Emily Henry on Beach Read and writing romance
January Andrews has lost her faith in happy endings after suddenly losing her father and uncovering ugly truths about her parents’ marriage at his funeral. Moving into her father’s recently discovered beach house, the narrative follows a blossoming relationship between January and her neighbour and fellow writer, Augustus Everett, as they evolve from writing partners, to friends, to lovers. A perfect balance of drama, humour and romance, Beach Read is a heartfelt look at learning to relax into love again.
Beach Read comes at a perfect time. Escapist fiction is becoming increasingly popular while real-life romance and travel is strained. A New York Times Bestseller, also listed in the Indie Next List for June 2020 and chosen as one of Oprah Mag’s 38 Romance Novels That Are Set to Be the Best of 2020, Emily Henry’s novel is clever and witty, her setting charming, with characters that are complicated, believable and genuinely funny.
Beach Read is more than just a romance story; Emily’s multi-layered plot comments on the placement and purpose of women’s fiction. I spoke with the author to find out more about writing contemporary romance, writer’s block and her next novel.
Beach Read explores themes of love and family. It’s fresh and well-paced, and its characters are beguilingly complex. Tell me a bit about your writing process.
I tend to be inspired by place more than anything, it’s usually the first thing I’m excited about. I only know of a couple of writers which feel the same way, but a lot of the time I have a setting in mind before character or plot. I think about gothic and horror novels where setting informs the kind of story that should take place there, and it’s the same with romance; it’s ‘what will this place bring out in a certain person’ with a contrast between this beautiful, relaxing place and a darker history from the main characters.
When it came to Beach Read, I knew I wanted to write a book set on the shores of the Michigan lakes – they are huge and super beautiful. They look like oceans from a lot of vantage points, and are idyllic as far as American beaches go because they are more of a regional destination, so there’s not a lot of tourism and crowdedness. I went to college there and fell in love with this cute little town; I felt like it would be the perfect setting for something that was romantic and light and fun, so I really wanted to immerse myself in a story that took place in that setting. That was the starting point, but the problem was I had no idea beyond that. I didn’t have characters, or a plot, or a problem. It took shape because I had writers block and I couldn’t think of a single thing to put my characters through except for that.
Also, I do tend to, like the protagonist January, write very quickly and very badly. I am not afraid to write a terrible first draft; in fact it’s very comforting for me to finish a draft no matter how bad it is. I think it might have taken somewhere between three to five weeks to write a very bad first draft for Beach Read. I just let the ball of momentum fall down the mountain and carry me [with it]. After that it’s a lot more work because it’s not a book, it’s just a bunch of dialogue and titbits of description. But I usually have an idea of where the book wants to go naturally and then I’m able to rewrite it.
Writer’s block drives the plotline in Beach Read, and both January and Augustus suffer from it. How do you tackle writer’s block yourself?
It’s really hard. I wouldn’t say I have found one prescription that works every time. Beach Read is a special circumstance: I can’t always write a book about writer’s block because I have writer’s block – that probably won’t work a second time. But I do think that my writers block comes down to a couple of different, real problems.
Sometimes the problem is just that I’m out of inspiration. It’s like I’m a sponge that has been squeezed too tightly. When that is the case, I find that I need to step away from my work, get out of the story and be outside; exercise, see friends. I’m a bit of a workaholic so that’s not what I always want to do. But unfortunately that’s not always an option – you really have to live your life. When you have a publishing schedule, it becomes an expectation for a lot of writers to put out a book every year, so there are times when you’ve lived a year of your life but not much has happened and you don’t have much more to say. If you are only ever working and don’t allow yourself to be around people, try new things and have new experiences, you are not necessarily accumulating much to talk about.
Another reason, which I’ve realised lately, is that so much of writer’s block comes down to fear. It’s not as if I can’t conceive of any direction to take the plot in, or that I’ve written myself into a corner, it’s just the fear that what I’m creating is not going to match up to what I initially envisioned. It’s a fear that’s so unnecessary and lacking in any power, because of course it’s not going to match up to what was in my head. When you create something, and you put an idea to paper, it can’t be the exact image you had in your head. Sometimes writer’s block is really just the fear of letting yourself down, and like many anxieties it doesn’t hold out when you back away from it and press it out. It can’t hurt you. Realising that has been helpful, and like I said I’m used to a bad first draft, so I don’t even know what the fear represents.
Are there any other personal experiences that inspired you to write Beach Read?
Before publishing ‘women’s fiction’, I published young adult novels which tend to get a similar reputation to romance novels. I definitely saw some genre snobbery; sometimes people condescended me and made assumptions about how I felt about my own work. After I sold my first book for teens, I remember having a conversation with a friend of a friend who asked me about my book. I started describing it and he said to me ‘Whatever pays the bills, right?’ I think that line actually made it into Beach Read. I was caught so off guard that I didn’t really challenge him at the time, I just sort of nodded along and then later thought about why he thought I didn’t love what I do, or why he thought I had lowered myself in some way.
