Casey McQuiston Is As Attached To Their Characters As You Are

·21 min read

The first romance novel I ever read was Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin. I discovered it in high school after I borrowed it from my older sister and became instantly obsessed. For the next seven years, I read the New York City-set novel every summer until I actually moved there myself from Tennessee in the summer of 2015. It didn’t take long for me to realise, though, that the very white, straight version of New Yorkers depicted in Giffin’s pages was neither one with which I’d ever identify, nor was it one I was actually interested in experiencing in real life. The corporate jobs, Hamptons weekends, and frenemy storylines didn’t reflect my day-to-day life, and though I’ll always be grateful that Something Borrowed was my entry point to romance novels, I’m also glad I grew out of it. I’m glad I didn’t outgrow the genre, though, especially since it’s given me books like Casey McQuiston’s New York Times bestseller Red, White & Royal Blue. And, as I recently read One Last Stop, the newest book from McQuiston, I found myself thinking about Something Borrowed for the first time in a while, because One Last Stop did something I’ve long-wanted in a romance book: It showed me a New York that I actually relate to. A New York that I love.

Like many other romance novels, McQuiston’s latest involves a deadline in which two lovers must figure out how and if they will end up together. However, it’s also filled with a diverse cast of flawed but wonderful young Brooklynites who genuinely love one another. They’re creative and weird and so, so funny. They remind me of people I actually know and those with whom I actually want to be friends. Like their first novel, One Last Stop revolves around queer love, and it paints a breathtaking picture of the power of chosen family and of queer joy. It’s a modern and inclusive story for my generation of romance readers, and it’s sure to become a staple for years to come.

In honour of the recent release of One Last Stop, I spoke to McQuiston about how they create such dynamic characters, the difficulties of balancing grief and joy in storytelling, the appeal of fanfiction, and what’s beyond the novel’s surprising twist.

Mild spoilers are ahead.

Refinery29: I was obsessed with Red, White & Royal Blue, so I knew I was going to love One Last Stop. But I never anticipated the sci-fi-y time-travelling twist. What made you decide to write a story with a supernatural element?

Casey McQuiston: Well, first of all, I’m so excited to hear that you went into it not primed for that twist. I knew a lot of people would read the back jacket and know what was coming, but in my mind, I also envisioned a lot of people reading it on Kindle or just not looking at the back of the book that closely. That’s why I feel like I spent so much time in the first few chapters really developing the foreshadowing and leading the reader into this comfort zone of like, Oh, I’m reading a public transit meet-cute, a strangers-to-lovers romance. I loved the idea of getting to layer in all those little clues and have that moment where the reader’s like, Oh my God, I need to go back and reread those chapters.

I have always loved that genre that’s sort of one step away from sci-fi, one step away from magic or fantasy. It’s a type of romcom that I think was really popular in the late ’90s and early 2000s. I remember Kate & Leopold, obviously; 13 Going On 30 has always been one of my favourites. I still cry every time I watch it. I remember Just Like Heaven — Mark Ruffalo loved to do a turn in a little magical romcom. There was Freaky Friday. I feel there were a lot, and I guess it was just a very formative age for me in the same way that I watched The Princess Diaries and then wrote Red, White & Royal Blue. I don’t really realise how much movies have impacted my creativity until I talk about it like this.

I was also just inspired by that beautiful, transitive feeling of disappearing into a train tunnel. When you’re on the subway and you’re going through a tunnel and you look out the windows, you could be anywhere. You could be in space, you could be underwater. You really don’t know what is out there. I feel like there’s something really beautiful and fated about encountering a stranger in this sort of incidental passing moment on public transit. And wouldn’t it be the most beautiful thing in the world if you met the person that was just your absolute soulmate in that way?

Totally. The obstacle that time travel presents does seem to lend itself well to how it feels to fall in love: It’s just scary and painful and complicated to love another person sometimes.

Yeah. I’ve always loved that story of two star-crossed lovers and one of them is thrown out of time. I liked Lost and Doctor Who and TV shows like that. I love those stories, but they always also made me really stressed out because a lot of times in those stories, it’s not going to end well. So in writing One Last Stop, I was like, I think it would be really fun to explore this star-crossed time travel romance in the safety of a romcom where there’s going to be a happy ending.

