Zibby Owens: I'm really excited to be here today with Katharine McGee who’s the author of the New York Times best-selling series The Thousandth Floor and her latest book, American Royals. An English and French literature major at Princeton, Katie earned her MBA from Stanford. She currently lives with her husband in Houston, Texas. Welcome to Katie.
Katharine McGee: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here.
Zibby: It’s nice to be here in person together. Thanks for flying in. I know you have all these exciting book events in the city. I'm really excited that you made time.
Katie: This is so fun. I love doing this.
Zibby: American Royals, so good. I was saying to you earlier, I couldn't wait. I had to read every page voraciously. What was going to happen? It was really great. Tell listeners, please, what American Royals is about. What inspired you to write it?
Katie: American Royals is essentially Crazy Rich Asians meets The Crown. It is a what-if scenario. What if, instead of being our first president, George Washington had been our first king and present-day America is still a monarchy? It follows the love lives and relationships and adventures of the three children who are all the current generation of heirs to the throne. There's Princess Beatrice, who will be the very first Queen of America, and then her two younger siblings, Samantha and Jefferson.
Zibby: Are you a royal family addict type of person?
Katie: I am, but I'm more of a historical fiction addict. I read a ton, ton, ton of historical fiction, anything about Versailles, Charles the II, Queen Victoria, the Tudors, I'm here for all of it. It’s been in more recent years that I've become reinvested in the modern British royal family. There was also a long time where they weren’t that fun, to be totally honest. William and Harry were teenagers. Charles is just Charles, sadly. I feel like they’ve had this whole rebranding in recent years because they’ve had two big weddings. Now they have a whole new generation. We have all these really fun photos. It’s been really exciting to dive back into them as the royal family is changing in so many positive ways.
Zibby: I remember waking up my twins who are now twelve. I think they were five. I can't remember when exactly the Princess Kate wedding was. I woke up my daughter. I was like, “Get up! We have to watch this. I have to watch the wedding.”
Katie: One of my favorite New York moments was watching that wedding. I have a friend who used to work, at the time, in television. I went to this very glamorous royal wedding breakfast tea party, actually here in Manhattan because I was living in New York at the time. It was the Kathie Lee and Hoda party.
Katie: I know. It was so cool. I have great pictures from it. My alarm went off at four AM. We met up. The preshow started at five AM Eastern Time. Curled my hair, had on this bright pink dress, this big hat. We’re all crowded into this restaurant. They were passing around mimosas, as you know. This is on a Friday. I went to work that day. I had gotten up, had mimosas and tea, little scones and things, and watched. They had the wedding, all the preshow, and then of course the live ceremony on these enormous screens. It was so fun to watch. The entire room broke out in cheers when they kissed. Then I remember going out onto the street. People on the street were excited. It felt like all of New York was celebrating this moment that didn't even have anything to do with us and is just about royals who belong to another country. It will always remain one of my -- it’s like being in New York for New Year’s or something. It’s one of those New York/Manhattan memories that I really treasure.
Zibby: Then of course, you've effectively tapped into this whole royalty passion with your book, which is great. Tell me about how your thesis in college related to this final book.
Katie: My college thesis was so much fun. Although, the final product was a complete mess. I tried to write a historical fiction novel. I probably only got about sixty to eighty pages of the novel, which is really funny because now that doesn't sound so hard to me. I look back and I think, how did that take me a year to do? I can do that. At the time, of course I had never really written fiction before.
Zibby: You probably had a lot of other classes, right? I mean, come on.
Katie: I had other things going on too. Yeah, let’s cut me some slack.
Zibby: Cut you some slack here, for sure.
Katie: Someday, maybe I will revisit that novel. It was really fun. It was set in seventeenth century France. Also like American Royals, it was multi-POV. It followed young women in Molière’s theatre troupe and the young women at Versailles. It was Philippa Gregory-esque, but set in Versailles under the Sun King. It was really fun. Since it was a creative thesis, I couldn't just turn in a creative document. That does not fly at Princeton. I had to write a final piece that was several chapters of, for lack of a better term, almost history, which is not very typical in the English department. I wrote about the history of historical fiction in America and in particular, this very niche subgenre of what I called, not even royal historical fiction, but historical fiction telling women's stories of stories that traditionally were men’s stories.
