Emily Henry, BEACH READ

Emily Henry, BEACH READ

Zibby Owens: I interviewed Emily Henry via Skype during the quarantine. I was a little bit late getting to this, and she was very nice about it. Emily wrote a book called Beach Read which has been on every most-anticipated summer read list there is. Emily writes stories about love and family for both teens and adults. She studied creative writing at Hope College and the New York Center for Art & Media Studies and now spends most of her time in Cincinnati and the part of Kentucky just beneath it, so get out your maps if that doesn’t make sense to you. Enjoy listening to our conversation.

Welcome, Emily. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Emily Henry: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

Zibby: I’m excited to talk about your book called Beach Read when it is not yet beach read time.

Emily: Will it ever be again?

Zibby: Will it ever be again? I know. We’re doing this in April. I’m looking forward to your cover as a way of life.

Emily: Seriously.

Zibby: Could you please tell listeners what Beach Read is about?

Emily: I’ll do my best. You might have noticed, my book is rather long. I’m not short winded. The elevator pitch is always tricky for me. The basic premise is that a romance author who has recently lost her father and found out some pretty damning secrets about him and her parents’ marriage sort of loses her belief in love. This is obviously hugely problematic when that is how she supports herself, is writing love stories. She’s really, really late in turning in her next book. She hasn’t been able to write basically a single word. She doesn’t know what to say. She and her boyfriend break up. She’s broke because she doesn’t have income from her next book. She’s forced into a situation where she has to actually go stay at her father’s secret second home, which is a beach house on the shore of Lake Michigan. I have gotten some reviews where people are like, I didn’t realize this was going to be a lake book. If you haven’t seen Lake Michigan, you do need to google it right now probably to know that it looks like the ocean. It’s a very similar beach town vibe, at least in the summer. Winter’s a whole different ballgame.

She’s living in this little beachside town in this house that has all of these traumatizing, triggering pseudo-memories for her. She realizes that next door, her college rival from her creative writing program has been living. He’s become a very successful literary fiction writer. He’s sort of a darling of the industry. He’s done everything “right,” has his MFA. I honestly can’t remember if he has his doctorate. He might have his doctorate. They’ve always had sort of a contentious relationship where she’s felt that he looked down on her. She’s found him sort of arrogant and annoying. Because she’s there without any friends, anything to do, and really needs to write a book, the two of them hatch a plan to swap genres and see who can write in each other’s genre and sell it first. He’s sort of in a rut too. They take each other on field trips to teach each other about what it is they do and how they research for their books. I don’t know, they may or may not in love. It’s hard to say with a book categorized as romance. That’s the basic pitch. To me, it’s very much a warm hug. There are some darker themes too. I truly cannot write a book without talking about grief and death for some reason, but I really wanted to do that in a safe confine, just make it feel like you can handle these harder, heavier things in this very safe environment, which I think is what romance and the lighter end of women’s fiction are really great for.

Zibby: I think that was a great elevator pitch.

Emily: It’s just a very long ride, is the problem. You’re going to the top floor.

Zibby: We’re in a skyscraper elevator. I was struck by the theme of loss and how the main character had lost her dad, and her mother having battled cancer. There was, as you say, a lot of serious stuff mixed in with the flirtatiousness and all the rest. It made me wonder if something in your life had led you write about that, if you had lost somebody close to you, or if it’s just a literary device that you like to use. Tell me more about that.

Emily: It’s interesting because my second YA novel also was about a girl who’d lost her father. I feel very, very lucky that my father and both my parents are still living. I have lost people, but no one as integral to my sense of self so far. It is, obviously, one of my greatest fears. As soon as I could really comprehend death, it’s something that I started worrying about because I’m extremely close with my parents. They’re very young and fit in my eyes, but they’re in their sixties now. Don’t tell them I said that. I’m super close with them. I’ve lived in fear of that, sort of. It’s kind of strange, but I think I started really writing about death when I lost my childhood dog, was when I started really thinking about that. It’s kind of strange, but for someone who’s fairly introverted, a dog is such an easy best friend because there’s so much silence. There’s so much complete understanding without socialization, which is kind of funny. That really stirred up a lot of the fears that I think I had been suppressing. It’s something I spent a lot of time thinking about and trying to not think about.

