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Interview: Mhairi McFarlane

14 March 15 interview: Penny Reeve
illustrations: Ben Lord

The writer of You Had Me At Hello reveals all about her career move from Nottingham Post journo to funny chick lit author

Why did you take the plunge as an author?
I started at the Nottingham Post when I was about 23 and the plan was always to springboard from local to nationals, but as time went on the dream just kind of withered on the vine. I turned thirty at the Post and that was a real watershed moment. Then one day the Deputy Editor asked if I’d write an advertising supplement in the style of Bridget Jones’ Diary and I really enjoyed it, it set something off in my head. I left when I turned 31 because it was a case of, if not now then when? I took the plunge and went freelance. I then had five very hard years, doing bits here and there thinking, “Oh my God, what have I done?”

Do you miss journalism?
I miss the people, I don’t miss the work. Sometimes it was fantastic - you have days when you learn so much and have to become a crash expert at a subject. You meet really interesting people and go places you otherwise wouldn’t. I left in 2007 and I’m still trying to adjust to the fact I don’t have an office and colleagues in the same way. I’m lucky that I’ve retained real friends from it.

How did you find your voice as a writer?
With difficulty. I think as a journalist you have a huge head start on everybody else. You have to try and find a voice that’s like you but not entirely you. The truth is, I had some false starts and the first version of my first book was really serious and doomy. I sent it to an editor at Random House who sent me an e-mail which was very hard to read, but actually was one of the most useful bits of advice I’ve ever had, saying “I really liked the first three chapters of this but I’m not going to pick it up and this is why…” I went to the pub, I cried, then I licked my wounds and wrote something else to take the pain away. When I went back to it months later, I read it and realised she was absolutely right.

Your books aren’t traditional chick lit style...
I’ve been hugely flattered by people who’ve said that. I know people who said they’d never tackle a book like mine, but because they knew me and followed me on Twitter they wondered if the books could be a million miles away from the way I seem. I partly wrote You Had Me At Hello as a reaction to all of the chick lit I’d seen, it didn’t really speak to me about mine or my friends’ lives - we wouldn’t be discussing girls who go off to LA to be PAs to rock stars and get an extreme wax and all of that stuff.

So what’s being an author day-to-day like?
It’s like any other job really. I was never really a deadline jockey when I was at the Post; I was a really good girl, filing my copy in plenty of time. I think creative writing is different to anything logical or factual. You know what happens next broadly but you don’t know what’s next. Like if x has just seen x, how is she? How do I start the next scene? What’s she doing? What’s she thinking? What’s she feeling? You don’t want to half-arse it. I’ve had to find Buddhist calm as you never write your best version of a book. There’s a whole other version in your head that was better but it’s ultimately just flinging the load at the wall, letting it stick and slide down. You have to remember that no one is looking at the book the way you are looking at it.

What’s your writing space like? Do you find that you need to get out now and again to avoid the temptation to stay in your pyjamas all day?
It’s a bleak tip at the moment as we’re redecorating the house. I work from my dining room which has crazy blue wallpaper with gold wisteria on it - it’s quite fancy. Of course I have my MacBook Air which every creative, arts industry nobhead has. Today I’ve been at Broadway - I have the freedom to move around. Sometimes you want the noise of sitting in a cafe. The kind of fiction that I write is very chatty and sociable, so you need social observation, you need to go out. This is the bit that I start to sound like a lovey-dovey wanker - I don’t think we should write books about relationships unless we can talk about how we live now. I’m really conscious of the things my friends are worried about and the things that are going on around me. I’m sure becoming a complete hermit worked for Thomas Pynchon, but it’s not going to work for me.

Do you find a lot of inspiration in your friends?
You can’t live everything that people experience in a novel. For example, I have never found out a partner has cheated on me, but you spend so much time around your friends over the years that you draw things together. Where else can it come from really? My friends are so generous about it. They know when I get that little glint in my eye and I say, “You know I’m going to use this, don’t you?”

What’s the most romantic thing that’s ever happened to you?
I was in Broadway years ago, and it’s kind of tragi-comic as my boyfriend’s sister was sitting the other side of me, but this guy just walks up to me and says, “You’re not going to remember me, but I tried to buy you a drink at a pub about five years ago and you told me to sod off.” I apologised and he said it was fine, that we were in a dodgy nightclub but he wanted to tell me that when he saw me across the room he thought I was his ideal woman and if he ever saw me a second time, no matter how ridiculous it may be, he was going to come up to me, tell me what he thought of me, and beg me for a date. I was like, “Uh, I’ve got a boyfriend.” I was stunned. It was a Sunday classic of hair in a ponytail, big jumper, and I just had to say thanks. Isn’t that romantic? I wonder what happened to him...