We’re seeing a lot of that in recent years, if you think about Madeline Miller and Circe. There's so many stories where we are now taking a myth or a legend, whether it’s King Arthur, and taking the women's side and retelling it. I was investigating stories like Shakespeare’s wife and the subgenre of historical fiction that follows the women who were there for all these events that you think you've heard of. We’re hearing them from a different angle. I've read as much historical fiction as I can get my hands on. It was a really fun project to work on. That was when I did use this term castle envy. By that I meant this idea that Americans, since we don't have a royal family, we are endlessly fascinated by the idea of royalty.
Zibby: You always want what you can't have.
Katie: Exactly. The grass is always greener.
Zibby: I noticed in The Thousandth Floor series, which I haven't read but sounds amazing -- best-selling series, you have a gazillion fans and everything -- you wrote about a futuristic society in 2118 to start. Then in American Royals, you created this whole alternate universe with the US as a monarchy. I was wondering, is there anything about these alternate realities that you in particular find so interesting? Does reimaging do something for you personally emotionally? Is there something that makes you like to rewrite what life could be?
Katie: It’s a funny balance to strike. If you've read my books, you know that I'm a bit of an optimist. I don't like to write about dark dystopian worlds. I really do want to write about a world that hopefully is -- The Thousandth Floor series is slightly better than the world that we live in now. That said, people are flawed. Certainly, characters have to be flawed or you have no story to tell. A story about perfect people in a perfect world would be a very short story with no story turns and no drama. Storytelling moments come from people's mistakes and the way that they handle those mistakes and their desires. Often, they want things that are not good for them in what they're willing to do in order to get what they want.
As far as the what-if of it all goes, it’s been a really fun exercise to imagine the what-if of a world where we do have a monarchy in the present day. It has led to a lot of questions throughout the book, both big and small. Small moments such as, do we have a national anthem? Do we sing “God Save the King?” Is it something else that I've never heard? Should I make up an alternate version of the Pledge of Allegiance? Then of course much bigger questions like, what does the rest of the world look like? If you're taking as your thesis, even just using basic eighth-grade knowledge of history and not going deep, deep, deep because we could debate it forever -- thinking that the American Revolution inspired most of the later revolutions of world history from the French Revolution to the Haitian Revolution to the Russian Revolution, what does the world look like now if you take out this very first domino?
Where I've landed is a bit of an optimistic place, which is that the rest of the world does look quite a bit like modern England. We have kept the trappings of monarchy, but socially, the world has advanced. Obviously, there's no more serfdom in Russia or anything like that. If you do enjoy history and want to go deep in it -- hindsight’s 20/20, but one of the things that strikes me about all of these doomed monarchies is how many chances they had to fix things and how easily they could have ended up like England and kept their position but ceded away a lot of their power to some kind of representative government. I recently watched The Last Czars on Netflix. I don't know if you've watched it.
Zibby: I haven't seen it.
Katie: Oh, my gosh. It’s so good. I'm endless fascinated by the Romanoffs. It’s painful to watch because there are so many moments where you're seeing Nicholas make mistake after mistake. You're going, just talk to them. They’ve elected representatives. Please just go meet with them. Do something. Most people didn't want to kill that family. Most people didn't even understand this idea of having a whole new democracy. It was very revolutionary. Anyway, in American Royals people were not so dumb. They didn't make all [indiscernible] mistakes. They were able to save the position that they held. In the modern world, a little bit of the world has frozen in time in the eighteenth century. The Romanoffs are still around. In France, we’re on Louis the XXIV or something. There are these other monarchies. Of course, it’s the modern world. We've advanced socially. It’s a really fun what-if game to play. I'm lucky, my college roommate is getting a PhD in history. She's endlessly patient with me debating the nuances of my alternate world and all of its little corners of it.
