Ying Lee is the author of The Agency trilogy, which includes A Spy in the House, and the upcoming books The Body at the Tower and The Traitor and the Tunnel.
What inspired you to become a writer?
It’s absolutely, definitively, unquestionably, the best job in the world. Having said that, I still find it strange to describe myself as a writer (or – yikes! – a novelist). The trick for me was admitting that I wanted to write, and then summoning the discipline to follow through and complete a full manuscript. It’s so easy to start projects, only to abandon them when they feel stale. I think it was only in finishing that first project (which eventually became The Agency: A Spy in the House) that I began to think like a writer.
How long did it take you to write A Spy in the House?
I wrote the first draft of the novel that became Spy in about ten months. It went through a lot of revisions, though, and if you include those I think the total is closer to about 16 months. Not all of it was full-time, of course – I had a day job – but I’m a slow writer. I really envy those who can crank out a full draft in 6 months!
Why did you choose to set The Agency series in Victorian England?
For me it was the reverse: I wanted to write about Victorian England and had to find a story that would fit the era. This is because my PhD research was in Victorian literature and culture and it’s an area I find absolutely compelling. I spent 6 months living in Bloomsbury while researching my dissertation, and that time made me want to write about London specifically. So I already had my setting when I started thinking about the novel.
Did you have to do much research, or did you use existing knowledge?
Researching a PhD leaves you with incredibly specific knowledge about a particular subject, but also with amazing blind spots, especially about the practical aspects of nineteenth century life. I started the novel with a strong general knowledge about the Victorian era – about women’s rights and their political limitations, for example. But I had to do quite a bit of research to fill in the gaps – for example, about marine insurance, the early days of engineering, and when specific bridges were built. This wasn’t a problem – I love research, and will seize any excuse to dive into a box of dusty papers!
Mary is a very strong female character who breaks gender stereotypes. Is she based on any living person, or is she entirely fictional?
Mary’s not closely based on a specific living person (though I would love to discover a real Victorian girl spy!), but history is full of smart rebels who challenged conventional ideas of what girls were allowed to do. Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, was a novelist, philosopher, and early feminist. Wollstonecraft dared to suggest that women were not inferior to men (they only seemed that way, because they weren’t equally educated) – and was widely denounced for it, most famously as “a hyena in petticoats”. I chose “Mary” as my heroine’s name partly because of Wollstonecraft, and partly because it’s such a common name in the period. I liked the idea that Mary Quinn could be both a highly unusual rebel and a very ordinary girl.
Can you tell us anything about the next two books in the series?
I’d love to. In The Body at the Tower (to be published in April 2010), Mary goes to work on a construction site to investigate a possible murder. She’s disguised as a 12-year-old boy – something she finds deeply uncomfortable, since as a homeless child she dressed as a boy to avoid rape. She’s not really ready to confront her past like this. And to make things worse, all the workers are suspicious of her. It’s hard for her to imagine how she’ll ever discover anything – especially with James Easton back from India and on the scene…
I’m writing the last book in the trilogy, The Traitor and the Tunnel, right now. In it, Mary is working undercover at Buckingham Palace when a huge scandal breaks: a close friend of the Royal Family is killed in very embarrassing circumstances, and it looks like the killer might be Mary’s father – the father she thought was dead. Mary needs desperately to find out the truth, but she has no idea how to manage it without revealing her most important family secrets.
What's your all-time favourite book?
George Eliot’s MIDDLEMARCH is a big doorstopper of a novel, and not particularly flashy (no spies, no love-struck vampires, no big mystery to unravel). Instead, it’s a sprawling survey of life in a small town in Victorian England, and I find it utterly compelling. Btw, George Eliot is another unconventional woman – born Mary Ann Evans, she left her home in rural Warwickshire and moved to London to become a journalist and novelist. Another brilliant and independent Mary!
Ying's site: Y S Lee.com
UK publisher's site: Walker Books
My review: A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee