‘Funny Story’ Author Emily Henry Breaks Down New Romance Novel, ‘Very Discreet’ Easter Eggs for Previous Books and ‘Scary’ Feelings About What She’s Writing Next

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers for Emily Henry’s new romance novel, “Funny Story,” released April 23.

“Happy Place” and “Book Lovers” author Emily Henry’s latest book “Funny Story” starts with its two leads, Daphne and Miles, sharing one very humorless tale: being left by their respective partners, Peter and Petra, a pair of childhood best friends who have realized their love for each other.

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And then Daphne gets kicked out of her house and has to move in with Miles, so Petra can move in with Peter.

Despite the double-heartbreak setup, Henry uses her rom-com writing chops to bring these two jilted lovers into their own love story, with Daphne and Miles blurring the lines of their new roommate dynamic when they start pretending to be a couple to get back at their exes.

“It was kind of a similar situation as when I was coming up with ‘Happy Place,’ where I had this premise that I could just see the humor in. But then of course, I’m me, so I sit down to write it and I’m like, ‘Oh, no, these people are heartbroken. How am I supposed to make this funny?'” Henry told Variety. “But with this one, I felt like it was much easier because Daphne’s character writes people off somewhat quickly; she has learned hard lessons in her past and she has sort of a list of criteria for deciding if someone is going to have access to her energy and her time. Even though she’s heartbroken, there’s also a lot of anger and there’s a righteous indignation there. Rather than just grieving the relationship, there’s also this piece of her that’s like, ‘Well, what a shithead?’ I think the anger had a lot more opportunity for humor in it for me. When you’re angry, you make weird decisions. The whole setup of the book is basically that she’s so pissed off at her ex that she tells him that she’s already moved on with his new girlfriend’s ex.”

Henry found that “anger was a good entry point into humor,” because “most of what makes something a funny story really is things going wrong, but in a surprising way.”

“These stories are the things that we hold on to and sometimes even in the moment when they’re happening, there’s a part of your brain that’s aware, later this is going to be really funny,” Henry said. “Right now I’m sobbing, but this will be something that I am glad happened to me, in a weird way, because it will be like a very fun story to tell for years to come.”

Henry — who is currently having her previous books “People We Meet on Vacation,” “Book Lovers” and “Beach Read” adapted into films — spoke with Variety about crafting the romance in “Funny Story” and why she’s “scared” about what she’s writing next. See more from the Q&A below.

Daphne maintains throughout the book that Petra is genuinely a nice person and is not faking her kindness. Why did you make that choice for Daphne to have that stance and not villainize Petra, the woman whom her fiancé left her for?

For Daphne, her self awareness is almost painful in some ways. I think we’ve all had that situation where there’s someone we really don’t like, and then we’re recounting the horrible thing that they did to someone and we’re kind of realizing as we say it aloud, “I think I just don’t like them? They didn’t actually wrong me.” In this case, Petra did wrong Daphne, but she’s her own main character, she’s not just the villain of someone else’s story. She’s her own main character with her own reason for doing things. And I think there’s almost nothing more frustrating than wanting to be able to blame someone, but you’re kind of inoculated against it because they really are genuinely kind, they did not set out to hurt someone. And I think most of the time, people are not setting out to hurt you.

I also feel like every book that I write has been a reaction to another book that I’ve written. And I really loved writing Alex and Poppy in “People We Meet on Vacation,” but that [Peter and Petra story] was basically the setup — it was these two people who’ve been best friends since college, and have taken this trip every summer for 10 years. And they’ve had other relationships, but those relationships haven’t been actually as important to them as this friendship. And Poppy, in Alex’s ex-girlfriend’s story, could have been the villain. Or Alex’s ex-girlfriend could have been Poppy’s villain, but it’s not that simple. That would make it easy. I think people are probably going to get pissed off reading about Peter and Petra because if it were happening to you or to a friend, you would be furious and you would be the one telling Daphne, “No, these people are horrible, they’re evil,” so she could maintain the openness of heart to acknowledge that it’s not that simple.

