Jojo Moyes' New Novel Visits Depression-Era Librarians in the Wilderness

Posted by Cybil on October 1, 2019
Jojo Moyes
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Imagine living in the most remote parts of Kentucky and having book-wielding librarians on horseback brave snow, wind, rain, and floods to deliver magazines, novels, and comic books straight to your door.

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.

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GR: Alice and her husband, Bennett, have a strained relationship and one that pulls in his family and the gossip of the town. Can you talk about what you wanted to say about ideal love and what is actual?

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?

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JM: I did want it to be more epic both in scope and theme. I hope people feel like they have been taken to a world that was unfamiliar to them, and that they might fall in love with it a little, too. One of the things that struck me when I first read about the real-life women was how much resonance the issues had for today—and I hope people see that as well. Mostly I just want to entertain and move readers a little—if it makes them think, that’s an added bonus.

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.

Jojo Moyes' novel The Giver of Stars will be available in the U.S. on October 8. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-35 of 35 (35 new)

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message 1: by Teebanraaj (new)

Teebanraaj Thevar very nice

great


message 2: by Jane (new)

Jane How strange that there are TWO books out at almost the same time about the Kentucky women who served as horseback librarians. I just finished "The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek", which was along the same lines, though with a few significant differences. I'm now curious to read "Giver of Stars" as the horseback librarians are fascinating indeed!


message 3: by Sue (new)

Sue Carita Appalachian Mountain Girl by Rhoda Warren is also an eye-opening book about the same era.


message 4: by Sue (new)

Sue Carita Dorrie, Woman of the Mountains
By Bush is fascinating look at same time in Appalachian area. It's a memoir too.


message 5: by Antony (new)

Antony Eager to read it!


Dorie  - Cats&Books :) I also was wondering why there were two books published in the same year about the backpack librarians of Kentucky. Although I truly think that The Bookwoman Of Troublesome Creek was more in depth and talked about the blue skinned people of that area, it was a much more serious book. I also enjoyed this book. This one was easier to read and talked about the British woman coming to town and that was different than the other book.

I wonder if Ms. Moyes would comment on that. I will go to her page and post a question :)


message 7: by Jfinger (new)

Jfinger The author interview was very informative; I will reference her comments when I read her work.


message 8: by Joan (new)

Joan Another book about horseback librarians in Wonderland Creek by Lynn Austin.


message 9: by Yashar (new)

Yashar Sarvi Very nice


message 10: by Mary (new)

Mary Martinez I just finished the Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek, never realizing the true stories behind this whole era! Looking forward to picking up this newest story as I loved Jojo Moyes other books!!


message 11: by Pam (new)

Pam I haven't read this book yet and I do like most of this author's work but am somewhat dismayed that she has published a book just a few months after "The Book woman of Troublesome Creek" which was very good and gave good historical information about the blue people of Kentucky along with the Pack Horse Library and which appears to me to be more of a historical info novel than this one. From what I've read, Moyes' book seems to be a little more chick lit.


message 12: by Geo (new)

Geo Marcovici Great!


message 13: by Biochemistry (new)

Biochemistry Dept Nice read !


message 14: by Leanne (new)

Leanne Brouwers I look forward to reading this book. I love stories wound around real events.


message 15: by Patricia (new)

Patricia Moren Fascinating interview, great to hear about the background of the books. I loved reading the Giver of Stars, a very emotive read.


message 16: by Marta (new)

Marta Aldrighetti oh, interesting! thanks for sharing the interview.


message 17: by Ileana (new)

Ileana I like very much the way Jojo Moyes creates her characters and writes her books. And I appreciate the fact that she does a lot of research before writing a new book.
I look forward to reading this book too.
I enjoyed this interview, as it is very informative.


message 18: by Cathy (new)

Cathy I read several of your books & loved them. One of my favorites is The Girl You Left Behind. Thank you for your writing.


message 19: by Luz (new)

Luz This read looks good and I will definitely read it.
Thanks for the three books you read and which I will add to my list.


message 20: by Dywane (new)

Dywane That's Good Book?


message 21: by Jasmin (new)

Jasmin Frias Carmona Cant wait! I love all her books


message 22: by Dau (new)

Dau Nyok my sincerely thank for the writer of this book.It is very interesting and i should said that it really good for all readers to enjoying this book.


message 23: by Lisa (new)

