Mhairi McFarlane on her book Here’s Looking at You

Mhairi McFarlane pictured in Nottingham. Picture: Fabio De Paola
Mhairi McFarlane pictured in Nottingham. Picture: Fabio De Paola
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Hailed as a new voice in romantic fiction, Mhairi McFarlane only tried chick lit when her thriller wouldn’t sell. Now, she’s wedded to the genre, finds Janet Christie

Mhairi McFarlane has just taken delivery of a “snot green fridge”. Not something you’d find the romantic fiction writer’s heroine Jane Austen ever doing, but McFarlane takes inspiration from the classical author’s obsession with social relationships, if not the domestic appliances available at the time. She references Pride and Prejudice, her heroes have shades of Mr Darcy and she cites the dinner party in Persuasion as the spark that informed the sometimes excruciating social gatherings in her second book.

“Jane Austen is the ultimate chick lit-er. There’s so much social satire in there. It’s not posh Mills & Boon, there’s so much more to it and it’s so funny. I like to think I’m writing about relationships too and try to put general observations in there. For example, that thing people say to single women: ‘Do you think you’re too choosy?’ You’d never ask a couple if they weren’t choosy enough would you?”

McFarlane is one of the hottest new names in the chick lit world after her debut novel, You Had Me At Hello, became Harper Collins’ biggest ever selling ebook last Christmas and topped the best seller lists. It went on to win the RoNA Contemporary Book of the Year Award, 2013, and attracted fans in the shape of Marian Keyes and Minnie Driver. Such was its success that 37-year-old McFarlane felt able to give up the journalism day job in order to write full time and having completed her second novel, Here’s Looking At You, is now busy in her attic tapping away at novels three and four, as well talking TV scripts and film options on her books.

“I’m trying not to get too excited. I know these things can go wrong, or come to nothing, but it’s great fun and I have to say, without talking about money, it’s better paid than being a newspaper reporter. It’s the most wonderful thing to be paid to write full time. It’s a pressure but it’s a nice kind of pressure.”

Displaying her self-deprecating humour McFarlane describes herself as an “old Lily Allen” or, as her nephew has it, the Vicar of Dibley. “I just thought that meant I was funny,” she says. If you hang about Nottingham’s coffee shops and bars, you might spot her doing a 
JK Rowling with her laptop, possibly eavesdropping on the bright young thirtysomethings around her. Born in Falkirk, she moved to England when she was still pre-school and has since spent her life telling people her name is pronounced with a V, not an M. After studying English at Manchester University she went on to become a journalist, latterly at the Nottingham Evening Post, before taking the plunge and retiring to the attic with her cat and computer.

“I’m a romantic writer cliché. I live with Alex and my cat Mister Miffy, but to be honest it can sometimes get a bit Howard Hughes and just going out for milk and bread becomes very exciting. That’s why I like to get out with my laptop or I could find myself going to a dark place.

“I always wanted to write but unless you’re really posh you don’t come out of university and say I will write novels.

“I left work at the paper in 2007 and got the deal in January 2011 so at first I worked part-time and did several other manuscripts as well as You Had Me At Hello. I hit 30 and maybe was having a bit of a mid-life crisis and thought if I don’t make a big change I will drift. I realised that if I only wrote in the evening I wouldn’t get it done. I’m well aware people hold down jobs and have children and write in the evenings – I don’t know how they do it. Do I recommend giving up the day job to write? No, I really don’t. The process of writing a book involves a protracted period of being skint. My long-term partner Alex put his money where his mouth is and paid the mortgage and when I had some of my biggest wobbles he was great. It’s all come good now I hope.”

Despite being in a long-term relationship and happily settled with her cat and her man, McFarlane’s novels are concerned with human relationships and her heroines’ attempts to find love. She might inhabit Bridget Jones territory but she reckons where she differs from traditional chick lit is in that the happy ending of big meringue dress wedding and nailing down of a husband isn’t the ultimate goal of her protagonists. Her heroines are more feisty and if they don’t meet Mr Right, then so be it, though it would be very nice if they did.

“They’re not predicated around being hair-tossing heroines. Chick lit can be a bit anachronistic with this thing about chasing the ring. I don’t know many women who obsess about the meringue dress. In the second Bridget Jones film, within the first five minutes she’s really getting antsy that he’s not showing signs of proposing. I find that anti-feminist and you don’t want to write a surrendered anti-feminist heroine. It’s about a woman who wants a man but it’s not that she can only be happy with a man and nothing else. There’s an appetite for Caitlin Moran, Tina Fey, sassy, sweary, irreverent, more realistic females. That’s why I love David Nicholls’ One Day, and Marian Keyes because she’s so warm.” And of course Jane Austen.

For her first novel McFarlane followed the well known saw of write what you know by having her heroine work as a journalist, specialising in court reporting, something McFarlane enjoyed doing herself. “I wasn’t completely sure I was going to go for chick lit romantic fiction so I wrote a thriller set in a newsroom but when I started trying to sell that, they weren’t sure where to place it. It’s hard to get people to take on debuts and give you a chance. So I went for a chick lit romantic fiction instead,” she says.

“I did what I imagine a lot of novelists do – stole things left, right and centre from real life. I did a lot of court reporting, had a good male friend at university, although we weren’t romantically involved, and my friends do Guardian Soulmates so I know it’s not quite the Nora Ephron romance we’d all like. Then there’s a roster of people who I earwig and Twitter is brilliant for that lovely turn of phrase.

“It’s funny because the people you steal from never recognise themselves, but others constantly get it wrong and think you’re writing about them. One friend thought I was taking the p*** out of his decor and I wasn’t. It’s fiction, not memoir. I suppose that people think it’s obviously my life story means I have probably done my job.”

While McFarlane’s demographic is twenty and thirty-something women, she refrained from consciously studying the market before starting to write.

“I took a while to get a deal so I probably didn’t consider the market enough, but if you’re cynical and write to a mould, readers don’t like it. I felt there’s not really any romantic fiction that speaks to me and my friends. The pink and twee Polly Pocket stuff has become samey but I love romantic comedy and romance, so it’s good to get back to that. OK, not many people have the love of their lives walk back in, but they all have regrets over chances not taken. I don’t think happy ever after is always weddings and babies. It’s about finding the right person.”

And domestic appliances. For it’s a truth universally acknowledged, that a happily settled woman in possession of a good fortune, must also be in want of a snot green fridge.

Here’s Looking at You is published on Thursday, Harper Collins, £6.99