Interviews Casey McQuiston's Secret Sauce in Her Unbearably Lovable Queer Rom-Coms The creator of ‘One Last Stop’ and ‘Red, White & Royal Blue’ commits 1,000% to her characters and her premise in whatever she is writing, inviting listeners to be just as obsessed with her stories as she is. By Michael Collina stop mute max volume 00:00 16:32 repeat Update Required To play the media you will need to either update your browser to a recent version or update your Flash plugin. Note: Text has been edited and does not match audio exactly.*WARNING: This interview contains spoilers for One Last Stop*Michael Collina: Hi, this is Michael Collina, one of your Audible editors, and today I'm joined by best-selling author Casey McQuiston. Welcome, Casey.Casey McQuiston: Hi, thank you so much for having me. I'm so excited to be here.MC: Thank you for joining us. So Casey is the author of best-selling rom-com Red, White & Royal Blue, which also won the honor of being named Audible's best romance of 2019. We all loved it here so much. Today we'll be talking about Casey's newest release, One Last Stop. I've seen One Last Stop described as a sapphic Kate & Leopold, and I personally think of it as a rom-com that's also a detective story and also kind of a sci-fi multi-verse story. But it doesn't stop there. It also features a gay heist and is filled with nostalgia and references for the queer culture of the '70s, '80s, '90s, and today. With all of that established, it's a very different story from Red, White & Royal Blue. Can you tell us a little bit about One Last Stop and how it came to be?CM: First of all I love that you said the '70s, '80s, '90s, and today because it put me in the minds of my favorite hometown easy listening radio station, which has really put me at ease already. But yeah, this book, there is a lot going on. You're correct.When I first pitched it to my editor, I was like, "This is gonna sound nuts and I need you to trust me that I can make it good." And she was like, "Okay, I trust you." And honestly that vote of confidence is what made me believe that I could actually do it. I believed I could do it, but then when she believed that I could do it as, "Okay, we're in this." I think it started [because] I have a lot of friends in New York. I live in New York now, but I haven't always, and on one of many trips to visit friends in New York, I was really becoming acquainted with the subway. It was my first time doing a lot of traveling on my own in the subway system. There are so many moments from my early 20s that were just question marks over my head, and I wanted to dig into that and write something that celebrates that weird, nebulous point in your life. I don't know if you've ever had that moment on the subway where you're in a tunnel and you're going one way and there's another train passing you going the other way. You can look across and there's sort of like the strobing effect, and it's almost like a 100 different people's lives just flash before your eyes. I think that's the closest experience you can have to shifting through reality or entering a liminal space, I guess. I thought that was really, really interesting and I've always been intrigued by stories like that.My favorite show when I was in middle school was Lost, and I feel like that's still a formative influence for me. There's a million shout-outs to Lost in this book. So I have always wanted to do some kind of Kate & Leopold, Sliding Doors, inspired by the magical and magic, sci-fi adjacent rom-coms of the early 2000s type of rom-com.I kind of started there. Originally my love interest, Jane, I was thinking maybe she's a ghost or an apparition. And then I was like, I really don't see the way to the happy ending there. I ended up making her a time traveler who's displaced in time from the 1970s, and she's kind of been flickering through time until she encounters the main character, August.All of a sudden she is anchored into the setting of the book, which is 2020 New York, in an alternate timeline where COVID doesn't exist, obviously. From there, everything kind of spiraled out and there were so many things I wanted to do in this book that informs the plot because I really wanted it to be a book about being broke and messy and awkward and confused in your early 20s.I saw somebody describe the main character as just walking around with question marks over her head, and I feel like that's what I was going for. There are so many moments from my early 20s that were just question marks over my head, and I wanted to dig into that and write something that celebrates that weird, nebulous point in your life. Where everything's really messy and weird and you don't have any money and you're waiting tables and you have too many weird roommates.It can also still be the setting of this incredible fantastical love story. And I also wanted to dig into queer history, and then obviously I love a good caper, and so I had to put in a little bit of a heist. I love a party scene, so we had to go to a drag show. I think honestly the reason this book works and I think the secret sauce to making a book work is to come up with stuff that you think would be fun to write and fun to read and do that.