Emily Henry, BOOK LOVERS

Emily Henry, BOOK LOVERS

Zibby is once again joined by New York Times bestselling author of Beach Read and People We Meet on Vacation Emily Henry to talk about her latest novel, Book Lovers, which follows two characters from the publishing world. The two marvel over the magic of finding the right book at the right time and Zibby shares what happened when she went back to review those very books later in life. They also discuss what inspired Emily’s Instagram presence, how she manages fan interactions with such popular books, and which real-life relationships helped her to create such a strong sister dynamic despite only having brothers.


Emily Henry: Hello.

Zibby Owens: Hey. How are you?

Emily: Good. How are you?

Zibby: I’m good. Thank you.

Emily: Your office looks so beautiful and cozy. I just want to climb into it.

Zibby: You know, it is. I’m always here looking at this computer. I know. It’s such a waste. I say this often. I need to set it up, but then I wouldn’t have as good a background.

Emily: Right. You would just have a wall, and you’re sitting facing the beautiful set.

Zibby: There are bookshelves this way too, but they’re not color — they’re messy, post-its everywhere. It’s a zoo.

Emily: The private shelves.

Zibby: Yeah, the private shelves. Congratulations on the launch of Book Lovers. So exciting.

Emily: Thank you.

Zibby: I’ve been really looking forward to this book and discussing this book and reading it. It was so fun and great. I am just convinced that you should text for everyone who ever wants to flirt, ever. People should hire you. You should just be one of those — you know that movie Roxanne, Cyrano de Bergerac or whatever where you’re always talking? You have this gift of flirty texting or whatever. Dialogue too, but particularly the texting.

Emily: Thank you. I think I would have to be both people in that texting situation, though. A lot of times, you set up the joke, and then the person on the other side is like, “K.” That’s all they have to say.

Zibby: That person’s not even worth your effort, then.

Emily: Delete that number.

Zibby: Move on to someone you can spar with. I think there is something so attractive about someone who’s on your same wavelength in that way, right?

Emily: Yeah. Even when you make a new friend and you’re like, wow, this is really going well, that’s such an exciting feeling, when you feel funnier and brighter and more sparkly because the person you’re talking to just gives as good as they get.

Zibby: Yes, totally. Let’s back up. Can you tell listeners what Book Lovers is about?

Emily: Book Lovers is about Nora Stephens, who is an uptight, ambitious, semi-cutthroat literary agent who lives in New York. She loves her life, loves her job, but she has this problem, which is that she keeps getting dumped by men who should be perfect for her for women who are her total opposite. Every time she gets a boyfriend, he gets sent out of town by his job, and while he’s there, he falls in love with a small-town baker or a florist, whatever. Her relationships end. She has kind of accepted that she is the villainess in every small-town romance story. She’s just there to be the foil to the good girl. Because of that, her younger sister Libby convinces her that they should get out of town for a month and have a sisters’ trip. They can kind of give Nora her own transformational small-town experience. Maybe she’ll fall in love with a carpenter or a local doctor, a country vet, whatever. While she’s there, she keeps running into her nemesis from back in the city, Charlie Lastra, who is this editor who summarily rejected Nora’s client’s big book and did so in a very rude way. They’ve been on the wrong foot ever since. He keeps intruding on what should be this really idyllic small-town experience and bringing his brand of New Yorker back into her periphery and upsetting everything.

Zibby: Amazing. I love how you have it. It’s so publishing-meta. You’re like, wouldn’t it be funny if there was a story like this? Then all of a sudden, you’re writing that story.

Emily: It’s so funny because the more time you spend in a certain world, the more you know its weird little quirks. You’re in books, in every single corner of books. I bet you would have — maybe this is something you’re working on. I feel like you would have so much to say about the podcasting world. Everybody listens to podcasts, but most of us don’t know anything about how the sausage gets made. You know all of the weird quirks, like what to expect from guests. You’ve probably had some very awkward interviews. You’ve done it all. I don’t keep setting out to write these very meta books, but I’m just really fascinated by so much of the book world.

