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‘My favourite stories are love stories’: Emily Henry on her enemies-to-lovers relationship with romance fiction
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‘My favourite stories are love stories’: Emily Henry on her enemies-to-lovers relationship with romance fiction

A few weeks after Emily Henry’s second romance novel, You and Me on Vacation, was published in May 2021, she noticed a “giant” spike in sales. Her editor and agent had noticed it too. They were all emailing and texting, trying to figure out what was happening, when someone finally cracked it: “It’s BookTok”.

Henry had already made it on to the New York Times bestseller list twice, first with her romance debut, Beach Read, then with You and Me on Vacation. But TikTok videos made by impassioned fans vaulted the American author to a new level of fame. Since then, videos tagged #EmilyHenry have been viewed more than 300m times, and her books have sold more than 4m copies. Three of her five romances are being adapted for film.

Henry’s romcoms feature many hallmarks of the genre – blossoming romances, idyllic settings, happy endings. Yet her characters also work through grief, betrayal, loneliness. “I find it really hard to write a compelling love story where you don’t pick at the emotional scabs of the hero and heroine,” she says from her home in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she lives with her husband. The early days of falling in love involve “emotional excavation”; a “long-form game of show and tell” in which partners “trot out everything” from their past to get to know each other. Problematic exes, hang-ups, family dramas – Henry’s characters have all their baggage laid bare.

In her latest novel, Funny Story, librarian Daphne is dumped by her soon-to-be husband and moves in with her ex-fiance’s new girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend, Miles. Henry knows “more people than you would expect” who have found themselves in a similar situation. While the partner swap is the marketable storyline, Daphne’s struggle to belong, her longing for friendship and her fraught relationship with her father anchor the plot, making her a more complex, believable heroine.

Henry, 33, believes the huge success of her books is down to this blend of escapism and reality. She says she was drawn to the genre because while characters do face the messy complications of real life, the focus remains on “the hope of the world”. Readers need this – during Covid, the time when Henry’s novels took off, people “wanted to believe that we’d get through that, and that life would be beautiful again”.


Growing up in Cincinnati, Henry was a “huge reader”, and began writing what was essentially fanfiction, though she didn’t know it had a name. “As a kid, I would get up to date on whatever series I was reading, and I would just want more and there wouldn’t be more.” Later, she studied creative writing at Hope College, graduating in 2012. Her first job was a technical writing role for a phone, internet and TV provider – a “very corporate, boring job”. On the side, she edited novels she had written in college, and began sending them to agents.

Henry didn’t start off as a romance writer: she began her career writing young adult novels, a genre that appealed because it featured “girl- or woman-centred” stories, with emphasis placed on emotions and sentimentality – something that “more literary” fiction had struck her as “allergic to”. Her first YA novel, The Love That Split the World, was published in 2016, and three more would follow.

There was a moment, however, when Henry began to feel she had said everything she wanted to say about teenage life. She was also feeling “very overwhelmed [by] the world at large” and wanted to write something “warm, inviting, cosy” – and so began what would become Beach Read. She did not tell anyone that she was writing it, and she had “no intention, really” of publishing it.

The pivot from YA to romance was also partly down to her newly becoming a romance reader, arriving at the genre late having internalised the social snobbery towards it. Reading romance was considered a shameful hobby, she says, of silly or lonely women – “such an offensive kind of stereotyping”.

Beach Read pokes at this snobbery. The heroine, January, is a romance writer who spends the summer living next door to her college rival, an acclaimed author of literary fiction. January laments: “If you swapped out all my Jessicas for Johns, do you know what you’d get? Fiction. Just fiction. Ready and willing to be read by anyone, but somehow by being a woman who writes about women, I’ve eliminated half the Earth’s population from my potential readers.” The two characters making cases for why their genre is more worthy felt like the “two sides of my brain arguing with each other”, she says.

The book was partly inspired by her experience on the creative writing programme at Hope, where she’d tried to write her “version” of literary fiction, but ended up largely mimicking other writers – she hadn’t found her voice yet. “I have not lived Ernest Hemingway’s life, it makes no sense for me to try to write The Old Man and the Sea.”

Henry thinks the recent boom in romance is partly due to our particular “moment in history” leading people to reach for stories with hope at the centre, and partly because of younger generations embracing the genre, and raving about it online. She does not have a TikTok account, but she admires its grassroots, reader-driven nature.

BookTok users often recommend romances based on plot “tropes”, such as friends-to-lovers, opposites attract, or childhood sweethearts. Funny Story features several tropes, including “fake relationship”: Daphne and Miles pretend to be a couple to attract the envy of their exes. The “tropification” of the genre has been criticised for narrowing reader tastes and for encouraging writers to build stories around tropes. Yet, for Henry, “tropes don’t matter if you don’t buy into the story, and I think that’s always character-based”.

One popular trope – which appears in her first romance, Beach Read, and her third, Book Lovers – is enemies-to-lovers. The device is tried and tested: think Pride and Prejudice. “If you write an enemies-to-lovers dynamic,” says Henry, “there is instantly tension and conflict, so there is an opportunity for more playful dialogue.” That tension is “a lot harder to create, in my experience, if you’re writing a friends-to-lovers”.

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The friends-to-lovers trope features in Henry’s You and Me on Vacation; other examples include Austen’s Emma and David Nicholls’ One Day. That the conversation about tropes is so focused on romance is not “totally fair”, she adds. “There are not that many ways to break a story down. So I don’t think romance is any more formulaic than any other kind of story out there. There’s a natural beat and rhythm to a love story that is just kind of innate.”

Though Henry says that none of her characters are based on her, she always incorporates aspects of herself. In her fourth romance novel, Happy Place, protagonist Harriet is a “huge people pleaser”. “That’s something that I see causes problems in my life, so it made sense to take this piece of myself that I find very frustrating and try to work it out and understand why I am that way and why I’m actually so afraid of confrontation at all costs.” The personal elements that Henry incorporates are what make her “very protective of the characters and worried that everyone will hate them”.

Henry met her own husband “very young, right out of high school”. Her male characters are never based solely on him. However, Miles from Funny Story has “shades of my three favourite men in the world” – her grandfather, her father and her husband, who are all “very kind, steady” people.

Travel features prominently in several of Henry’s novels – Book Lovers takes place in fictional Sunshine Falls, North Carolina; Happy Place is set at a Maine holiday cottage with pine floorboards and white linen drapes. To Henry, travelling allows an escape from the mundanity of everyday life: “you’re seeing who you are”, she says, your “triggers get triggered”, and you find out whether you can “enjoy things going wrong together, or if this person you’re with just becomes your perfect nightmare”.

For a long time, Henry was a morning writer, waking up to do Wordle and Spelling Bee before writing until she had 2,000 words – “whether that took two hours or nine hours” – but she now prefers to write at night. She starts with an “incoherent, way too long, pretty boring” first draft, then takes stock of where “nothing’s happening, or the tension drops out, or there’s too many arguments in a row”, before rewriting. Henry is now working on another romance, which will feature parenting as a theme; though she isn’t a parent, she’s “fascinated”. While she is open to writing other genres – she has written horror that “hasn’t been shown to anyone”, as well as thrillers – she believes she will always gravitate towards love stories.

Despite becoming a romance reader relatively late, Henry now sees the genre’s hopeful endings as hugely valuable – after “a lifetime of being led to believe that these books were just no good, and finding out how completely untrue that was. Almost all of my favourite stories are love stories of some kind.”

Source: theguardian.com