A Q&A With Emily Henry, Author of May Indie Next List Top Pick “Happy Place”
Independent booksellers across the country have chosen Emily Henry’s Happy Place (Berkley) as their top pick for the May 2023 Indie Next List.
Happy Place follows Harriet as she and her ex-fiancé, Wyn, fake date their way through an annual couples’ trip while deciding if love and friendship are worth fighting for as their group enters new stages of adulthood.
“Happy Place is absolute magic, bottled up and delivered in the form of saccharine summer days, happiness, teary moments, and newfound longing,” said Robin Limeres of Phoenix Books in Burlington, Vermont. “Emily Henry is the master of the romance novel and Happy Place is her best one yet!”
Here, Henry discusses her writing process with Bookselling This Week.
Bookselling This Week: Happy Place alternates chapters between what Harriet describes as her “happy place” versus “real life”. She says later in the novel, “I’d do anything to go back to that happy place, outside of time, where nothing from real life can touch us.” What led you to write Happy Place from Harriet’s perspective, as a character balancing what it means to be happy with what’s real in her life?
Emily Henry: I wanted to write about someone who was a people pleaser, because I’m a people pleaser, and I was really just starting to realize how much of a people pleaser. I knew I liked to keep everyone happy, but it’s wild when you start realizing all of the little ways that you might be managing or trying to mitigate other people’s feelings. That can serve you well in social situations to an extent, but after a while it can get in the way of true closeness and intimacy if you’re always deferring to what you think other people want from you, or you’re not even taking the time to ask what it is you want.
For this book, it made sense from the beginning that it needed to be Harriet’s story, because the whole conceit of this “happy place” is there is a part of her life where she is truly happy, but it’s not the bulk of her life. It’s the exception, not the rule. So much of her journey is trying to figure out what she actually wants from real life. It was really important to tell that story with this person who is a chronic people pleaser, who’s just now gotten to the point in life where she's realizing she’s made everyone around her happy, but she’s not happy.
BTW: Harriet’s friend group is like a family — they’ve taken an annual trip to Maine since college and through adulthood. I would love to hear more about how you focused Happy Place around friendship as well as romance.
EH: I was setting up this scenario where Harriet and Wyn have to fake their relationship for a week, and I wanted it to feel really believable. The only way to do that was if other people who they really love in their lives needed that from them, like, “Oh, we have to do this, otherwise we’re robbing our friends of [what] they’ve come to expect from us.” The book was set up from the beginning phases to need this larger cast. It was something I was really excited about, partly because I hadn’t done it before. It felt like a challenge. Every time I conceive of a new book, a piece of that is, what’s going to be different this time? What’s going to be hard for me this time? Having a larger cast and wanting every single character to have a meaningful relationship with the narrating character was a challenge I was excited about.
BTW: Relationships can be complicated, even more so when a couple exists inside a friend group. Harriet feels the pressure as she withholds her breakup with Wyn from the group. Can you talk more about her character, how she balances her conflicting feelings about Wyn with wanting to hold the friend group together?
EH: That feeds back into Harriet’s overall journey of needing to stop wondering how her feelings will impact the people around her. They’re basically in this situation because she’s decided that if they know the truth — that the relationship has ended — it’s going to be a huge problem for everyone. And that's realistic. It’s always sad when you’re friends with a couple and they split up, that’s a hard thing to deal with. Especially as you get older and more of your friends are coupled up, you just want everybody to be able to hang together. I think it’s a pretty universal relationship feeling, having external pressure once you meld your lives and have the same friends, and your families are invested. She’s balancing this need to keep her friends close and to protect them from the truth, but she’s also caught in this mess with Wyn because she did the same thing with him. If you’re trying to please everyone, ultimately, you’re going to please no one. You might as well at least try to make yourself happy.
BTW: Friendships, like any relationship, evolve over time. Cleo says, “We’re not in the same place anymore. We’re growing up…We’re not what we used to be for each other. And that’s fine.” Can you talk more about how these characters grow as people?
EH: One thing I was really excited about from the very beginning was the fact that, in your 30s, it feels like the first time that friends can all be in extremely different situations with their careers and with their relationships. Through your 20s everybody sort of has the same things going on, and then your 30s, it’s not uncommon to have a really close friend who is still on the dating apps, and another really close friend who has kids, and another close friend who’s been married and divorced and is married again. You can be friends with people who are in really different stages of life because things have just gone differently for you. The same with careers — I have friends who are debating going back to school for the third time right now, trying to figure out what they want to do. And I have friends who’ve been doing the same job for 15 years and are totally happy.
It’s interesting because [there are] no longer friendships of convenience. It’s not like we’re all at the same college or we all work at the same restaurant. You’re intentionally making time for these people whose circumstances in life might look very different from yours. There’s a lot more to balance. It was really interesting to think about just how your friendships change, and the way that sometimes you lose touch with people because of that, and other times you have this new shape to your dynamic because you’re having to work around each other’s realities.
BTW: Harriet loves cozy mysteries and the friend group always visits the local bookstore, Murder, She Read, while on their annual vacation! Can you talk more about the role of books and indie bookstores in your life?
EH: I've always been a big reader. When you love books, you end up loving everything about them: I love stories and I love writing, I love the way that words work together and the magic of all that, but also I love holding a book. I love feeling the paper in my hands. I love the smell of a bookstore or the smell of a library. It’s so easy to feel the magic and possibility of that. It just makes sense that I’m always sending my characters to a bookstore. That is also a really important part of vacation to me.
Anytime you’re in a new town, you want to see what their local bookstore is like because they’re all a bit different, but at the same time there’s something really familiar. It’s a little home-away-from-home. If you’re a book person, you’re always going to feel pretty cozy in a bookstore. Their role in my life is a huge piece of my career; just having the support of booksellers is why I am where I am now. There’s no doubt about that. Even if I weren’t writing or publishing now, I would still feel the same about bookstores. There’s this feeling of possibility that I don’t quite feel anywhere else.