Don't miss the first half of our interview with Casey McQuiston, about the two-year anniversary of her first novel Red, White & Royal Blue.
There's a chapter in the second half of Casey McQuiston's latest book One Last Stop, in which the young bisexual heroine August Landry and her friends go to a Christmas-in-July themed drag show at an underground bar in New York -- a parallel universe New York where COVID-19 never happened and the city never shut down.
Looking out at the crowd, August sees "butches, femmes, six-foot beefcakes... Women with Adam's apples, men without them. People who don't fit into any category but look as happy and wanted here as anyone else, bobbing their heads to the house music and gripping drinks with painted nails. It smells like sweat, like spilled whiskey, like a million sweet perfumes applied in tight three-bedroom apartments like August's in giddy anticipation of being here, somewhere people love you."
It's one of many joyful moments in the book that may push its exhausted, touch-starved queer readers over the edge. Fans of McQuiston's first novel, Red, White & Royal Blue, will recognize the feeling, after being immersed in a fictional world where a smart, progressive woman with a bisexual son was elected president of the United States instead of Trump.
"I feel like my books are always billed as super escapism and wish fulfillment, but at their core, the escapism and wish fulfillment are very basic stuff," McQuiston told The Advocate. "Like, 'imagine if you had a functional government,' or 'imagine if you could go to a drag show.' I just want people to be able to imagine a happy, normal life."
One Last Stop is all of that and more, combining the most fandom-worthy aspects of science fiction, true crime podcasts, pop culture nostalgia and queer romance. Raised by her single mother to be a cynical, tough-as-nails detective, 23-year-old August moves to New York and meets Jane Su, a Chinese-American butch lesbian from the 1970s who was somehow flung out of time and metaphysically trapped on the Q line of the subway. With help from her new found family, August tries to figure out what happened to Jane and how to save her, following decades of LGBTQ+ history from San Francisco to New Orleans to New York City.
Where Red, White & Royal Blue is a story about the risks of coming out in a politically hostile world, One Last Stop is a comfortingly inclusive space from the first page. August's psychic hipster roommate Niko is a trans guy in a wholesome relationship with his girlfriend, a sweet sci-fi nerd named Myla. A third roommate, Wes, is gay, dealing with mental health issues, and hopelessly in love with the drag queen living across the hall. And then there's Jane, a tattooed, leather-jacket-wearing punk rocker and activist.
"I really wanted to do a romance with a butch love interest," McQuiston said. "I didn't want to do a book that was trying not to make straight people uncomfortable. No, we're going to do a whole book about how this butch woman is the hottest person we've ever seen. She represents everything that is warm and comforting and sturdy and secure about every butch lesbian I've ever known in my life."
The character turned out to be more relatable than McQuiston ever expected when she was writing the first draft several years ago. At one point, Jane admits to August that being locked away from the world outside is wearing her down. "I just ... miss it. My dim sum place. The cat in my bodega. [...] Having a beer. Going to the movies. Dumb, small life things. It just--it sucks."
"I promise, I wrote that probably in 2019," McQuiston laughed. "My best friend jokes all the time that I'm Nostradamus, because my books have this way of somehow predicting things. I feel like I accidentally wrote a quarantine book before I had any idea quarantine would happen."
It's easy to look for aspects of McQuiston's own experience in August's story -- both of them grew up in southern Louisiana, both eventually moved to New York, and there's even a striking resemblance between McQuiston's dog Pepper and a dog named Noodles in the book. The journey of falling in love with New York, "this shitty, smelly, overpriced, nightmare city," is especially vivid; she traveled there multiple times while writing the book and spent days riding the Q train from one end to the other, taking notes and doing research. In the end, it seemed inevitable that she would move there.
"More than anything, what's most personal about this book is that a lot of what I was writing about is something that I had really experienced in my early 20s, which was 'Who the hell am I? What am I doing with my life?'" she said. "I'm waiting tables and I live with too many people, and I don't know where this is going. And is it horrible and am I a failure because I don't know where this is going? That's a lot of what August is dealing with."
But in other ways, McQuiston and August couldn't be more different -- "She's so reserved and cautious and prickly and withdrawn, and I'm the opposite of all those things. I'm much more an Alex [from RW&RB] than an August."
McQuiston's knowledge of pop culture and storytelling tropes helped her get into the mindset of a character who was difficult to figure out at first. August compares herself to Veronica Mars and Gilmore Girls, both nostalgic '90s TV shows with recent reboots that haven't aged as well as fans might like. "It's this young person who has a single parent, and it's like 'you and me against the world,' and the entire setup and premise of the show is based on that relationship. What I thought would be really interesting is to revisit that relationship five or 10 years down the road, where now I'm in my 20s and I'm realizing that I have no idea who I am outside of this relationship with my parent. Not only that, but it has made me kind of weird.
"I really had a lot of fun playing with that, like, 'She carries this knife that she was taught how to use to pick locks when she was seven years old!' When you're watching a TV show you're like, 'That's so fun and scrappy!' And then if you met that person in real life you'd be like, 'Ohhh, are you in therapy yet?'"
Readers searching for quality representation will appreciate the diversity of One Last Stop, from skin tones to sexualities and genders to body sizes, portrayed in a detailed and authentic way. This carries over to the audiobook narrated by Natalie Naudus, a bisexual Asian-American who captured the stream-of-consciousness style of McQuiston's characters. "The first person who actually has a line in the book is Niko, and when she did his voice, she did this 'trans guy on year five of T' voice, and I'm like, 'How did you do that??'" McQuiston said. "It was so uncanny! And then she switches directly to August and it's this very clear, cis female voice, and I'm like, 'How?! Oh my god, the range!'"
It was important to make that diversity feel true to the setting, something that can be hard for authors to get right. "I think it's very obvious when you're reading a book, especially a book by a white person, when it feels like they went through and filled out a quota of, 'I'm going to have one East Asian, and one Black person, and one Latina,'" McQuiston argued. "You can't just throw people of color in there as set dressing. People live in places for reasons." As for the LGBTQ+ community, "if it's a group of friends, I think it's silly to have one person who's queer, because I've never seen that in real life. I've only seen friend groups of 75 different queer people, and they're all each others' exes."
Woven through the heart of August and Jane's story is the UpStairs Lounge arson in New Orleans on June 24, 1973, a historic tragedy that claimed the lives of 32 people and was largely hushed up by local authorities. McQuiston herself had never heard of it until the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, despite living as an openly queer person in Louisiana for years. "It really upset me that I had never heard of it before, not from anyone within my own community, not from books, not from pop culture or anything. It was the biggest mass loss of gay life until Pulse, and nobody knows about it."
Once she'd decided that the heroine of her book was from New Orleans and the love interest was from the '70s, McQuiston knew that UpStairs Lounge would play an important role. "There's this very problematic trope that pops up a lot in fiction called Bury Your Gays, where people introduce a gay character into a story just so they can kill them off. To me, [One Last Stop] is an Unbury Your Gays book. It's literally and metaphorically about excavating gay people from history."