These are genres that are dominated by women; women are in the editorial process, the writing process, and the reading process, and I think that has something to do with the way they are treated. People look at them and think of them as sillier and lighter, less important, very commercial, and not necessarily art. Yes, there’s commercial work in all of these genres, but there’s literary work too. The line between those two can be so flimsy, there’s not even a great way of explaining what makes something literary. Romance is treated as a guilty pleasure, and in the last ten years or so I have asked myself a lot of questions about guilty pleasures and why I am made to feel guilty for enjoying these narratives. It’s as though these novels are just candy for your brain, bad for you, and do not teach you anything like a more ‘serious’ book would. I wanted to challenge that notion and write a book that would ride the line between literary and commercial. I wanted to show that the books I love – women’s fiction and romance – have a lot of depth to them and evaluate what it means to be a person in the world.
Some of the references in the book, the things January is told, and her feelings of resentment come from my experience, but they also come from the experiences of my friends and peers (who I haven’t necessarily met). I have had some reviews which I thought were somewhat gendered reviews. I also remember reading a review of my friend’s book and at the time comparing this to another adult novel which was written by a man. Although hers was a really decent review, the review for the man’s was really blowing – it spoke about what a huge story his was and how vast it was, but for her book it kind of said ‘this is the opposite of that’, this is a very small story about a small circle of people. It felt like the review had basically called her book domestic. I read and loved both books, and I could not agree less with what the reviewer had said; they were both coming-of-age stories set in equally small towns, featuring a small group of friends and family. In a way I think this reflects on how women’s art has always been domesticated and seen as something very small, because for most of history women’s experiences have been limited to the home and just the people around them.
January and Augustus explore the boundaries of each other’s genres: hers being romance, and his being literary fiction. Is it important to you to experiment with genre in a way that challenges expectations?
Yes, definitely. When agents help to fill an author’s career, it’s generally agreed upon that it’s best for the author to stick to one genre, that way readers who like your book will like your next book. But I have found myself incapable of making my decision based on the business of writing. I can’t work that way – I mean I could, but I don’t think the books will be as good, so that’s definitely been a funny kind of struggle in my career.
Beach Read is very similar to the books I published for teens, except it’s a book for adults, obviously, and it also doesn’t have any genre-bent elements like sci-fi or magic realism, whereas all my books before that did. I had no idea when I started Beach Read that anybody was going to read it, it was just what I wanted to work on – I didn’t even send it to my agent for a full year after I had written it, it just sat on my computer. I didn’t know if people were reading books like that, I didn’t know if it was something the world wanted, and I especially didn’t have any reason to think it was something the world wanted from me. So, I mean, it was on the back burner for a while before I noticed that books like Beach Read were starting to pop up and I thought ‘Okay, maybe this is something that people do want.’
I have partly finished horror that I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to. I have a lot of weird high fantasy projects where I have written twenty thousand words and then decided it was all garbage. I kind of want to write in every single genre. I don’t really want to do just one thing even if it would maybe be better for my career; it won’t be as exciting and it won’t be as fun. My hope is that I’m able to write everything I’d want to write and bounce around, but for now I’m excited to tell more love stories and stories about women. I feel like I have that in me for a while before feeling a need to jump again.
Are you currently working on another romance novel?
I do have another book coming out next summer from Viking which I’m really excited about. I can share a little bit but not too much – it is another romance novel, so there is a love story but it’s not the only thing going on. What I have been readily sharing is that it’s my homage to When Harry Met Sally, which is one of my favourite movies of all time. It came about quite naturally and is in its finalish stages of editing, so I’ll be able to talk about it a lot more in a couple of weeks.
I think the readers of Beach Read will like it.
Which is your favourite chapter in Beach Read?
I love the book club scene with January’s purse wine, it was very fun to write. Overall the book doesn’t read like a typical rom-com because it is a little bit more understated and a little bit more serious, so I loved having that one scene that was kind of a slapstick moment. I feel like, every once in a while, you have a moment that seems straight out of a comedy, or everything feels like it’s falling into place to make the scenario as ridiculous as possible, so it was also really natural to write.
Are there any books or authors that inspire you?
Lately, I discovered Sherry Thomas who writes historical romance. I had never really read historical romance before but a friend of mine recommended The London Trilogy and it’s fantastic. The writing is so strong, and the characters are incredibly complex. It’s been inspiring to read her books even though I don’t have plans to write historical romance novels. Seeing what she does with characters and how she builds tension is really exciting to me. It seems like the kind of thing I can turn to if I’m stuck. What I would say is that it’s exactly the kind of writing that I think people would look down upon – they are mass-marketed books with covers of women in a dress and a man essentially ripping it open. I also just read Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, which, again, was another fantastic book. I didn’t know where it was going, and I could really fall into it as a reader.
In general, I read very widely; I don’t just read rom-coms. I have read a lot of them as well, but I read anything I can get my hands on. A lot of the time what inspires me is just reading something that is totally different from anything I would ever write, it gives me a break and lets my mind stop trying to build a story or trying to see what I can harness in my own writing. Since I started publishing, it’s harder to turn that writing part of your brain off and just enjoy a good book.
Interview by Briony Willis.
Beach Read, Emily Henry, Viking, 2020, 368pp, £7.99 (Paperback)
For more information and to purchase Beach Read, visit Penguin’s website.
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