*WARNING: Spoilers ahead for One Last Stop*I had a lot of fun writing it and I had a lot of fun throwing in all of these things and finding a way to make them all work together in this really tightly woven plot that is also a rom-com. It was a great time. I had so much fun writing it, even though it was hard to write a romance where one of the characters literally cannot leave the subway.MC: Yeah. And can I just say that literally every single aspect of that you just described, you nailed it in your execution with this book. It's so good.CM: Oh my God. Thank you so much.MC: I'm also glad you mentioned the secret sauce to making a story like this work. Because one of the other things I wanted to ask you is a little bit about your writing process. One of the things that remains constant between your books is your ability to create these characters that feel so real, so relatable, and so multidimensional.Many of the romantic gestures you write about too, they feel grand and sweeping and romantic but also kind of ordinary and low key in how they're done and how they're delivered. I think that's part of what makes your characters and stories feel relatable and real. My big question for you is, what's your secret? Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process and how you come up with these stories and these characters?CM: Well, first of all, thank you so much. You're music to my ears. Character work is my favorite thing to do, so I'm happy to talk about it. My writing and my approach to writing is so character driven. I have tried before to write a book on like, as a proposal, whereas I just have a premise and I have an idea of the plot, and I'm going to figure out the characters as I go. And it was a million times harder to get it to click for me. Really what works for me is to sit down and be like, "Well, here's a basic setup. What are the things I want to explore with these characters? What types of characters do I want to write this time around? What would be fun, but I haven't I done before?"With my first book, Red, White & Royal Blue, I was doing a lot of work with tropes. It's like a very tropey book and that's on purpose. I was very interested in taking as many of the classic rom-com tropes and royal romance tropes and My Date with the President's Daughter tropes, and just throwing them in a blender and making them gay. I was like, this is what I want to do. I had so much fun with that. I think with this book and even with my first book, I did a lot of this too. I drew a lot of inspiration from people I know and people I've met, like one of the waiters at the Pancake Shop is based on this guy I used to wait tables with, who was basically exactly that person who would hand out cards for his one-man piano and saxophone bands with the check to customers. Those are the people you remember, and they're real people. And when you read a person like that in a book, you're like, "Oh, I know that person."With this book, I knew that everything had to support the weight of the insane premise. I mean, it's a time-travel romance. It's a romance where there's reality bending and some hand-wavy speculative science. I was like, if these characters don't feel real, if this does not feel like something that could happen to your friend, then people are not going to buy it and they have to be able to buy it.They have to be able to relate to it and still find this concept accessible. So when I was building up my characters, it's like, okay, well, I'm going to throw in this detail from somebody I lived with in college, and this detail from one of my neighbors. It's like "what's a quirk that you would remember about somebody that you met."Like the roommate Wes who loves to do things for people but does not love to ever have it addressed that he does things for people. He bakes cupcakes, but then will wordlessly leave them on the counter and never speak of it. And do not bring it up to him. I was like, "That's fine. I'm gonna use that." Everybody has their stuff.So when I'm building out characters, I will often make character sheets, and I've lately started doing this by hand instead of on my computer, because I feel like it really helps me get in the zone. I write out their hobbies, their interests, their personality type, their birth chart, all of this stuff.I will sometimes even take a day where I'm like, "This character is not clicking. I'm gonna spend a day with her," and sit down and make a playlist for her and make a mood board for her and do a character sheet for her and just kind of spend a day sitting with that character as if they're my friend and thinking about them. I feel that is a big part of it: if you are not obsessed with your own characters, how can you expect a reader to be obsessed with them?If you write literary fiction and you're more interested in "I want to do this really beautiful craft," it's probably not your goal to make people obsessed with individual characters in your book. But my goal is to make people obsessed with individual characters in my book, and so I spend a lot of time on that. I think that is one of the most rewarding things about writing, is getting to create these characters and have other people care about them as much as you do.MC: That is an incredible answer. I also want to say, consider that goal achieved because I have been obsessed with every single one of your characters.CM: Oh my God. Thank you so much.MC: I want to be friends with you. I want to be friends with your characters. It's all just so perfect.CM: Well, come on. Do you live anywhere near New York we can make it work? MC: I am looking at New York City, right from my window right now.CM: Perfect, here we go.MC: I love it. So you said that your goal was to combine all of these tropes for Red, White & Royal Blue specifically and just make it gay, which I also loved, and I wanted to draw on that a little