Over the past three years, novelist Emily Henry has carved a solid foothold on the Summertime bestseller lists with a slew of travel-related romantic comedies, beginning with 2020’s Beach Read and followed by last summer’s People We Meet on Vacation. and this year’s “Book Lovers”. All three novels currently share a spot on The Times combined print and e-book reading list.
In her books, a younger woman – a writer or novelist – explores new territory at a critical juncture in her life where (not to spoil things) she finds her true calling – and true love.
In “Beach Read,” dueling novelists occupy neighboring homes on a Michigan lake and fight until, of course, they quit. In People We Meet on Vacation, travel writer Poppy Wright spends part of each summer taking a road trip with her best friend from college, Alex Nilsen, who you, dear reader, know from the start is actually Mr Right is while the two hide from the inevitable. In Book Lovers, it’s stubborn literary agent Nora Stephens who travels to the small town of Sunshine Falls, North Carolina only to run into her nemesis from the Manhattan book scene, editor Charlie Lastra.
Another theme in her books is the attraction of family. Mrs. Henry, 31, was raised in Cincinnati with two older brothers and she, her husband and their dog now live there near their parents. She fondly remembers her family outings, even if at times they fought “like a too many-headed animal,” she said.
“We all still try to take trips together on a semi-regular basis, which of course can be complete chaos, but I just ache for it so much,” said Ms. Henry, who is working on next summer’s novel. “I can’t talk about that yet,” she said of the project. “But I can say it’s travel-related.”
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This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What makes a good novel about travel?
A book is already made 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 that journey, packaged in a very specific way for you. And I think with travel related books you amplify that even more.
On a trip there’s this sense of possibility that you don’t necessarily have in your normal life because you’re with completely new people and completely new things and you don’t know what might happen and who you might meet. Everything just feels exciting. From a story perspective, it lends itself to this major transformation because the characters are already on this kind of uneven ground. Travel works the same way it works for us in real life: just mix things up.
I think as a reader it lends itself to that too, because when we read we’re already trying to go to new places and meet new people. We long for something, for a 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 important people your characters meet are themselves. Do you “meet” each other while travelling?
I think that there is something, yes, transformative and you get to know each other more deeply in a new environment.
And it’s the things you don’t know about yourself, like the surprises you take, the risks you wouldn’t expect, or the new foods you try that you thought you wouldn’t like or something small like that. It also means looking at your normal life with new eyes.
Because I think there are places you go where you’re like, oh, I can picture my life here, and there are other places you go where you realize you’re just looking forward to to come home. That’s also one of the things I love so much about traveling is that you can experience your life, your real life, in such a smug or non-appreciative way that there’s really nothing that comes with that feeling of coming home.
Has traveling always been a part of your life?
I haven’t traveled much internationally, but growing up in a family that did road trips, I’ve seen most of the United States. It was pretty common to take a 14 hour road trip to Florida. We would leave in the middle of the night so we wouldn’t have to pay for that one extra night and we would sleep and wake up in the back of the minivan and be there.
Now I find that every few months I get this restlessness and the urge to just be somewhere else and see new things and eat food that isn’t available to me. It’s this rhythm that my family set up for me. You have new experiences that carry you through the mundaneness of real life.
Poppy has some pretty good advice on budget travel, like getting a car through a Facebook group, in People We Meet. Are these things you’ve done?
A lot of it was really just research and there are Facebook groups for things like that, but I didn’t really use them. I’m a big fan of Airbnb, like many of my generation. It was just such a game changer for travel, especially longer trips. But I also think it helps to be raised by parents who were really good at those things. They would do the tours of the resorts to get heavily discounted Disney World tickets. That really came into play when writing Poppy’s approach to travel.
There are also some Airbnb glitches in your fiction. Did you have any?
Yes I had a few. I don’t consider myself the cleanest person but now I check the reviews very carefully on how clean the hotel is. I’ve definitely had some that were just plain gross. There is always artistic photography. One listed an extra bedroom and we got there to find that it was in an unfinished basement and there was also like a hole in the wall to this other type of storage room that looked like a peep hole. That was worrying.
Is there a place you keep coming back to?
My favorite trip is to fly to San Francisco and drive through Muir Woods and Muir Beach and then see the wine country. And then I have family up in Oregon. I love this drive. I love that you can see the sea, the bay, the mountains, the wine country, the redwoods, all within just a few hours.
Unlike writer Elin Hilderbrand, who based her summer books on Nantucket, your characters move around.
Seeing a place as a visitor is very different than being a local and I think that’s why Elin Hilderbrand’s books are so good, because she really knows Nantucket and puts you right there. The places I write about I only know as a guest and it’s a different experience. It’s a truly magical experience, but it’s not the same things a local would find about their city.
I think if I lived somewhere more vacation-friendly I’d probably commit to one too, but I can’t see myself writing a few books about Cincinnati. I’m sure I’ll have a proper Cincinnati book, but this isn’t inherently summery.
If I were to visit Cincinnati, when should I go? Not in summer?
Oh my God. Not summer.
Amy Virshup is the Travel Editor.