Lisa  Carlson You can't help but love Moyes who is self-deprecating and an excellent writer. She's a rare gift in the world of fiction writing and I'll read anything she writes. Thanks for being an inspiring treasure to readers and writers!


message 24: by Francis (new)

Francis Mugisa Very interesting


message 25: by America (new)

America Clark Los libros de Jojo siempre me hacen sonreír y llorar, la verdad estoy fascinada con este nuevo libro, ya quiero que llegue a mi país para poder leerlo...


message 26: by Arshad (new)

Arshad KT Superb work


message 27: by Darine (new)

Darine The interview makes me want to read the book even more now! Can't wait..


message 28: by C.G. (new)

C.G. Fewston Any half-intelligent #reader after reading the BuzzFeed News article (see link below) will know that #author Jojo Moyes (Pamela Dorman Books) not only copied names and ideas but also specific fictional scenes from Kim Michele Richardson's #book The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. In this world (especially of publishing), there is no such thing as "100 percent coincidental.” Moyes was hoping her book would be published first and/or that Richardson's book wouldn't be published at all (Moyes even publicly confesses as much.) Penguin Group (USA) should be ASHAMED. Profit is never an excuse for stealing someone's else's art and hard work. Sourcebooks won't do anything since 45% of their company is owned by Penguin Random House. Disgusting! Jojo Moyes is a disgrace. Writing is damn difficult and I hate seeing this happen to good people. The reason this happened is simple. Jojo has a larger following than Kim and will likely sell more books since Jojo already got a film deal. Truly a shame! It's not what you do or how hard you work; it's who you know. Jojo stole Kim's book--plain and simple! I stand with Kim Michele Richardson. Any sane and credible person who believes in integrity and a code of honor would too. And there is even talk now that #JojoMoyes stole before. “Me Before You” is almost a carbon copy of a Bollywood film, “Guzaarish,” which was released in 2010 (two years before Moyes’ book). Link ~ https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/...


message 29: by Alexandra (last edited Oct 09, 2019 07:02AM) (new)

Alexandra C.G. wrote: "Any half-intelligent #reader after reading the BuzzFeed News article (see link below) will know that #author Jojo Moyes (Pamela Dorman Books) not only copied names and ideas but also specific fictional scenes from Kim Michele Richardson's #book The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek."

^THIS

And shame on GR for promoting this book, rather than the original.

(Although I am convinced "articles" like this one are undisclosed paid for promo-spots rather than genuine editorials)

I suggest people read this one instead: The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek


message 30: by Lonnia (new)

Lonnia Helton I can't wait to read it. I do't get why others are concerned about 2 books of the same subject published close together. I really don't think Jojo Moyes decided to write her book a couple months later. Both authors just happened to be write at the same time. I will also read The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek. Loved Me before You by Jojo. That was a topic that had never crossed my mind. Very eye opening.


message 31: by Cybil (new)

Cybil Alexandra wrote: "C.G. wrote: "Any half-intelligent #reader after reading the BuzzFeed News article (see link below) will know that #author Jojo Moyes (Pamela Dorman Books) not only copied names and ideas but also s..."

Thank you for your comment. I would like to assure you that we independently select the subjects of our interviews based on early reader interest (both early reviews and additions to Want to Read shelvings). There is no advertising influence on the selections.


message 32: by Karen M (new)

Karen M Cybil wrote: "Alexandra wrote: "C.G. wrote: "Any half-intelligent #reader after reading the BuzzFeed News article (see link below) will know that #author Jojo Moyes (Pamela Dorman Books) not only copied names an..."

So, will you also do an interview with Kim Michele Richardson since there is a question of "playing favorites" with two books so close in subject and publication date?


message 33: by Jordan (new)

Jordan Stivers It's a shame that a really good book might get buried thanks to the continued failings of the publishing industry. Business is business I guess, including what's picked to show up on Goodreads.

And by a really good book I mean The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Michele Richardson. I loved it and reviewed it well so I'm looking forward to getting my hands on Moyes' book to see if I agree or not with the ongoing plagiarism buzz.


message 34: by Alixandryn (new)

Alixandryn Agreed. After reading the Buzzfeed article and the comments here, I really want to read The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Michele Richardson first.

It seems like it is a really well-researched book and it deserves more exposure.
I would love to read an interview with Michele Richardson as well.


message 35: by Nikki (new)

Nikki Hilton oh, i Really look forward to reading this AND
it will be Excellent made into a film, i can already envision that!! :)


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