Zibby: I never thought about writing about the publishing world, but I am actually working on a novel about the book world, but not romance at all, nothing like that. It is endlessly fascinating. In so many ways, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s this total conundrum. There’s so many books. There’s so many people who want to write books. There are so many readers, but then how do the readers find the right books? It’s like magic. It’s like dating. How do they find the right things?

Emily: I completely agree. I think that’s why it feels so miraculous when you do read a book and you’re like, this is the perfect book for me in this moment in time. I don’t even know if we stop to appreciate how weird that is. So often, I’ll pick up books that just for that moment, I’m like, I’m not feeling this. I’m going to set it aside. Then maybe three years later, I’m like, oh, yeah, that book. Try it again, and it’s a rollercoaster for me where I cannot get off and would not want to. I don’t know if we stop enough to be like, this is weird that I’m reading this thing that feels fated for me in this moment.

Zibby: Totally, or when you feel like somebody on the page is reading your mind. I have this memoir. I wanted to do an event with you about this. I have this memoir, Bookends, coming out. It’s a lot about my love of books and whatever. I felt like the opposite also happens. There are books that so hit me right after college. I was trying to figure my whole life out and all of this stuff. What they were going through, I was like, yes, this. Then I go back and read it. I’m like, what was I going through? Usually, then the authors have written something more recently that I’m still responding to. For any of us to go back — I don’t know.

Emily: I’m so with you. There are so many middle-grade or chapter books that I loved as a kid that as an adult, I’ve been like, I remember being eight years old and having a very strong emotional reaction to this book, and rereading it and realizing, yeah, this is a book for kids. It’s really bare bones. There’s very little character development. Not to say that’s every book for kids, but the ones I’m thinking of where you’re just like, I sobbed about this. It’s eighty pages long. Nothing really happens. You’re so right. The right book for the right time, it is like a time capsule.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s like clothing. You kind of outgrow certain things.

Emily: You need to let it go and buy yourself new clothes.

Zibby: You got to put those in the container under the bed or wherever you’re going to hide them.

Emily: The shame box.

Zibby: The shame box. The growing shame boxes, I should say. I’m curious because you are so open on social media and all this — you’re very funny. You’re a beautiful, beautiful young women, and yet you’re posting all these ridiculous faces that you make and all this stuff. It’s obviously a conscious choice to show behind the scenes and the reality of everything. Did that just happen? Did you decide to do that? Do you have a specific approach? I feel like the marketing of the brand of the author is also part of the puzzle of the whole thing.

Emily: I don’t remember when I started, but I definitely feel like Instagram has shifted in the last few years because the filters have changed from, you have dog ears, to, we gave you a sixteen-inch waist for some reason. Watching that, I had the realization — I didn’t know that that was happening. I use technology, but I’m never good at it. I’m always behind everything. I didn’t realize how much of what I was seeing was edited images. I reached a point where I was like, wow, I feel worse about myself physically than I ever have in my life. What’s going on? Then I realized, of course, I do. My main entry point into the world of strangers right now is beautiful pictures of them on the internet, oftentimes edited, not always. Of course, you want to post the most flattering picture. I do too. That’s why I post the most flattering pictures as well.

Realizing that and being like, wow, that’s really bad for me to not understand that that’s just the right lighting, the right makeup, the right whatever, it’s really bad for me mentally, and so I wanted to be like, I need to start sharing more of what actually happens when I take selfies. I’ll take them for twenty minutes, and there’s five that are good. I’m taking these pictures myself, and they’re still that ridiculous. I’m still blinking in most of them, and I’m the one controlling the clicker. How is this happening? Social media is so weird. You’re always trying to figure out how to be authentic on it, but you almost can’t because you’re always funneling yourself into this one picture and this caption. It’s just impossible to contain everything in that post. I think it’s a very small way of being like, yeah, this is great, here I am looking nice, and this is what I looked like in all the other pictures. It’s just a way to remind people that this is not the summation of my life and experience. This is one corner of my house that is clean. Everything else right now is absolute chaos. That’s the truth.