Zibby: You could've taken this obvious passion and interest in this topic, or really a lot of topics related to this time in history, you could’ve done anything with that. You've chosen to write this type of a book for this audience. Who is your target audience? How old?
Katie: Everyone. [laughs] I definitely think this book, hopefully, should appeal to men and women. It’s narrated by four young women. I like to think of this as falling in a women's fiction category, at least a crossover category. Fans of Crazy Rich Asians, of Jasmine Guillory, of Emily Giffin, will hopefully love the book. It’s got a lot of romance, unquestionably. If you don't like romance, I would steer clear. There's a lot more in there aside from the love stories.
Zibby: I feel like it appeals to teenagers too. There's a lot of drama related to -- some of them have just gone to college. There's something very coming of age about as well, which I feel like can appeal to even a slightly younger audience.
Katie: Coming of age stories are totally timeless. It’s so fun.
Zibby: That's true. I'm not trying to say this is for this type of person.
Katie: No, I agree. That's the really fun thing about getting to tell this type of story. It’s a privilege to get to tell the story of how people are coming into who they are as adults. People do often ask me this, and my answer is often that I'm still coming of age.
Zibby: Me too.
Katie: I'm still figuring out what does the world expect of me? How does that come into conflict with who I want to be and what I want from the world?
Zibby: To talk about a few things in the book, Nina is one of the main characters who becomes close friends with all of the royal family. Nina struggles with Daphne who is this backstabbing, social climbing, “I want to marry the prince come hell or high water,” type of character. Nina is now struggling with Daphne and her backstabbing ways. Her mother gives her some advice. She says, “Oh, Nina. I've gone up against the Daphne Deightons of the world a thousand times over.” The mom is a lesbian, so she says, “You think your mom and I don't know what it’s like being told that we aren't good enough, that we don't belong? I'm a gay Hispanic woman in a position of enormous power in the king’s administration. That has won me far more enemies than it has friends. Every day I face people like Daphne, people who fight dirty, who think that they're entitled to anything in the world that they want simply because they can reach their greedy hands out and take it.” Her mom’s solution to this, she says, is to look to her wife to stay grounded. She says, “All you can be is yourself, wholly and unapologetically, about this.” I wanted you to tell me a little more about this and wondered if you have come up against Daphnes of the world in your own life.
Katie: This is one of those instances where authors, I feel like they always say write what you know. Whatever you're trying to write, whether it’s a sad scene or a happy scene, you have to draw on your own experiences to write that. This really did come from -- this is an adapted speech from my own mom, for sure.
Katie: It is. This job is so much fun. I feel very lucky that I get to do it. Most of the time, it’s wonderful. Unfortunately, I'm only human. Sometimes I can let the criticism get me down. There obviously are critics. You're not going to please everyone. Unlike most jobs, whether you're a doctor or a lawyer or something where your work doesn't feel quite so tied into your own personality and who you are, getting criticism, it’s not a big deal. When people say ugly things about the books, it can feel like an attack. The online book community is so wonderful and so strong and for the most part is so supportive. The internet has so many positive uses. It has brought people together in a way that is overwhelmingly positive.
Of course, it also gives people license to say things that they would never say to your face. I've gotten a lot better at it. This is now my fourth book. I don't look at reviews unless they come from trade publications. I really try to stay away from Goodreads and Amazon and anywhere else. Occasionally, there are still people who troll you and go on your social media and write ugly things. Sometimes it’s hard to bear. My mom, she really did give me this speech. “Who cares what anonymous people are saying about you? You know who you are. We, your family, know who you are. Use that as your anchor. Stay grounded in that. The rest is all just noise. It’s keeping you from doing the job that you love, which is telling stories that matter to you and that you think that the world should hear.”
Zibby: That's awesome. I love your mom now. Daphne tells Ethan, who is another character in the book, early on -- he is not in the royal family either. They have this interesting relationship all of their own. He's commenting on her would-be relationship with the prince. “I wouldn't expect you to understand. Relationships never make sense from the outside. The only people qualified to weigh in on them are the people in them.” You dig deep into a variety of kinds of relationships from true love, to social climbing, to relationships out of duty and a sense of responsibility. Does your own interest in understanding those intricacies of relationships color all your writing?