Writing has definitely been my way of coping with the things that I’m afraid of. I think around the time that I wrote this, I did have a family friend who had been diagnosed with cancer. She’s doing really well now. It’s been a few years, actually, since I wrote this book. It does kind of feel like when something happens, it all happens at once. I wanted to investigate that because that’s a really hard place to come out of, when three or four things go very, very wrong in life instead of just one. It’s really hard to feel hope at that point. If just one thing really falls off kilter in your life and is out of whack, you can still have hope. When you just start seeing thing after thing hitting you while you’re down, it’s really hard to start thinking forward to a time when you won’t feel like that. Also, I’m a fairly anxious person. I think the main trick of anxiety is it keeps you living in the past and the future.

For this book, the message that I really would want people to take away is to find ways to grab hold of happiness in the dark because it’s really easy to worry. It’s really easy to think forward or think back to the things that you have been through, and not that that’s bad. You have to reflect. You have to face your emotions. I also think it can feel — my phone thinks I said Siri for some reason. No, Siri, you’re not welcome here. It can be so easy to not allows yourself any little scrap of happiness or to feel almost guilty feeling any happiness when you’re in the middle of that. I think it’s something that I have been wrestling forward with, in a way. It’s not my present. Like I said, I have lost people. I’ve lost pets. I think the people who I’m most fearful — I know it’s inevitable someday. We all have to live without our person who has shaped us the most. I’m always looking for ways to find beauty and meaning in the things that are the very hardest, I guess.

Zibby: I worked on this piece of fiction a little while ago. I was talking to my husband about it. I was like, “I think I’m going to have the main character’s mom die.” He was like, “You can’t do that to your mother.” I was like, “It’s not about me or my mother.” He’s like, “It doesn’t matter. She would take it that way. You can’t do it.” I was thinking that as I was listening to you talk, how in two books you’ve lost your father and what he must think reading those.

Emily: We’re so similar, I think he actually probably exactly understands what’s happening. It’s a little bit funnier because I do think I’ve written a couple of bad-mom characters, and my mom’s wonderful. We have a lot in common, but she’s more different from me than me dad is. I think that’s probably the funnier thing, is when she’s reading a bad mom. Usually, in my acknowledgments I always try to give them a little shout-out so nobody thinks that I’m writing about my parents. I think that’s a really good point that your husband made. I have, I guess, put them through the ringer. They haven’t read Beach Read yet. They just know it’s a romantic comedy, basically. They know the pitch. They know everything that’s on the internet. It’s kind of funny because when I told my mom that I’d sold the book — I actually never tell them what I’m working until it’s sold. When I told her I’d sold the book, she was sort of like, “I’m so happy you’re finally writing a comedy. I’m really excited because you’re so good at the humor stuff in your books. I’m looking forward to something that’s not quite as heavy.” They’re in for a rude awakening, is what I’m saying, really.

Zibby: No, it is funny, though. It’s a little of everything. It’s like life. You can have a great sense of humor and have bad things happen. In fact, that’s probably one of the best tools you can have to get through a time like that.

Emily: For sure. It’s a really tricky time humor-wise because with people who already know me and are very close with me, I can go to a fairly dark place with my sense of humor as a coping mechanism. So many times, I’m on Instagram and I’m like, should I share something? I think of a joke I want to share. Then I just think, it’s really hard to know. You don’t want people to feel like you’re not taking anything seriously or you don’t understand the fear that they’re living in because you’re finding this really mundane, stupid way to joke about what’s going on. For a lot of people, humor is the greatest coping mechanism. For me, it certainly is.

Zibby: It’s so true. I loved how in your book you were almost poking fun, also, at the inner publishing world snobbery between people who write literary fiction and people who write beach reads or women’s fiction or rom-coms, chick-lit. There’s so many different names for everything. It’s such a crapshoot where your book even falls and what it even means and why these genres even exist, which some people take issue with to begin with. You have your main character sort of embody these two different genres. That’s the whole thing of your book, which is hilarious. Tell me about — I know the comment — well, tell everybody the comment that really got you on this track and how you came up with this.