bit. One Last Stop pays homage to New York City's drag scene and also its general queer culture, and the role that queer people of the past, particularly queer people of color, have had on the community as a whole. Did you find yourself doing a lot of research on queer history and what life was like for LGBTQIA+ folks in the '70s as you were writing?CM: Oh my God, so much. The environment I grew up in was not super friendly to teaching me things about queer history. When I came out when I was younger I dedicated myself to educating myself on that stuff.So I had this base-level foundation of some of this information. But there was so much more to learn; it's so much more to research. So I read Stone Butch Blues. I got a copy back in 2019 for the Stonewall 50th. I think it was The New York Times put out The Stonewall Reader, so I got a copy of that and I read that.Also, I just was really lucky to be traveling in 2019 a lot for promo for Red, White & Royal Blue. Everywhere I went, when I was in New York, I went to The Stonewall 50 Exhibit at the New York Public Library, and I got to read pages of all of these '60s and '70s queer zines that were coming out in New York, which was so incredibly cool. If you are not obsessed with your own characters, how can you expect a reader to be obsessed with them?I took a lot of inspiration from that specifically in the way that August starts to unpack Jane's life story, which, without giving too much away, is something that they both kind of discovered together. And so I really wanted these zines and these pamphlets and these sort of artifacts of the gay liberation movement and the antiwar movement and even the punk scene back then to kind of be the door into understanding this character, because I was geeking out over all of these historical documents at the time.I also was lucky enough to go to San Francisco for work while I was revising the book, so I planned extra days and went and spent time in Chinatown, where Jane's from. Oh, that's a spoiler, but I spent a lot of time in San Francisco. I went around the Bay Area and I went to the GLBT Historical Society Museum, and they have a lot of history specifically about AAPI folks and the queer movement back in the '70s and '60s, because that was a big part of it in California. There was so much there, and so I really got to spend a lot of time with queer history, which was really, really rewarding.Also, there were things that I had personal connections to that I didn't even know about until I was reading, like Stormé DeLarverie, who is known to be the butch lesbian whose fight with the cops sparked the Stonewall riots. I had no idea that person was from New Orleans, and I'm from right outside of New Orleans, where it was like, "Oh my God, I had no idea I had this personal connection of somebody who felt a hometown person.” I didn't know that was part of Stonewall. I knew about Stormé, but I did not know that Stormé was from so close to where I was from. It was such a cool experience to spend that time with history.I tried to put in as much as I possibly could, without it feeling like I was writing a homework assignment, and then also the antiwar movement. I specifically wanted Jane to be Chinese American, for some plot reasons connecting her where she's from to where she ends up, but also because I really wanted to get into the antiwar movement of the '70s and where that kind of intersected with these other movements that she was a part of. I just knew from jump the first thing that I established with her was her aesthetic, because I wanted it to be an aesthetic that could pass for being from the present day but also was very '70s.And I'm like, well, she's a butch lesbian. This is what she wears. She wears ripped jeans and a leather jacket, and she's got short hair. That is something that would pass in 2020 as being present day. But also it would mean that she was back in the '70s, a very visibly queer person who was also probably involved in the punk scene.That informed a lot of who her character was going to be—it was that she was going to be an activist and she was going to have been somebody who was in it, she was in it. She was going to drag shows. She was dancing with girls at bars. She was sharing clothing with her male friends, she was getting arrested for wearing her male friend’s clothing. That was her life. I write books that I hope everyone reads, but I write books for queer people.I'm like, "If you don't know, now you know." This was what was going on in the '70s and Jane was there. It was so much, "fun" is not the word, but it was fascinating and interesting to marinate in that period of time with her, like I was saying earlier about how some days, I just take some time to sit with a character.I feel like I sat with Jane for months, and chased her through all of these different historical documents and archival stuff. That's why I wanted the book to have all of those little archival scraps throughout, because I wanted people to feel the way I felt when I was uncovering this character.MC: I love that so much, and I'm glad that you got to learn so much throughout this, because I feel like I also got to learn so much just by reading One Last Stop. You do such a great job of celebrating all of these wins and advances in queer culture and queer life that we've made since the '70s. But you also don't shy away from a lot of the absolute horror of living openly queer like that.CM: Yes, yup.MC: One of those horrors in particular that I actually had no idea about was the UpStairs Lounge