Katie: Absolutely. That's why I love telling a multi-POV story. The really fun thing about this book, it is narrated by four young women in alternating chapters. As the reader, probably at the beginning you feel a little bit bewildered. You're thinking, why am I continuing to meet new people? When am I going to get back to the first person I met? That doesn't happen until chapter five.
Zibby: I didn't feel like that. No, I didn't feel that way.
Katie: I'm glad you didn't feel like that. I love stories like this. As I reader, I gravitate towards big, fat books. I do read, like I said, a lot of historical fiction, but some fantasy. I always love books that have a lot of front matter. By that I mean they’ve got maps or they’ve got family trees. It’s sort of a promise to me that the world might be really big but as the reader, if you stick with me and invest a little bit of time, it’s going to pay off a thousand-fold. That is what comes from having a multi-POV story. The story turns and the drama and the excitement all come from the fact that you're jumping from one character to another. You're seeing a moment or a conversation from one character’s point of view. Then you get into another character’s head. You realize that the second character interpreted it completely different. One of my favorite examples of this -- I don't know if you've read or watched Game of Thrones.
Zibby: My kids have, unfortunately, with their dad. I have not.
Katie: This is my Game of Thrones example. There's a character named Jamie Lannister. In the first two or three books and the beginning of the TV show, as the reader or viewer, you just hate him. The only people who are narrating are people who despise him for various reasons. Then he finally starts narrating in, I think it’s book four. Everything changes because you hear his side of it. You understand completely differently. That's what storytelling is for at its core. The whole reason that people invented language was to share experiences. As a reader, the reason you go to a book is to put yourself in the position of someone whose life you haven't lived and could never live. The real fun of this book is that there are so many relationships. You've got four main characters and then a lot of secondary characters. The knot can become really tangled. One of my favorite things is always to ask people, who was your favorite character? Who are you [indiscernible]? Which relationship are you rooting for? It’s always different. Sometimes people name relationship pairings that I haven’t even introduced yet or thought of. Sometimes, I have thought of them and they're coming in book two and I haven't told people.
Zibby: Are you in the process?
Katie: I'm in the process of writing the second book.
Zibby: Excellent. What's it called? Do you have a title?
Katie: I do have a title, but we haven't publicly shared it yet. I can't announce it.
Zibby: I will keep watching your Instagram feed for an update.
Katie: Yes. It'll be on Instagram.
Zibby: It’s the same characters?
Katie: It’s the same characters.
Zibby: I love that.
Katie: It picks up about six weeks about book one ends. Things are moving.
Zibby: Oh, good. I'm really excited. I felt sad to say goodbye to these characters.
Katie: I would never end on that kind of cliffhanger. Don't worry.
Zibby: Interesting. I thought that was one and done. I didn't know. Perfect.
Katie: That would be very cruel of me to end like that.
Zibby: I didn't think it was cruel.
Katie: You didn't think it was cruel?
Zibby: I thought it was an interesting ending because you're left to wonder.
Katie: It’s not totally resolved.
Zibby: Interesting. That's so cool. How long does it take for you to write these books? Tell me a little more about your process.
Katie: It should take about a year, start to finish. I can get slow sometimes.
Zibby: I've read you have huge outlines and you're a big plotter.
Katie: I do. I'm a huge plotter. Again, because of the multi-POV, I don't think I could write this kind of book just with a blank page. I know others like that. I was just with one last week. It goes to show that everyone needs to find their own writing process. This is Kendare Blake who writes the Three Dark Crowns series. When she's describing her process, she goes, “I just sit at my computer. I wait for inspiration to strike.” If I was waiting, I would be waiting all day like a little surfer out never catching a wave. I'm more hacking my way through a forest with a hatchet. The story is here. I just have to find it.