Even though I was so relieved there was a happy ending, there still is that sense of loss throughout. The story really examines the meaning of lost time. It also occurred to me that I was feeling grief more intensely while I was reading this because we’re coming off of an entire year lost to the pandemic.

For sure. I think that when I’m writing, one of the biggest figures on my emotional landscape and one of the biggest tools in my emotional tool kit of writing is grief. It’s something that I’ve dealt with a lot in my life, thought about a lot, went through a lot of therapy about. I’m always thinking about how that fits into everything because grief is one of those emotions that really spills into every other emotion and every other part of your life so I wanted to hold space for that in this book.

I feel like a lot of this book is about how you do lose things — life is hard, you do experience these whole huge moments of grief in your life, and it’s still possible to also fall in love, be happy, live, and survive. As for the timing of it, coming out now right as we’re sort of coming off this absolutely brutal year, I think that a lot of people would like to spend some time thinking about the place that grief holds in their life and how other good things can also exist alongside it.

The novel takes place in 2020, but it’s obviously a very different 2020 New York than the one that actually occurred. How did you decide to keep it set in 2020 and not put it in 2019 or another year pre- or post-COVID?

Well, I’m going to give you an honest answer, which is that I didn’t feel like doing the math again. I started writing this book in 2018, and I finished the second draft in 2019. Then I was in line edits around the time I moved to New York in early 2020, so the book was pretty much done aside from just the next rounds of edits by the time that COVID really started. And then, of course, those first few months of COVID, I don’t think any of us were like, Oh, well this is going to be a year or two of our lives that we’re going to have to incorporate into the canons of all of our works of fiction. I think at the time it was all like, Well, this might just last three or four months, and then we can just kind of choose to omit it from books. So I think at the time that it was pencils down on this book, I wasn’t sure the extent to which it would need to be included.

Also, there’s so much year math in this book and I would have had to go back through and change all of the math to be from this year of 2020. I wanted to keep Jane’s age the same, and if I had to change her birth year, I would have also had to change her Chinese Zodiac and go through and change the birth years of all of her family members and their Chinese Zodiacs, which she has tattooed on her. I was like, the ripple effect of this is too much.

Honestly, it’s nice to consume media that doesn’t revolve around COVID. You can channel the grief without the story even acknowledging the pandemic.

Right. I’m writing my third book, which is set in 2022 and I decided not to put COVID in just because I don’t think that we as a culture are ready to write about COVID in that way. I think that we need to give it some more time and process it in order to really write about it well and write about it accurately. I think that we’re all just in shock. I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember a lot of stuff between March and May of last year. I have the trauma erasure of my memory. I mean maybe other people are, but for me, I don’t think I’m ready to write a book that involves COVID because I am not far enough away from it.

Speaking of processing the past, I thought that it was great that the time travel element allowed you to include a lot of queer history in the story and explore what it was like to be a queer woman in the ’70s. Do you hope that your younger readers will feel a sense of appreciation of what has come before them, or how much things have changed? And did you have to do a lot of research and educate yourself about the past as well?

I did not grow up in an environment where queer history was part of any curriculum I was ever exposed to. When I came out or began to think about these things, I really had to go out of my way to find information about my own community’s history. And, because it’s something that I had to actively seek out so much, it’s really important and meaningful to me. It feels like this very deliberate knowledge that I found for myself so I’m just excited to share that with people. I do know that I have a lot of readers who are teens, and I think of myself at that age and how I really didn’t know where to begin to start learning about queer history, so I do like to put some Easter eggs in there without it feeling too much like homework.

Most of what I included are things that I knew about, but perhaps researched more in-depth to write about it. I did a lot of specific research into the queer community in New York City, post-Stonewall and that was really, really interesting and really cool and really rewarding. And really moving. It’s just very, very incredible. I hope that if readers are familiar with the history, then it feels really lived in. And if they aren’t, then I hope that they’re like, Wow, I learned something from this.

