When I tell anyone I'm interviewing Emily Henry, their jaws drop —well, any woman approximately between the ages of 20 and 35, at least.
Henry's readers are unflinchingly devoted to their love for the literary queen, whose rom-com-adjacent books strike a deep chord amongst young people looking for tales of love.
Henry, who has been proclaimed to have "cracked the modern romance novel," has Gen Z and millennials entranced with her beachy vacation novels. The 32-year-old author has sold more than 2.5 million print copies of her books to date, according to a report Circana Bookscan provided to TODAY.com.
“I think that everything about me bleeds into my books a little bit,” Henry tells TODAY.com.
She doesn't mean that in a biographical sense. Rather than take inspiration from her own experiences, for her plots and characters, Henry mines conversations she's had, people she's met, places she's been and the TV and movies she's watched.
Maybe that's why her books are so well loved: she grew up on the same pop culture diet as her readers.
"It’s not my life, it’s not me, the characters aren’t the people I know,” she says. "But I think everything is coming from somewhere. And my views on love and family and life and career, all of that is coming from real life observations."
How Henry 'tripped sideways' into romance
Henry had her fair share of jobs before becoming a novelist, she tells TODAY.com. Rattling off a list that includes dog walking, babysitting, and working at Taco Bell, the YMCA, her college's tutoring center and a carwash, Henry eventually settled into a technical writing job after she graduated from Hope College.
She says she would write in all of her time off, waking up at 5 a.m. before starting her job, plus Saturdays and Sundays. "My friends came to just expect that from me," she says with a laugh.
Henry wrote three young adult novels before stumbling into romance. She says she was between projects and wanted to work on something "summery and nice and fun." She ended up with a draft of what would become her first romance novel, "Beach Read."
"I started writing 'Beach Read' really, entirely for fun. There was no intention to try and publish it," she says. "I just wanted to be working on that kind of story."
Publishing wasn't the goal of his project, she says, so she set the draft aside for years after finishing. When she started noticing what she called "the romance renaissance" of the late 2010s, she thought her draft was comparable to romance books she was seeing take off.
Part of what Henry was seeing was the rise of hand-drawn, Instagrammable book covers encouraging readers to give romance a try. These trade paperbacks had novelized takes on cinematic rom-coms inside, like Jasmine Guillory's 2018 novel "The Wedding Date" and Helen Hoang's "The Kiss Quotient." Each rapidly rose on the bestseller charts.
“It was like kind of like I tripped sideways into romance as both a writer and a reader, and I was just delighted to find out that I really love it as both a writer and a reader."
"But again, I hadn't been a tried and true romance reader, so I didn't really know where my books fit," she explains.
Henry had one choice: Become a romance reader herself. In the process, she fell in love (with the genre).
"I remember the joy of becoming a romance reader and the discovery of how many amazing books there are, and the pace at which your favorite romance authors tend to work and put out books," she says. "There's just so much to read. You'll just never run out of fantastic romance novels."
When Henry's agent retired from publishing to work on her own writing, she connected Henry with an agent who works in the romance space. Henry sent a draft of "Beach Read" to that new agent, who Henry says sent her suggestions to strengthen the book, along with editors who she thought would be excited about it.
"I tripped sideways into romance as both a writer and a reader, and I was just delighted to find out that I really love it as both a writer and a reader," Henry says.
From 'Beach Read' to 'Book Lovers'
Henry's first romance novel "Beach Read" was published in May 2020, with its bright yellow cover arriving in the hands of readers at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Beach Read" follows Augustus Everett and January Andrews, a literary fiction writer and a romance author who are staying in neighboring beach houses on Lake Michigan as they attempt to battle writer's block. The pair decides to switch genres to get each other out of their creative ruts, and go on adventures to teach the other about their world.
"People We Meet on Vacation" came next in 2021 with a neon orange cover, and has sold more than 1 million print copies, according to Circana Bookscan. Henry’s third romance novel, “Book Lovers,” followed in 2022. All three have since been picked up for movie adaptations.
Henry tells TODAY.com she doesn't feel defined by or boxed in by the genre at all, and that she thinks she has carved out a unique space for herself within romance.
"There are romance readers who don't necessarily think that my books fit the true mold of romance, but I am very intentional about talking about them as romance because even though it's changed a lot — thanks, I think, especially in Gen Z — there is still a little bit of denigration of the genre as a whole and there's still a little bit of a stigma," she says.
"I just want to be supportive of the genre and make it clear that like, I’m not the only person doing this," she adds. "Basically, there are a lot of other people making great books like this that readers will enjoy if they enjoy mine."
On her newest novel, 'Happy Place'
With each romance novel, Henry has a chance to give her spin on a classic trope or plot device. In "Happy Place," her latest book out April 25, she takes on "fake dating."
Rather than shirk from convention, Henry embraces tropes, believing they exist because "they do happen in real life."
