only himself to blame. Yet even Jess’s quite legitimate outrage at his behavior cannot penetrate the wall of anxiety that surrounds him.
When Jess learns of a Maths Olympiad—and a first prize of five thousand pounds—being held in Scotland, she realizes this could be the answer to all of her family’s problems. Packing Tanzie, Nicky, and Norman—their overgrown, flatulent dog—into a decrepit Rolls Royce, she heads for Aberdeen.
But the car gets stuck on the side of the road before they even get out of town, and all seems lost—until Ed pulls up and, in his first unselfish act ever, impulsively offers to help. Ed thinks he’s the one doing Jess a favor, but as they hit the slow road to Scotland, “his stroppy cleaner, her two weird kids, and [their] enormous reeking dog” (p. 95) open his eyes—and heart—in ways he never expected.
The author of the blockbuster bestseller Me Before You, Jojo Moyes has won fans around the world with her unforgettable characters and seamless blend of humor and heartbreak. In One Plus One, Moyes takes readers on the road trip of a lifetime in an irresistibly romantic tale that confirms her reputation as a writer with a rare gift for capturing “the complexity of love” (People).
ABOUT JOJO MOYES
Jojo Moyes is the #1 international bestselling author of Me Before You, The Girl You Left Behind, and The Last Letter from Your Lover,among others. She lives with her husband and children in Essex, England.
A CONVERSATION WITH JOJO MOYES
1. Your characters are fun and quirky and so real. Tell us a little about where your ideas for your characters and their stories come from.
Thank you! Most of my books are inspired by different snippets of things, whether they be news stories or things people have told me. In the case of One Plus One, I’d wanted to write a road trip for ages—and then when I started thinking about the differences between today’s Haves and Have Nots, it suddenly seemed like the perfect thing to put some very different people together. Anyone who has sat next to a stranger on a long-haul flight knows that there’s no better way to find out who someone really is than to be shoved together in close confines traveling for any length of time.
2. One Plus One is a novel in a contemporary setting, just like Me Before You, and some of your other novels are historical, such as The Girl You Left Behind. Do you prefer writing one over the other? How do you decide where and when to set your books?
I often write one in reaction to the last. So The Girl You Left Behind was a huge, sprawling romantic epic that crossed a century and took all sorts of historical research. After that I just wanted to write a tight little emotional comedy set in the modern day with very little research in it. It’s entirely possible that in a book or two I’ll be back to doing something on an epic scale again.
3. Like Me Before You, One Plus One has a love story between two people of very different socioeconomic backgrounds. What draws you to explore that disparity?
Well, Me Before You was basically about class and aspiration. Lou came from a background where you were encouraged to have little of either. One Plus One, on the other hand, is simply about money. I’ve been watching the difference between rich and poor in society grow ever wider, and with One Plus One I guess I wanted to ask: what happens if you have the aspiration, or the talent, but simply don’t have enough resources to be able to climb up to the next rung of the ladder? We’re always being told you can have anything if you work hard enough. Well, what if the deck of cards is really stacked against you? Does that truism still stand?
4. When you form characters, do you ever incorporate aspects from people you know?
If I do, I do it unconsciously! It’s the fastest way to lose friends or upset people I know. But I am an inveterate people watcher (a polite way of saying I’m nosy) and I think I’m always wondering about people I know or know of and wondering why they do what they do and what effect it has on those around them. So I think I pick up a lot of characteristics almost by osmosis.
5. Norman is in some ways the hero of the book. It must have been fun to write about him. Is he based on a particular pet you’ve had?
Norman’s popularity has been something of a surprise to me. I set out deliberately not trying to write a “cute” or anthropomorphic pet. Norman is fat, not particularly beautiful, disobedient, lazy, greedy, flatulent, and drooling. And yet people love him. I very nearly sent him to a sticky end and happened to tweet one night: “I can’t decide whether to kill the dog.” When I woke up I had 100-odd responses, all saying “Don’t kill the dog!” Readers get very attached to their fictional pets.
6. While the stories and circumstances are completely different, Ed in One Plus One and Will in Me Before You are successful men in their fields who have a devastating setback, either professionally or personally, and each meets a woman who helps add some color to their lives and helps them figure out their lives. Is this a coincidence?
I suppose in the case of One Plus One I very much didn’t want Ed to “save” Jess, even though he was financially able to. I wanted her, in the immortal words of Pretty Woman, “to save him right back.” If there is a theme it’s that we all have something to offer one another, if we can bear to open up a little, even if it seems very unlikely initially. I don’t think Ed has any shortage of colorful women (see his ex-wife!), but he is a man with no self-awareness until he meets Jess. She has many more of the traditionally “male” traits: she’s practical, resourceful, fierce, and protective—and she’s good at DIY.
7. Your novels don’t fit a pattern, yet there’s always a love story and often a social issue in play. They are issues many of us face in real life (such as being different and bullying in One Plus One and assisted suicide in Me Before You), and you write about them with humor and present them in a palatable manner. What piques this interest?
I think you’re a pretty blinkered sort of novelist if you can ignore some of the social issues we see around us today. I think it’s possible to write “commercial” fiction (horrible phrase) and still tackle serious issues. But I’ve found over the years that if you leaven it with a little humor, readers are often much happier to tackle the darker subjects, like suicide or bullying or serious disability. That’s how life is, after all—ask any member of the emergency services; they always have the best jokes.
