Jojo Moyes' New Novel Visits Depression-Era Librarians in the WildernessPosted by Cybil on October 1, 2019
The Pack Horse Library Project of eastern Kentucky was started by the U.S. government and lasted from 1935 to 1943. Its mission was to deliver books to homes throughout the Appalachian Mountains, where poverty was high and literacy was low. The belief that education and reading could help break the cycle of poverty was one that fueled the Pack Horse Library Project. At its height, more than 30 libraries existed in the region.
This project brings together five unlikely friends in Jojo Moyes' latest novel, The Giver of Stars. In a narrative of epic scale, Moyes weaves together a nuanced story of poverty, opportunity, love, redemption, and the power of female friendship.
Alice Wright arrives in eastern Kentucky straight off the boat from England, where she met and married Bennett Van Cleve in a whirlwind romance. A proper British lady, Alice feels quite out of place in her new home, without friends and without support or love from her new husband.
When the call goes out to recruit librarians to support a local Works Progress Administration (WPA) program, Alice volunteers. She finds herself working alongside the spirited Margery O’Hare, a woman native to the mountains and blemished by the reputation of her family.
As the group of Pack Horse librarians forms and covers the backbone of the Kentucky Mountains, Moyes tells the story about many of the issues that plague the region, from exploitation of the land and people to protracted issues of race and social justice.
Goodreads contributor April Umminger corresponded with Jojo Moyes by email. Their interview has been edited.
Goodreads: How did you get the idea for The Giver of Stars? How is it different from the other novels and love stories that you have published?
Jojo Moyes: I got the idea after seeing an article in the Smithsonian magazine online (some writers do a lot of online reading before they settle down to work…ahem). I saw the picture of these young women atop horses against this mountainous landscape, their bags full of books, and I knew immediately that I had to write about it. It’s different in that it has a particular voice that I wanted to capture, that is true to the Appalachians, but it’s like all my other books in that it’s about women who you can hopefully identify with and feel for.
GR: The story takes place in eastern Kentucky, and one of its central characters is a woman from England. Is any of this autobiographical? If not, why Kentucky and the inclusion of a British character in the story?
JM: It’s only autobiographical in that I felt just as alien in Kentucky as Alice does! (At first, anyway.) I thought it was such a particular place that it would be better for the reader to see it through the eyes of somebody who really didn’t know it and discover it—and, I hope, fall in love with it—along with her.
JM: I suppose it’s a microcosmic version of the thing we all do—which is to marry in a leap of faith. None of us can know who the other person REALLY is or how they are likely to change. Alice takes a gamble to escape the life she’s in—and discovers the man she married is not the man she thought he was. I’m not sure there is an ideal love, as everyone’s version is so different, but I did love Margery and Sven’s relationship because at its heart is a complete acceptance of who the other person is, and respect for them, no matter what the town thinks about them.
GR: One of the things that I like best about this book is how you put friendship at the center of the story and the power that women have when they support one another. Both Alice and Margery are outsiders in the town, but in different ways. Can you talk about their bond?
JM: I really wanted to write a book with female friendship at the heart of it. So often women are fed a narrative that women—young women especially—must always be in competition with one another. That’s not my experience. I wanted these women to be capable and resourceful and to each grow as a result of the support and friendship they get from the other women. You know when you have that time with a friend and come away feeling uplifted and inspired? That’s the feeling I wanted to foster.
GR: The Giver of Stars, with its crew of horseback librarians, struck me as a Western with a twist, with women wielding books and knowledge as their weapon. Was this what you intended, as a play on genre?
JM: Not at all! I was just writing about the thing that I had read about. Although the “murder weapon” was something that made me smile—that particular title…
GR: Margery O’Hare is quite a modern woman by today’s standards and suffers collateral damage from a feud between her family and the McCullough family. Can you talk about the redemptive aspect of this plotline, and also the inspiration for Margery?
JM: Yes. I’m fascinated by the way a family “name” can follow you—or get ahead of you—especially in small communities. Margery’s father’s legacy is responsible for her strength and attitude, but it also has led her to believe that she doesn’t need anybody. When she befriends Alice, she discovers for the first time what a friendship can do for you—and the support of the other women is instrumental both in her survival and her change in attitude by the end.
As far as Margery the character goes, she was one of those people who just dropped onto the page fully formed. I knew exactly what she looked like and how she would respond in any situation. I would love to be like her. In fact, my U.K. publishers coined this phrase “Be More Margery,” and I mutter it to myself often…
GR: The men in The Giver of Stars are quite nuanced as well, but the power dynamics of the time and in the story are solidly stacked against the women. Can you talk about that and some of the pressures and influences that those characters are facing?
JM: If the patriarchy exists in brute form in this book, it’s because it did in real life, from all the research that I did about that period. It was not a great time and place to be female, with a few notable exceptions. Women were limited by pregnancies, often without medical help, and the amount of domestic work that was needed to stay alive. But a lot of the men weren’t much better off, especially those who worked in the mines. That was why books were such a powerful force—without knowledge, whether it be medical or legal or just help at home, people couldn’t move forward.
GR: This book is incredibly multifaceted in terms of issues that you tackle, with race and Sophia, gender norms and taboo with Margery, evolution of character with Alice and Izzy, and also the societal and corporate aspects of the novel with Margery’s court case and the socioeconomic disparities with the mine. That is a lot of ground to cover in a 400-page book! What do you hope that people come away with?
GR: Are any of the characters based on real-life people—either famous or from your life?
JM: Never! Fastest way to lose a friend…although there was a woman who owned the tiny cabin in a holler where I stayed to do a lot of my research, whose character and spirit has infused the book. I think there is a charm and a strength and a resourcefulness—and humor—peculiar to that part of the world.
GR: Can you talk about the process of writing this book and your writing process in general? You’ve published a great number of bestsellers—what’s the trick?
JM: Oh, my goodness, there’s no trick. If there was, I wouldn’t have written eight books before I had a bestseller…and every book is different to write. It’s like having a new baby: You think, “How on earth did I do this?”
For me, this was the most pleasurable book I’ve ever written. I loved it so much, I didn’t want to stop, so I wrote at dawn, through weekends and holidays. I loved immersing myself in this world and with these women. I finished my first draft in nine months because I just didn’t want to put it down—unheard of for me.
GR: How did you do your research? Did you read any books about eastern Kentucky and the WPA’s Pack Horse Library Project?
JM: I did a lot of research, using books about eastern Kentucky, mining disputes, women, the WPA, and a lot from the academic resource JSTOR, where I was able to really dig down into the details, like what happened to pregnant women prisoners in Kentucky in the 1930s? What would they eat? Who was in charge?
A lot of what I needed was very niche, and JSTOR was invaluable. But the most important thing was going out to Kentucky itself. It was there that I rode the routes that the women would have ridden, stayed in the same mountains, and, most of all, talked to people.
Kentucky people seem to have storytelling in their DNA, and I had to absorb that and the rhythm of their speech in order to make it sound right. When I finished, I had Barbara, my Appalachian hostess, read it all so that she could tell me if and where I had gone wrong.
GR: What books are you reading now?
JM: I’ve just finished Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes, which I enjoyed very much. Before that, I read Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, which was masterful. I’ll read anything she writes. And I’m just about to start Lisa Jewell’s The Family Upstairs. She’s one of those authors I read every book of.
GR: Who is your ideal reader?
JM: Basically, anyone who opens one of my books.
GR: Anything else that you’d want your reader to know or that I haven’t asked about?
JM: Just that I’m still so grateful that people enjoy my books. I spent a long time being not very successful, and I am thankful every day.