Over the past three years, author Emily Henry has established a strong foothold on the summer bestseller lists with a series of travel romance comics, starting with Beach Read in 2020, followed last summer by People We Meet on Vacation and this year “Book Lovers”. All three novels now share a place on The Times’ combined print and e-book fiction list.
In her books, a young woman—writer or writer—at a critical moment in her life ventures into new territory where (no spoilers) she finds her true calling—and true love.
In “Beach Reading,” dueling novelists occupy neighboring homes on a lake in Michigan, bickering until, of course, they stop. In People We Meet on Vacation, travel writer Poppy Wright spends part of each summer traveling with her college best friend, Alex Nielsen, who, dear reader, knows right from the start that he’s even Mr. Right. as the two of them hide from the inevitable. In The Booklovers, hard-nosed literary agent Nora Stevens travels to the small town of Sunshine Falls, North Carolina to meet her nemesis from the Manhattan book scene, editor Charlie Lastra.
Another theme in her books is the appeal of family. Ms. Henry, 31, grew up in Cincinnati with her two older brothers, and now lives there with her husband and dog, not far from her parents. She remembers their family trips fondly, even if they sometimes ended in fights, “like a many-headed beast,” she said.
“We all still try to go semi-regularly together, which obviously can be total chaos, but I just miss it so much,” said Ms Henry, who is working on a novel next summer. “I can’t talk about it yet,” she said of the project. “But I can tell it has to do with travel.”
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This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What makes a good travel novel?
The book is already designed as a kind of vacation—even if it’s not an escapist book, even if it’s a very heavy literary novel, it’s still a journey packaged for you in a very specific way. And I think travel books only reinforce that.
There’s a sense of possibility when you travel that you don’t necessarily have in your normal life, because there are new people and new things waiting for you, and you never know what might happen or who you might meet. Everything is just fascinating. Story-wise, it lends itself to this big transformation because the characters are already on such uneven ground. Travel works the same way it does for us in real life: just to shake things up.
I think as a reader it lends itself to that too because we’re already trying to visit new places and meet new people when we read. We long for something, some new experience that we want to get in ourselves.
The irony is that the most important people your characters meet are themselves. Do you “meet” yourself while traveling?
I think there is something, yes, transformative, and you get to know yourself more deeply in a new environment.
And it’s the things you don’t know about yourself, like the surprises, the risks you take that you didn’t expect, or the new food you try that you didn’t think you’d like, or something small like that way It’s also just seeing your ordinary life with new eyes.
Because I think there are places you go where you think, oh, I can imagine my life here, and there are other places you go where you’re just glad to go home. One of the things I really love about traveling is that you can be so complacent or unappreciative of your life, your real life, that there’s really nothing like the feeling of coming home.
Has traveling always been a part of your life?
I haven’t traveled internationally much yet, but I grew up in a family that drove cars, so that’s how I’ve seen most of the United States. Making the 14-hour trip to Florida was quite common. We would leave in the middle of the night so we wouldn’t have to pay for one extra night, we would sleep in the back of the van, wake up and be there.
Now I find that every few months I get this restlessness and desire to just be somewhere different and see new things and eat foods that are out of my reach. This is the rhythm my family set for me. You have new experiences to get you through the mundanity of real life.
Poppy in People We Meet has some great tips for budget travel, like buying a car through a Facebook group. Is that what you did?
A lot of it was just research, and there are Facebook groups for that, but I didn’t use them. I’m a big fan of Airbnb, like most of my generation. It was simply a game changer for travel, especially for long trips. But I also think it helps that I was raised by parents who were really good at it. They went on resort tours to get deeply discounted tickets to Disney World. It really became part of writing Poppy’s approach to travel.
There are also some Airbnb failures in your fiction. Have you had
Yes, I’ve had a few. I don’t consider myself to be the cleanest person, but now I am checking the reviews very carefully about how clean it is here. I’ve definitely had some that were just disgusting. There is always a masterful photograph. There was one that was listed as an extra bedroom and we got there and realized it was in an unfinished basement and there was also like a hole in the wall to this other kind of storage room that looked like a peephole. It was disturbing.
Is there a place you return to again and again?
My favorite trip is to fly into San Francisco, drive through Muir Woods and Muir Beach, and then see the wine country. And then I have family in Oregon. I love this drive. I love that you can see the ocean, the bay, the mountains, the wine country, the redwoods, all within a few hours.
Unlike author Elin Hilderbrand, who creates her Nantucket summer books, your characters move.
Seeing a place as a visitor is very different from being a local, and I think that’s why Elin Hilderbrand’s books are so good, because she really knows Nantucket and puts you there. The places I write about are only familiar to me as a visitor, and this is a completely different experience. It’s a truly magical experience, but it’s not the same as what the locals would choose in their own city.
I think if I lived in a more relaxing place I’d probably stop at one too, but I can’t write a bunch of books about Cincinnati. I’m sure I’ll have a candid book about Cincinnati, but it’s not an innate summer.
If I were to visit Cincinnati, when should I go? Not in summer?
O God. Not summer.
Amy Wirshap is the Travel Editor.