Author: Jojo Moyes
I was reading an edition of the Smithsonian Magazine online and came across an extraordinary series of pictures of women on horseback. They were on rough, mountainous terrain, clutching parcels of books, gazing out proudly. I read the accompanying text, about the real-life horseback librarians of Kentucky, and knew immediately that I wanted to write a book about them.
Oh I love research. I don’t believe you can write effectively about a place without immersing yourself in it. I need the sights and smells and stories. I visited Kentucky three times between 2017 and 2019 and stayed in a tiny cabin on the side of a mountain, rode horses along the trails the women would have ridden, and talked to a lot of people, to try and get not just the facts, but the rhythms of the language.
3. Libraries play a key role in THE GIVER OF STARS, and keen readers will notice you often include a library in your novels. Why are libraries so meaningful to you?
I was built in a library. My parents didn’t have much money when I was growing up so the weekly visit to the local library was a key part of my education, and my love of reading. Libraries are one of the few resources where people can be sheltered, educated and entertained without having to pay, and it pains me that they are under such threat. Without knowledge, people have fewer opportunities to move upwards.
4. The protagonist in THE GIVER OF STARS, Alice, is a British woman who moves to Kentucky after marrying an American man. Why did you choose to include a British character in this very American novel?
Well, it felt pretty audacious to be writing about Appalachia, even with research. I felt that if much of it was seen through the eyes of someone unfamiliar with that world, it made everything a little more accessible. Given it was such a closed world, I also liked the tensions inherent in introducing someone “foreign” into it.
5. Literacy and censorship are huge issues in THE GIVER OF STARS, something that affects the women of the novel very differently from the men. Why did you choose to focus on these issues, and do you feel they are still relevant today?
I think they’ve never been more relevant. We live in an age where the very notions of truth and facts are under attack—without knowledge we are prey to anyone who can work up a smart speech. Without knowledge women have little control over their own bodies. There are numerous ways in this book in which the acquisition of knowledge changes lives—protecting their homes, educating their families, liberating themselves from marriages.
6. Many of your books deal with class struggles, and THE GIVER OF STARS features families from vastly different backgrounds. Why is this an important subject matter to you, and how did you approach writing about class set during the Great Depression?
I did a lot of reading, and as with the modern day, the poor seemed to be disproportionately affected. To read about the mining communities of Depression era America is to see class inequalities laid bare in the most explicit way. Many miners were little better than indentured slaves, while the mine bosses made fortunes off the backs of their labour. Disputes like Harlan were what happened when people attempted to push back. Also, I wanted this book to be full-blooded, in terms of the violence of the age, as well as the love stories. You can’t write about Kentucky of that period without bringing the class struggles into it.
7. The librarians in THE GIVER OF STARS are incredibly positive about sex for women living in early twentieth-century Kentucky—the librarians quietly distribute a book focused on female pleasure, and one of the women stoutly refuses marriage, despite carrying on a relationship with a man for several years. Was it essential for you to emphasize women’s agency in a time when it was so limited? Were any of the characters based on real women you encountered in your research?
One of the reasons I wanted to write this book in the first place was that I wanted to write about a woman of a certain age (i.e. not 21) having great sex with a mutually respectful partner. It happens! And yet so often in fiction we don’t see it. A woman’s lot in Kentucky at that time was a pretty rotten one much of the time—it was a very patriarchal society, and domestic violence was rife—but I also discovered that the women of the state are tough, proud, funny and resilient. I wanted Margery to reflect that, even while the inequality showed through elsewhere.
It was tough leaving Louisa behind, but I fell so hard in love writing this book that from the moment I arrived in Kentucky I pretty much forgot her. I have never enjoyed writing a book like I enjoyed writing this one: I wrote when I was meant to be on holiday, at weekends, whenever I could spare half an hour to sit down. I didn’t want to leave it, or these women. That rarely happens. So in that respect it was the loveliest way to leave Me Before You behind.
9. The librarians develop very close relationships with their horses, spending long, solitary days with them while delivering books. Do you feel a special kinship with horses? Why are the horses so important to the story?
I have loved horses since I was five years old. For me they were a route to strength, independence, and have given me some of the loveliest relationships of my life. I felt that this shone out of those pictures of the women—and of the reports I read. These were partnerships, and the horses and the women understood each other.
10. What draws you to historical fiction?
I think it’s always story, whether it’s modern or historical. Some fact or snippet just lodges in my brain and I can’t shift it. If it stays for months then it’s usually insisting on being written about. It’s no coincidence that this contains horses, love stories and library books—three of my favourite things…
11. What does the title THE GIVER OF STARS mean?
The Giver of Stars is the title of a poem that forms a pivotal moment of the story. It’s a beautiful, tender, romantic poem that spells nothing out but leaves you a little breathless and it was written by a woman who couldn’t express what she really felt—a little like Alice and Frederick.
12. What are the main themes of the book? What do you want people to take away from reading THE GIVER OF STARS?
I wanted to write a book about women who had agency, and did worthwhile things, rather than simply existing in a romantic or domestic plot line. These women achieved epic things, and, more importantly, supported each other while doing it. I reject the constantly pushed narrative that says women must always be in competition with each other; in my experience other women have been my greatest friends and supports and I wanted to show that. Mostly I want to entertain and transport the reader a little, to make them laugh and cry. I really hope readers enjoy reading THE GIVER OF STARS as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.
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Facebook: Jojo Moyes
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