arson attack in 1973. That was one of the largest gay mass murders prior to the Pulse shooting in 2016. Both events were absolutely horrific, but I had never heard of the UpStairs Lounge attack before. Was there a particular reason that you wanted to shine light on that attack?CM: It's specifically because of what you just said, because nobody knows about it. Also, I mentioned I'm from southern Louisiana. I'm from about an hour outside of New Orleans, and I didn't know about it until Pulse happened. I had been out for years by then, and I was like, "How do I not know about this thing that happened? I date in New Orleans. How did I not know about this?" I actually, back on my bookshelf, have a book called Tinderbox that is specifically about the UpStairs Lounge fire and the rise of the gay liberation movement. I read that too as part of my research for the book and really I put it in, and I tried really hard to put it in a way that did not feel cheap or did not feel exploitive.I put it in because I wanted people to know about it. That's why Jane gets so mad when she finds out that people don't know about it. It is a moment in history that was probably the worst and biggest thing to happen to a lot of queer folks back then.And we've literally never talked about it. A lot of people don't know about it. A lot of queer people who know a lot about queer history don't know about it, because it happened in Louisiana at a time when the powers that be were very invested in making the reality of it go away. The UpStairs Lounge was basically a bar… It was Blue Collar Night, it was the last day of Pride weekend. There was, like, 40 people there. The government of New Orleans did not want people to know that they had gay people congregating. Every church in New Orleans refused to hold the memorial, and the one minister that did, his congregation was so angry with him, like, the radio DJs made jokes about it.It was erased on purpose by the people around it. That's really, really messed up and it really bothered me. I was like, if I can make some people know about this event and remember these people who were lost, then that will mean a lot to me. I am interested in writing queer rom-coms that feel grounded in queer history and in queer life and the reality of queerness. I want them to feel escapist and happy-ending, fine and beautiful. And I also want them to feel honest. I put it in because I knew that I had already decided my main character is from the New Orleans area, and I had already decided that my love interest is from the 1970s. I'm like, "Well, if we're talking about New Orleans, we're talking about 1970s, we cannot not talk about UpStairs." The more I read about it, the more I realized there are people whose graves are still unmarked from that, because there were people whose families didn't even know that they were gay or where to look. So not to be a huge bummer, but that all made me really mad and really sad. And I was like, "You know what? I put queer history in my books. That's what I do." I am interested in writing queer rom-coms that feel grounded in queer history and in queer life and the reality of queerness. I want them to feel escapist and happy-ending, fine and beautiful. And I also want them to feel honest. There are things that suck in this country and in our history about the way that gay people have been treated. I wanted to put that in because we have a character from the '70s and I can't just not put that in, just to make people not sad that it happened. It happened, especially straight people who read this book. I'm like, "I want y'all to think about how it happened." There's a part where Jane reads this passage from one of the zines featured in The Stonewall Reader. It's a passage to the effect of, straight people still think they're better than us, and as long as you still think that, we can still be the force in the night that's going to come and rock the shit, you know? I just wanted to put all of that in, because I felt like it was really important and I felt that people should know about it.MC: Absolutely. Thank you for putting all of that in there.CM: Yeah. Thank you.MC: Because like I said, I learned so much just through reading this story.CM: Yup.MC: And it's not necessarily the type of book, because it is so escapist, that you expect to learn so much from. But everything you write, I always learn at least one little new thing, which I love.So speaking of characters again, is there a particular character that you've written that you really relate to more than any of the others or thought was the most like yourself?CM: Hmm. Well, I have a couple of answers to this and one of them you're not going to like, because it's a book I haven't even announced yet. But—MC: Oh, please tell me about it. Please tell me about the new book.CM: Okay, I can't tell you that much, but I can tell you some. First of all, the character I think I've written that I relate to the most out of all my characters has gotta be Alex Claremont Diaz. We're both Aries moon, Leo rising. We're both very intense, impulsive, arms-wide-open type of people who have a very specific set of ambitions and dreams and then kind of took a roundabout way to figure out how we would get there. I'm literally looking at a print I have of some art that somebody did of him at my desk right now.I'm like, "Oh man, it's me." He's got ADHD. He's just kind of chaotic and that's me. I feel like he's definitely got to be the one I relate to most. But it's funny, because August is so different from me. And you