Zibby: I’m curious how you manage because you have multiple books now, Beach Read and People We Meet on Vacation. Everything has been back on the list and staying on the list and new books. There’s so much going on with you. How much time are you spending writing and then writing management stuff? How are you keeping up? How are you keeping up especially with the interaction with readers and fans? How are you doing that?

Emily: I think this is a funny question to get from you, who is famously the busiest woman in books making time for everything. To me, it feels like there’s too much. There’s too much. I can’t keep up with all of it. Then I look at all my friends who are raising kids and have other jobs and are doing all the same stuff as me. I was made in a laboratory to do one thing at a time and be very lazy. Right now, what I’m doing is, my team has been really great about giving me the end of the year where I’m like, no publicity stuff at all from September through end of December, early January so that I can write a book. Otherwise, it’s not happening. My big thing is I’m trying to work on saying no. That’s really hard because it’s often a ton of stuff you want to do. It’s not like saying no to your sister’s barber’s cousin’s birthday party. It’s saying no to a great interview or a great event with an author I love. That has been the biggest point of growth for me in the last year, is just simply having to say no and not being able to say yes, which is what I would do. I feel like there’s a chunk of the years that is supporting my release and talking to readers and all of that, a chunk of the year that’s just writing, and then the whole year just practicing saying no.

Zibby: Is reading fan mail from readers a guilty pleasure? Do you love doing that? Do you save it for certain times? You must get so much mail. Just tell me about the mail part, the incoming.

Emily: I’ll tell you about the mail. It’s really wild. Beach Read, I felt like, wow, I’m on top of the world. This is going so great. People We Meet on Vacation was the one that really caught on Booktalk. That was when the reader messages started to really pour in. That is amazing. There is no way that I could respond to all of them. It is the kind of thing where I do just, out of curiosity, go into my DMs every once in a while and read the lovely messages. It’s amazing. It’s the kind of thing where I almost feel like — I was talking to someone recently. They were saying, it’s kind of like looking into the Grand Canyon. On a logical level, you’re like, this is amazing. Your brain is like, don’t even bother trying to understand this because it is so huge. You cannot understand standing this close, how amazing this is. When I’m reading those messages, there’s this feeling of this very surreal quality where I’m just like, I can’t believe this is real. My brain is sort of refusing to compute it. It’s like, look at something else. You can’t handle what this is. It’s too amazing. You know?

Zibby: Yes, I totally get it. Oh, my gosh, I love it. Wait, let’s go back to the book for a minute. First of all, you have a great sister dynamic. You have the pregnant sister and somebody who’s really — she’s just so ready to get out of her own life, even though she has to hike her way up the hill. What a trip even means, what is an escape? and all of that and also the respect of people you work with or work for and how that plays into everything too, talk about either of those things. Talk about the sister relationship or talk about this love-hate work relationship situation.

Emily: The sister relationship — I have older brothers. I have sisters-in-law who I’ve now known for years and love like sisters and think of as sisters, but I grew up with older brothers. I had written about that relationship in one of my YA novels. A lot of my closest friends are older sisters who kind of have this caretaker relationship with their younger sisters. One of my best friends, I have gone on multiple girl trips with her and her sister. It’s so funny because they will really be at each other’s throats being so mean to each other. Then five minutes later, they’re laughing so hard they can’t stand up. They’re crying. I’m really fascinated by that relationship, the intensity of a close sister relationship, and especially one where they’ve been through all the same trauma. They’ve had the same childhood, even if it struck them kind of differently. One of them has taken on this parental role, but they’re also best friends. I was so fascinated by that and really wanted to write that.

