Internationally bestselling author Mhairi McFarlane, 40, is taking the literary world by storm, putting a new twist on the chick-lit genre with her witty romcoms. We chat to the Nottingham-based novelist about her fourth book, Who’s That Girl?
Nine years ago, Mhairi quit her day job as a Nottingham Post features writer with the big dream of becoming an author. Her debut novel, You Had Me At Hello, published in 2012, was an instant success, selling half a million copies and leading to a six-figure deal with HarperCollins to write three more books.
How has your life changed since your success?
I’m a lot less skint, and I can go with confidence to a family Christmas party or the pub and if someone says what do you do for a living I feel like I’ve got a respectable answer. I also bought a green fridge with the money from YHMAH. I always said I wanted a green Smeg one so I bought my silly fridge. But you still go to Wetherspoons with your friends on a Friday night, at least I do.
Can you tell me about your new book, Who’s That Girl?
My heroine, Edie, goes to a wedding and gets caught doing something so awful that she just gets completely shamed and ostracised by everyone. She’s been working in advertising in London and it’s been quite a glamorous life, then her boss says, ‘I’ve got this three-month project where you have to ghost-write a terrible autobiography for this brat actor, go back to Nottingham and come back when your reputation has improved.’ So she has to go home, come to terms with her past, what she’s done at this wedding and then has to deal with this actor who is in a fictionalised Game of Thrones.
What inspired you to write it?
I was really interested in the idea that now we’re all on social media all our reputations live online, so much of who we are is on our phones so what if you did something so awful that your social standing collapsed overnight. When I was selling it to my publishers I said it’s the three months that changed my life book. If your life collapses, how do you rebuild it and what do you learn from it.
Why did you want to become an author?
It was never really my dream to stay in local papers and I wanted to do fiction instead. There was an advertising supplement and I was asked to do a spoof Bridget Jones column. When I did it something just clicked. I had girls from another department calling on the internal phone asking what happens next and I thought people actually care about the story I made up and that just triggered something in me.”
Why do you think You Had Me At Hello was so popular?
Because I wrote it for myself. I went on holiday to New York with my brother and sister-in-law. We were in the airport bookshop and I was going ‘Where’s the romantic comedy for me, I would love to buy one, but it feels like everything’s very girly.’ I do like girly but I like it with some humour and a bit more down to earth. My brother just said to me ‘Do it, then, stop talking about it.’ It was quite a key thing to have someone give you permission like that.
How are your books different from traditional chick-lits?
I have female friends who talk, think and act like the characters in my books and I felt that in chick-lit there was an awful lot of sweet little angels. So I just tried to take the voice that to me felt very authentic and use real dilemmas. There were too many books out there that just felt full of these fantastical scenarios that were never going to happen to you.
Who’s That Girl? is set in Nottingham. What do you like so much about the city?
It’s really friendly, you see people you know all the time, everything’s close together and there’s enough going on to keep your interest. I really like the fact I can write all my novels here and I don’t need to be in London.
Her new book, Who’s That Girl?, is out now.