Regular Nineteenteen readers will no doubt be pleased to see that this week we're happily welcoming Y.S. Lee, author of Young Bluestockings Book Club selection The Agency: A Spy in the House, to blog with us. Today we have an interview... enjoy!!
Nineteenteen: Why this series? What was the moment when you knew you had to write about Mary Quinn and The Agency?
Y.S. Lee: The character of Mary Quinn came first. I wanted to write about a Victorian girl from a marginal background, but the ordinary trajectory of such a life would be short and dreary: hunger, drudgery, probably an early death. Creating the Agency, a top-secret women’s detective bureau, made it possible to write about Mary’s life in a hopeful way that played with historical realism, while also respecting it.
Nineteenteen: Your background is a scholarly one...what made you decide to write YA books?
Y.S. Lee: I turned to fiction because I wanted a chance to write about things I couldn’t, as a literary critic. I was curious about real life: what people ate, how they bathed, how they travelled about. Writing novels was a delicious way to incorporate all my frivolous research. And the YA part is entirely my agent, Rowan Lawton’s, inspiration: the first version of A Spy in the House was for adults, but Rowan pointed out to me that it was really a coming-of-age story and suggested that I rewrite it for young adults.
Nineteenteen: Being that we're history geeks here at Nineteenteen, we have to talk about research. What was your best research moment--the one that made you smile and rub your hands together (metaphorically, of course), or the one that sent shivers up your spine? What is the most interesting thing you learned as you wrote The Agency books?
Y.S. Lee: Oh, no - I have to pick just one? Really, the thing I adore about writing historical fiction is that I’m learning all the time. I research as I go, and new discoveries often send me back to re-work the manuscript. One of the most fascinating things I learned about, which became a strong element in the series, was the presence of Asian sailors (called Lascars) in port cities in England – Liverpool, Bristol, and London. People often think of historical England as lily-white, but this was absolutely not the case.
Nineteenteen: In addition to being YA historical fiction, the Agency stories are also mysteries. Are you a mystery reader? Which did you enjoy more, the mystery crafting or the historical aspects when writing these books?
Y.S. Lee: I love old-school mysteries: Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh. Having said that, while mystery is fun, a great way of shaping an adventure, and extremely satisfying to work out, my heart is with the historical details. I will sometimes write an entire scene around a particular historical tidbit, just so I get to include it.
Nineteenteen: Mary Quinn is one intrepid young woman...do you think you could embark on a career as a spy, as she does?
Y.S. Lee: Absolutely not! I’ve never been in a fistfight in my life, and I’m strictly an armchair spy. It’s a joy to write a character who’s so very unlike me, though.
Nineteenteen: Racism is an important theme in Mary Quinn's story. How did you approach writing about it from a nineteenth century perspective while making it accessible to today's readers?
Y.S. Lee: You know, I didn’t set out to write about racism as a theme. It grew, organically and logically, from what I knew about the lives of people of colour in Victorian England. If you read Victorian literature and documents carefully, there’s lots of evidence of the challenges they faced, the way they were treated, the assumptions made about them. I found one missionary society’s report about mixed-race families in Liverpool, in which the missionaries were surprised to find that black and Asian men often made good and affectionate fathers! Imagine!
Nineteenteen: What were your favorite books as a teen reader? Are there any more recent YA books that you wish you could have read then?
Y.S. Lee: Oh dear – I read so much dreck in my early years. I wish, most of all, that I could have a do-over for my childhood and teenaged reading, and it would definitely include more recent YA titles. I’m a huge fan of Kelley Armstrong, Erin Bow, Stephanie Burgis, and Zoë Marriott, among others.
Nineteenteen: What's next for you? Are there more Mary Quinn books in your (and our) future, or are you moving on to other writing pastures?
Y.S. Lee: I’m writing the 4th and last Mary Quinn novel right now. My next project will be completely different – it’s set in Southeast Asia during the Second World War – but I’m not ruling out more Agency novels with a different sleuth.
Nineteenteen: Where can our readers learn more about you and your books?
Y.S. Lee: I blog every Wednesday at http://www.yslee.com/, and you’ll find excerpts and extras from the three published Agency novels there, too. Please stop by and say hello!
Nineteenteen: We're sure readers will! Come back on Friday for the second part of our week with Y.S. Lee!