‘Romance novels have been denigrated because they talk about female pleasure’: Emily Henry on Happy Place, BookTok and sex scenes

Emily Henry’s knowing romcoms have sold four million copies and turned her into a BookTok favourite. She talks to Amanda Whiting about her new novel ‘Happy Place’, her obsessive online fandom and why romance novels are ‘innately progressive’

Tuesday 25 April 2023 15:01 BST
Emily Henry: Things are going to go wrong, people are going to get hurt ... but you know that at least the love story is going to turn out OK
Emily Henry: Things are going to go wrong, people are going to get hurt ... but you know that at least the love story is going to turn out OK (Devyn Glista)

Sex is messy, even on paper. In Emily Henry’s early drafts, articles of clothing – a bra, a sundress – are clumsily removed more than once. A heroine is pressed against a closet door that suddenly transmorphs into a shower wall. And human limbs end up at “anatomically improbable” angles, says the Happy Place author, usually because she’s forgotten to change their positions from whatever she was imagining a few lines back. It starts out choreographed in the mind of the American romance writer, but it’s also…breathless? Chaotic? “Mortifying,” Henry says. “You forget that a character didn’t take their shirt off, and suddenly, they’re shirtless, and a copy editor’s like, ‘When did this happen?’”

Perhaps the only area of human intimacy trickier to capture than sex is true love, but the 32-year-old author, who’s published three bestselling contemporary romance novels in the last three years, has a knack for happy endings in the style of rewatchable Nineties romcoms. In her 2020 adult fiction debut, the winkingly titled Beach Read, January Andrews, a romance writer with an ugly case of writer’s block, accidentally moves in next door to her literary nemesis, Gus, a writer of Serious Books. The pair trade barbs over the low-slung fence. They concoct a convoluted dare – each must write a book in the other’s genre by summer’s end – to ensure they’ll spend months in each other’s pockets. Four million sold books later, Henry now finds herself among BookTok’s most beloved romance writers, right alongside Colleen Hoover, and Drew Barrymore’s a fan.

That January and Gus fall in love is, as genre demands, just a matter of when. It’s an “enemies-to-lovers” tale of “opposites attracting” over a season of “forced proximity”. Since Beach Read, Henry has published People We Meet on Vacation (a “friends-to-lovers”, “second chance” romance between college friends) and Book Lovers (a “work adversaries” set-up featuring a “misunderstood heroine” and a real grump). The thrill of a contemporary romance novel is in the careful arrangement of tropes and its heroine’s bespoke cocktail of neuroses. (And yes, of course, the sex scenes.)

No, Henry hasn’t reinvented the romance wheel, but, for her loyal readers, she’s perfected the easy speed at which it spins. From the outset, “that’s the nice little gift that you’re giving the reader,” says Henry. “Things are going to go wrong, people are going to get hurt, bad things will happen, but you know that at least the love story is going to turn out OK.”

Henry was raised on Nora Ephron movies and reruns of Gilmore Girls, which is as apt a comparison as any I could make. There’s a spinning-top quality to her leading ladies, whose quest for romantic satisfaction is always coupled with a crucial decision-point in her career – think You’ve Got Mail. The drolly scattershot dialogue Henry builds her heroines from, meanwhile, could work as Lorelai repartee. “I have an idea,” Gus gravely tells January in Beach Read, to which she responds – sharply, preposterously – “A seventh Pirates of the Caribbean movie? It’s so crazy it might work!”

In fact, Henry’s books are so easily imaginable as the kinds of romcoms they just don’t make anymore that they’re becoming them. All three of her romance novels have been optioned for TV or film, with writers and directors attached (a milestone in the adaptation process that suggests these projects will actually get made). Henry’s fourth novel, Happy Place, is a “forced proximity”, “fake relationship”, “wedding fever” romp between Harriet, a stressed-out junior doctor, and Wyn, a carpenter she’s pretending to date. The novel has already landed on Apple Books’ Best of April list and, more crucially for US sales, it’s a Walmart Book Club pick. In the UK, Happy Place is the first Henry book to launch in hardback. The rampant Instagram fan-casting of Harriet and Wyn will assuredly start as soon as the novel is released on 25 April.

But “romance author” is only Henry’s most recent incarnation as a writer. Raised in woodsy Kentucky and, as a teen, the Ohio side of the great Cincinnati conurbation, she spent her free time tucking into fantasy novels: Katherine Applegate’s Animorphs series, Madeleine L’Engle, The Chronicles of Narnia. When the novels ended – always too soon – she’d keep writing them, fitting new stories inside inherited worlds. “No childhood is without its struggles,” Henry tells me as she rocks gently forward and back on the burnt orange sofa in her office. “But it was the idyllic childhood that you couldn’t have now.” Henry, it turns out, was writing fan fiction before there was a Reddit audience for it. “It’s really hard to find that line between my career and everything else, because all I really ever want to do is read or watch movies or watch shows or write.”

Happy Place is a ‘fake relationship’ romp between a junior doctor and a carpenter she’s pretending to date
Happy Place is a ‘fake relationship’ romp between a junior doctor and a carpenter she’s pretending to date (Penguin)

In college in Michigan, Henry finished writing a young adult novel, but when she moved back to Cincinnati after graduation, the realities of student loans set in. She always knew she wanted to be a writer and yet she was waylaid from publishing her first novel by her first writing gig: scripting online manuals for the local phone provider. Henry was too bored of the technical writing that comprised her days to write at home. But after four years, she’d come to hate the job so much she was willing to risk her credit score for even a morsel of career satisfaction.

