The Bookseller – Author Interviews – Mhairi McFarlane
Mhairi McFarlane was a feature film editor on the Nottingham Evening Post when she had the first idea that fiction could be where her talents were. She’d already had a stint as a reporter, covering everything from court reporting to death shots to council meetings, but the color of the writing strokes suited her better. It wasn’t until she was asked to create an infomercial to accompany a women’s supplement, however, that the idea of fiction first arose.
“The associate editor said, ‘It would be really nice if you wrote Bridget Jones Diary, but as if she lived in Nottingham’. It was the most nauseating thing I’ve ever heard, but when I sat down to write it, I found myself having obscene fun. And then I remember getting a phone call from the girls on the sales floor, and they were actually like, “What happens to him next?” They were treating it like it was fiction,” says McFarlane. “It was the first time I thought, ‘There might be something here’.”
She was 30 years old, and it was “no longer at all the ambition to be in the local newspaper”. “There was nobody’s job that I wanted, which is really the common thread for moving on, for ambition, isn’t it?” she says. “And I thought, ‘What’s stretching me?’ I love romantic comedy – what if I tried to write something like that? What if I actually tried to write long-form fiction?”
When I started making myself laugh, I thought, “Oh, maybe you’re onto something here.”
But looking at the shelves at the time, in the 2000s, McFarlane felt the genre was “very kind of monetized, in an unreachable way.” She adds: “There were loads of bakeries, and everyone seemed to live in West London, and it was very cupcake. There was someone dating a guy who worked in the city, with an amazing jawline and a black Amex card. With the best will in the world, no one I knew was doing anything like that. So it was kind of like, can I keep all the sparkle and fun and excitement of romantic comedy, but make it feel like it’s set in a world that I recognize?
McFarlane talks to me on Zoom from his home in Nottingham. We’re audio-only, because she forgot she was planning to dye her hair today, and “has a bloody hair dye cap.” She explains that she was 31 when she left her job, “like a real bitch”. Her feeling was that if she didn’t give her all in writing fiction, she never would. She continued to make money from a series of freelance PR gigs, and her boyfriend paid the mortgage for a time. “My plan was a mixture of stupidity and arrogance. I thought I would get a deal in a year at 18 months,” she says. “Cue the misery and five years of being completely skinny. You had me at hello (HarperCollins) hadn’t been chosen, I wouldn’t be a novelist, because I didn’t have the strength in me to try again.
It took him a while to find the tone of the novel and realize the importance of humor in his writing. You had me at hello is the story of Rachel and Ben, best friends in college who split up after leaving. When they meet again, he is married. “I entered an area of my mind where I was, because writing a novel is a serious thing, my novel should have a very serious tone,” she says. A Random House editor put her on the right track, telling her that while she loved the premise, “your heroine is a bitch.” McFarlane “cried in the pub”, realized the editor was right, and rewrote it. “When I started laughing, I thought, ‘Oh, maybe you’re onto something here. “”
You had me at hello was picked up by HarperCollins with a “very modest lead, which was absolutely fair, as there was no particular sign that I was going to set the publishing world on fire”. But in 2012 publishers weren’t as savvy about Kindle pricing, and when the debut was part of a 99p Kindle deal, it sold around 100,000 copies in a month and became “highly visible”. .
“Then I had a really hard time staying at Harper, so everything was fine. My family was shocked because they spent five years thinking they were going to have to sit me down and tell me that it would never happen,” she says.
Usually, before interviewing an author, I have to do a lot of reading, catch up on what I haven’t read, remember their most recent titles. With McFarlane, I didn’t. Since You had me at hello, I read everything she wrote. Her love stories are about real people, in real places. They’re also super romantic, and they really make me laugh out loud, that way you’re trying to explain to whoever’s looking at you, questioningly, exactly what’s going on.
Who is this girl? (HarperCollins), in which Edie accidentally kisses the groom at a wedding and finds herself shamed on social media and retreats to Nottingham, is perhaps my favorite. But I also love If I never met you (HarperCollins), in which Laurie and Jamie fake an office romance to achieve their own ends. And Do not forget me (HarperCollins), which sees Georgina forced to come to terms with the sexual abuse she suffered as a teenager, is also brilliant: it delves into dark places, but so are many of McFarlane’s novels – and let’s face it. -the same goes for all the best romantic novels. written, but it might be packed.
McFarlane’s Last, his eighth novel Crazy of you (HarperFiction), opens as wedding photographer Harriet turns down a proposal from her seemingly perfect boyfriend. She finds herself in a roommate with Cal, the groom she saw running away from his own marriage. There’s a glorious villain-like plot that gets its payoff, plus sparks galore and lots of laughs, but at its heart this novel also explores the fallout of an emotionally abusive relationship.
“I had never seen anyone talk about how when you’ve had a really shitty relationship you tend to make shitty choices while you’re also pulling yourself together. It’s like the ripple in the pond, it’s also what goes wrong next. I knew I wanted to write about coercive control, but I didn’t want to write about it in the present tense because it would be quite overwhelming in a genre that is fundamentally entertaining. Then it all came together because I was like, ‘What if we made a terrible safe choice after the experience, and it went wrong too?’ ” She laughs. “I have a real knack for selling my books and making them sound like incredibly dark, serious tragedies – the slight of course is that she’s a wedding photographer and he’s short on her wedding.”