She sees traces of tropes in her own friends' love stories. Henry says she has friends who were childhood best friends and are now married, others who "really did not like each other" and are now together, plus ones who have broken up and gotten back together for a second chance at love.
"Every time I see a trope that’s a little bit more heightened reality like (fake dating), and I try to do it, I cannot help but ground it really firmly in what it would be like in real life," she says.
So Henry started with Harriet and Wyn, two characters trying to convince their longtime friends on their annual trip to Knotts Harbor, Maine, that they're still together — despite having been broken up for months. It ended up being "gut-wrenching," Henry says.
"Fake dating provides opportunity for some hijinks, but it also is just forcing them to be in a state of emotional vulnerability that is kind of excruciating for their situation," Henry says.
"Happy Place" is different than Henry's other books in that the meet cute is already in the rear view window for the central couple, and that it features their entire friend group.
The timeline was so elaborate for the six characters that Henry told Vulture she ended up using a cork board with different colored string to plot everything out.
The friend-group element of the book, plus Harriet and Wyn's previous relationship, seems to indicate Henry will continue to challenge classic tropes, though she says it wasn't intentional to move away from them.
"It just naturally happens, and the harder I push myself to go deeper into the character's minds, the more it might veer off of what the pitch was," she says.
... but why only 'vacation vibes?'
All of Henry's books are set in cozy (and mostly fictional) vacation towns, ranging from North Bear Shores on the shores of Lake Michigan to the North Carolina mountain town of Sunshine Falls.
Henry says it just kind of happened that way for her first romance novel. "There was nothing I was setting out to do as far as making it a vacation-y book," she says.
But for "People We Meet on Vacation," Henry says she initially struggled with ideas for the structure of the book.
She says she decided to just pick a setting for the book, and after looking at places that she thought could be fun backdrops, she realized all of the cities were places she had only been to as a visitor — nowhere she had lived as a local.
"So that kind of clicked for me, when I was looking at those settings, that this could be the structure: it could be told across a vacation," she says.
Henry says she feels like people were enjoying the "vacation vibe" of the books, at least in part because people were flocking to reading during the middle of a global pandemic, but also because she loves the "weird mashup of tension and vacation" herself.
Henry says: “I really love that as a reader, which is how most decisions get made for me as a writer — asking, 'What do I enjoy?'"
“I really love that as a reader, which is how most decisions get made for me as a writer — asking, ‘What do I enjoy?’”
Emily Henry On how she chooses her book subjects
She shares she decided to stick with the vacation theme going forward after discussing with her editing team.
"We were very intentional in thinking about the books as mini vacations," she says. "Part of that is just because it works and part of that is because I myself get that huge craving every summer. When it starts getting hot out, I want a book that feels really escapist," she says.
She clarifies that every one of her books won't feature an excursion, but that channeling the feeling of being on vacation will be central to her work.
"I think that feeling of 'anything could happen' is so much more extreme on vacation because there’s just this little pocket universe that you’re in — almost your real life is outside of it," she says. "Everything is just a little bit different, and it brings up new parts of you."
She says she's "hopeful for some international locations" in future books, too.
Henry, however, doesn't live in Sunshine Falls or North Bear Shores; she calls a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio home, and says she plans to stay there.
"I don’t know if it’s the key to my success, but I think that it might be the key to my happiness," she says of her own real-life setting.
She adds that she could see herself moving to Los Angeles for a stretch of time, especially as her book adaptations begin filming, but ultimately she loves the pace of a midwestern city.
"In other cities you have to work really hard, and you have to just be willing to work really hard. I’m really willing to work really hard at writing, but not much else," she says with a laugh.
She shares she's remained "pretty much anonymous" where she lives — her neighbors don’t know who she is in the publishing space, though she did say there's one place where people sometimes realize it's her: "If I'm near a bookstore, then people might recognize me, which is a little bit funny. The context just does enough for people to recognize me."
As for her her next book...
Henry confirms to TODAY.com the next romance book she's drafting will, in fact, not be on a vacation.
"It's set in a town that I think still feels very idyllic and vacation-like, but for the story, it made way more sense for it to be set in a person's hometown," she says.
Vulture described the man in Henry's fifth book as the character most like her husband out of all of her romance books so far. Henry tells TODAY.com she agrees.
"This character is just so kind. And it's funny because I think that's actually a challenge as a writer to, you know, like, make that interesting. In real life, it's always so interesting when you meet someone who's just really kind. But in a book, it doesn't create a ton of tension when someone is just like, actually, nice and curious about the people around them and warm," she says.
"But it makes me really happy working on this book," she shares. "Like, often I'm just smiling to myself thinking, 'This person I made up is so nice.'"
And Henry has many more leading men (and women) in the future, she says. Just as her characters make commitments to each other, the accidental romance novelist is saying "I do" to the romance genre.
"I’m really enjoying it. As long as the readers want them, I’m happy to write them," she says.