Also, my other best friend, we’ve been best friends since we were ten years old, and so we’ve gone through all these big, major life transitions. We left and went to different colleges in different states. Then we moved back to Cincinnati. Then she left again and moved to Denver. I feel like I’ve been through all of those growing pains of, we love each other so, so much, but our lives are taking us in different directions. To really love each other well, we have to be willing to kind of let that space grow, to let you go and pursue your dream and live somewhere else. That’s a really painful but beautiful thing when you have that relationship that spans decades, and you have to just create room so that you can both keep growing. That love doesn’t have to go away. Even though I don’t have biological sisters or sisters in my immediate family, I really felt a lot of relationship with my friends creeping into it and the feelings of, I don’t want you to leave. I don’t want you to go anywhere where I can’t get to you. I also want you to be happy so badly. So much of Nora and Libby’s relationship is both of them feeling that way about each other.

Zibby: I just so related to Libby, I have to say.

Emily: Are you a younger sister?

Zibby: No, I mean the pregnancy part, the tired — no, sorry, not that part. Just the bedraggled — she didn’t want to express how — sometimes it’s really hard. That’s all.

Emily: One of my good friends was pregnant while I was writing the book. It was really nice because she’s so open, and so she was really sharing how she was feeling. That weird feeling of her identity splitting — it was her first — and feeling, I think of myself as this artist, and now I’m going to be a mom, and always feeling like she’s failing at one when she’s succeeding at the other, I think that’s so refreshing because you just don’t see it.

Zibby: I feel that after almost fifteen years of this.

Emily: I don’t think that men feel that same pressure. Parenting is important to men as well. I feel like that feeling of, I am only a mom in these moments or I’m only an artist in these moments, so I’m always dropping the ball on something, it’s so fascinating. It’s hard. I feel like I want to see more of that in fiction and the space given to moms to complain instead of being like, this is a beautiful experience. I love being pregnant so much. I loved my natural birth in a swimming pool at home. It’s okay to be like, I am so tired and sick of my family. I need a minute alone.

Zibby: I just read this book by Julia May Jonas called Vladimir. Did you read that?

Emily: No, but the cover is amazing.

Zibby: Yeah, the cover’s very racy. I was so embarrassed. I literally walked into my house, and I put it face down on the table when I walked in. I was like, I feel like I don’t want anybody to see this, this bare chest of a man. What do people think I’m reading? Can’t show my babysitter. In the beginning of that book, the main character is a novelist, and she wants to write this novel from three women’s perspectives, an artist, a mother, and a career woman. Then throughout her fictious book in this novel, you realize it’s the same woman. I loved that. I was like, why did you not write that book? Go write that book. She was like, okay, maybe I’ll write that book.

Emily: I hope she does.

Zibby: I hope she does. It’s so true. There are all these different identities that all of us have, whether you have your own kids or not, this whole sides of yourself that you have to interweave. Which one am I today? How much of this is — it’s like this pie chart. Each day, you only get to see a little bit of the slices. It’s like the chore chart. You could just flip it around. Today, I’m going to be event planner. I’ll be a photographer tomorrow.

Emily: Then a laundress.

Zibby: Then a laundress, yeah, exactly. Talk about the work relationship and how even between two very professional people who are super accomplished there can be some sort of underlying sexual tension. What do you do about that? Does it come from all the negativity? All of that.

Emily: It’s so interesting because — have you watched that show Severance? It just came out on Apple TV.

Zibby: No. With Adam Scott?

Emily: Yes. It’s really good.

Zibby: No, but I just saw the picture of it. I was like, I should watch that.

Emily: It’s fantastic. It’s dark. It’s upsetting, but it’s fantastic. So much of it, it’s this weird workplace satire, in a way. It’s so interesting because it’s obviously totally different from what I’m doing, but it was making me think so much about the dynamics that form in a workplace. There’s the shorthand now of my work wife or my work husband where you find that person who you’re like, okay, I’m sticking with you. I know who to look to in the meeting when somebody says something ridiculous. We’re going to be making eye contact and whatever. When you spend that much time at your job or have that really tricky work-life balance, those relationships are so important. It can very naturally become more. I was really excited for this book to have two characters who are so similar. Like you said, they’re both diehard professionals. I wanted to use that similarity to create this feeling of tension, first with them having sort of a contentious, argumentative relationship and then with sexual and romantic tension, just the idea of when you see yourself mirrored, that weird push/pull where you’re like, do I hate you, or do I love you? Is it because you are me? Is this narcissism? What’s happening? That was really fun because I had written mostly couples who were really different before that. I was like, I want to write two peas in a pod and see if I can still make it feel fairly intense and combustible.