would think that she's autobiographical because she's from where I'm from, and some of the events in her life are loosely inspired by things I've seen or experienced. But we're very, very, very different people. She's very reserved and very guarded and I'm not that, so she is hard to write.I feel like I relate a lot more to Jane, because Jane is somebody who is kind of like Alex, kind of living life in this sort of… The other day my partner called me a cannonball, “you are a cannonball.” And I'm like, "Ah, that's true." So I relate to the cannonball characters. But the one I was going to say also is in my next book, which is not announced yet. So I can't give you that many firm details, but it will be my first-ever YA. It's another queer rom-com. It's kind of ensemble-y. It's set in a religious high school Bible Belt town in central Alabama. It's very much about coming-of-age queer in that type of environment. It's really funny. It's very like notes of Saved!, but there's this one character who's this guy on the football team, and the protagonist describes him as always having this look on his face. He's like a cabana boy at Margaritaville, on a beach in Tahiti drinking out of a coconut. He's this good-natured dude who likes his friends and likes to hang out. I feel like that's me whenever I am happiest. Those are the characters from the Casey McQuiston cinematic universe that I most relate to.MC: I love it. I feel like I just learned so much more about you as a person and a writer through that question too.CM: Yeah. I'm a hot mess.MC: I love it though. Being a hot mess makes things so much more interesting. What's the point if you're not a little bit of a hot mess?CM: Yeah. Well, I think being a hot mess in my world means the ability to commit to something 1000%, even if the idea is insane. This is a weird, weird comparison, but I recently watched the movie Face/Off for the first time, which is, if you've never seen it, it's about Nicholas Cage and John Travolta literally switching faces. It is one of the most insane movies I've ever seen. It's so good because it commits 1000% to this insane bit. Two iconic actors doing two of the most wild and completely unhinged performances of their careers. And I watched it and I was like, "This is what good art is. It's people who are talented committing to something 1000% and being completely un-self-conscious about it and just going for it. This is the kind of art I want to make." Not literally this, but this is the spiritual property of the art I want to make.MC: Well, I feel like you do kind of do that. I totally get that sense from your books.CM: Thank you. I'm the Nicholas Cage of romance.MC: I am going to start using that when I describe you. I love that so much.CM: I'm going to change my Twitter bio.MC: Please do. Okay, so before I let you go, let's talk about the audio. One Last Stop is expertly performed by Natalie Naudus, who takes your knack for characterization and really runs with it. I wanted to ask, what excites you most about her performance?CM: Oh my God. Well, when they sent me her audition it was the whole first chapter, because they let me hear her do all of the voices basically, and I was blown away. I think the thing that first blew me away was when she first read a line that was said by Nico, who's a trans guy.I'm the Nicholas Cage of romance.I was like, "How does she do 'T' voice? How does she do the voice of every trans guy I know? That's crazy." I loved the voice that she does for Jane, and the narration has this sweet... like in August’s head, the way that it should feel is kind of sweet but also prickly. She also has this kind of aura of horniness to the narration that is so good for romance. She's brilliant. We worked together to develop the pitch and timbre of August’s speaking voice. She took all of the notes so well, and she brought her own thing to it, and I also loved that she's Taiwanese American. I felt she was bringing that to Jane's character in a way that was kind of shading her in a little bit that I thought was really cool.I love her work. They're going to be hard pressed to get me to ever have another audiobook narrator, because I think she's so good.MC: I agree. She is amazing. CM: I think there's so much value to going back and listening to an audiobook of a book you've already read. I'm currently doing that with Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas, and the actor who does that book. It's so good. There are things that I noticed about the narration that I didn't notice before because I was reading really fast and "oh, what happens next?" And like, "You can take your time with it." The way that certain words are emphasized in the tonal shifts, the emotion, it really makes it like a whole other experience. One of my favorite things to do is read a book I really love and then buy the audiobook and listen to the audiobook while I am commuting or doing laundry or cooking or whatever. It's so relaxing. It's like watching reruns of your favorite show.MC: It really is. I love the way you put that.CM: Yeah.MC: Thank you so much, Casey. It's been such a pleasure chatting with you, and I cannot wait for listeners to hear One Last Stop.CM: Thank you so much, Michael. I am so excited for them to hear it too. I really hope that they love it as much as I do.MC: For those of you who haven't already added it to your library, One Last Stop is available right now on Audible. So please go listen. You need to hear it.CM: Yeah, go listen. 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