I go down some wrong paths before I find the one that feels right. I definitely outline first because I need a road map. Then I change a lot through the process. Sometimes I take away a whole character’s story and rebuild it from scratch. At least I have something that I'm rebuilding. That blank-page syndrome is a real thing for me. That is a scary prospect, to look at a computer and not know what you're writing. At least this way I say, this is the scene that I'm writing today. I'm writing these two characters in this place. This is what they're talking about. Then maybe I’ll change the whole thing halfway through, but I've got a starting place.
Zibby: Where do you like to write?
Katie: I work from home. I have a home office. I live in my hometown of Houston, Texas. My office is on the first floor. It’s got a lot of natural light. I love silence. I was a library worker in college.
Zibby: Like Nina.
Katie: Just like Nina. I don't do well in really crowded or loud places. Although, it’s really funny, when I visited the friend I was telling you about with the history degree, she is studying at the University of Berlin. I visited her last year in Germany. I ended up working a few days in cafes in Germany. It totally worked for me. I think it’s because I don't understand or speak German. It all melted away into background noise. When I'm anywhere crowded and people are speaking English, the words attack my brain. It’s really hard for me to create my own words because I'm hearing too many other ones. I don't listen to music either. I'm pretty weird like that. I feel like a lot of authors have soundtracks. I just listen to music as a break to clear my head, but otherwise, silence. I love working from home for that reason.
Zibby: You have some fuzzy slippers you're obsessed with?
Katie: I have fuzzy slippers. I really do wear them every day, actually. They live under my desk. I put them on every day.
Zibby: It’s nice to have a routine like that. It’s like your work hat, your work shoes. [laughs]
Katie: I know. I used to get dressed up. Obviously back when I had an office job, I always wore dresses and heels and tried to look nice. Now I wear jeans and T-shirts. It’s very comfy.
Zibby: You look beautiful today. Katie’s wearing this gorgeous red dress and looks amazing.
Katie: Today’s a special day. Today I'm not wearing fuzzy slippers.
Zibby: No slippers today. Wait, let me ask you one other thing. You went to business school.
Katie: I did. I saw that you asked about that. Yes.
Zibby: I also went to business school as a nontraditional business type person. I love to write. I would write for the paper. I felt a little bit always like an oddball among some of the more analytical-only type people. Why did you end up at business school? How do you think it’s helped your writing, if at all?
Katie: I do think it’s helped. I was a lost soul, as many people who go to business school are. I worked as a book editor in New York for four years straight out of college. I worked, actually, at Warner Bros and got to edit some amazing books like the Pretty Little Liars series and the last four Vampire Diaries. I was working in the teen franchise space. I was having a lot of fun at my job. Ultimately I felt like, a few years in, I really had learned everything. I was just executing, which is always a sign that you should pause and reexamine what you're doing. Certainly as a writer, I'm still learning. I probably will never stop learning, not just learning the history facts but learning how I do my own job. It’s always changing.
I did feel like I was hitting a wall. I didn't really want to stay in book editing forever. I didn't know where I wanted to go. Like many confused people, I took the GMAT and ended up getting into business school, and so I went. At the time I thought that I would stay in entertainment and work somewhere on the business side, anywhere from being -- I don't even know -- at a movie studio, or at Netflix, or somewhere, or some other form of entertainment. I actually interned, in between my first and second summers, at a mobile gaming company which was really fun and very refreshing. I learned a lot about teenagers and what they're doing on their phones all the time.
Zibby: I don't want to know.
Katie: I still don't understand. Ultimately, it wasn't my passion. I had always wanted to write. I feel like I am a very unusual person because most people go to business school and try to relax for two years and learn a lot about business, but they're not trying to do things on the side. Whereas, I started writing The Thousandth Floor books on the side. Wrote the first book in between the first and second year in that summer. Then I sold it. Then I had this decision to make. Am I writing full time, or am I letting the writing go? I did get a full-time job offer from the mobile gaming company. Then also, I was interviewing with Apple. None of it really felt like what I wanted to be doing. Here I am writing full time.
Zibby: Good for you.
