A Q&A with Casey McQuiston, Author of May/June Kids' Indie Next List Top Pick "I Kissed Shara Wheeler"

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Casey McQuiston author of I Kissed Shara WheelerIndependent booksellers across the country have chosen Casey McQuiston’s I Kissed Shara Wheeler (Wednesday Books) as their top pick for the May/June Kids’ Indie Next List.

I Kissed Shara Wheeler follows Chloe Green, a high school senior vying for valedictorian against prom queen, Shara Wheeler who unexpectedly kisses her and disappears leaving pink envelopes of clues throughout the small Alabama town.

“Casey McQuiston is at their absolute best in this charming YA caper. It’s fun, queer, smart, and a perfect summer read,” said Julia DeVarti of Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, New York. “If you love scavenger hunts, runaway prom queens, Taco Bell, and young queer self-discovery, this is your book!”

Here, McQuiston discusses their process with Bookselling This Week.

Bookselling This Week: How was your experience writing your first Young Adult debut?

Casey McQuiston: I went into this, knowing that I had a few, well, more than a few readers who are older teens or even some college aged kids and people who really loved my books. And I didn’t want it to all of a sudden feel like I was talking down to them or changing the way I spoke to them when they picked up a book that was written for their age group. I didn’t want them to feel condescend to, or like I was all of a sudden handling them with kid gloves.

When I sat down to write Shara, one of the things I knew I didn’t want to change much was my voice and my style and the sense of humor that my books have. There’s definitely a lot less swearing and definitely less adult content. And then just based on what I would want to hand an 18-year-old or a 16-year-old or 15-year-old that I know, but also I learned really quickly that kids — and when I say kids, I mean, teens — are very aware of what they can and can’t handle. And if they don’t wanna read something or don’t feel they’re ready for it, they’ll put it down. They can handle a lot. There’s not anything too extreme in this book, but I definitely didn’t pull my punches just because I was writing for teens. I feel like what I did focus on really adapting for a teenage audience was how the characters act. I want them to act like teenagers and my experience with being a teenager was that you don’t know everything and you’re not right all the time. And you make a lot of mistakes and a lot of questionable choices and embarrass yourself and try too hard.

I didn’t want these teenagers to feel like effortlessly cool or like I was trying to imagine a cooler version of myself or something like that when I was writing. And I want them to feel relatable to teens who are all of those things. I feel like you get a little more wiggle room with what you can get away with, because choices when you're a teenager can sometimes be very extreme and emotionally driven. It was fun to get to experiment with how [one] would change or react to this. And how would I imagine a character reacting to this if they had this other layer of insecurity underpinning what was going on, which was really fun. I spent a lot of time really enjoying reconnecting with what it was like to be that age, and more than anything it was caring so much about so many things. And some of them were completely ridiculous, regrettable things, but you just cared so deeply about them all the time. And there was a layer of adult self consciousness that wasn’t there when you were a teenager. And so I really wanted to bring that to the book. Also the themes of figuring out who you are, which I think is what you’re doing in your teens and your twenties — we’re kind of figuring out where the person you are fits into the world. 

BTW: I Kissed Shara Wheeler has a sprinkling of well-known character tropes like the girl next door and the bad boy. What were your favorite YA tropes to write for this story?

CM: I feel like what I did with this story, because I’m such a huge fan of the genre of the high school rom-com and the teen soap and really, really grew up on that stuff, I’ve always wanted to kind of play on that playground. And for me, coming from romance where I feel like romance as a genre does so much great work with tropes and, and playing with tropes. I looked at what were kind of the archetypes of teen media that I consumed as a teen and what are the ways that I could subvert them or play with them in ways I haven’t seen before. So you kind of have these tent pole characters that you could trace back to The Breakfast Club, or something where you have the princess and the jock and the bad boy, and the art freak. I really had so much fun playing with all of those, because I feel like with the princess is like the prom queen.

I feel like one of the comparisons for this book obviously is Paper Towns. I feel like that book was trying to subvert this cool girl, princess popular girl — what if she’s just a normal girl? And we‘re just projecting all of this stuff onto her? And I was like, well, what if we take that a step further? And what if she isn’t a normal girl and there’s a whole bunch of other stuff going on, but the surface that she’s crafting this narrative around herself intentionally for very specific reasons. Smith was so much fun. I love a jock with a heart of gold and I loved getting to play with that character. I love messing around with those tropes. I guess I never really related to those tropes when I’ve watched  teen media — like I was not a Shara. I wasn’t even really Chloe. It was fun to take those tropes and play with them and make them kind of something I create myself.

