The second I heard the premise for Red, White & Royal Blue, I knew I had to read it. The son of the U.S. president falls in love with a prince of England? Put that directly into my veins. And as my increasingly impassioned text message history can tell you, Casey McQuiston’s debut was even better than I in my wildest dreams believed it would be. This romance between cocky, charismatic know-it-all Alex Claremont-Diaz and his nemesis, Prince Henry of England, has everything—a raucous karaoke scene at a gay bar, cutthroat election shenanigans, a very romantic Star Wars through line—and McQuiston perfectly balances the escapist, fizzy fun of her setup with the emotional impact of Henry and Alex’s relationship. I talked to McQuiston about the alternate political reality of her debut, the importance of later-in-life coming out narratives and more.
Red, White & Royal Blue is absolutely hilarious. How do you know whether the humor is working in your writing?
It’s hard! I watched a ton of my favorite comedies while writing this, especially “Veep,” “Parks & Rec” and “Happy Endings.” I spent a lot of time absorbing things that made me laugh, thinking about what specifically made it funny and trying to internalize the natural rhythm of banter. You really can’t force humor. It has to feel like something someone would actually say out loud, off-the-cuff. So most of the time it’s about letting your characters talk, rather than cramming one-liners into their mouths, and then reading it back out loud to see how it actually feels and sounds when someone says it.
Some of the most fascinating parts of this book are the ways the White House Trio (and, to a lesser extent, the members of the Royal Family) take control of their own public images. Did you take inspiration from any real-life figures for this aspect of the novel?
Honestly, the only character who’s actually based on a real life figure is Ellen. I took a lot of inspiration from Wendy Davis, another Democratic woman from Texas. In a lot of ways, I was drawing more from the idea of people. Alex is kind of embodying the concept of a modern Kennedy; Henry’s mom is giving you a little bit of the Princess Diana archetype in her tenacity and rebelliousness; Senator Richards represents entrenched conservative legacy families like the Bushes. But I always say that no real royals or first families were harmed in the making of this book!
Did you always know that Red, White & Royal Blue would be a gay romance?
I write queer fiction for the same reason straight people write straight fiction: because I’m a queer person, and that’s the world I live in and the experiences I draw from and relate to. With this book—and with my future books—my vision was to write a fun, escapist, tropey, smart rom-com good enough to help push queer love out of the margins and into the rom-com mainstream. So, in that way, I always knew this would be a queer book, but the specific way that played out, with Alex and Henry both being cis men, was something that sort of revealed itself to me as the plot started to take shape.
Whose side are you on concerning the quality of Return of the Jedi—Alex or Henry?
Such a good question! I personally love Return of the Jedi, but I still think Empire is a better movie.
Alex’s discovery that he isn’t actually straight felt very realistic and I think spoke to the fact that many people, even if they grow up in a loving and accepting home, don’t necessarily realize their queerness as children or early adolescents. What led you to make that decision for his character?
I lifted a lot of material from my own life for Alex’s big “ah-ha” moment, because I wanted to write it in a way that would have helped me if I could have read a book like this years ago. There’s this prevailing idea that all queer people inherently know from birth, or at least from adolescence, that they’re not straight, and I think that closes the door on people who take longer to get there. So I wanted to show something that was relatable to me and to a lot of other queer people out there who may not have seen that particular kind of representation before. Plus, Alex is a cocky little know-it-all. Of course he would be blindsided by something like this just when he thought he had it all figured out!
I thought Henry’s knowledge and love of LGBT history was a particularly meaningful through line, especially as Alex is inspired to learn about his own country’s history as a result of his conversations with Henry. Where would you recommend American readers who want to learn more about this same subject start?
Love this question! A few of my favorites: And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts, A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski, Transgender Warriors by Leslie Feinberg (also Stone Butch Blues), Gender Trouble by Judith Butler, Angels in America by Tony Kushner, Coming Out Under Fire by Allan Bérubé, The Gay Revolution by Lillian Faderman, so many more. Two recent releases I loved were When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan and Tinderbox by Robert W. Fieseler. Also watch Paris is Burning!
This is less a question than a personal plea: I am hopelessly obsessed with Pez. Can you please tell me a fact about him that I wouldn’t know from reading the book?
Oh my god, there’s SO much. Pez has a huge place in my heart. A little backstory on him: In his and Henry’s early Eton days, they gravitated to each other because they were both seen as “different” by their classmates. Pez was more straightlaced and proper as a kid, until too many kids looked at Henry sideways for not having a stiff upper lip and too many teachers praised Pez for being so well-behaved and well-spoken. He definitely went home for summer break one year and came back with his nails painted, swanning around in flashy violation of the dress code just to piss off the establishment, and he never looked back. Also he has lots of other famous friends he’s not legally allowed to talk about.
At a certain point, Henry and Alex start ending their emails to one another with these really gorgeous quotes from famous queer love letters. Do you have a favorite among those?
It’s so hard to choose between these, because there were so many good ones. I lost a lot research hours to just reading letters. But my favorite lines, I think, are Vita Sackville-West’s “I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal” and Jean Cocteau’s “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for having saved me. I was drowning and you threw yourself into the water without hesitation, without a backward look.”
Reading the alternate political reality of Red, White & Royal Blue was a very emotional experience for me, and I expect it will be so for a lot of other readers. What was that like for you as a writer?
It was such a complicated thing to balance, because I wanted that little twist away from reality to be close enough to our own world to feel relatable and possible—and to not gloss over the institutional oppression and discrimination that would still be a problem no matter who was in office right now—while also being an optimistic escape. On a personal level, it was about trying to reconnect with hope and the feeling that progress is possible and that the moral arc of the universe does actually bend toward justice. So it was this journey of, how can I do this realistically and respectfully at the same time? How can I call this out without getting lost in the politics when it’s supposed to be a rom-com? How do I find the hope and still mirror what’s happening right now? I did my best, so I hope people find it as cathartic to read as I did to write.
What’s next for you?
I can’t reveal too much specifically about future books, but I can tell you that I have another queer new adult rom-com in the works! This one centers on two very lost and very lonely girls who fall in love on the New York subway, with a big time travel-y twist. It’s wildly different from Red, White & Royal Blue, but at the same time, it’s still just as fun and full of complicated families and ride-or-die friendships and cinematic kisses. I’m so, so excited to share more about it soon! And of course, there’s also the deal I just signed with Berlanti Productions and Amazon Studios to adapt Red, White & Royal Blue! I could not be more amped to see where that project goes and work with the team we’ve put together to make something incredible.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Red, White & Royal Blue.
Author photo by Raegan Labat.