8. Jess teaches her children to be morally upstanding but makes one questionable decision, which threatens to ruin her relationship with Ed. Do you think it’s ever okay to do something ethically wrong, if it’s for a “good” reason?
I have no answer to that question! But it’s one that I do find fascinating. I asked the same thing essentially in The Girl You Left Behind, when Sophie has to decide whether to sleep with the German Kommandant in the hope of winning her husband his freedom (and possibly his life), even though she knows that doing so will probably lose her his love. I would argue that most people who do bad things think they’re doing them for a good reason. History is littered with examples.
9. One Plus One has such a cinematic feel, it would translate really well to film. You wrote the screenplay for Me Before You. Did that experience change the way you write novels? Do you imagine how they would work as a movie as you write?
It certainly made me realize how much slack we leave in them! I have always written “visually”—i.e., I have to play out a scene in my head, almost as if I’m acting it, before I write it, to see if it works. I don’t think the way I write books has changed, as I still do the same thing, but I do perhaps make every scene work a bit harder—asking myself: does it move the story forward? Does it tell us something about the character?
10. What do you hope readers will take away from One Plus One?
First, as with all my books, I hope it just gives them a few hours’ escape to somewhere they hadn’t expected to go—that’s certainly what I want from a book. I hope very much it makes them feel something, whether it brings about laughter or tears. On a wider note, perhaps they might not judge or dismiss those around them quite so swiftly. I heard a really good saying the other day, along the lines of “Be kind, for everyone is battling something you don’t know about.” And I suppose I’d like my books to have a similar message. Although saying my books should have a message makes me sound unbelievably pompous. So maybe just a good read.
11. Your main character, Jess, is a single mom with a blended family. What are some of the challenges this brings her in One Plus One?
I think most families today contain some element of blending. I come from one. But I wanted to write something in which this was not necessarily an issue in itself, just an everyday reality. Likewise, I wanted to write something where the mother was not either (a) dead (check most children’s fairy tales) or (b) problematic or (c) irritating or interfering in some way. I just wanted to write about a family that might not be made up in a conventional nuclear form but was loving and close and a bit different. And as a mother, I really wanted to write a mother who might be flawed but was loving and resourceful and smart and protective—like most of the mothers I know in real life.
12. Jess’s daughter, Tanzie, is a maths prodigy. Girls in the United States still struggle against the stereotype that they are inherently worse at maths than boys. Is this also true in the UK, and do you hope your book will help to empower girls in overcoming this social obstacle?
Yes! And I say that as someone who is pretty hopeless at maths herself. The more books I write, the more I realize I don’t want to write stories in which girls fixate exclusively on how they look or what they buy or whom they fall in love with. I try to write female characters whom someone like my daughter might ultimately be inspired by—girls who actually do things, or get joy from learning or building or traveling. Tanzie, for all her oddness, is completely comfortable in her own skin, almost more so than anyone else in the book—until circumstances tell her strongly that she shouldn’t be.
13. There are some steamy scenes in One Plus One! How do you approach writing sex scenes?
Well, if my editor had got her way, they would have been a fair bit steamier. I do struggle with sex scenes, mostly because of the language. Either you employ biologically accurate terms, which tend to pull the reader up short, and can sound a little startling, or you go with awful euphemisms that make your toes curl. I’m getting a little braver with every book—but it’s hard when you live in a small village. Everyone assumes that you base the scenes on your own life. Weirdly, they never do that with anything else I write about.
- Even though Marty himself is reluctant, Jess opens her home to Nicky, Marty’s son by “a woman he’d dated briefly in his teens” (p. 9), after his birth mother essentially abandons him. If you were Jess, would you be willing to raise Nicky as your own child?
- Aileen Trent sells designer clothes at a cut rate to people who could never afford to buy them in the shops. Since Jess strongly suspects that they are stolen, is it wrong for her to buy a few items for Tanzie?
- Jess takes the money that Ed drunkenly drops in the taxi and decides to use it to pay Tanzie’s registration fees. Would she have made that choice if he hadn’t behaved rudely to her while she was cleaning his house? Does his treatment of her excuse her decision?
- Is it more difficult for the poor to lead law-abiding lives? To what extent is morality a matter of character or circumstance?
- Ed’s parents couldn’t afford to send both Ed and his sister, Gemma, to public school, so they sent only him. Was it a fair decision? Is Gemma’s resentment justified?
- Ed helps Nicky get revenge on Jason Fisher by showing him how to hack Jason’s Facebook page. Since Jason intimidated the witnesses to Nicky’s beating into not speaking out against him, is it a justifiable retaliation?
- At what point in their journey does Ed begin to think less about himself and more about helping Tanzie and her family?
- Does Ed’s ignorance mitigate the seriousness of his crime? Should he have spent time in prison, or do you feel he was given a fair sentence?
- Jess’s mother “had been right about many things” (p. 166), but she never made her daughter feel loved. As a result, Jess makes it her priority as a mother to make Tanzie and Nicky feel loved. What is something that your parents did right? What is something they did wrong that you hope to rectify if you are or plan to become a parent yourself?
- Do you support Jess’s decision to go into debt to pay for Norman’s hospital bills rather than put him to sleep?
- Did Ed’s financial success go to his head, or was he self-centered before he was rich? What did he have to learn about himself in order to forgive Jess?