I took this third-act breakup between Daphne and Miles harder than your previous books, because I really didn’t know how Daphne was going to forgive Miles and what circumstances would make it OK for him to go over to help Petra and then shut out Daphne. What is your method for how you push it as far as you do, and do you wonder in the back of your head, will the justification you have plotted get the reader back around in the end?

Because I knew why Miles was making his decisions, I didn’t really worry. Maybe I should have worried more if the readers would not get on board. But I really think that, for the most part, if you can get deep enough into a character’s head to explain the why of their actions, readers will forgive a lot. They still might write reviews calling those characters stupid or whatever, but they’ll forgive a lot if they understand why something’s being done because that’s how we work as humans. We don’t always make the right decisions. We do stupid things, but in our minds they make total sense because of X, Y and Z. So I wasn’t super worried about that.

I think if anything, because I do think that Miles is so kind and in a way so openhearted, the hardest thing for this book really was kind of finding that conflict, and figuring out how to have these characters fail each other in certain ways that are rooted in their own history and their own character development. To have them fail each other in these very specific ways that when they’re just so nice, especially him, he’s so nice, and it’s so much easier to write characters with a little edge having conflict and friction. But for this book, I think I have seven drafts of it, which is way more than usual for me. And so much of that was just trying to figure out this arc of, why can’t they be together? At the beginning, they’re both nursing broken hearts and so that did really help but after a certain point, you have to figure out, what else about them? What is it that they need to overcome as individuals to possibly get together?

You’ve connected your other books in certain ways with little references. Are there any Easter eggs in “Funny Story” that call back to your previous romance novels?

There are two very discreet ones. One of them is so discreet that I don’t know if anyone will get it. I’m excited to say that and hopefully for that to make it to your final piece, so I’ll find out if anyone can find it. I want them to scour because there’s still an Easter egg in “Happy Place” that I don’t know if people have caught. It’s for “Book Lovers.”

Have you found your sex scenes have evolved since “People We Meet on Vacation,” and is there a specific way you approach them to make it intimate and special for whatever new couple you are writing?

I’ll say the more books that I do, the harder it gets to find a way to make it special and intimate because I’m like, “Well, there’s only so many ways you can do it!” There’s a lot more ways than I’ve tapped into, but my books are relatively tame, as far as the romance spectrum. The way that I write them has kind of stayed the same where I write as quickly as possible to convince myself that no one’s ever going to read it. I don’t think of myself as a prude but it is kind of hard to remove your brain. My grandparents are still living, they’re in their 90s and 80s, and my grandma still reads my books. You have to separate your personal self from your professional self. So I tend to write them quickly and it’s fine when I’m the one editing them but then when it get to copy edits, and you have a copy editor pointing out, “Oh, this doesn’t seem physically possible. Didn’t they already take their pants off two scenes ago?” So that is a very humbling experience that has not gotten much easier for me mentally.

But I think if anything, the way that it has evolved a little bit is just that I am reading so much more romance now. And so I’m getting a lot more comfortable writing those kinds of scenes and not self-judging it as I’m writing it. Because as a reader, I’m not judging them. So the more I read in the genre, the more comfortable I get.

One thing I’ve noticed consistently is you’re very big on safe sex in your books and you make it pretty clear in every single situation when the condom comes out and that conversation is had between the couple. Is that something that’s really important to you to have explicitly stated for readers?

I feel two different ways about it. Because on the one hand, I’m a big proponent of the idea that art should be art and it’s not like necessarily there to teach a lesson. But I also think that what makes romance really appealing to me as a reader, one of many things, is how important the element of respect is in a lot of these relationships. Especially growing up in the 90s, there was all this messaging that respect only matters to men and love and affection matters to women. But respect is so important to me and having that be a part of the conversation around intimacy, shows that those characters have a lot of respect for each other. Maybe it’s not totally realistic, people don’t always make that decision. Sometimes you’re like, “I’ll deal with this however, whatever happens.” But what I’m trying to make sure is you can really see the foundational respect between the characters that comes up. And honestly, sometimes I do forget and my editor will flag and be like, “Do we want there to be a condom moment?” And usually I’m like, “Yeah, sure.” I think there’s this idea that it interrupts the flow and it makes it less sexy. And it’s like, well, not really. Not having to worry about pregnancy or disease is kind of sexy.

