As she launches her tenth novel, Mhairi McFarlane is championing the often much maligned genre of rom-com

Mhairi McFarlane is on a mission. In the first instance, the Falkirk-born author is in full swing preparing to release her 10th book, You Belong With Me, on June 20. But she is also determined to change the perception of the romantic-comedy genre in which her novels exist, sometimes described (to her considerable exasperation) as ‘chick-lit’.

 “The word ‘chick’ sounds like something from the 1950s,” she explains, “and it feels like it is used as a dismissive term. But the joke’s on you, if you don’t realise there are a lot of very talented authors sitting under that label.”

And although romantic story arcs form the centre of her novels, her work also focuses on grief, gaslighting, cyber bullying, misogyny and toxic workplaces. It is this kind of complexity that is often dismissed by certain sections of the literary world, a “preconception” that frustrates Mhairi. 

“One of the lazy criticisms of romantic comedy is that people go: ‘It was good, but it was very predictable.’ What they generally mean is that the couple end up together at the end. But what pisses me off is that no one says that about James Bond – even though it’s predictable, too, because he inevitably comes out victorious and the villain defeated. 

“It seems to be looking down on a genre that’s predominantly enjoyed by women. When you look at films, TV and books that are male-authored or have more of a male audience, often there is a love plot too. It is basically what everyone uses to root a story in the real world. But the minute the love plot is centred in the story overall, that’s the point where it becomes stupid?”

Mhairi developed her writing skills as a journalist, working at the Nottingham Evening Post for seven years after graduating with an English degree from Manchester University. She developed two fiction manuscripts while working, deciding to quit her job aged 31 to try to make it as a novelist. This was, she laughs, a bit of a mistake, as it took another five years before she finally got a book published.

“Because I had a background in journalism,” she explains, “I thought I had decent writing chops, and I had an idea of being published within 12 to 18 months. So a piece of advice that I totally failed to take myself, is don’t quit the day job with mad ideas of what’s around the corner, because it does take a lot longer than you think.”

Her debut novel, You Had Me At Hello, shot up the Kindle e-book charts, despite Mhairi being an unknown name at the time. She contributes part of the success to the story focusing on ‘normal’ characters called Ben and Rachel, and an unpretentious setting of Greater Manchester. “When I started writing, it was a real mission of mine to set books outside of London. I just felt, why is it always a glamorous place? Why are they always living in expensive places? You can have exciting escapist novels set in Sheffield.”

She hopes to eventually set a novel in Glasgow, where her family live, with Coia’s Café in Dennistoun already earmarked for a potential scene. You Belong With Me, released in a few weeks, takes place in and around Nottingham, where Mhairi now lives. It’s a sequel to another of her books, examining the relationship between a famous actor and his non-famous girlfriend. She never intended to write a sequel, but a request from a fan led to its development.

“I’ve developed a friendship with a brilliant reader of my books. She emailed me to say she was exasperated with the main character at the end of the first book, and it was it’s so lovely because she treats my characters like actual people.  I started writing it almost as a joke between us, something nice for her, then I discovered I was completely compulsive about it and wrote a whole novel.  I know the celebrity civilian trope is pretty strong in rom com – I’m hardly the first to go near this – but it’s something that I genuinely find interesting. It’s a treat to go back to these characters and explore.”

Mhairi is already signed up for two more novels with her publisher but says she “cannot believe” she is publishing her tenth book. She’s also making forays into television writing, recently working in the writers’ room for the Gary Oldman drama Slow Horses. It would be an “incredible thrill”, she says, if one of her novels also ended up on the screen. 

Well, you heard it here first . . .