Summer Blog Blast Tour: Y. S. Lee
Y.S. Lee is the author of the Mary Quinn historical mystery series. The books skilfully blend historical detail, feminism, mystery, romance, and more. Needless to say, I’m quite the fan. So I was pleased to be able to interview Ying and ask some of my burning questions.
I know you have a PhD in Victorian Literature and Culture, but how did you become interested in the era in the first place? What is its primary appeal to you?
I am, first and foremost, a sucker for its fiction: Charles Dickens, George Eliot, the Brontës. But as a student, the more I learned about the period, the more I became entranced by its many contradictions. It’s an era we feel confident stereotyping (repressed, rigid, stuffy, blah blah blah), yet there are dozens of exceptions to each rule. And it’s a time of immense social and technological change, when people often felt that the world was really coming unmoored. You know how people now like to talk about our fast-paced society, how technology has never changed so rapidly, how our lives are moving at light speed? That’s exactly how the Victorians felt, too.
The Victorian era lasted for so long, why set The Agency books specifically in 1858-1860 (so far)?
It was really hard to narrow it down. But (you guessed it, in Q3!) when I read anecdotes about the Great Stink of 1858, I knew I had my setting. What’s not to love about a perfect storm of mega-pollution, heat wave, and the great public health panic of urban London?
If it has anything to do with the Great Stink, is this why you made James an engineer?
In part, yes; engineers are so useful. I also chose a professional background because I wanted James to be smart and quite well-educated, but simultaneously struggling to define himself and make his own way. He’s worlds away from Mary’s background, but not light years.
Anyway, the Victorian period seems to be *cough* fertile ground for mysteries. (I feel like I should be making some kind of night soil comment here…) Is there something about the period that makes it so conducive to mysteries? (Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle, Jack the Ripper, et al.? Scotland Yard? Something else?)
Well, there are all the social contradictions and complications I mentioned in the first answer, which are so useful when building labyrinthine plots. It’s also the period in which the modern mystery novel was born. You mentioned Wilkie Collins, in your question. He and his good friend Charles Dickens invented the genre, between them! Also, I love night soil jokes. You deserve a prize just for musing about one.
Ooh, a prize!
One of the things I like best about your books is how you balance feminist elements without making Mary seem too modern, as well as the historical detail that doesn’t overwhelm or slow down the story. How do you go about trying to achieve this balance?
Thank you so much! I hope this answer doesn’t make you roll your eyes, but I don’t consciously know how I do it. I work hard to make Mary’s thoughts and actions historically realistic, although her stance is far from mainstream. Even so, she’s definitely a part of her culture – just a politically radical part. As for the historical detail, it’s already there in my head. Imagine stepping into a room and noticing the furniture – that’s kind of what I do, when I’m noting period details.
How much planning/pre-plotting do you do, both in terms of individual books and the overall series? Did you already know the plot of book three before writing book one?
I do very little planning, apart from the historical research and setting. I wasn’t even sure who the villain would be when I started writing A Spy in the House! It’s certainly not the most efficient way to write (I’d love to be one of the super-organized, who know exactly how many scenes will be in each chapter before writing their first paragraph), but it hasn’t been too disastrous so far. The main advantage in writing this way is the frequent delight I feel when I work out a plot problem or stumble across something too good to leave out.
Yay, I’m so glad there will be a fourth book in the series! Can you give us any hints as to what it’s about?
I’m so excited about this! I’ve been dying to write about the British Museum, which finished a huge renovation in 1857. Since Rivals in the City is set in 1860, the Museum is still a new and shiny space for Mary and James – and, as you can imagine, it holds one or two things worth stealing. Mary and James will also meet some familiar faces, including an audacious criminal from one of the previous novels.
Warning! If you haven’t read A Spy in the House yet, you may want to skip this next question!
Because I’m dying to know: will Mary (and readers) ever find out contents of letter her father wrote?
Yes and no. She’ll learn more about her father (and her extended family) in Rivals in the City. But that cigar box of documents she found in the Lascar’s Refuge is gone, gone, gone.
Thanks again to Y.S. Lee for the interview. The other SBBT interviews today are with author/illustrator Timothy Dekker at Chasing Ray and blog friend/author Tanita Davis, whose Happy Families I really want to read, at The Happy Nappy Bookseller.