Pull out your fascinators and tiaras — here’s your reason to have a royal summer.
Houston-based author Katharine McGee has published the third book in her series that re-imagines America as a monarchy, and less than a month after the novel hit the bookstores, the series landed on the New York Times bestseller list.
The American Royal series, published by Random House, follows four young women connected to the royal family — the Washingtons. That’s right. In lieu of pursuing a democracy, the founding fathers in McGee’s fictional America opted for a kingdom. Now, over 200 years later, the country has its first reigning queen — and she’s mixing things up. Think: The Princess Diaries meets Gossip Girl.
The third in the series, Rivals, was published at the end of May, and McGee is currently working on the fourth and final book. She joined CultureMap for a Q&A about the series, being a writer in Houston, and more.
The McGee File
Family: husband Alex and son William
Neighborhood: Upper Kirby
Most recommended Houston restaurant: Nobie’s — “their pies are so good.”
Favorite authors: Philip Pullman, Evie Dunmore, Philippa Gregory, and Margaret George
Favorite Houston bookstore: Blue Willow Bookshop
CultureMap: Where did the idea for American Royals come from?
Katharine McGee: I have been toying with the idea for American Royals for a very long time. I grew up reading historical fiction and I always dreamed of writing a historical fiction novel of my own — something that was set in a royal court, whether it was at the Tudor court or at Versailles, or with the Romanoffs. Something with backstabbing and political intrigue and drama and forbid love.
When I was working in book publishing in 2011 in New York, I was an editorial assistant actually working on young adult fiction. I was in New York City the day that prince William and Kate Middleton got married. New York felt that morning, like a city completely on holiday. It was so much fun. The streets were lined with people wearing fascinators, and the wedding was being streamed on the jumbotron in Times Square. The pictures of the royal family were on the cover of every single magazine and newspaper that I passed on newsstands. It was so interesting that we in America were incredibly fascinated by and obsessed with this wedding of Royals who aren't even our own. Which of course led me to the place of, "I wonder what it would be like if we did have a royal family."
It was a lightning bolt moment realizing that I could fulfill my dream of trying to write a royal court story, but actually do it in a modern day America that had a royal family. The books still have all those ingredients that I love so much — they still have the forbidden love and the young people who are grappling with their fate of being destined to rule a country someday, they just are taking place in an alternate version of contemporary America.
CM: The latest in the series just came out this summer. What’s exciting about this one?
KM: The third book, Rivals, is so much fun. I genuinely think this might be the most pure fun book that I've ever written. And I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that by the third book in a series, as the writer, I have more space to really put my characters in unexpected positions and take them places that will pleasantly surprise the readers. The first book in the series is more of an introductory book, really setting up the world and the characters and what the stakes are. And then the second book is very much a building book. And by the third book, I like to think of it as sort of a "let's have fun in the world."
The book is full of unexpected alliances and relationships that will surprise you. Some old relationships rekindled some entirely new ones, and the world gets bigger, which is a lot of fun.
CM: What can you tell us about the future of the series?
KM: I'm currently working on book four, and that is the last American Royals book. I was very lucky. The publisher bought the first two books, and then bought the second two books in another deal. So, I knew going into book three, that there was a fourth book coming. This enabled me to write the incredibly dramatic cliffhanger ending that is tormenting so many readers. I obviously could not have done that if we weren't sure whether there would be fourth.
The fourth book is in progress, and it will come out next year — I'm not sure exactly when yet. It has been much harder than book three in some ways, because resolutions are always really tricky. And I feel like the series has gone on for long enough that I wanna make sure that I give every character that we've met over the course of the series, their fair amount of screen time and the resolution that they deserve, which means I'm juggling a pretty unwieldy cast by this point.
CM: You’ve written two YA/New Adult series. What draws you to that genre and to writing a series over a stand alone?
KM: I honestly think that I think series are just genuinely more fun for me as the writer. I do spend a long time in the lead up to a project, figuring out who the characters are, how they're all interconnected, and how the world makes sense. For both The Thousandth Floor and American Royals, it was a process that took a number of years and several drafts to really hammer out before I even was able to sell a concept. And so it does feel to me, like I put so much upfront work into all building and creating this world. And now I'm just having fun, spinning out additional stories within the world with the same characters and just putting them in new configurations, new, romantic entanglements, and finding new ways to cross their stories and bring them together.
I've never tried to write a standalone. I think it could happen at some point in the future, but I'm certainly not ruling it out, but it's not where my mind naturally gravitates to.
Another challenge aside from grappling with book four, is that I also have this looming question on the horizon of what is the next concept or series after American Royals. And so I have been devoting a little time, I would say over the past calendar year to trying to tee that up.
CM: You’ve lived in a few cities before you moved back to your hometown of Houston. What’s it been like for you being an author based here?
KM: I have been very pleasantly surprised with the Houston literary scene. Writing is such a solitary job. And I do work almost entirely from my home office — except going to Local Foods and writing on a patio when it's not summertime. I tend to look to my personal life for the company and the socializing that my job doesn't provide. I don't go into an office and don't really have coworkers — my poor friends often hear a lot about the books and weigh in on the characters and know about things as they're happening. And then my husband and my sister also both weigh in.
I have recently been really enjoying exploring the Houston literary scene because there is so much here, including independent bookstores. The Blue Willow Bookshop is the one that I do all of my events at, although Brazos Bookstore has some incredible events as well. The Barbara Bush literacy foundation puts on some good events, and we get some incredible authors coming through Houston. And then we have some other authors who are based here.
CM: Do you have any favorite restaurants/coffee shops you like to treat yourself to before, during, or after a day of writing?
KM: I can't believe I'm saying this — I'm honestly a little embarrassed by it. My guilty pleasure is Berryhill. I mean, their margaritas are good and their fish tacos are I think they're the best fish tacos in Houston. That has become my spot if I had a tough day writing and I haven't cooked dinner, or I need to go vent and relax, my husband and I and maybe my friends who live nearby will go to Berryhill together. There and Local Foods are probably the only two places in Houston where I am known by first name.