After two acclaimed adult romances, Casey McQuiston has written a YA contemporary rom-com. Told from the POV of Chloe, an out, bi high-school senior at an Alabama Christian high school who’s hell-bent on being valedictorian, I Kissed Shara Wheeler is also the story of Chloe’s rival, the titular Shara Wheeler, who disappears on prom night and leads Chloe, along with Shara’s quarterback boyfriend and her neighbor Rory (who have their own complicated history) on an elaborate scavenger hunt. McQuiston spoke with PW about growing up queer in an evangelical Christian environment, subverting the rom-com tropes they love, and why they insisted on the book’s pink packaging.

There’s so much going on in I Kissed Shara Wheeler: a love story, a coming out story, a scavenger hunt, the rearranging of high school cliques, lots of realizations. What came first?

The title. For some reason, I was really into the idea of having a full sentence as a title. I had the idea of I kissed... someone. I’ve always loved the last name Wheeler for YA; there’s something so perfectly YA about it. And Shara was the first name I thought of. Then I had to work backward from there to come up with a plot that suited the title. I was inspired by The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Where’d You Go, Bernadette, which both have a titular mysterious woman with all these secrets that are going to be unpacked over the course of the book.

When I sat down to write the book, I thought, well, I’m known as an adult writer, so if I only get one chance to write a YA, I want to throw in everything I’ve ever loved about YA and teen rom-coms. I threw in all the tropes I grew up with, those late ’90s, early 2000 rom-com tropes, starting with 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s All That all the way up to John Green novels and Pretty Little Liars and Gilmore Girls. Then I thought about how do I subvert this, what does it add to these tropes to make them queer or trans?

This book is definitely in conversation with that sort of Paper Towns narrative where the popular girl has all these secrets, but the story is told by this ordinary guy that she’s into for some reason, and in the end, it turns out that she’s actually normal. But what if she takes control over her narrative by using the things that were projected on her? The traditional version of that story ends with “Oh, she’s just a person,” but with this book we get to that point and there’s another 100+ pages.

I put in a lot of Easter eggs in the names of characters for people who were into YA and teen rom-coms. Rory, for instance, is from Gilmore Girls, and his last name Heron is from Mean Girls; Georgia is a shout out to the Georgia Nicholson books, which I loved when I was a tween; Summer’s name references The O.C. Basically, I put all my favorite things into one pretty, pink package. I know there’s religious trauma and homophobia in the book, but I wanted it to have everything I’ve ever loved about YA contemporary and for readers to finish it and feel like they had the time of their lives.

In a post on your website, you called the book the “most personal thing” you’ve written. Can you talk about what made it so personal?

I had the premise, but I didn’t have the setting until I was in therapy unpacking being a teen attending a conservative evangelical school for 13 years. I realized, oh, I think I need to use this, and I set it in a school like the one I went to. In writing the book, I had to cultivate empathy for the teenager I had to be to get through that environment; I had to reconnect with those feelings. It was very intense and cathartic and healing.

One message of the book is that shame and prejudice not only make people feel bad about themselves but can keep them from knowing who they are. Was that something you experienced?

I didn’t totally drink the Kool-Aid when I was in school—my family was less religious—and I didn’t think the experience was damaging: how could I internalize ideas I didn’t believe in? But now I realize that I was still marinating in that environment; I still had to survive it and protect myself, and that has an effect. That environment obfuscates you to yourself. How can you know who you are if so much of your personality is self-preservation? How can you interrogate this part of yourself when the “me” you know is the “me” you have to be to get through where you are? And that experience shapes your brain. Teenagers’ neural pathways, including how they see themselves, are still forming, so information that makes you feel wrong will carve itself into your brain. I wanted the book to feel real, so I put that in for queer people who grew up or are growing up like that.

At one point, the protagonist, Chloe, reflects that being her authentic self in her town and her high school is dangerous. Can a book like this help teens in that situation, do you think?

One thing I love about this book is the packaging. I didn’t want it to look gay; I wanted teens in a conservative environment to be able to pick it up without outing themselves. Visibly queer books are great, but when I was 16, I wouldn’t have been caught dead with a book with two girls holding hands. Someone would have told someone. I didn’t want to put teens in that situation, so the book had to be accessible. And once they’ve picked it up, I want the book to give them hope, to show them that they’re not alone. I want them to know that wherever they decide to go, there are people there waiting to love them. I want them to know that other people had experiences like theirs and came out the other side. I really want these teens to feel reflected and seen.

You’ve written two books for adults and now a YA novel. What, if anything, feels different about writing for the two audiences?

I didn’t worry about my tone or my sense of humor, because teens already read my adult books, and I didn’t want them to feel like I was condescending to them. I did make the chapters shorter. Teens are so busy between school and extracurriculars, and I wanted chapters they could read between school and band practice.

I was really conscious of writing teens that felt like teens. Adults can fall into the temptation to write the teens we wish we’d been—morally and ethically pure, not awkward, not prone to screwing up. But being a teen is about being anxious, having huge feelings, making mistakes. I wanted to give teens room to be awful and make bad decisions and then figure it out. Adults have to act more responsibly—readers have expectations of them.

All three of your books are romances: what do you like about the genre? What do you think it lets you or your characters do?

I love writing romances. I am such a romantic—I romanticize everything in life. What resonates for me the most in any story is the relationship. Only romance can hit such bone-deep highs and lows. The chemicals that romance unleashes—dopamine and adrenaline—they’re addictive. I love being part of the genre; even if I wrote historical novels or science fiction, they’d still be romances.

Given today’s politics with anti-trans bills, book banning, and the Florida “Don’t Say Gay” bill, do you see writing queer romances as a form of activism?

I never want to answer a question like this in a way that reads as pushing my book, but I do think that art can always be and historically has been a form of activism. Art that challenges heteronormativity is always important, and it’s important to keep creating art that centers marginalized voices. If people are threatened by that, we’re doing our job. Book banning is about testing the waters to see how much about marginalized people can be legislated out of existence. Look at the books being banned—all romances are about boning, but the ones they’re challenging are gay. So we have to keep pushing back.

What’s next for you?

There’s a collector’s edition of Red, White & Royal Blue coming out that has a bonus chapter written from Henry’s point of view. And I’m working on a new book, another queer rom-com for adults. All I can really say is that it’s super bisexual and there’s a lot of travel and food.

I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston. Wednesday Books, $19.99 May 3 ISBN 978-1-250-24445-1