Casey McQuiston: Unapologetic Affairs

(photo: Raegan Labat)

Casey McQuiston grew up in the swamps of Southern Louisiana, where she cultivated an abiding love for honey butter biscuits and stories with big, beating hearts. She studied journalism and worked in magazine publishing for years before returning to her first love: joyous, offbeat romantic comedies and escapist fiction. She lives in the mountains of Fort Collins, Colo., with a collection of caftans and her poodle mix, Pepper. Red, White & Royal Blue (St. Martin's Griffin, May 14, 2019) is her first novel.

Your writing is so rich and funny from the get-go. Were there favorite characters for you to write? Who was your entry point into this book?

Honestly, every time a minor character comes up, I'm like, "Oh yeah, that person is my favorite." But as far as an entry point, Alex was definitely the first character I sketched out. He's the first one that I got. Even Henry's character changed a lot in the process of sketching out the plot, but Alex never changed from day one. He's just a Gryffindor nightmare--I know this person. I sometimes am this person. So he set the tone for the book, because he's in-your-face and unapologetic. He can be vulgar, and he's got this sarcastic sense of humor.

I also had fun writing Zahra. With her I got to go nuts and let someone go on a rant or tear someone to shreds. That was so much fun to write. So if I had to pick my favorite one to write lines for, it would be Zahra.

Did you hone a process to make sure the comic moments landed right?

A lot of it was just reading it out loud. I watched a lot of Veep and Parks & Rec when I was writing this book, so I would think, if I were watching this on a TV show and somebody said this line, would I laugh? Would I take a screenshot and think it was funny? I would read it out loud, and go with the rhythm of it, and ask myself, is this actually funny or am I just telling myself it's funny? I think very visually, and this is probably sacrilege, but I spend a lot more time with TV and movies--even though books were my first love and they're what I write. So I hear it in my head and see it play out in front of me to make sure it works.

That really comes through. I kept thinking this combines Veep and Call Me by Your Name in thoroughly delightful ways. I became curious reading Alex's character because he's blindsided by his emotions along the way.

The thing with Alex is that he's so young and so confident and so smart, that he thinks he has it all figured out. To me that feels real for his age. When I was 21, I thought I was hot shit and knew everything! So going into it, I wanted to have that whole chapter where Alex figures out he's bi. It's lifted from my own life and my own process that happened when I was around that age. I thought I'd already gone through all the awkward phases! And I think that's a lot of people's experience--especially for bisexual people. Most of my bisexual friends didn't even know until they were in college or later. So to me it feels really true to life, and I'm hoping it might help some people, too.

The novel follows this romantic fantasy as two national heartthrobs come together. But there's a political aspect to this fantasy, too. This is definitely occurring in an alternate reality. How did you determine where the reality checks should come in?

It was a hard line to draw. I started writing this book in early 2016, and the environment of hostility even then was so crazy. I said, "I want to imagine a world four years from now, when we've returned to a kind of equilibrium and we have a woman president." And then the election happened, and I didn't know what to do! It required a complete reassessment of what the book had to be.

I wanted to place the baseline of reality within a believably fu*ked-up world. Obviously people are still racist and homophobic, and there's still going to be horrible gerrymandering in Texas. It's not going to be a utopia because I wanted something we can relate to, I wanted it to feel almost possible. I wanted it to feel hopeful, but not like rubbing salt on the wound.

It does feel really accessible while maintaining a lot of political tension with its president's upcoming reelection campaign. Have you spent time in politics or at the White House?

I have been to the White House one time. In high school I won an essay competition. I got to go to D.C. and I got to tour the White House. That's why I chose to set a really important scene in the Red Room because that's one of the only rooms I've actually seen.

As far as politics go, I've always been interested in them and follow pretty closely. I used to be a journalist--but not hard news. I wrote for magazines, stories about brunch. I've volunteered for campaigns before, but never actually worked in politics. I just have a lot of friends who do, and I care about it a lot.

There's a lot of history in this book, too, especially queer history. What surprised you the most in your research?

The research I did wasn't necessarily for the book. When you get to that point in your life and recognize yourself as queer, it's kind of a responsibility you have, to educate yourself on the people who came before you. And I wanted to fill the book with a bunch of mini queer history lessons.

I loved that! I kept thinking, Ooh! I didn't know that!

One thing I did discover while writing this was how Illinois became the first state in America to strike down sodomy laws in the '60s, so I mention it very briefly in the book. But I wouldn't say I was super surprised by my research into queer history in the U.S. because I was a lot more familiar with it. It was more the British history, like the gay kings and how the V&A Museum got the Samson statue [editor's note: Giambologna's Samson Slaying a Philistine was presented by Prince Charles I of Wales to the Duke of Buckingham], that I mention in the book. "Gentleman of the bedchamber" was an actual title you could have back then. I'm sorry, but that's funny!

We're definitely in a good period of time for reexamining some of these historical figures who had "really close friends" of the same sex.

Yes! And that's what I was doing with the inclusion of all those letters from queer history. There was a lot in there that I had never seen before! All of this stuff that's been written off and explained away throughout history. I worked really hard to make this book meaty in that way. To me, what Alex and Henry go through and what they pull from is so important to me as a queer person. I really wanted to write something that is so completely unapologetically queer but can be mentioned in the same breath as any other rom-com on the bestseller list. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness

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