Emily: Oh, my gosh, okay. There are so many different threads. I feel like for every book that I write, there are so many different threads that suddenly in a moment just tie into a knot and I’m like, this is a book. I have a friend of a friend who I was talking to. I think it was after I sold my first young adult novel. I was telling someone I hadn’t seen in a while, basically, “I sold my first book. This is what it is.” He said something like, “Yeah, I mean, whatever pays the bills.” It was such a strange moment because I can be such a pleaser that I’m not even sure I was like, hold up, that’s not what this is. I definitely felt my stomach sort of bottom out thinking, people think I’m doing this for some sort of cash grab, which is a really common misconception with young adult novels. Because there were a few huge blockbusters, people think that there’s a ton of money in it and anybody can do that. If you do that, then you’re going to be rich. It was a strange moment to realize someone thought that I was not doing what I wanted to do and that I was just making a play for money and dumbing myself down in some way to speak to the masses. That was not at all what was happening.

I was really excited about what I was writing. I have always loved young adult fiction because it gives space to emotion and sentiment. I love literary fiction too. I love books in, truly, every single genre. When you’re in a creative writing program, you’re reading mostly male voices, mostly older white male voices, at least until you get into more specialized classes. In general, you’re reading a more traditionally masculine approach to writing, something that kind of strips away emotion. I guess I just think of Hemmingway. All of his sentences are super sparse and brief and concise. He’s not going to tell you what his characters are feeling, and probably thinks, I’m not doing my job if you can’t figure it out. I’m not sure. I don’t know what he thinks. I’ve been drawn to fiction that really leaves room for emotion and that doesn’t say, this isn’t art if people are feeling things or this isn’t art if there is drama, if there is romance, anything like that. That comment, to me, was like, you don’t understand that this is something I really love and respect and believe in and have thought through. It’s not just me making a cash grab. Frankly, I don’t think that’s even possible. I don’t think you can hate Twilight and then be like, oh, but I could do that, and then sit down and write Twilight. I don’t think that’s possible. I think you’re only capable of writing what you’re capable of writing. You can parody something, but that’s it.

Zibby: I also think most writers do not go into this field for the money.

Emily: No.

Zibby: Or if they do, they need to turn around and walk out again. It’s like winning the lottery if you have a book that is really financially successful. People do it, I think, and I’m sure you would agree, they do it for the love of what they’re doing and the craft and the need to connect or share their stories or whatever. I’m not happy with the person who said that to you.

Emily: I see a little bit of violence in your face, Zibby.

Zibby: No, I’m sorry. I know. It’s annoying.

Emily: I’m just kidding.

Zibby: It’s really a huge accomplishment to sell any work of fiction or any book and to spend that long and work on it and see it published. It’s amazing. I feel like it’s how the Oscars celebrate small indie films a lot of the time or very artsy things that maybe most people haven’t gone to see. Then the movies that everybody has seen don’t even get a second look for the Oscars. It’s like the court of popular opinion and then the awards. I think there’s room for everything, is all I’m saying.

Emily: Exactly. I think it’s a really funny idea that for a lot of people to like something it must be kind of bad. I think what people are missing is for a lot of people to like something, there’s something there. There’s a “there” there. Yes, a lot of times, the thing that everyone loves is not the thing that speaks the most to me or the thing that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. When you find that little thing that other people aren’t talking about but is so specific to you, that’s a really magical feeling. For so many people to love something, there’s something that has to be acknowledged there. Someone is doing something right. I wasn’t even writing big YA fiction. I was writing genre-slanted books that were — they aren’t huge. I’m fine with that. I wrote books I loved. Beach Read is probably the first thing I’ve written that’s as accessible as it is. Again, I did it because I wanted to do it. I didn’t think I was going to get rich from that.

Zibby: But Beach Read is not YA, is it?

Emily: No, it is not.

Zibby: I’m like, did I miss — I’m looking at it again. I was like, did I make a mistake?

