“Romantic fiction… is a complete love of mine” – In Conversation with Mhairi McFarlane

By Constance Roisin

The best-selling author on imposter syndrome, writing villains, and declaring love.

In the middle of Emily Henry’s Book Lovers we find the following line: “I return to work and Libby turns her focus to a Mhairi McFarlane novel, gasping and laughing so regularly and loudly that, finally, Charlie’s gruff voice calls from the other room, ‘Could you keep that down?’’. It is a massive compliment from the best-selling author, as is Marian Keyes’ recent rave about McFarlane, “I love her books PASSIONATELY”. As McFarlane says, “If Dame Marian thinks it’s good, then it’s going to be okay.” Henry, Keyes and McFarlane are all authors of what might blandly be called ‘Women’s Fiction’ and might contentiously be called ‘chick-lit’. McFarlane is not a massive fan of the term, preferring ‘romantic comedy.’ There’s a problem, however: “I think that sometimes when something’s got its boots on and done an entire lap of the world, it’s quite hard to get it back. You’re better off decontaminating and subverting the label.” (Although she adds: “I call myself chick-lit if it’s going to make a joke better on Twitter”). 

McFarlane points out that almost every story has a love plot – it’s only when the romance is foregrounded, “or, let’s be honest, when it’s written by a woman” that it is suddenly regarded as inconsequential. That said, following the Ur-text of rom-coms, Bridget Jones’s Diary, there was a “doldrums period where there was a lot of emphasis on money and shopping”. One of the reasons McFarlane wrote her first novel, You Had Me At Hello, in 2012 was because she “got fed up with the trappings that didn’t speak to me.’ After all, “I’ve never lived in West London, I’ve never run a patisserie”. 

Although she is proud of You Had Me At Hello, McFarlane couldn’t write the book now, “because the heroine’s problem is ‘Oh no! I said yes to the wrong guy at uni and no to the right guy! Now, I think I would probably be – come on, get over yourself. Is that your only life problem? But at the time it was all very sweet and innocent”.

Still, McFarlane feels the most affinity with her first heroine, Rachel. In a debut, she explains, “you grab in desperation, you grab loads of architecture from your own life. You steal all of the furniture from your own house to fill up that room.’ The book did much better than predicted, and soon, McFarlane was tasked with writing the next one. “Every author will tell you that the second book is a complete bastard. You get published, and it’s like obsessing over a wedding but not remembering the marriage after it. There was so much out there about how to get published and so little about staying published and what it’s like, so you were kind of catapulted into this world. I decided, ‘everyone likes Rachel, but they don’t like me’. I had this sweaty, cold terror that I was going to be found out.”

Only McFarlane’s sister realised that in this plot, she “ripped off Jane Austen’s Persuasion“, just as Here’s Looking at You tempers with Pride and Prejudice. In the Persuasion story we can find McFarlane’s leitmotif: “I think that in some ways being an author is free psychotherapy because I have noticed that my big theme is regret.” Progressively, the novels have become darker, the stakes have been raised, and the villains have crept closer – from background characters to being the ex to being the boyfriend. By book five, Don’t You Forget About Me, McFarlane knew she wanted to write about something really difficult. “As a writer, you just want something that you can get your teeth into, and you don’t want to write the same book again and again. I think one of the reasons romantic comedy is such an incredible genre and is so underrated or misunderstood is that you can do anything in it.” Although, she adds, “I think my publisher might raise an eyebrow if I suddenly wanted three dead bodies and a murder investigation.”

Ironically, as much as McFarlane writes about romance, she writes about mystery. People hide their real intentions, and the heroine must turn detective to find out who is telling the truth. Who’s That Girl? begins at the hotel where Agatha Christie re-emerged after her disappearance, and Between Us opens at a haunted country manor. Sometimes the stage is virtual: social media, a “huge glittering cathedral made of foam and spray paint”.

McFarlane particularly enjoys writing about bad behaviour – running the gamut from the very worst to the narcissistic, to the kind of everyday cruelty that doesn’t have a name (though after you read a McFarlane, you get to say things like, “he’s such an Ed”). “When you’ve basically decided that someone is pretty awful but puts up a front, that almost becomes easier to write because I believe those men exist. I very much take on board that screenwriting law that every villain has their own perspective”. Mad About You, however, particularly revels in female betrayal and nastiness, which McFarlane considers a necessary balance. As she describes that novel, it’s about “female complicity in certain vile male traits. It’s a cosy read!”

McFarlane brilliantly balances the sharp with the sweet, the “dark and the light”. So what about the heroes? Are they based in reality or fantasy? “I remember putting this in an essay at university and getting a first, so let’s try for that again: Picasso said that all art is a lie that makes us realise the truth. Yes, Jamie’s transformation in If I Never Met You is a wonderful fantasy. Probably in real life, the shagger lad at work is not going to change, is not a wonderful person in disguise. Ultimately, they embody the values that you would want in a partner. They really listen. They really care. They really see the heroine.” To quote It’s Not Me, It’s You: “There are men with principles. Not among any men I’ve ever met. I saw one once in a film.’ And a book. The second layer of fantasy is the romantic declaration. It’s the moment you really want as a reader. I know that I want that. But it’s quite hard to sell in a realistic world where people just call and say do you want to go for a drink?”

Ultimately, McFarlane knows the reason she can pull this off. “I always say my secret weapon is: I love writing what I write, and I’m not writing romantic comedy as a springboard to other types of writing. Romantic fiction absolutely is a complete and passionate love of mine.”


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