So she started revising the novel she’d written in college, and querying every agent whose email address was on the internet. There was no professor/mentor holding her hand; Henry didn’t have industry connections. “I was just a person googling, ‘How do I do this?’.” Eventually, an agent said yes and Henry – at the breakneck pace that’s become typical for her – published three YA magical realism novels within three years. “I really enjoyed coming-of-age stories,” she tells me. “But I was young enough at that time to not realise that high school is not your only coming of age.”

She found romance a few years later, out of necessity. “I started reading it because I was incredibly anxious and under-medicated,” says Henry, who now takes an SSRI, alongside the novels of fellow contemporary romance scribes Sally Thorne and Helen Hoang. “I started reading romance at a time when I couldn’t get through any other book without freaking out about something. It was the way that I could relax. I knew that things were going to be OK.” Henry didn’t write Beach Read until she was approaching 30. “At that point, I realised, ‘Oh, I can just keep ageing my characters up, and there will always be some big transformation to write about because you keep having those’.”

Sometimes when [fans] comment that they would die for me, I’m like, ‘Please don’t. I don’t need that’

The stigma surrounding the romance genre is something that Henry has crafted an entire novel around. It undergirds the plot of Beach Read, a love story between a woman who writes chick-lit and a guy who I imagined, for whatever reason, as Leaving the Atocha Station writer Ben Lerner. (Am I allowed to fan-cast Ben Lerner?) “The reason that romance novels have been so denigrated is because it was the one genre where it was OK to talk about female pleasure, and that makes it not art for some reason,” says Henry, who considers the genre “innately progressive” for largely catering to women and queer people in the first place. “In literary fiction, you can write about people having bad, gross, creepy sex or sad sex. But you can’t write about good sex with an emotional connection without people being like, ‘That is drivel.’”

Henry calls her own books, in which the sex is heterosexual and monogamous, “mid-range” sexual. Genre virgins will be titillated; erotica readers, she tells me, give her a sexiness rating of one. But the specificity with which she does or does not describe the arousal of her heroine’s nipple is beside the point. Henry thinks romance novels are just plain “good for us”. Because it’s good for us, as readers, to push past the embarrassment. “I feel like it’s a long con that has been going on since before the Victorian era to just convince women that everything about them is a little bit shameful.”

And lots of readers, particularly the millennials and Gen-Z women who dominate the bookish corners of Instagram and TikTok, agree with her. They highlight her books like they’re academic textbooks, and make dramatic declarations of fealty (“Emily Henry owns me”). Henry, who grew up in the last few seconds of life without cell phones and so never wondered what Katherine Applegate or Madeleine L’Engle looked like, doesn’t necessarily relate to the form of modern fandom. “Sometimes when they comment that they would die for me, I’m like, ‘Please don’t. Please don’t. I don’t need that. Live your beautiful life. I’m just a person.’”

Henry herself is active, if guarded, on social media. She mentions that she lives in Cincinnati with her rescue pup, Dottie, and her partner, who she tells me is “an artist of every kind” before declining to say more. The majority of her posts are carousels of selfies with a very specific formula: a bold lip a la Taylor Swift, side-swept fringe, head cocked to the side so that her temple rests on the spine of a newly released romance novel written by a friend or a colleague that she’d like you to consider buying. She’s disarming on Instagram, where her bio reads “it’s just my nose ring” – an evergreen response to eagle-eyed commenters who think they’ve spotted a bogey — and she frequently includes photos that might be confused for outtakes (strained smiles, double chins, crossed eyes).

It’s fun to have opinions, and it’s easy to forget that there are people who might be reading your opinions

Maybe it’s shrewd girl-next-door marketing or maybe she’s born with this natural quirkiness. “I did not realise how much interest there would be in me as a person,” says Henry, reflecting on the social media approach she’s cobbled together. “That’s been a balancing act of me trying to figure out my boundaries there and what I want to invite my readers into and what I want to keep for myself. I’ve basically found that the thing that I’m always able to do is just talk about what I’m reading.” In her most confessional posts, she polls her followers’ opinions on whether or not she should buy the slightly twee, mod-ish shift dress she’s rented from Nuuly.

Henry, for her part, fully anticipates that one day she too will be torn down by the masses that built her up. “Why do we feel like a woman has this weird expiration date that she’s allowed to be visible before we need to get rid of her? Unfortunately, I think that’s the successful woman cycle,” says Henry, who admits to participating in such pile-ons when she was younger, before she “recognised it for what it is”. It’s not that everyone who doesn’t like her books is a misogynist, she makes clear. “It’s fun to have opinions, and it’s easy to forget that there are people who might be reading your opinions.”

“I have this huge readership that has given me my dream job,” Henry says, when I ask her about the pressure of the feedback loop and the daylight between the person she is and the person she is for her fans. For self-preservation’s sake, Henry avoids the reviews that get posted to Goodreads. But she also actively wants her readers to be happy with what she makes for them. She gives herself permission to write in the direction of success, to embrace about herself what others embrace about her writing. “Yeah, I am writing for my readers. But I also trust that my readers like what I do overall. So I feel like I can mostly trust myself at this point.”

Happy Place is out now

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