Emily: No, it is not. I think romance is the same thing. That comment — I’ll jump back because I really moved far off course. That comment had always been in the back of my brain since then. Then a couple years later I was just having a hard time. The world seemed really bleak and dark, as no one can imagine right now. I just felt like I needed to play and be somewhere that was sort of just like a secret for myself. I started on this book that was about writer’s block because I also had no ideas. I was like, well, I’ll just write a book about writer’s block, but I’ll set it in this world that I want to be in right now, which is a warm beach town with a lovable cast. I’ll just throw in the ingredients that I’m really craving even though I don’t have an idea. The idea really was just writer’s block. That was the prompt for this book. I believe, yeah, it’s the first book I’ve ever written for adults and fully about adults. I was just writing it for myself. That’s always the best policy when you can do that. I don’t think you can always do that. Sometimes you owe someone a specific book.

It was a really wonderful experience because it was something — I didn’t even tell my husband what I was working on. Every day I would just go into my office and work on it for a few hours. It came together really quickly. I just set it aside afterward because I wasn’t working in the adult space. I didn’t know if it could be anything. I think it was maybe at least a full year, possibly longer, before I showed my agent and was like, “Is this anything?” She didn’t even really represent a ton of adult fiction. She has actually since retired from agenting. I have a new agent who was perfect for this project and the things I want to do moving forward. She was really encouraging. She’s actually also a writer who’s represented by my current agent. When the time came to find a new agent, she was like, “This would be such a good fit.” I moved into adult just because it was what I wanted to write, the same way that I was writing young adult because it was what I wanted to write. It’s not about anything other than the story that I had in me at that time.

Zibby: Tell me the story of selling your first book and your YA book.

Emily: My first book, basically, a couple years before that I had queried for — people listen to this podcast, so they basically know the beats of things. If anybody’s tuning in for the first time, querying is basically, you pitch your book to agents in an email. I had queried for a book probably a year before I actually ended up getting an agent and didn’t really get any good responses. Then I went back to editing the book and editing the query because I think the query was kind of the biggest problem there. I sent out, kind of on a whim, I was like, I’m going to send out one query just to see if my letter is any better. I think I was having a really hard time pitching the book. I sent out one to an agent who seemed very cool but I didn’t know a ton about. She just seemed great. Usually, the response time is pretty slow in this industry because there’s a lot of reading involved. She responded in like an hour and was like, “I want to see the full manuscript, please.” Then I went back to her query tracker profile where you can read about the agents and realized that she was the number-one most responsive agent at that time. She was very young and hungry. I was like, oh, no, I sent this to one agent, and now I can’t send it out to a million more and find out what’s going to happen. It was just kind of a tricky situation. I sent it five more agents, but by the next day, she offered on that book, which was a very different book. I did not end up selling it.

She offered. I accepted. She was the best. She was perfect for me. We worked on that book for a few months just cleaning it up. She was a really great editor as well. It was a YA novel. We took it out and got good responses about the writing but not really about the genre. It was sort of contemporary fantasy, which was oversold at the time. While it was out on submission with publishers, I had an idea for another book. I just wrote that without, again, telling anyone because that’s sort of my MO. I wrote that pretty quickly in the fervor of manic drafting that I love so much. Then I sent it to my agent and was like, “I don’t know. Should we work on this while the other book is on submission?” She was like, “Oh, we need to try and sell this instead. This is fresh. This is new. No one’s done this.” We took that out. Actually, one of the editors who’d really liked the other book ended up buying it within a month. That was really wonderful. It all happened a lot faster than I expected it to. It was super exciting. I was living with my parents at the time. I had graduated college and moved home to try and save money while I was paying off student loan debt. My boyfriend who’s now my husband was also living with my parents, basically. We wanted to get married, but we just had no money and no prospects. Suddenly, things came together in a really great way where he got a new job. I sold my book. We found the perfect little apartment. It was just the best, just the best month.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I like hearing stories that end happily like that.

Emily: It’s obviously not just a smooth road after that. My career has been all over the map already, and I feel like it’s just starting.

Zibby: You’re so young.

Emily: I’m so young.

Zibby: I’m not going to ask how old you are. I feel like that’s rude.

Emily: I’m probably a little bit older.

Zibby: Are you under thirty?

Emily: Just barely, not for very long. I’ll say not for very long, unfortunately.

Zibby: It’s still super impressive, oh, my gosh.

