Travel ‘Works to Shake Things Up,’ Says the Novelist Emily Henry6 min read
Over the last three years, the novelist Emily Henry has established a solid beachhead on summertime best seller lists with a series of travel-related rom-coms, starting with“Beach Read” in 2020, and followed by last summer’s “People We Meet on Vacation” and this year’s “Book Lovers.” All three novels currently share space on The Times’s combined Print and E-book fiction list.
In her books, a youngish woman — a writer or writer-adjacent — at a crisis point in her life, lights out for new territory where (not to give any spoilers), she finds her true calling — and her true love.
In “Beach Read,” dueling novelists occupy neighboring houses on a lake in Michigan, sparring until, of course, they stop. In “People We Meet on Vacation,” the travel writer Poppy Wright spends part of each summer taking a trip with her best friend from college, Alex Nilsen, who, dear reader, you know from the get-go is Mr. Right, even as the two of them hide from the inevitable. In “Book Lovers,” it is the hard-driving literary agent Nora Stephens who travels to the small North Carolina town of Sunshine Falls, only to encounter her nemesis from the Manhattan book scene, the editor Charlie Lastra.
Another theme in her books is the pull of family. Ms. Henry, 31, grew up in Cincinnati with two older brothers, and she, her husband and their dog live there now, near her parents. She fondly remembers their family trips, even if they did sometimes end up fighting “like a too-many-headed beast,” she said.
“We all still try to semi-regularly take trips together, which obviously can be complete chaos, but I just have so much nostalgia for that,” said Ms. Henry, who is at work on next summer’s novel. “I can’t talk about that yet,” she said of the project. “But I can say that it is travel-related.”
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This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What is it about travel that makes for a good novel?
A book is already built to be a kind of vacation — even if it’s not an escapist book, even if it’s a very heavy literary novel, it’s still this trip that is packaged for you in a very specific way. And I think with travel-focused books you’re just amping that up even more.
On a trip there’s this feeling of possibility that you don’t necessarily have in your normal life because you’re going to be around all new people and all new things, and you don’t know what could happen and who you might meet. Everything just feels exciting. From a story perspective, it lends itself to this big transformation because characters are already on this sort of uneven ground. Travel works the same way that it works for us in real life: to just shake things up.
I think as a reader, it lends itself to that as well, because we’re already trying to go new places and meet new people when we’re reading. We’re craving something, some new experience that we want to bring into ourselves.
The irony, especially with a title like “People We Meet on Vacation,” is that the most significant people your characters meet are themselves. Do you “meet” yourself when you’re traveling?
I do think that there’s something, yeah, transformative and you get to know yourself more deeply in a new environment.
And it’s the things that you don’t know about yourself, like the surprises, the risks that you take, that you wouldn’t expect, or the new foods you try, that you didn’t think that you would like or anything small like that. It’s also just seeing your regular life through new eyes.
Because I think there are places you go where you think like, oh, I can imagine my life here, and there are other places you go where you realize you’re just excited to get home. That’s one of the things I love so much about travel, too, is that you can get so complacent or unappreciative of your life, your real life, there really is nothing like that feeling of getting home.
Has travel always been a part of your life?
I haven’t done a lot of international travel yet, but I grew up in a family that took road trips and so that is how I’ve seen most of the United States. It was pretty common to take a 14-hour road trip to Florida. We’d leave in the middle of the night so we wouldn’t have to pay for that one extra night and we would sleep in the back of the minivan and wake up and be there.
Now I find that every few months I feel this restlessness and urge to just be somewhere different and see new things and eat food that isn’t available to me. That is this rhythm that my family set up for me. You have new experiences to carry you through the mundanity of real life.
Poppy, in “People We Meet,” has some pretty good advice on budget travel, like getting a car through a Facebook group. Are those things you’ve done?
A lot of that really was just research and there are Facebook groups for that kind of thing, but I haven’t really used those. I am a huge fan of Airbnb, like much of my generation is. It’s just been such a game changer for travel, especially for extended travel. But also I think being raised by parents who were really good at that kind of thing helps. They would take the tours of resorts to get steeply discounted Disney World tickets. That really came into a lot of the writing of Poppy’s approach to travel.
There are also some Airbnb mishaps in your fiction. Have you had any?
Yeah, I’ve had a few. I don’t think of myself as the cleanest person, but now I am very thorough about checking the reviews for how clean the place is. I’ve definitely had some that are just kind of gross. There’s always artful photography. There was one that listed an additional bedroom and we got there and realized it was in an unfinished basement, and there also was like a hole in the wall to this other kind of storage room that seemed like a peephole. That was unsettling.
Is there a place you return to over and over again?
My favorite trip is to fly into San Francisco and drive up through Muir Woods and Muir Beach and then to see wine country. And then I have family up in Oregon. I love that drive. I love that you can see the ocean, the bay, the mountains, wine country, the redwoods, all within just this few hour span.
Unlike the writer Elin Hilderbrand, who bases her summer books on Nantucket, your characters move around.
Seeing a place as a visitor is so different than being a local and I think that’s why Elin Hilderbrand’s books are so good, because she really knows Nantucket and she puts you right there. The places I’m writing about I’m only familiar with as a guest and it’s a different experience. It’s a really magical experience, but it’s not the same things that a local would pick out about their town.
I think if I lived in a more vacationy spot, I would probably commit to one place too, but I can’t see writing a bunch of books about Cincinnati. I’m sure I’ll have an outright Cincinnati book, but that’s not innately summery.
If I were going to visit Cincinnati, when should I go? Not during summer?
Oh my gosh. Not summer.
Amy Virshup is the editor of the Travel section.
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