Romance is a billion-dollar industry. In 2016 these novels made up 23% of the overall fiction market, and they consistently out-perform all other genres. But while we’ve reclaimed the rom-com in film, these books are still often relegated to being “guilty pleasures” or considered “mommy porn.” This week we’re discussing these overlooked, often powerfully feminist books—that just so happen to have a happy ending.
It spread like wildfire. First there was Twitter chatter, then came the New York Times best-seller list, and soon a film adaptation was in the works. Red, White & Royal Blue is the little novel that could. Without an Instagram endorsement from Reese Witherspoon, a shout-out on Today from Jenna Bush Hager, or any major traditional publicity pushes, Casey McQuiston’s debut romance novel about the First Son of the United States and the Prince of Wales managed to do what few books in any genre manage—it went viral. With seven printings and 100,000 copies in circulation, the book’s popularity was fueled the old-fashioned way: by word of mouth. (I saw the power of that first-hand at Glamour. After one editor raved about the book, a staff-wide waitlist sprang up as we circulated one dogeared copy around the office.)
“It’s been amazing. Last week I got an email from an immigration lawyer who was like, ‘Obviously my job is really depressing right now. But I would go home at night and read your book and it would make me happy and give me hope. I’d go back to work with more energy the next day,’” McQuiston tells Glamour. “That’s what I wanted to do. I’m not a legislator. I’m not a lawyer. I’m not an organizer. Those aren’t my skills in this life. But what I can be is the person who creates something that those people can sustain themselves with, or use as an escape.”
Red, White & Royal Blue is a world that many of us, understandably, would like to escape into. It’s set in an alternate reality where in 2016, a Democrat from Texas became the first female president of the United States. President Ellen Claremont has the aura of Connie Britton with the political prowess of Elizabeth Warren. She’s also the mother of Alex Claremont-Diaz: a 20-something mixed race modern-day Kennedy who begins questioning his sexuality. The story kicks off after Alex accidentally ruins a royal wedding and is forced to make-nice with his childhood nemesis, Prince Henry of Wales. Alex and Henry pretend they’re best friends for the press and, in a classic rom-com twist, their fake bromance turns into a full-blown “secret romance.”
McQuiston swears that her idea for Red, White & Royal Blue predates the union of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, despite the uncanny parallels. “I feel like I shouted into the universe and the universe shouted back. I was like, Wow, okay, so the youngest prince is going to marry a famous biracial American,” she jokes.
But the inspiration for the book actually came from a collage of cultural references. One part My Date With the President’s Daughter, a bit of Veep, with the energy of Parks and Recreation and sharing themes from the novel The Royal We. All of this while dripping in internet slang. Phrases like *cries in gay* are sprinkled throughout, as are Ariana Grande references and memes aplenty. The 28-year-old wanted to find a way to harmonize her kaleidoscope of influences but also subvert tropes. “I’m a huge rom-com fan, but I’m also like, How can I do this differently?” she says. She ultimately didn’t have to look far to find her answer. “I’m a queer person. So the first subversion was thinking, What if this is a queer kid and he has to deal with what that means for his position in the world?”
After an arduous writing process—McQuiston has ADHD and said that one of the hardest things for her to do with the disorder was write a book—she didn’t expect much to come from the novel's hitting the shelves. So instead of spending her days refreshing the Amazon book rankings and creating Google alerts for her name, she applied to jobs as a bar trivia emcee and began plotting her next act. Then the novel did the one thing she never expected. It broke the internet. A Twitter hive formed. Etsy shops started selling T-shirts that read “Claremont 2020” and “History, huh?” (a reference to a spoiler from the later half of the book). Amazon Studios snatched up the rights to adapt it into a big, glossy production similar to Crazy Rich Asians.
“It was completely shocking. As Drake would say, it’s been like zero to 100. My biggest thing is I’m very against the idea of buying into your own hype. So I’m like, How can I redirect this towards other [romance novelists], whose stories I also want to see lifted up and break through like this?” she says. “Romance has always had its readers. But for some reason there’s this misconception that romance is just for horny old housewives. Don’t get me wrong, I love horny housewives. Love their work, they’re great. But I think people wouldn’t take a chance on romance because they have all these myths and preconceived notions about what it is. So I’m very lucky.” (She also credits the book’s trendy bubblegum pink packaging and the fact that it’s as much for pop culture fans as it is for romance lovers with its mainstream appeal.)
It’s not lost on McQuiston that this isn’t just any romance novel that cut through the noise. It’s a queer love story that made it onto the best-seller list. “There have always been queer romance writers, and I feel really honored to carry on what they've started,” she says. “I hope that publishers will look at this and be like, ‘Whoa, there’s an audience for this out there if we invest in these people.’ And I would love to see more investment in queer authors who are not white, like me, as well as more trans-queer authors on shelves. Those people are out there! So I'm really hopeful that this is just the beginning of something.”
For now she’s reveling in her runaway success. McQuiston actively engages the book’s loyal followers by doling out Easter eggs about her characters on Twitter. Essential details like their Hogwarts houses, zodiac signs, and Myers-Briggs types. (Alex is an Aries sun with a Leo rising.) She also recently debuted a series of Spotify playlists dedicated to each of the characters. (Henry’s is aptly called “Prince Fucking Charming: A Prince Henry Playlist” and features a lot of James Blake.) And while she’s not allowed reveal much about the film adaptation, she can’t help but daydream about the casting. She’d love to see Connie Britton as Ellen, duh, with Stanley Tucci playing Ellen’s husband, Leo.
Though she hasn’t run out of ideas for Alex and Henry, her sophomore work is decidedly not a sequel. It’s a modern Kate-and-Leopold-style lesbian love story between a fifth-year college student and a 1970s Stonewall-era woman who’s displaced in time. While she’s still in the throes of the writing process, McQuiston already has big plans for the book. When responding to a Twitter thread about what she’d like to achieve in the next decade she wrote, “I want to get a wlw [women who love women] rom-com on an adult NYT list.” Challenge accepted.
Samantha Leach is the associate culture editor at Glamour. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @_sleach.
Originally Appeared on Glamour