BTW: Several characters in the novel are exploring their queer identity. Can you talk about the importance of queer representation in your writing?

CM: This might sound silly, but when I first started getting ready to write this book, one of the first things I did was download TikTok and go see what the teens were doing. Because I’m 31 now and I do have to humble myself and admit that I’m probably not hip and cool. I spent a lot of time just like looking and training my algorithm to show me, what are the queer teens up to these days? And what I learned is that a lot — more than I remember when I was a teenager — of kids were exploring their identities, exploring different pronouns. It was very rare when I was a teenager to know somebody who straight up knew that they were a lesbian or was open about being a lesbian. And that is something seeing 16-year-olds with lesbian flag pins on, on social media, really was blowing my mind.

So I was like, okay, what do I think these kids want? I think that they want to see kids who are like them in books and feel like their experience is reflected back to them by the media that they love. I know what I loved as a teen and it was when I could just project myself into a story and imagine I could be friends with all the characters. So I wanted to give those queer teens something like that, especially the ones who are in environments like in this book. Because that was the kind of environment that I came up in. Not only did I not see a lot of characters I related to, but I really didn’t see that environment in any type of media that was fun for me to watch.

I wanted to write this story that’s set in a place that might feel isolating and take all that trauma and isolation and make it funny, and give it hope in the end, but also make it a rom-com. I thought that if I had been able to read something like that at that age, it would have really rocked my world and opened up a lot of different ideas of possibility for being. I think that at the end of the day, I wrote Chloe for the typical reader that I imagined picking up my book. I feel like I wrote Shara for those readers. I wrote all of these characters hoping that each one of them would draw in a different type of queer teen and make them feel seen or heard, or like they could relate to something and not feel alone.

BTW: Seeing how young readers could see themselves in these characters, do you think you’ll be writing more Young Adult novels? A mix of both YA and adult?

CM: I know that like the next thing I’m working on is for adults, but I’ve had so much fun doing this that I could totally see myself coming back to YA one day in the not-so-distant future. I just love teen readers. They are so much fun. I love writing books that they can very closely relate to. I love getting to read a review of a teen reader who is like, “oh my God, Chloe is me.” Honestly, in the back of my mind, I‘m waiting to see how this book does, because there’s this little part of me that’s like, what if I write a sequel that’s called I Kissed Chloe Green. Before I wrote my first adult romance, I always imagined myself being a YA writer. I do think that my adult romance has always, at least so far, been in the new adult area. That’s really adjacent to YA, obviously with more sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll. I think it would be so fun to come back to this space and do some more work here.

BTW: Since Chloe’s best friend Georgia works at her family’s bookstore and it is a significant setting throughout the story, how have independent bookstores played a role in your life?

CM: Well it’s funny because I really didn’t get to have this love affair with independent bookstores until I was older, because in Southern Louisiana I didn’t really have any local ones. It was like Barnes and Noble or bust, or if it’s not at Walmart, we’re not gonna find it. But I always thought a bookstore is this kind of fantastical, romantic space. I always saw them as really beautiful and aspirational and was so excited. The older I got, the more I had access to indie bookstores and as soon as I was able to drive, I was like, let’s find an indie bookstore and go there.

As a writer, I think that indies, specifically indie booksellers, have been a major load-bearing column of my career. When my first book came out, it was a pretty limited printing. There weren’t huge trumpets and fireworks, fanfare marketing rollout. It was mostly word of mouth. And a lot of that word of mouth was coming from booksellers just hand selling it. I feel like I owe so much to indie book sellers because they just embrace the book so completely. And they’ve done the same for One Last Stop. And now for Shara, it feels like a big hug and it’s very nice. I think every single time now that I’m traveling, I go out of my way to find the indies. I see them as so incredibly special now as an adult.

BTW: What’s something you hope readers of all ages take away from this book?

CM: I imagined a lot of readers coming to the book from Chloe’s point of view. I think she’s sort of like an audience stand-in for the standard reader who would come into an environment like Willowgrove Christian Academy as an outsider and maybe with a lot of very rigid, preconceived notions about what every person in that area is like, you know? One of things I would like people take away is how many queer and trans folks are in these conservative religious places, and how we can't leave them behind. But I would really like people take away the feeling that they had a good time, because that’s what rom-com is about. And if we can have some feelings about ourselves as members of the queer community along the way, that is also one of my goals. I would love people to come away feeling happier than they were when they started the book, and like I showed them a great afternoon or weekend or however long it takes them to read it.

Hopefully they savor it, but if they finish it in a night, I will take that as a compliment.