Zibby: Did you see Dirty Rotten Scoundrels? This is from a really long time.

Emily: No. I’ve heard of it, but I have not seen it.

Zibby: It’s not totally related. I don’t know what is making me say this. The scammer is trying to take advantage of the woman who turns out to also be scamming him. It’s sort of the same thing. You don’t know who really has the power. You’re both doing what you’re doing. Yet you can’t always see it.

Emily: There’s that feeling of competitiveness, totally.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I love the dynamic between Nora and Charlie. Charlie, right?

Emily: Thank you. Yeah.

Zibby: It was really awesome. I left wanting more.

Emily: Thank you. That’s the best.

Zibby: What’s your next novel? Do you have it already —

Emily: — I have a draft of it. I can’t speak freely and openly about it. I think it’ll be coming out next summer. It is another romance. The cast is slightly larger, which is something I’m trying to balance now in edits, making everyone feel real. So much of it, it’s about a friend group. I’ll say that. It’s about a friend group and a relationship within that friend group. I feel like it feels really different, but obviously, I really only know how to do a couple of things. I think readers who like this one will still really like that one, hopefully.

Zibby: It is also set in the literary world, or can you not say?

Emily: It is not set in the literary world. I’m trying to think if there’s even a single character from — it is not. In that way, it’s different. I do feel like I could just keep writing books set in the literary world forever. I really do. Now at this point, I’m trying to find a way to distinguish my books. I’m like, I can’t just do this. Honestly, I’ll probably come back and do another one. Maybe it’ll be a book podcaster if you don’t do that first. We’ll see.

Zibby: Interesting. We could do it together. I don’t know if there’s enough about podcasting. I’m literally just sitting here in my room.

Emily: There’s the quirks and the people. I’m sure a lot of people show up without headphones. That sounds so boring, but I feel like there’s a way to do it funny.

Zibby: You’re probably right.

Emily: You’re just too close to it now. If you started writing down everything that’s happened to you since starting the podcast, there would be a lot there. A lot of that’s going into the memoir, probably, though.

Zibby: No, not too much.

Emily: Really? Cool. I’m so excited for that.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I have to send it to you.

Emily: Please do.

Zibby: It’s true, I almost wrote an article about what not to do when you’re a guest on a podcast. I think I should write that.

Emily: I think you should. That would be helpful for a lot of us.

Zibby: You’re not doing any of those things.

Emily: Oh, good.

Zibby: I did have one interview where I was just like, this is a perfect example.

Emily: I hope they were chewing gum.

Zibby: I won’t even say. It hardly ever happens. It’s just like, okay. I honestly can’t even remember who that was because I could go back and listen to it again to remind myself what I was even thinking. Anyway, interesting. Do you have any parting advice for aspiring authors?

Emily: I really feel like you just have to not give up. It feels like everybody else has had this overnight success, and that’s almost never true. That’s the one in a million. Most of us really are doing the frantic googling, building of Excel spreadsheets, just trying to get all the information to query agents and all of that. It feels so trite to say, but it really is true that it just takes so many noes before you get a yes. All you really need is that one yes. It can be so discouraging. The big thing is I just want people to know they are very much not alone. Not even just the other people who are aspiring to publish, but all of the published writers they’re listening to podcasts of and reading, all of those people are also very familiar with rejection. That’s just a part of it.

Zibby: Very true. Awesome. I’m so excited for the book. Congratulations again. Let’s keep talking.

Emily: Thanks, Zibby. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Bye, Emily. Take care.

Emily: Bye.

Emily Henry, BOOK LOVERS

BOOK LOVERS by Emily Henry

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