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'Red, White & Royal Blue' author Casey McQuiston says next novel is their 'spiciest'

McQuiston's third adult novel, "The Pairing," is about two ex-lovers who find themselves on the same European vacation.
/ Source: TODAY

Casey McQuiston has written their “spiciest” book yet.

Their third adult novel, “The Pairing,” brought McQuiston on a culinary tour of Europe — all part of the research required for writing about a pair of ex-lovers who find themselves on the same vacation.

In “The Pairing,” which comes out Aug. 6, exes Kit and Theo meet again on a shared food and wine tour. In an attempt to prove there’s no lingering feelings, they embark on a “European hookup competition” — essentially, who can get with the most people.

The Pairing
Courtesy St. Martin’s Griffin

“It’s not just about making each other jealous, but it’s about like, proving to you that I’m fine,” McQuiston, who uses they/them pronouns, told NBC's in an exclusive interview for a cover reveal of “The Pairing.” “It’s about finding parts of you in other people and making that enough for tonight.”

Before writing the book, the Louisiana-born author says they’d never been to the places they wanted to write about. So after going to London to visit the set of the film adaptation of their first book, "Red, White & Royal Blue," in summer 2022, they seized the chance to “research.”

From London, they went to Paris, Barcelona, Florence and Rome and went on chocolate crawls, tapas tours, sunset sales, trips out to the countryside — essentially “everything I could imagine would spark an idea.”

“There were so many little moments that I was like, ‘Oh, this is a book,’” they said. “Like when I was in Barcelona, walking through the Gothic Quarter, I would look up and I would see how the apartments there, the streets are so narrow ... You have a balcony, you have a balcony, you have three feet of space between them. I was like, ‘That’s a scene.’”

McQuiston always has a nickname for their novels. “Red, White & Royal Blue” was known as “Friendly Relations,” an innuendo based on the diplomatic term. “One Last Stop” was “Subway Girl,” which ended up being a nickname for one of the main characters.

Casey McQuiston
Courtesy Sylvie Rosokoff

“The Pairing” is also known as “Sluts in Europe,” based in part around the idea of exploring the trope of the “slutty bisexual” in a “lighthearted and sensual and transformative way that explores how queer sex can be transformational and affirming,” McQuiston said.

So when they looked up at those nearly adjoined balconies in Barcelona, they saw a metaphor — emotionally apart, yet physically right next to each other — that informed their upcoming book.

“I’m just imagining these two characters going home with two neighbors, and they’re both hooking up with their conquest of the evening in neighboring apartments — and there’s literally three feet of space between the two,” they said.

“It really like completely rebirthed me as an artist and as a writer... All of the time trapped indoors, to be able to go out into the world, reconnect with humanity and art and flavors and everything, I think all of that is in the book,” they added.

Below McQuiston walks us through the experiencing of writing “The Pairing” and how it reminded them of why they loved writing in the first place.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What was the initial inspiration for this book?

I was gearing up to write my fourth book, and I really wanted to reconnect with the joy of creation and the joy of writing and the spark that brought me here in the first place. This thing that was once my passion project, hobby, is now my bread and butter. Sometimes that takes a little bit of the magic out of it.

I was like, what would reconnecting with that magic look like for me? What are the things that inspired me? What are the things that I draw the most joy from and that I feel most energized by? For me, that is beautiful art and travel and beautiful places and discovering new things. 

Could you walk me through the inspiration behind the cover design?

I wanted a cover design that is kind of flirting with literary crossover. I think some of the cover comps I sent were like Sally Rooney and Emma Straub and authors like that who are sort of romance and also fiction.

This book is definitely extremely romance. But I was really trying to bring my A-game on a craft level. I always am attempting to bring my A-game on a craft level, but this time, I really felt when I was writing it, I could tell I was leveling up as an artist and that I had leveled up with time. It’s been seven years since I started writing my first book. And so, God, I hope I have grown as an artist since then.

When we were talking about what we wanted the cover to look like, we want it to feel like romance, we want it to read as romance and to have this very evocative, sensual vibe to it. Because it’s a super evocative, sensual book. But we also wanted something that showed that it was a little bit of a break from my first two books in terms of like, “This is Casey 2.0.”

Compared to 'Red, White & Royal Blue' and 'One Last Stop,' what’s different about this novel?

From just like a behind-the-scenes point of view, it is the most fun I’ve had writing a book in a long time. And I had tons of fun writing my last two books, but there was something about this one that I got to really bury myself in it in a very fun way. A lot of it is about food and wine and art. And so I got to travel around Europe and call it research. I took wine classes. And I was baking weird little, local French pastries that were specific to the scenes I was writing. It’s really amazing and really rare as a writer to get to have the chance to bury yourself in all of your favorite things and call it research.

I was just having a blast and being totally indulgent. And I think that kind of shows in the book. I think this is definitely my most like indulgent book. I feel like both “Red, White & Royal Blue” and “One Last Stop” had a really intense, high-stakes plot engine behind them, where it’s like, the future of the world or time and space. And this one is like, just about being hot and sweaty in Europe.

I feel like both “Red, White & Royal Blue” and “One Last Stop” had a really intense, high-stakes plot engine behind them, where it’s like, the future of the world or time and space. And this one is like, just about being hot and sweaty in Europe.

I would also say it is my — what is the word that romance readers like to use these days? I would say it’s my spiciest book. I think I’ve been building up my confidence as a writer to be able to publish spicy romance without being self conscious or embarrassed about it.

