An Interview with Katharine McGee, author of American Royals

My favourite trait – whether it’s in books, people, movies, whatever – is when something is smart enough to know when it’s time to be silly. I’ve read a lot of novels that are set in an alternative reality, but the vast majority of them are so obsessed with how clever their concept is that they completely forget how to have fun with it. I think this has a lot to do with why Naomi Alderman’s The Power was so successful: it’s not that “what if women had all the power” hadn’t been done before. It’s that Alderman was so down to clown with the idea (“I think I’d rather enjoy this ‘world run by men’ you’ve been talking about. Surely a kinder, more caring and – dare I say it? – more sexy world than the one we live in.”) that she ended up converting a whole new audience to sci-fi.

Smart and silly. It’s the way to my heart.

So when I read American Royals over Christmas, I got a lot of the same feeling. Katharine McGee’s novel takes place in an alternative reality where the American War of Independence ends with George Washington being made king, rather than president. The novel is set in the present day, where monarchies are still the de facto form of government internationally, and America is filled with lesser knights all struggling for power and influence. There’s a lot of really clever attention to detail: from the political parties, to the popularity of the name ‘Jefferson’, to the formalisation of certain lore. It’s a smartly observed fantasy. But it’s also just silly. It is, ultimately, a Young Adult novel about teenagers and their forbidden loves, friendships, and ongoing struggles to become themselves. There are sexy hot tub scenes. There are awkward ski trips. There are descriptions of gowns and jewellery. All the good shit. All the shit you listen to this podcast for.

My hope is to get Katharine on the podcast the next time she’s in the UK, but in the meantime, here’s a lil interview we did.

(Note: this interview was conducted before the drama with Meghan and Harry that’s currently taking place)

COD: So, what originally led you to the concept for American Royals?

KM: When I was in middle school, I used to sneak into my parents’ room for my mom’s Philippa Gregory novels. I’ve been a historical fiction nerd ever since, especially with novels about royalty—I can’t get enough of the Tudors and the Stuarts and Louis XIV’s Versailles. I always thought that I would write a historical fiction of my own, something with forbidden love and political intrigue and fun villainous characters scheming for the throne. (Which, by the way, all exist in American Royals…)

It was the Cambridges’ wedding in 2011 that planted the seeds of this book in my mind. I actually watched the live broadcast with friends at a bar, even though it aired at 6 AM in New York (the things you do at age 23…!) The moment the newlyweds kissed, it felt like all of New York broke out in cheers. I remember marvelling at how invested Americans felt in the fairy tale of it all, even though we don’t have royals of our own. Which got me to wondering… how would the world be different if we did have a royal family?

COD: What I love about this book is that the worldbuilding is so detailed. For example, the two main political parties are still – as they were in Washington’s day – the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans. It’s only mentioned once, but it follows the natural arc of history: if Washington never retired and instead died as a reigning monarch, America would never had the political in-fighting that led to the dissolution of the two parties. Was it fun, building a world so based in real history? Was there more that didn’t make the edit? 

KM: I had so much fun trying to answer all these questions in a way that nodded to the real history, while making the most of the what-if twist! One of the bigger issues I struggled with was how the rest of the world looks. If you assume that the American Revolution contributed to, and helped inspire, other revolutions in world history—from the French Revolution to Spanish-American independence to the Russian Revolution—it follows that those monarchies all still exist in the world of American Royals. My goal was to capture all the eighteenth-century sparkle and glamour, but to interweave it with twenty-first-century attitudes about society and inclusivity. I obviously didn’t want to write a modern world that featured serfdom or slavery.

Plenty of historical details were cut over the course of my revisions, but the one that I miss the most was my plethora of minor German royals. In real life, Germany wasn’t unified until the 1860s, so I had characters like the Prince of Bavaria and the Duchess of Brandenburg peppering the pages. My editor insisted that I create a King of Germany, for clarity’s sake. I know she’s right, but I still miss those German references (I want to cast Tom Hughes as a brooding German royal please!)

You borrow a lot from the English monarchy: Princess Beatrice and Princess Samantha closely resemble Elizabeth II and Margaret, whereas Prince Jefferson’s romance with Nina – and the public’s love/hate relationship with her – feels inspired by Meghan Markle and Harry. Was that intentional? 

I definitely drew from Elizabeth and Margaret when I created Beatrice and Samantha, though I like to think that Sam’s personality has a bit of Princess Anne and Prince Harry in it, too! There’s something endlessly fascinating about the heir/spare dynamic, probably because it’s a heightened example of the relationship between all siblings. For normal people, the oldest child usually has more responsibilities than their siblings; in the royal world, the oldest child is literally going to rule a country, while the younger has no defined role at all. As a storyteller, I’m drawn to this dynamic because it plays upon the idea of destiny. (And there are so few ways to use destiny as a narrative tool, not unless you’re writing a historical fiction or fantasy novel.)

As for Meghan Markle: I actually started working on this concept back in 2012, before Harry and Meghan were even dating! I always knew that there would be an “everygirl” character who fell into a romance with the prince. But as I worked on the draft, pieces of Harry and Meghan’s relationship inevitably made their way into the pages: particularly since Nina, like Meghan, is a person of colour. I’m sad to say this, but all the hateful comments about Nina within the book are real things that internet commenters said about Meghan. But I did my best to give Nina some of Meghan’s strength and self-awareness, too.

Speaking of Meghan Markle, do you feel like there’s an increased interest in monarchy in the US since she joined the English royal family? 

I keep joking that I want to send Meghan a thank-you note, because marrying Harry and becoming the “real American princess” was the best thing anyone could have done to promote my book! Americans have always been fascinated by monarchy and all its trappings—palaces, aristocracy, tiaras—for the simple reason that we don’t have any of our own. Many of us would have watched Harry’s wedding no matter whom he was marrying. But the fact that he chose a stylish, biracial, divorced American with a previous career as an actress makes it that much more exciting for us, as if now a tiny piece of the British monarchy is ours, too.

In general, the monarchy comes off pretty well in the book as a relatively fair and even way of governance: there doesn’t even seem to be a Prime Minister, the monarch kinda does it all. Is this reflective of your own dissatisfaction with the US government as it is? Like, right now a monarch feels like a great alternative to your current situation.

Oh, yes. When I started building the world of American Royals, one of the first questions I faced was how much power my fictional monarch would hold. Obviously, I could have made the position more like that of the British monarch, a head of state operating separately from a PM who serves as acting executive.

American Royals has a number of characters, but its beating heart is Princess Beatrice, who will be America’s very first queen. She is a young woman training for a role that has, until now, been occupied by men. (Of course it goes without saying that IRL, no woman has ever been America’s President). It was important to me that Beatrice’s role be real and impactful, not just symbolic. I wanted her to be a young woman coming into a position of true power. 

You left the story at a brilliant cliffhanger – is there anything you can tell us about the next book? 

I am working on the final draft of book two and I’m so excited about it! A few highlights come to mind:

  • Two characters make out in a pool and it’s incredibly steamy and fun

  • Someone aside from Nina becomes tabloid gossip

  • A character who was name-dropped just a single time in book one becomes central to the plot… I can’t wait to see what you all think of it!

American Royals is a mere £4.99 on Kindle right now!