To Casey McQuiston, romance contains multitudes.

“Romance is some of the most honest art you can make,” McQuiston says. “It is heart. It is feelings. It is desire and passion and messiness. All the things that make us exist, that make us human, are poured directly into romance.”

The No. 1 New York Times–bestselling author of Red, White & Royal Blue, One Last Stop, and the YA romance I Kissed Shara Wheeler recently joined Kirkus via Zoom for an expansive discussion of all things romance—including a taste of their hotly anticipated novel The Pairing (Aug. 6), a heady blend of food, wine, European travel, and a friendly hookup competition between formerly estranged exes. It is McQuiston’s fourth bisexual romance, and their first to feature a trans protagonist.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What do you love about romance?

Romance is a refuge for people like me: I am corny. I am earnest. I care so much about things, and I put my entire heart into what I’m doing. What I love about romance is I don’t have to mute any of that, and I don’t have to be self-conscious about it.

Romance happens in the same musical key as my thoughts and feelings. It is a purely emotional craft, and I don’t mean that in a belittling way—I think that’s the highest compliment you can pay. Doing art with feelings as your media is really hard. We’re not using metaphors to get across feelings; we’re using feelings to get across feelings. That is so raw and beautiful, it makes my heart sing. It always has.

I don’t want to try to get you in trouble with this one, but I want to ask: Do you believe the HEA (happily-ever-after) or the HFN (happy-for-now) will always be essential to the genre?

That’s quite the hot-button topic. In the classical sense of the word—like shelved-in-the-romance-section romance—yes, and I am a defender of that. However, I tend to see more things as romance than most people do. Very often I will be reading something that’s not exactly a romance at all but I feel very romantic about, and I’m like, I’m sorry, this is a romance now. When I am reading outside of the romance shelf like that—when I’m there for the love story but it’s a different genre—I love a painful ending. I love to suffer. I love to be agonized and feel anguish and long for a better resolution, because that’s also delicious.

I will say, if we’re talking about fantasy that has a strong romance element—or even sometimes romantasy, which I know is a new word we’re still figuring out how to use—I welcome pain. But if I’m reading a historical romance and one [protagonist] does not run off from the estate he has to manage for his inheritance to marry the other [protagonist], and that is not resolved happily at the end, I’m upset. I’m upset! I’m like, Why did I do this?

How does the future of romance look to you?

As somebody who is in this market and writing books, I’m always looking [at what gets published], and seeing the exponential growth each year is heartening. We’re making leaps and bounds in terms of the number of books that are coming out, but I would love to see it more diversified. I am eager to see FF romance, specifically, diversify. Anytime somebody asks me about the future of romance, I’m like, more transfeminine authors and characters, please! I do think the future is bright, and I cannot wait to see what happens in the next five years.

Speaking of the future, The Pairing drops August 6. We’re eight months out, and all I’ve got is this teaser: “Two exes accidentally book the same European food and wine tour and challenge each other to a hookup competition.” Is there more you can share?

Yes! Oh my god, I would love to tell you everything about it: [Theo and Kit were a couple in their early 20s.] Theo is a spirits person; they’re really into wine and cocktails. Kit is into baking. They had this dream of opening a restaurant together. As research, they booked a dream European food and wine tour. Then they got in a fight on the way to Europe, broke up in the airport, and went their separate ways.

That tour was nonrefundable. They both have a voucher that’s good for 48 months after the original date, and it’s about to expire. So they individually are like, well, let’s do this, without realizing the other guy has the same idea. They get on the same bus, and they are stuck together for three weeks to live this trip that they never got to do together.

The hookup competition is something that they kind of scrabble toward for anything else to direct their energy at, other than each other. Of course, competing with each other to hook up with other people, talking about having sex with other people, perhaps even witnessing each other having sex with other people or hooking up with other people, is going to reignite a lot of things for them and force them to confront a lot of unresolved stuff.

That is the love story, but it’s also very much about food, it’s about wine. It’s about Europe, history, art, architecture—all of this in a very horny way.

Your books have great taglines: “Sometimes love stops you in your tracks” (One Last Stop). “True love isn’t always diplomatic” (Red, White & Royal Blue). Are you able to share this one?

The tagline is, “Some things taste better together.”

Very nice!

Thank you! That one was me; I did come up with that.

The Pairing sounds like a ton of fun to read. How much fun was it to write?

I think this is the most I have enjoyed writing a book since before I was being paid to do it. The last time I had this much fun was writing Red, White & Royal Blue—before I ever had a book deal, when I was doing it as a hobby, just for fun, just to see if I could do it. [After Red, White & Royal Blue was published,] I feel like I had a couple years of loving what I was doing but also being anxious and worried whether I could meet the next expectation, if I could meet the next deadline, if I could write something that would sell enough copies to make everybody feel like their investment was worth it. I felt like that was complicating my creative process. This time around, I was like, Fuck it, I’m going to write like no one’s going to read this. I’m going to write what I want to write, and what I want to read, and have a lot of fun doing it. And that’s what I did. The result is the smuttiest book I’ve ever written, some of the most fun I’ve ever had writing, and something I’m really proud of. It’s my favorite book I’ve written.

Editor at large Megan Labrise hosts the Fully Booked podcast.