Casey McQuiston on Nora Ephron, History Nerds, and Full Circle Moments at her Library
Casey McQuiston’s Red, White & Royal Blue spins an irresistible premise— what if the son of the U.S. President fell in love with the Prince of Wales— into one of the summer’s most pleasurable reads. Alex Claremont-Davis breezes through life as the son of the United States’ first female President, but he’s brought up short by a contentious relationship with the straight-laced Prince Henry. After a disastrous run-in involving a Royal wedding cake, both men must pose as friends in order to rehabilitate their images. This false friendship soon uncovers very real feelings, and the two men unexpectedly find themselves falling in love. What follows is equal parts swoony romance and adept political comedy that has delighted critics and readers alike. The New York Times called it an “exquisite debut” and Vogue gushed that “it’s a truly glorious thing to live inside the world of this book and to imagine it becoming reality, too.” McQuiston spoke to Brendan Dowling via e-mail on July 15th, 2019. Photo Credit: Raegan Labat.
The book is such a funny and deeply satisfying romantic comedy. What were the romantic comedies or romance novels that were important to you as a reader?
I’m a huge Nora Ephron fan—one of the first movies I can remember seeing in the theater was You’ve Got Mail—so her entire body of work has always been a huge inspiration for me. I also absolutely adored 10 Things I Hate About You, Notting Hill, and 13 Going on 30 when I was younger, and I still have a soft spot for classics like Roman Holiday. I have to confess that I didn’t spend my formative reading a lot of romance—I was always more into genre fiction and picking out pairings I liked from within those works—but as I’ve grown as a writer and found my niche, I’ve had a blast catching myself up with romances by authors like Taylor Jenkins Reid, Alyssa Cole, Helen Hoang, Heather Cocks, and Jessica Morgan.
One of the real pleasures of the book is how fleshed out the supporting players are. Even if we only meet them for a few sentences, we get a full sense of their life. What is your process for creating characters?
I probably spend way too much time crafting my characters instead of drafting in the early days of a project, but I just love doing it too much. I usually start with a basic idea of what the character’s personality is going to be—maybe inspired by someone I know or know of, maybe just completely made up—and assign them some basic shorthand character trait categories: zodiac sign, MBTI, Hogwarts house, et cetera. Then I sort of work backwards from there. What made them that way? Where are they from? How did they get from there to here? What part of humanity that I love do I want them to embody? What kind of jokes would they make? What tropes can I infuse into them? And the answers to those questions start to make a character.
The book gives us such a detailed view of the behind the scenes worlds of The White House and Buckingham Palace. What was your research process like?
A lot of Googling! I read some dry nonfiction about the first family and the royal family through history, and then spent a lot of time perusing an unofficial White House museum website that contains detailed maps of every floor and history of each room (shout out WhiteHouseMuseum.org). I pored through the Royal Collection’s online database, took many virtual tours of the V&A, referred back to my own memories of Kensington from the time I spent in London in college, so much more. It was a lot of jotting down anything that interested me or felt like it might be useful for the plot, and then hodge-podging it all together into something that worked. The goal was to make this incredibly inaccessible world feel lived in and easy to imagine.
When Alex and Henry e-mail each other, they frequently quote from the love letters of famous queer people. How did that detail find its way into their story?
When I decided to write a queer story that would have major international ramifications and change the history of the world it’s set in, I knew I couldn’t do it in a vacuum. As a queer person and a history nerd, I wanted this story to feel rooted in queer history, for both of my leads to be totally aware of what their relationship meant in the bigger picture of the world, to dig into the millions of people like them who were erased from their own histories and their own narratives. So the letters evolved out of that—I always knew I wanted Henry to be this great writer of love letters, and it sort of naturally followed that he would be a scholar of them and share that with Alex. Using the excerpts was my way of framing them as a bigger piece of an ongoing history.
The book takes place in an alternate 2019 where we have a totally different First Family in the U.S. and Royal Family in Great Britain. How did you balance including which real life things were still in this world (like Senator McConnell, for example) versus the characters you totally created?
An early reviewer of my book described it as being a quarter turn away from reality, and ever since, I’ve always liked to picture that as what this reality is. I wanted this to be a book full of hope and optimism and escapism that also didn’t pretend that the things that led us to 2016 would magically be fixed if a different person was in the White House. So we still have a long history of institutional oppression, we still have terrible politicians and Fox News, but we also had just enough things go differently (it’s subtle, but in the book there’s a mention of Democrats maintaining control of the Senate after Obama’s election) for us to have some different outcomes. It was all about drawing a line that could make this world still real and relatable, but also make it believably hopeful.
You just finished your book tour for the novel. What was that experience like?
Incredible! Everyone I met on tour was so incredibly kind and generous and supportive and really carried me through all the emotional highs and lows that come with debuting a book. My tour schedule brought me to three different Prides in three of the biggest cities in the country—Los Angeles, Denver, and Houston—and it was amazing to get to be a queer person promoting a queer book surrounded by other queer people celebrating and rebelling and standing up for what’s right. I’m so very, very thankful for the summer I’ve had and for the love people have shown me in every city I’ve hit. That energy is going to power me through the rest of the year.
What role have libraries played in your life?
I can’t remember a time when libraries weren’t a part of my life. I remember being a kid racking up late fees and spending days at summer programs at the public library by my house, skipping recess to stay inside my elementary school library, spending hours and hours camped out in my college library getting distracted from my exam outlines to work on my own stories. They’ve always represented endless possibilities to me, and they’ve always been this sort of goal on the horizon—I always wanted to have a book in one, one day. When I had my first big call with my agent and now editor to discuss a potential deal for my first book, I took a lunch break and drove out to my childhood library and sat in my car in the parking lot to have the conversation, just to feel that full circle moment. So, yeah, libraries have been everything to me. I think they’re one of the great symbols of communities being, at heart, generous and good.
Tags: Casey McQuiston, lgbt youth, LGBTQIA