I’ve always wondered if authors are embarrassed about other people reading their romance novels. Have you felt that and is it embarrassment?

It’s more just like — it’s like that thing where it’s like, even if you have a kid, you don’t want your parents to think about how the kid was made, you know? It’s like, yes, I have written a very successful novel. However, I have to live with the fact that all of my mom’s neighbors know that I have thought about at least three specific sexual scenarios. I don’t love that.

But I find that as I get farther into this career, I am so much less apologetic and so much less embarrassed about sex and pleasure being something that we talk about and that we use as a tool in romance to do really beautiful emotional storytelling. It’s just fun, and it’s OK for that to be the point. Pleasure reading is nothing to be ashamed of, and pleasure writing is nothing to be ashamed of.

But certainly, when I wrote my first book, my mom read it, and I was like, “OK, well please tell me you at least skimmed the sex scenes and didn’t read all of them,” and she’s like, “Oh, no, I read those. I just skimmed like the plot.” I was like, “I wish I didn’t know that.”

Looking back at your career, how has your motivation for writing romance changed over time?

I feel like it’s gone through a sort of full circle thing. When I sat down to write my first book, I wanted to write something really fun and really delicious and delightful that people would love to read.

And then, as I started publishing books, and my work started being something that didn’t exist only in a vacuum or off my computer, I really wanted to make a difference, and I wanted to write things that were quote unquote “important.” And I think that’s a really honorable goal to have for any artist. But I think also it’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself, and sometimes it can get in the way of just being able to write and to do what you’re trying to do. For a while, my motivations and my goals and writing were more externally focused on wanting to write something that would mean something to people and wanting to write something that could change something.

Then I kind of came back around to wanting to write something for fun. Sometimes writing for pleasure is important. And it does change things because — especially when you’re writing about queer love and about queer intimacy — it’s really important that those things are just allowed to exist for pleasure. That, too, is transgressive, and it makes a difference in the world. I’m really proud of my body of work, and I’m kind of coming back around the circle to the place where I’m like, let’s just have a good time, guys.

To give readers a hint of what’s to come with the two main characters of 'The Pairing,' what are their star signs?

Oh my god, OK. So Theo is a Libra. Theo is a bartender by day, aspiring sommelier by night, and they are completely unserious. Very rarely are they serious about anything, but they’re so charming, they’re so gregarious, they can do anything that they put their mind to. But they have such an inferiority complex in a way, because they’re very much a jack of all trades, master of none. They’ve never really found their way in the world, but my God, can they find their way through any situation? Yeah. When I was giving notes for the audiobook narrator I was like, “Theo sounds like the friend who is always down to help you move, but they’re gonna show up an hour late because they forgot.”

Then Kit. I thought a lot about fairy princes. I thought about Legolas, I thought about soft fantasy heroes. He has a sort of ethereal quality, but he’s also into the finest linens and the ripest fruits. He wants the most of everything. He’s deeply a pleasure seeker. He loves art. He’s just very sensitive, very soft, very passionate, very French. And he’s a Taurus. Listen, I love a Taurus. I think Tauruses are the backbone of our society.

If your six main characters — Theo and Kit, Alex and Henry from 'Red, White & Royal Blue' and Jane and August from 'One Last Stop' — were on a desert island together, what would happen?

So first of all, I feel like Henry and Kit are forming the finer things club. They’re sitting in a corner discussing like, artisanal butters. And then I feel like Jane and Theo are like, competing to see who can lift something heavier. Alex is maybe involved in this competition, too. Then I feel like Alex and August are like, both going to try to become the logistical manager of the situation, and they’re going to have very different methods, and they’re probably going to beef. They’re going to become friends in the end, but like, August is going be like, “This is no way to organize.” It’s going to be like, a spreadsheet and Alex is going to be like, “Please don’t question my methods.”

Seeing the film adaptation of 'Red, White & Royal Blue' in a theater, what was it like seeing people react to your work?

It was an out-of-body experience. Every step of the way with the movie, I was like, the next thing that happens is when it will start feeling real. Surely when I visit the set, it will start feeling real. Surely when I see this trailer, surely when I go to a screening and when I see it on the big screen — Here I am, almost six months later, I’m like, I don’t believe that happened.

It’s such a surreal experience. I think, as an artist and as a writer, the greatest thing you can hope for is for people to care as much as you do, because you care so much about the characters in the story. And to be in a room full of people that very vocally cared as much as I did was amazing.

It’s so funny, because I could tell there were people there who hadn’t read the book yet. And so there’d be moments where there’d be like a little moment that is definitely an inside joke with readers of the book that I could just tell certain pockets of the audience were reacting to you. I was like, “My people.”

Are you still in touch with the cast?

The cast is chock full of absolute angels. They are all extremely booked and busy right now. We drop each other Instagram DMs whenever we have time.

Aneesh, who played Amy, was living in the city for a while, and so we would like meet up for dinner and stuff like that. I had dinner with Taylor (Zakhar Perez) a few months ago, shortly after the movie came out. Nick (Galitzine) and I will occasionally DM about video games. They’re so sweet, and it’s just a great cast. Everybody likes each other so much. I feel really lucky to get to know them.

Are there any potential adaptations of your other works coming down the pipeline?

I have to plead the fifth on that one. I have some assorted things percolating, but nothing I can speak on yet.

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