But, I also just really wanted to write a sort of celebration of that generation in a way that didn’t feel flattening. I did not want Jane to feel like she was a mascot at Disney World where the theme was the 1970s. I wanted her to feel like a person who was living an ordinary life, and she was just trying to make it from one day to the next and pay her rent. Yes, she also went to these protests and did all of these things, but she was a person. She didn’t see herself as a hero and I didn’t want her to feel flattened into this archetype of a hero. So that’s why I put all of the stuff in; I wanted not only for it to be shared with the reader, but also because I really just want to contextualize what her life was like.

You have such a knack for creating characters who are complicated but also so lovable that I think it does give you a new look at history through the eyes of someone that you feel like you’re actually friends with. What is your process like for creating these characters? Do you map out their personal histories before you write the actual content of the story? I saw that you posted Jane and August’s birth charts on Instagram. I love that.

The very first starting point for any story is I think about, Okay, I want to have this ensemble, and we need this type of person in it, and we need that type of person. By type of person, I mean temperament, sense of humour. In every group dynamic that you’re in, you have that one person who’s the leader of the group, that one person who’s the comic relief, and that one person who’s the grumpy one. So I start there, just sort of thinking about what do I want the group dynamics to be?

Once I have an idea of what each character’s goal is going to be, I can sort of start to fill in their backstory of what made them into this type of person. With Wes, he’s this very, very guarded, cynical, depressed little guy. So, what’s his backstory? What made him this way? I love playing with the trope of the disinherited rich kid. I think that’s fun. And with Myla, once I had what her personality is, I thought about who she reminded me of. I thought of a lot of artists that I know and for some reason, in my experience, multimedia sculptors seem to always just know things about life. I thought the point of view and the confidence that you have to have to make art really vibed well with her character.

So that’s kind of where it starts. Then I go pick out actors or models that I think look like them and think about what their star sign is. I make a lot of character sheets. When I feel like there’s a character who is not clicking or is getting lost in the shuffle, I will literally set aside an entire day to just spend time with that one character. I’ll make a character sheet, maybe make a playlist for them, and think about what’s not working. What do I need to punch up more? I may even go through and just edit every scene that they’re in and try and punch them up a little bit because I don’t want any character to not feel they’re the main character of their own story that’s happening off the page.

That sounds like such a fun process.

I have a good time with my characters, for sure. I definitely get way too attached to them.

Because you’re able to create characters who people connect with so deeply, and also because you’re telling a type of love story that many people are starved for, I’m sure that the reactions from your audience and fans are just overwhelming. I see the fan art and the T-shirts and stuff. What has that been like for you? How does it feel to have formed this community of queer readers and people who just want to read diverse romance stories that showcase beautifully developed characters?

It’s amazing. I feel like the thing I miss most of all about my job pre-COVID is that I got to go to book festivals and events, and one of my favourite parts of that was just looking out at the crowd and seeing so many visibly queer folks all in one room together. It’s like, Wow, this is the most queer folks I’ve seen in one place outside of a gay bar or Pride. It was really, really cool. It was always so fun and warm to be surrounded by community in that way.

I do get to have some approximation of that virtually now, and it’s been so cool just to get messages from readers. All I really care about ever — with anything — is just wanting to leave the world better than I found it. That’s pretty much my only goal at any point in my life. So to feel that I have done that even in a small way, even for one person, is really, really, really cool. Not to be corny or overly earnest — but, I never pretended not to be an extremely earnest person.

I think maybe the highest honor you can get as a writer is for people to want to spend more time with your work, no matter what form that takes.

Casey McQuiston

Well, speaking of fans, fanfiction is something that I talk a lot about with my friends and co-workers because as millennials and Gen Z’ers, we came of age on Tumblr and the internet generally, and fanfic was how a lot of us started writing and even began exploring our sexuality. Did you ever read or write any? Do you see people writing fanfiction with your characters now?

Off the top of my head, I know Christina Lauren, they have been open about how they got their start in romance writing fanfiction. I think a lot of romance writers did. That’s such a natural progression because fanfiction is such a meditation on character and on relationships more than anything. Not a lot of people are going to fanfiction for world-building. For me, definitely when I was a teenager, it was something I was really into reading. Anytime I would play Kingdom Hearts, I’d be like, I’m going to go read fanfiction for this. And definitely, God, I remember writing a character study of Alice from Twilight. And I remember being 13 and just reading voraciously. I think that, more than anything, was formative.

