Holly Bourne’s sixth novel, It Only Happens in the Movies, is a twisty, thoughtful and unconventional love story, which retains the feminist lens that readers have come to expect from the author behind the Spinster Club series. On a recent visit to Dublin, Bourne found time to discuss her newest release over a very large pot of camomile tea.
The novel’s main character, Audrey, takes a part-time job in a cinema to get out of the house, where she meets Harry, an intriguing aspiring filmmaker with a reputation for treating girls badly. Audrey’s immersion in the world of film sparks an idea for her A-level coursework, and she begins a project deconstructing the messages of romance films. ‘I had been working at a youth charity as a relationship advisor,’ Bourne said, ‘and had just been on abusive relationship training. It was the middle of winter, so I was also watching loads of Netflix – usually romance films, which I do love, then all these red flags started going off. I realised that loads of these behaviours we are told to idolise as girls, and to want to have happen to us, are actually really concerning and worrying. And that’s when I had the idea to try to deconstruct the messages we’re told about love through popular culture.’
Audrey’s coursework is the spine of the book. ‘In terms of form and structure, that was fun to write,’ Bourne said, ‘and I didn’t get so lost along the way because I was following the general narrative arc of a romance film.’
Audrey has more on her plate than selling cinema tickets and popcorn. Her mother is traumatised by her divorce and Audrey’s dad’s remarriage, while Audrey is reeling from a painful sexual rejection by her ex that has also left her isolated from her friends.
‘I wanted to know why a character would be that cynical that young,’ Bourne said of Audrey’s home life. ‘That gave me the opportunity to explore some other things – I wanted to explore men who have second families, and just basically men being jerks. There’s a lot of jerks in this book!’ Bourne laughed. ‘Love is messy and complicated and doesn’t always last forever. So it is really normal for people to have multiple families, which framed Audrey’s story.’
In spite of her cynicism and his relentless flirting, Audrey finds herself falling for Harry as they shoot a zombie movie together (‘I remember suddenly texting my friends saying, “I just started writing a zombie side plot, I’m not sure why but I’m just going to go with it,”’ Bourne recalled). Is it possible to have perfect first kisses, grand gestures and happily-ever-afters in real life? Bourne had an interesting take on that. ‘One thing I wanted to write was a romance film where the happily ever after is the girl ends up with herself. Because I just think that’s an important message to have in books about love for teenage girls.’
The novel’s ending has divided readers, according to Bourne. ‘That’s when you just have to let go and stay true to the story that you want to tell and the reasons why you wanted to tell it,’ she said. ‘We had lots of conversations about [Harry’s behaviour] in the editorial process.’ Ultimately, Bourne said that the ending was about Audrey’s boundaries and her decisions regarding the relationship – ‘the whole point was that it was grey and the audience get to decide how they feel about it. I think it’s a really happy ending!’
Bourne is best-known for her Spinster Club series, which handles feminist issues with deftness and humour. Though not a book about feminism, It Only Happens in the Movies is certainly a feminist book – not least in Audrey’s memorable rant at Harry when he tells her that she’s not like other girls, and the fresh perspective that she brings to her part in his film. ‘I’m kind of relieved I don’t have to talk about [feminism] so much anymore because it was very difficult to promote the last three and a half books without massive backlash. I can talk about romance movies and I’m not going to get death and rape threats. That’s a big relief.’ This certainly supports Bourne’s belief that there’s still work to be done in terms of bringing feminism to young people, although she said she is heartened by today’s teenagers being, ‘so much more woke. I love the word woke, though I may be too old to use it!’
‘I will always have feminism in my books,’ Bourne said, ‘where it’s just about girls having agency and being maybe difficult, not always likeable, having strong female friendships, the sort of things I think it’s important for teenage girls to know they can have and can be. I think that’s my job as a YA author, to try and help point them along happier, healthier roads, and gender equality is a happier, healthier road for everyone.’
Bourne’s next YA release will be about ‘maths and mental health, and whether or not mental health problems are preventable.’ Also coming this year is her debut adult novel – ‘a book I needed to write’ – and a collaborative novel, Floored, written with Sara Barnard, Tanya Byrne, Non Pratt, Melinda Salisbury, Lisa Williamson and Eleanor Wood. With three releases in one year, Bourne has a busy 2018 ahead, but fortunately she believes that ‘it’s the best job in the world – whenever someone lets me write anything I feel like the luckiest person.’