Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Chatting with Y.S. Lee

Welcome Ying! She's the awesome author of Spy in the House, the first book in the Agency series! Thanks for chatting with us and let's get started


What made you choose to write and why YA?

Choosing to write: I always wanted to, but was too much of a coward to admit it for years. But as I was finishing my PhD and contemplating being an English professor, I suddenly thought, This is my last chance to try it. It felt crazy and weird and pointless, but it was only then that I wrote the novel that eventually become A Spy in the House.

Why YA? I originally wrote Spy as an adult historical mystery. When my agent read it, she pointed out that it was really a coming-of-age story and suggested that I revise it as a YA novel. I was floored – had never thought of it that way – but she was absolutely right. I cut 30,000 words and a subplot, but the substance of the original work is all there.

Where do you write best?

I try to write wherever and whenever I can get an uninterrupted block of time. It’s usually at my desk or my favorite cafĂ© (hey there, patient baristas of CoffeEco!), but I’m not picky: sometimes on road trips, I type in the passenger seat.

What was the last book you’ve read that you’ve been recommending to everyone?

Just one?! Argh. For adult literary fiction, I’m pretty evangelical about Jane Gardam’s Old Filth. For YA, I think everyone should read Meg Rosoff’s The Bride’s Farewell.

How do you get your ideas? Do you use real events in your novels and if so, can you describe one?

I love Frances Trollope’s answer: “Of course I draw from life, but I always pulp my acquaintance before serving them up. You would never recognize a pig in a sausage.” It’s a brilliant description of what goes on in a writer’s brain.

Because the Agency novels are set in Victorian London, I include real events. The Great Stink of 1858 (which forms the backdrop of Spy) really happened! It was a particularly warm year and the smell from the grossly polluted Thames became, quite suddenly, unbearable. People panicked. Those who could fled London for the country. And the Great Stink finally pushed the government into cleaning up the Thames and modernizing London’s sewer system.

How do you come up with your titles?

Painfully, clumsily. I brainstorm a longlist, run it by friends, then submit a shortlist to my agent & editor. Eventually, something emerges but it’s definitely not my strength. I really envy those whose brilliant titles just come to them out of the blue.

Can you tell us a little bit about Spy in the House?

A Spy in the House is the first of the Agency novels. Its heroine is Mary Quinn, a smart, feisty 17-year-old with a criminal past and an uncertain future. Mary is rescued from the gallows, trained as an undercover agent, and sent on her first assignment, into the house of a rich merchant suspected of smuggling. The world of the Agency, a secret all-female intelligence force, is dark and dangerous - far from the "tea and scones" stereotype of historical fiction.

I adored this book, you can read my review here.

What’s up next?

The second MQ novel, The Body at the Tower, comes out in August. Here’s a description: In July 1859, a bricklayer falls to his death from the Clock Tower of the Houses of Parliament – the most recent horror in a string of scandals that plagues the building site. With the British people eagerly watching the installation of Big Ben, Mary Quinn disguises herself as a 12-year-old boy laborer to uncover the grim truth. Her fellow workers are suspicious. Mary’s secret past distracts her. And then James Easton returns…

Sounds awesome!

If you like the cover for Body at the tower, there's some behind the scenes photos here

How many books will there be in the series?

There were supposed to be three, but I’ve just finished writing the third (The Traitor and the Tunnel) and am finding that I’m not quite done with Mary Quinn: there was just too much to pack into one book. After that, I’m not sure. I may go on to write about other members of the Agency, but it depends in part on what my agent and publisher think of that idea.

Oh, I hope we see MUCH more of Mary Quinn. I ADORE her! I'd love to read about other members of the Agency too.

I read that your PhD in Victorian literature led you to write this series. Do you have a favorite Victorian novel?

Yes! Middlemarch, by George Eliot. Please read it. You won’t regret it.

I read that in college, loved it too!

What person from the Victorian era would you most like to share a cup of tea?

Cultural and art critic John Ruskin. I’d congratulate him on the things he got right (lots of them!) and try to re-program him on the subject of women.

Are there any authors you’d love to meet?

Yes and no. I’m terrified of my favorite authors – they sound so fierce and eloquent and intelligent that the idea of making conversation with them is utterly intimidating. I’d probably fret for ages, mumble something incoherent, then flee the room.

Ha! That's what happens to me too. I become so fan girly, that it's embarrassing, but it's amazing at the same time.

Do you have a book crush?

Of course! As a kid, I was madly in love with Teddy Kent from L.M. Montgomery’s Emily Starr trilogy. (Looking back, I wonder why – he’s not that special, and even a bit weak.) Now, I prefer Captain Wentworth from Jane Austen’s Persuasion or Will Ladislaw from Middlemarch.

Oh, I liked Teddy too. Gilbert was a favorite of mine. And Mr. Darcy. To be honest, I could play this game all day....

Do you have a favorite quote?

No. Is that weird?

Listing if your favorites:

Candy: bittersweet chocolate

Pizza topping: green olives

Genre of books: literary fiction

Singer and/or Song: Rufus Wainwright

Restaurant: any open-air kitchen in Malaysia

TV show /Movie: action flicks – the sillier, the better

Color: red

Shoe: shiny red patent

Video Game: does Tetris count?

Ice cream: Ginger

Time of day: that little window when you’re surfacing from sleep but still not quite awake

Awesome, thanks for chatting with us! Be sure to pick up a copy of this awesome book Spy in the House, you won't regret it!

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