Y. S. Lee was born in Singapore and raised in Vancouver and Toronto. In 2004, she completed her PhD in Victorian literature and culture. This research, combined with her time living in London, triggered an idea for a story about a women’s detective agency. The result was the Agency novels, featuring the intrepid Mary Quinn. She lives in Ontario with her family. (Source) Find her at her website.
One of the most prominent themes in The Agency series is identity. Mary Quinn is, if I am not misremembering, half Chinese and as she lives in a time and society where discrimination between ethnicities is not just taken for granted but expected. At different times in the books, Mary has to deny and repress her Chinese ancestry in order to fit into the society she’s moving about in. Did you bring any of your experiences to build Mary’s character as she confronts her identity crisis?
I think all authors bring some elements of personal experience to each character they write. It could be as simple as giving a character a fear of heights and drawing on one’s own phobia to describe it. Having said that, I think race is a tricky one, especially across 150 years and a transatlantic divide. Mary’s experiences of racism are different from my own (not as different as they *should* be, but that’s a different interview), but they strike at the same visceral spot. It’s almost too easy to write about them with vivid anger. The challenge lies in making a distinction between Mary’s pragmatic denial of her ancestry (when will it close doors to her? When will it distract others from what’s truly important?) and her own sense of shame and inferiority as a consequence of her family history (racial mixture and cultural isolation complicated by poverty, and also by an Irish-born mother: the Irish were also widely seen as racially inferior in England). I think the part of Mary’s identity that comes most directly from my own experience is the messiness, the constant slippery renegotiation, that goes on when you’re dealing with race.
Continuing in the same vein, you moved from Singapore to Canada and have lived in London as well. Have the different places you have lived in affected your identity as an author and the way you approach storytelling?
Absolutely. Although I’ve lived in Canada for most of my life, my family moved around a lot. Whenever people ask where I’m from, I genuinely don’t know what to say. Being an outsider (racial, cultural, regional) is a huge gift as an observer. There’s a constant sense of discomfort that becomes an advantage when thinking critically about a place or a culture. I’m very unlike Mary, but her sense of always being on the margin, of never truly belonging, comes straight from my heart.
Would you say that there is a particular Canadian flavour to your writing? Do you think there is such a thing as a Canadian identity that can be felt while reading books written by Canadians?
I’m not sure about a Canadian flavour to my own writing! (What do you think, readers?) But if I were to nominate a particular identity or trait for books written by Canadians, I might choose a keen awareness that we are not the dominant culture. There is so often a strong sense of a larger world, of immense difference and diversity, just outside the frame.
Changing aspects of masculinity and expressions of the male gender do not get as much attention in YA novels as they should. Considering that you did your phD in Masculinity and the English Working Class and studied the constructions of masculinity in great detail, is there anything in particular you pay attention to when creating your own male characters?
I think the first and best legacy of masculinity studies is the awareness that masculinity is actually masculinities; that is, it’s not a strong, solid, coherent monolith. Masculine identity is widely fractured and frequently insecure. My male characters (the clever ones, anyway) are keenly aware that they are playing a role and making choices in the way they present themselves as men. James Easton, in particular, is quite knowing about this. I think it leaves him more intellectually open and freer to consider Mary Quinn’s perspective and to learn from her.
Could you tell us something about your writing process? Do you write an outline before you start? What kind of research do you do or have done for the Mary Quinn series? How have you grown as an author over the course of your writing career? Also, what comes easier to you, academic writing or creative writing?
I’ve tried outlining but it’s a complete waste of time for me, because I inevitably change my mind and take a different direction once I’m actually writing. Instead, I tend to start with a setting or a particular emotional pitch and work from there. Because of this, I research as I go and I never know quite where it will lead. On my website, I’ve posted a list of resources about the Victorian era for those who are interested (http://yslee.com/2010/10/researching-the-victorians/), most of which were immensely helpful to me as I began to research the Agency.
Have I grown as an author? Yes. I’m a stronger writer at the level of the sentence, and I think I’m getting better at seeing the overall structure of a plot. I’ve just finished major revisions to the fourth and last novel about Mary Quinn, Rivals in the City. (It’ll be published in the UK in June 2014, and hopefully soon after in Canada and the US.) I was amazed at how pleasant and straightforward those revisions were, and how all the issues I needed to address seemed to fall into place. Like everything else in the world (it seems), writing is fundamentally a matter of practice. I love both academic and literary research, but creative writing is what delights me. I would have been a competent academic (I hope!) but not a joyful one. As a novelist, I am continually amazed and grateful that I get to do what I do, for a job.
Finally, could you tell us about what project you’ll be working on once you conclude The Agency series? What would you like to write? Is there any particular genre you would love to explore? What is the best thing about writing for children and young adults?
With Rivals in the City off my desk (for the moment – final revisions and proofreading are still to come), I’m now starting work on something quite different: a novel set in Malaya (now called Malaysia) during the Second World War. I’m still playing with the narrative voices and trying to figure out if I can pull it off. I’m not even sure if it’ll be Young Adult, yet! But I do love writing for young adults and children. I really enjoy how lean and pared-down a young people’s story can be. And I love, love, love talking to young people about books. (Not just my books; any books.) I recently did some readings at the Calgary Public Library and met so many bright, curious, passionate readers who overflowed with smart, unself-conscious questions. It was a privilege that I don’t think authors of adult books get to enjoy.