Bad advice or good advice: write drunk/edit sober?
I wish I knew how to write drunk! I find one glass of wine might help but after that you just don’t have any judgement anymore. There’s a focus and discipline to writing that you can’t achieve when pissed. But if other people can, then I’m not judging them - I envy them. I’ve had people say “just do that before sex scenes.” E.L. James reads like she was drunk all the way through writing.

Why do you think E.L. James has become so popular?
For all of the kind of bondage stuff, it’s just a templated Mills and Boon shag with “ooh he tied me up and put some balls in me.” As a feminist, I do have some problems with it. Why does she have to be a wet little creature who’s just scooped up and rescued by a rich, powerful man who’s going to make it all fine? I read an article comparing Fifty Shades of Grey with Pride and Prejudice. How does Lizzie win over Darcy? She’s spirited, intelligent, she’s his equal and she makes him realise that social class and birth doesn’t matter. At what point does any zinging repertoire from Ana win over Christian? She wins him over by being this tiny, startled fawn. One thing I was so pleased about after YHMAH is that people were happy that Rachel wasn’t some sort of misunderstood angel that the world had mistreated. No one is that person.

Do you think chick lit is evolving?
I’m not sure I’m placed to say it’s evolving. I definitely want it to feel like feminism is a thing, but those two things shouldn’t be separate. I mean, you write about women’s lives, why isn’t feminism inherent? I hope Twilight and Fifty Shades are a blip and we get back to spirited, confident, intelligent women. The trouble with romantic comedy is obviously: how does the girl get the guy? That’s the plot, but you’ve got to be very careful that the girl doesn’t get defined by the bloke.

Of your characters, which is your favourite?
I’m obscenely fond of Delia and her big ginger fringe.

We heard a rumour there might be a film of YHMAH coming out...
Yes, hopefully! It’s going really well, and it’s so much fun playing around with those characters that I’d shelved. I’ve not had any plans to write a sequel, so it was lovely to get back in. It’s so interesting the process of working out what works in a novel but not in a film.

Why did you choose romance as your genre?
I have always loved romantic comedy and really felt that there was a gap in the market. I did try and write a newsroom thriller when YHMAH was rejected. I got some nice, cautious optimism from agents but they didn’t know where to put it, as it didn’t directly fit into a genre.

Do you think that the thriller will resurface at any point?
I’ve got a screen agent as well as a literary agent and when he took me I said “Can I pitch a drama serial?” We shopped it around and got some really interesting responses. It’s finding the time to try and push it. I should give it the love it deserves - once I’ve done this book, we’ll see.

Can you tell me anything about the new book?
I don’t know if this has been anywhere before now, but it’s going to be set in Nottingham. I really like writing Nottingham. I’m still seen as a bit of a curiosity because I’m not living in London and I find that so ridiculous. I have a laptop, a brain, why do I need to be in London to write? Why can’t you set a book outside of the capital?

How about the plot?
The romantic hero, as I pitched him to Harper, is going to be a cross between Joe Dempsie, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jamie Dornan. He’s going to be very good looking, famous, very successful and the heroine is going to be ghostwriting his autobiography.

Your first book was an instant success and you’re now Harper Collins’ bestselling author to date. That’s amazing...
It took everyone by surprise, including my publisher. It was very much a quiet little release of a genre paperback and I was just really lucky and did phenomenally well by word-of-mouth. My auntie must have stood in a queue and said to everyone, “Have you read this book? It’s about this girl and she meets a guy at uni…” There was also a bit of a gold rush on Kindle, I was on about 100,000 sold within a few months on Kindle. I had nothing to compare it to, so I was going, “Is that good?”, and my Editor was saying, “Mhairi, it’s fucking brilliant.”

When did it hit you that you were a successful author?
I met a friend at the pub and was introduced as “Mhairi, who’s written a book”. Later on people were asking me about it and if I was edited heavily for swearing. I said no, the editors were amazing; there was a line that was kept in which said, “Would you be adverse to a cocking?” All the faces around the table dropped and one of them said, “That’s from You Had Me At Hello!” and I was like, “That’s the book I wrote.” That was that moment, when I was just sitting in a bar in Nottingham and everyone had read my book. You know you’re selling well, you know you’ve got a paycheck that means you can finally give up your day job, but until moments like that, you don’t really believe it. It was cool.

Mhairi’s fourth novel is due out in November 2015.

Mhairi McFarlane's website

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