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Casey McQuiston tells the kinds of LGBTQ stories that were once impossible to find in the romance section. Thoroughly queer, their books are joyous, relatable and known for an emotional heart that has garnered an obsessive fan base.
Love and its thrilling twists and turns are why readers turn to McQuiston, who uses gender-neutral pronouns. In their debut, “Red, White and Royal Blue,” a New York Times bestseller, love transcends borders, and in their sophomore work, “One Last Stop,” love transcends dimensions. McQuiston’s third book, “I Kissed Shara Wheeler,” released last month, is about finding love in unexpected places.
McQuiston, 31, said they grew up in the “golden era” of rom-coms. A lover of the genre from a young age, they said as a young person the best they hoped for in terms of LGBTQ representation “was like a punchline through tragedies, you know? That left me so hungry.”
They were in their early 20s when they decided to try and write a romance novel. The result, “Red, White & Royal Blue,” was not an easy sell to publishers.
“It was really, really hard to get mainstream adult romance publishers to take a risk on a queer adult romcom,” McQuiston said.
They persevered, and the book sold in 2018. A huge success, the film adaptation will begin shooting this summer, and it has just been announced Uma Thurman will be playing one of the key roles.
As McQuiston has watched the market for queer romance stories broaden, they see even more opportunities to deepen the representation that’s already out there. In particular, they said they’d like to see more transfeminine romance stories and romance novels by Black, Asian, Latinx and Indigenous writers. They said they imagine a scenario when an entire section of a bookstore is queer romance. “Like, there’s so many queer romance novels that it’s an embarrassment of riches,” they said.
McQuiston’s latest book, “I Kissed Shara Wheeler,” is a queer coming-of-age story geared toward young adult readers. McQuiston said as much as the book was written for others, it was written for them, too, and they recently toured the book and met younger readers.
“One of the coolest things about having the job that I have is getting to have that window into this alternate universe where I get to be part of this community of queer kids, in a way I never got to be at that age,” they said.
“I Kissed Shara Wheeler’’ is set in the South and is critical of conservative religious communities. McQuiston themselves grew up attending a conservative evangelical school, though their family was Catholic. They said writing the book was an exercise in understanding their younger self.
“I learned a lot about how little empathy I was extending to the past versions of myself that were created because that kid had to survive the environment she was in,” they said.
While on tour for the book, they attended a library conference in Texas. Some librarians mentioned the possibility of the book being banned for its content.
“It is such a bizarre feeling, because I’m writing rom-com,” McQuiston said. “I don’t feel like I’m writing anything that’s mega radical or transgressive. I’m writing love stories.”
Texas has been under particular scrutiny from LGBTQ advocacy organizations for its efforts to launch child abuse investigations into the parents of trans minors who are receiving gender-affirming care.
McQuiston is not new to their books being threatened. Their first book, “Red, White & Royal Blue,” was on a list of books Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor said he would review for violation of the state’s obscenity laws. Also on O’Connor’s list was Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and books examining race, gender and identity.
“These books have absolutely nothing in common, except most of them are about some kind of marginalized person existing and being happy,” McQuiston said.
Following criticism from educators, O’Connor walked back his previous statements and said he would instead leave decisions about banning books to the school boards.
“I don’t care if I never sell another book because of it being banned. What I care about is what it is saying to the kids who relate to those books when they’re told this is obscene, this is not fit to be consumed. This is dangerous. This is wrong,” they said. “What I do hope I can extend to them is that feeling of being in community with me, at least when they read my book, because they at least know there’s one queer person out there in the world who has their back.”