Over the past three years, novelist Emily Henry has established a solid beachhead on summer bestseller lists with a series of travel-related romcoms, starting with 2020’s “Beach Read” and followed by this year’s “People We Meet on Vacation” and “Book Lovers.” All three novels currently share space on The Times and ebooks combined fiction list.
In her books, a young woman – a writer or close writer – at a crisis point in her life seeks new territory where (so as not to give spoilers) she finds her true calling – and her true love.
In “Beach Read,” dueling novelists occupy neighboring homes on a Michigan lake, sparring until, of course, they stop. In “People We Meet on Vacation,” travel writer Poppy Wright spends part of a trip each summer with her best friend from college, Alex Nilsen, who, dear reader, you know Mr. Right is, even if the two of them hide from the inevitable. In ‘Book Lovers’, driven literary agent Nora Stephens travels to the small town of Sunshine Falls, North Carolina, where she encounters her nemesis from the Manhattan book world, editor Charlie Lastra.
Another theme in her books is the attraction of the family. Mrs. Henry, 31, grew up in Cincinnati with two older brothers, and she, her husband, and their dog now live there, near her parents. She fondly remembers their family outings, even though they sometimes ended up fighting “like a too many-headed beast,” she said.
“We all still try to go on outings together semi-regularly, which can of course be complete chaos, but I’m so homesick for that,” 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 that it is travel-related.”
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This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What makes traveling a good novel?
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 this journey packaged for you in a very specific way. And I think with travel-oriented books you reinforce that even more.
While traveling there is a sense of possibility that you don’t necessarily have in your normal life, because you will be around all the new people and all the new things, and you don’t know what could happen and who you could meet . Everything just feels exciting. From a story perspective, it lends itself to this major transformation because characters are already on this kind of uneven ground. Travel works the same way it works for us in real life: just 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 while reading. We crave something, a new experience that we want to bring within ourselves.
The irony, especially with a title like “People We Meet on Vacation,” is that the main people your characters meet are themselves. do you “meet” yourself when you travel?
I do 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 wouldn’t expect, or the new foods you try that you didn’t think you’d like or something small like Which. It’s also just looking at 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 realize you’re just excited to go home. That’s also one of the things I love about traveling is that you can get so complacent or ungrateful for your life, your real life, there’s really nothing like that feeling of coming home.
Has traveling always been a part of your life?
I haven’t traveled much internationally, but I grew up in a family that took road trips and that’s how I’ve seen most of the United States. It was quite 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 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 else and see new things and eat foods that are not available to me. That’s this rhythm that my family set for me. You have new experiences to guide you through the humdrum of real life.
Poppy has some pretty good advice on budget travel in “People We Meet,” like getting a car through a Facebook group. Are those things you’ve done?
A lot of it was really just research and there are Facebook groups for that sort of thing, but I haven’t really used them. I am a big fan of Airbnb, as are many of my generation. It’s just such a game changer for travel, especially for longer trips. But I also think it helps to be raised by parents who were really good at that. They would do the resort tours to get discounted Disney World tickets. That really came through in much of Poppy’s writing approach to travel.
There are also some Airbnb accidents in your fiction. Have you had one?
Yes, I’ve had a few. I don’t consider myself the cleanest person, but now I’m very thorough checking the reviews to see how clean the place is. I’ve definitely had a few that are just a little gross. There is always artistic photography. There was one that mentioned an extra bedroom and we got there and realized it was in an unfinished basement, and there was also a hole in the wall to this other kind of storage space that looked like a peephole. That was disturbing.
Is there a place you return to again and again?
My favorite trip is to fly to San Francisco and drive up through Muir Woods and Muir Beach and then see the wine country. And then I have family in Oregon. I love that driving. I love that you can see the ocean, the bay, the mountains, the wine country, the redwoods, all within a few hours.
Unlike writer Elin Hilderbrand, who bases her summer books on Nantucket, your characters move around.
Seeing a place as a visitor is so 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 I only know as a guest and it’s a different experience. It’s truly a magical experience, but it’s not the same things a local would pick about their city.
I think if I lived in a more vacation spot I’d probably commit to one place too, but I don’t see a bunch of books written about Cincinnati. I’m sure I’ll have a straight up Cincinnati book, but it’s not naturally summery.
If I were to visit Cincinnati, when would I go? Not in the summer?
Oh my God. No summer.
Amy Virshup is the editor of the Travel section.