Katie: Definitely, most people at business school are not going into a creative field. I do think that has helped. I feel very equipped to handle the business side of my own writing. That's something that I think a lot of young writers struggle with or don't know enough about. I wish there were more resources. It’s nice to be able to read a contract and know exactly what I'm getting into, to have taken a few marketing classes to feel like I can -- even though the books are a creative business, they're still a business. It’s nice that I can do some of that on my own. I don't know if I would love it if I had to really rely on outside people to help me with all the moving pieces of the business.
Zibby: When I was in business school, one class that I was in, they said for a writer, you're still manufacturing a product. Your product is words. They probably said that to you. It’s the same thing. You're making something.
Katie: It is. I think about that. Especially with this book, my marketing team at Random House has been absolutely amazing. They're so fun to talk to. I try to lead them down that path because it’s so easy to do the same thing over and over. I keep telling them, pretend this isn't a book at all. Pretend it’s a lip gloss. What would we be doing? How would we market it? It’s a good mental exercise because it helps you think outside the box. What could we do aside from bookstore events? What we can do aside from buying Facebook ads? Let's try to think of new and creative and fun things. That's led to some really cool events. I don't know if that has helped people find the book. I'm always looking to help new people find stories that they love. The readers who are coming to bookstores every week, they don't need my help. They're going to find what they want to find, whether it’s my book or someone else's. There are plenty of people who might be more of TV watchers. They might consume their entertainment in a different form. They might not know what book to be looking for.
Zibby: I was driving up Madison Avenue yesterday. In one of these abandoned storefronts, there was a huge poster covering all the windows of The Floating Feldmans by Elyssa Friedland who’s been on my show. That's so genius. Why not ask to put, basically, a poster? I thought that was cool. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?
Katie: I always tell people read as much as you can. Read everything you can get your hands on. The more you read, the more it helps you hone your own specific voice. Especially, read widely. For instance, I try to not read, even though it’s very tempting, to not just read fiction, and particularly not just read women's fiction or contemporary fiction. The more variety of content that you're consuming keeps the creative well full. They sound really obvious, but they're actually hard to put practice. Keep writing. Write often. I find that the longer I go without writing, the harder it is to start back up.
Zibby: It’s like the gym. [laughs]
Katie: Yes. It’s just like the gym. To put this into business school terms, I took operations first year. In operations, one of the few things I took away from that class was startup cost. That's a factory term. If you're a factory making blue stationary and then you need to switch to making yellow stationary, there's a cost for shutting down the machine, changing out the inks, whatever it is. That's the changeover cost from one thing to another. Then to start it all back up is really high, depending on what you're making. For me in particular making words, it is really high. It’s hard. I find that even if I go and I write something I'm not going to use at all and it’s just 250 words, it’s so much more worth it for me. No matter how busy my day is, if I can, to try to take an hour or something just to be in the document, to stay in the world because I don't want to have to face that really hard startup cost. I'm going to have to face it next week because I haven't touched the book in about a week and a half. It’s going to take me, for real, about a day just to get back into it. I'm going to probably have a day of useless work. Then eventually, my machines will be up and running. Then I’ll be back in. I do think that writing is like anything. If you do it with discipline, it will pay off.
Zibby: Who would you appoint Queen of America right now if there was actually a monarchy?
Katie: The cheesy answer would of course be, we should all be the Queen of America because we don't actually need monarchy, clearly. Beyoncé would be great. [laughter] The thing about having a queen, the way that would be a different structure than what we have is of course that we currently combine our head of the executive branch and our head of state into the same person. If we did have a Queen, I feel like their role is just to be head of state. It’s just all of the symbolic stuff. We need someone who everyone can get behind. Who doesn't like Beyoncé?
Zibby: There you go. Who doesn't like Beyoncé?
Katie: I would totally let her represent us on the world’s stage.
Zibby: That's awesome. Thanks so much for coming in. I loved your book. It was amazing talking to you.
Katie: Thank you for having me. It was so fun.
Zibby: Best of luck with everything.
Katie: Thank you.