Online communities are really formative for self-actualisation and encountering points of view that you otherwise wouldn’t have encountered. As I mentioned, I was not from an environment where I was exposed to a lot of queer people, or openly queer people, so to be able to go online and read queer theory and encounter other people my age who were just out, and are like, Yeah, this is what’s going on with me. I was like, Oh wow, you can just do that. That was so eye-opening for me at a young age just being able to know that it was a possibility and that it existed. There were resources. I could learn about it. That was so incredibly cool.

As far as fanfiction of my own work, I don’t think I’m actually legally allowed to read it. For copyright reasons, I’ve been advised not to read it. But I do see people post about it because they’ll tag me. I do love fan art. I literally save it all to my phone in a special folder. I’m so stoked by the idea of having a piece of art in the world that people care enough about to write transformative works about. I think maybe the highest honour you can get as a writer is for people to want to spend more time with your work, no matter what form that takes. I know that there are authors out there, like the Anne Rices of the world, who are like, “I’d rather you didn’t,” and I respect that, but it’s not me.

Let’s talk drag names, I feel like that is such a specific and fun art form, and you made up several for the story. How did you come up with them?

I think my favourite drag name in the entire book is one I totally came up with at random, which is there’s a drag king named Nob Dylan. I literally was just casting around for famous guy names that I could make a dick joke out of and the first thing that came to my mind was Nob Dylan. Then, Mary Poppers — I cannot remember how I came up with that one. I think I was just like, I really should mention poppers in this book, as a book about queers in 2020. Oh, that’s a drag name.

For Winfield’s drag persona, Bomb Bumboclaat, I actually asked one of my Jamaican friends: “If you were a drag performer, what would your drag name be?” And Annie Depressant, I mean, who amongst us has not been on an antidepressant in our 20s? So I thought that was really good. Then I came up with the idea that she would have a drag daughter named Sara Tonin, and they’d be like the House of Zoloft or something.

I love that. Okay, I also want to know about the Su Special recipe. It sounds so good. How did you come up with it and have you tried to make it?

I used to wait tables — not very well and not for a tremendous amount of time. It was six months after college, but it was a very, very memorable experience. There were always a couple of little off-menu secrets that you could ring up at the end of your shift that were really, really easy and quick for the line cooks to make, and they didn’t mind making, but they were really delicious. They were lowkey better than anything else on the menu. I feel like that kind of detail makes a restaurant feel really real and lived in, so I knew the Billy’s staff needed to have a signature sandwich. Then when I realized that Jane was going to have her own history with it, I was like, Okay, obviously Jane had been the one to invent the signature sandwich.

I did test-kitchen it. I knew I wanted it to be Texas toast, because I love Texas toast. I wanted it to be a very quick and easy bacon and egg sandwich, and I personally have always loved putting syrup on my eggs. Then you need hot sauce. You just do. So that was just how it came together, and it was delicious.

I do need to do a PSA: I absolutely love that people are making it, but some of them are tagging me, and they’re using the store-bought frozen garlic and herb Texas toast for it. I don’t know how that’s going to vibe with the syrup. In my mind, it’s just a straight-up butter Texas toast, so if you can’t find that in the store, you can just use thick-cut white bread and toast it yourself. It could taste amazing with garlic and herb. I don’t know. But I cannot be held responsible if you don’t like it.

Noted. Is there anything else that you want people to know about One Last Stop or about what you’re working on next?

My next thing is going to be my first YA novel. Obviously, my first two were adult romances, and I wanted to do a little cheeky YA moment. So I wrote my YA debut, and it’s set in a deep Bible Belt Central Alabama small town at a conservative Christian high school. The main character is this sort of fish-out-of-water girl who transferred from L.A. The prom queen runs away on prom night, and she leaves behind clues for the three classmates who she kissed before she left. Then the three of them have to work together, even though they don’t really know or like each other, to figure out where this girl went and why. Of course, things happen along the way. I’m pitching it as Paper Towns meets Booksmart meets Saved! It’s really fun. I really had a lot of fun writing it. It is a YA contemporary, and it’s one of my own favourite YA contemporaries that I’ve read.

Oh, wow. I actually grew up right on the border of Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama, and I also went to a conservative Christian high school so I will definitely be reading that.

Oh, yeah. You are going to love this.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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