Country stations are full of sad songs about what could have been, what used to be, and the girl that got away. Now in theaters, the new movie Forever My Girl explores the story behind that kind of song, opening with small-town girl Josie left at the altar, before introducing the man who left her, now-famous country singer Liam Page. When fate offers an opportunity for Liam to head back to his hometown and inspiration, he gets an icy reception from everyone.... except Josie's seven-year-old daughter. But is Forever My Girl based on a true story? The country-fried romance has some roots in reality, but its main inspiration is as simple as it is surprising (and fictional).
At the peak of his career, Liam has a hit song ironically about longing for his ex, the one he left behind for fame and fortune. Neither director and screenwriter Bethany Ashton Wolf nor book author Heidi McLaughlin would know about that — both have happily integrated their work and family lives without the drama the fictional Liam's work is based on. Ashton Wolf, director of several independent films, has been married to CMT host and comedian Josh Wolf for 13 years, writing several screenplays, adopting dogs, and raising her family in the meantime, as her social media shows. Keeping in touch with her roots also doesn't seem to require running away — from the looks of her Instagram, you can take the girl out of the country, but you definitely can't take the country out of the girl:
Behind-the-scenes, in my preferred director's chair.
McLaughlin, author of the book the movie is based on, is a Pacific Northwest gal who settled in Vermont — possibly the farthest away from a Southern upbringing you can get (especially temperature-wise). In an interview with Huffington Post, she admitted both places feature heavily in her work. "I try to bring a little bit of both homes into my books, whether it’s the scenery, small towns or the coast," she said.
She's written a number of stories in the Forever series, including a sort-of sequel to Forever My Girl called Finding My Forever, that follows Liam's son (now an adult) on his own emotional journey to find love. Writing at night and holding down a full time job while helping raise two daughters, McLaughlin's also not living the rock star life. But in an interview with Michael Ventrella, she says the common advice to "write what you know" is some of the worst she's gotten. Said McLaughlin,
"To me that means – don’t think outside the box. I’m glad I didn’t listen because I write a Navy SEAL series that I absolutely love, but I’m not in the Navy, nor have I even been though BUD/s. If we only wrote what we knew, we’d be boring."
She went on to say that the actual worst piece of advice she received was that "social media doesn't sell books." McLaughlin's living proof of how silly that idea is — she's a New York Times bestselling author never mentioned among the so-called literati. Romance novels are often dismissed as not being "real" literature, and it's difficult, if not impossible, to get the same kind of attention as other novelists. McLaughlin's success comes directly from her intense online following, nurtured by interviews with individual bloggers and smaller websites, and supported by romance-novel communities for and by fans.
Online is also where McLaughlin often finds her own inspiration. Asked by blog Happily Ever After whether there was any specific moment that inspired Forever My Girl, McLaughlin said yes. And of all things, it was a Facebook photo that set her mind running.
"I saw an image of a guy on Facebook who looked like he was trying to apologize. For what, I didn’t know until I gave him a name, which took a whole 10 or 15 minutes. That night, I wrote the first 5,000 words."
They say a picture's worth a thousand words, but McLaughlin got five times the amount. Despite her earlier statement, she told the blog that she did base the characters in Forever My Girl and the other books in the Beaumont series on a little bit of real life - speaking again to Happily Ever After she says she has several friends in bands, "so I copied a lot of what they do when they’re working and when they’re home. It’s crazy to see their alter egos."
That contrast is the driving force behind both the book and movie version of Forever My Girl, with Liam learning to separate himself from his rock-star persona and get back to the life he thought he'd have.