Emily: Thank you. It is funny because I definitely had mentors who were like, “Do not publish before you’re forty. You’ll regret it.” I was like, thanks, love you, bye. I’ll do that anyway. It’s been really great. I also feel grateful that Beach Read is really picking up steam. The book’s not even out yet and people are being so positive and so lovely about it. I’m really grateful that it wasn’t my first book because I think it’s to my benefit that I have had a rocky road so far, as far as success and the sales and all that. I feel like it’s given me a more realistic viewpoint on publishing so I can really, really, really appreciate this but not except it to necessarily ever happen again, which I think is a really good place to be in all aspects of life.

Zibby: True, very true. Have you started working on the next one yet?

Emily: Yes. I’m not sure how much I can share. We don’t have a hard pub date. It should be next summer, for Berkley again, similar vein. I’m really excited to start talking about it. I’m actually finishing — well, I don’t know if I’m finishing up edits. I think I’m finishing up edits. We’ll see. We’ll find out. I’m doing edits right now on the follow-up. It’s similar. It’s another love story. The comp that I’m thinking of is When Harry Met Sally. I’m very, very, very excited to talk about it more soon. It’s kind of funny being on the schedule where this book’s about to come out and I’m already working on the next thing and really excited about that and eager to share that. It’s always kind of a funny schedule.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Emily: Oh, my gosh, yeah. I’m sure I mostly don’t have anything fresh or new. My main advice, really, would be to fail hard and fast. You pointed out, I’m fairly young for this industry, to be doing this already. I feel very lucky. I think part of that is you have to be comfortable with failure and know you’re going to fail. There’s no way around it. The only way to get over those hurdles is to run into them first, not to just start speaking in track and field metaphors that I know nothing about it. I think that sometimes when you fail it takes a really long time to work up the courage to try again. That is sometimes a big mistake because everybody you’re seeing who looks an overnight success has failed plenty of times. They’re going to keep failing. You just have to trust that the failure is part of the process. The more you can fail, the faster you can fail, the faster you’re going to get where you want to go. That’s how I feel about it. I see you nodding, so I think maybe you agree.

Zibby: Yes, I agree. I think that’s great advice. I think sometimes it’s hard to believe when you see all the books in a bookstore and you think, wow, this must be so easy for everybody. Look how many books just came out. This much be a piece of cake. Literally, every single person I’ve spoken to talks about some struggle or the years it took or the failures. I have to keep reminding myself that for every book on the shelf, that author has many others that didn’t make it. There have been times when all the authors have been sitting there being like, I’m never going to sell a book. It happens. It’s just not in the way that maybe people want it to happen all the time.

Emily: Hardly ever in the way that you think it will happen. That’s for sure. The other thing, this is a little bit more of a cosmic answer to your question. I did want to share it because I think the biggest revelation for me as far as advice I want to give to creators and artists out there now, I think it’s so important to make the thing that only you can make. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I was watching this show, The OA on Netflix — I’ll do a little shout-out. It’s pretty dark and tense, probably not Beach Read‘s ideal viewer. I loved it so much. It was so strange and so surprising. It was canceled after two seasons. People were really devastated who were watching it because it was like nothing else out there. It was this weird revelation for me to see something I loved that much that felt so brave and new and strange and not like anything else and to see it be canceled. It’s sad. I wish I could see the rest of the show.

It made me realize, just because this got canceled doesn’t mean that it didn’t have value in getting made in the first place. It’d be so sad if you were making something that you thought, nobody’s going to want this, but you really want it and you really believe in it and it feels important to you and the thing that’s what your heart desires. To just cast that aside because you don’t see it anywhere else I think is huge mistake. That doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to sell that thing that speaks so specifically to you, but I think that that’s been my biggest revelation that I want to imprint on everyone who’s making art of any kind, to just say the thing that you want to make is worthy of being made. You’re the only person who can make it. If somebody else does it, it’s going to be different. That’s great too, but you’re the only person who can do it your way. That’s special. That’s meaningful. I think it’s almost a sort of alchemy. You’re putting something into the world that only you could make. Who knows how that changes things? Who know what ramifications that could have, what that could mean to someone?

Zibby: It’s so true. I love that. Emily, thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for this Beach Read which I am looking forward to seeing scattered all over beaches this summer if hopefully beaches open again and everything is back to, you know. Anyway, thank you so much.

Emily: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure.

Emily Henry, BEACH READ