In this book, I noticed you have more children characters featured than you’ve had in any of your books so far — with Daphne being a children’s librarian, and her best friend Ashley is a mother. Is that intentional and is parenthood an area you’ve become more interested in writing about?

The truth is, in the last few years, a couple of my very closest friends started having kids. Two of them had two kids over three years and then my best friend since high school and his wife just had twins two weeks ago. And so I do think I’m in that stage of life where kids have become a part of my reality in a way that they haven’t been since I was 14 and babysitting. And I had never really been like a baby-crazy person the way that some of my friends have been. I’m much more of a wolf habitat kind of person. But it’s really interesting seeing how your heart grows and your life changes, not even being a parent, but just being sort of like an auntie. That you couldn’t imagine wanting to have a baby at all of the parties that you’re having with your friends and now you’re like, “Oh, I hope that the party starts early enough that the babies are awake!” So I think that’s part of it. And then also something that was really fun to play with in this one specifically was the idea of intergenerational relationships between women. Daphne is in her earlyish 30s and then her friend Ashley, who has a son, is in her early 40s and then she also befriends Miles’ younger sister, who is in her early 20s.

And online, there’s all of this manufactured, propagated intergenerational drama, but in real life, it’s so fun and rewarding to have friends who are at different places in life than you. You learn so much and it makes aging and growing up a lot less scary. I was really excited to play with what it looks like when you have a friendship that straddles different stages of life. And I had started doing that with “Happy Place,” exploring what you do when the dynamic shifts to accommodate the fact that you’re not in the same place. And this is the more settled version of it, where it’s fun to have single friends who tell you their horrible dating stories, even if you’re in a serious relationship, and it’s fun to have friends who have kids or who are empty nesters and want you to be their stand-in children or whatever. I’m just delighting in what adult friendship looks like because it can be so hard to make it, but it’s so nice when you find it.

What comes next for you after “Funny Story”?

I am working on something new. I took a few months off writing, which I had not done since before college. And I thought I would need a year off but then I started working on this new thing and it’s really been exciting to me. It feels different, but it’s still a love story with a romantic love story in it. And I think the writing feels the same, it just feels a little bit, I don’t know, bigger. Just talking about “Funny Story” playing with the idea of this intergenerational friendship between these three women, I think that sensibility and that interest is only increasing for me. I love having people of different ages and backgrounds in a scene together and seeing what that brings out of them.

And so I’m really excited about this new book. It feels scary. I haven’t felt really scared to write a new book since maybe “Beach Read.” I was excited about “Beach Read,” because I wasn’t originally going to try and publish it — but when I started editing it, I was scared because I didn’t really know if people want this kind of thing. And with this one, again, as soon as I felt this tug in my chest while I was writing, I knew that it felt really special to me and different and like there was a heart already there. And I got very nervous. So I’m excited to talk more about it soon, once “Funny Story” is out. But I have both very good feelings and huge amounts of trepidation.

Are you exploring writing other genres outside contemporary romance, similar to what Ali Hazelwood has just done with branching out into paranormal romance with “Bride”?

I love that Ali did that because I think when you are having success at one thing, it’s so hard to even let yourself consider doing something else because you’re on this merry-go-round and everything is working and that’s so rare in creative industries for things to just work. But I have always read widely, I’ve always written widely. I have unpublished horror manuscripts that are garbage. I hope that someday I will publish horror. I have one co-written thriller about teens, “Hello Girls,” which I wrote with my friend Brittany Cavallaro. That’s been out since 2019. And we had so much fun writing that. We have a lot of plans and machinations to write some thrillers for adults and kind of thriller comedies. And “Hello Girls,” I’ll say on the record has not been optioned and is just made to be a series — so I don’t know what’s going on there! It is so funny and fun, we had a blast writing it.

But I want to do everything. I want to write everything. I want to screen write. I want to maybe someday direct. I just love making, bottomline.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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