Friday, March 12, 2010


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, A Spy in the House, is her first novel.

As "Ying S. Lee", she is also the author of Masculinity and the English Working Class (Routledge). She now lives in Kingston, Ontario with her husband and young son.

How did you start out your writing career?

I was ridiculously lucky: Spy is my first novel, and my first focused shot at fiction. Having said that, I spent years studying literature (did a PhD in Victorian literature and culture) and teaching it, too. I consider those my apprenticeship years!

What was your most difficult scene to write?

For me, the difficult scenes are whichever ones occur 2/3 of the way through the first draft. By then, the thrill of the adventure has worn off, and I feel as though I’ll never finish. I become convinced that the whole thing is a stupid idea and that I should just scrap it and start something new. Sticking with it is the hardest part.

Have you had a "Wow" moment since you have been an author? What made it a "Wow" moment for you?

This is a cliché, but it’s hearing from readers that makes me think, “Wow!” Writing itself is such an uneven process – inspiration and elation followed by discipline and frustration. But reading letters from readers is unalloyed pleasure – perhaps because I’m such an avid reader, and know the deep impact that books have on me. It’s always a thrill to think that I’ve had the same effect, in a small way, on others.

What did you hope to accomplish with this book?

I began by wondering what happened to smart, unconventional women in the Victorian era. If you weren’t a good little girl, and you didn’t have a lot of money, what on earth happened to you? Women’s choices were grim, even for the clever. You could be a governess (underpaid, powerless – look at Jane Eyre, and remember that’s a happily-ever-after story!). You could live with your rich relatives as a semi-servant (Jane Austen has a lot to say about that). You could try for a job as a clerk (and earn half what the man next to you did, for doing the same work – some things haven’t changed that much). And to do any of these jobs, you had to be respectable, educated, and extremely long-suffering. Just thinking about it makes me want to scream. So while my historical research is, I hope, a careful and accurate reflection of the mid-nineteenth century, the Agency most definitely is not. It’s my version of an alternative history for girls like Mary Quinn.

What’s playing on your CD while you’re writing?

Nothing, I’m afraid – I’m too easily distracted by music. But when I’m done for the day, I crank up Florence and the Machine.

If you had the opportunity to talk with three writers, who would you choose and why?

George Eliot, one of the great English novelists; Madeleine L’Engle, my favourite YA author as a child; John Donne, Metaphysical poet and seventeenth-century sex bomb.

What movie had the greatest impact on you as a kid? Why?

Watership Down was my earliest lesson in catharsis. I barely remember the movie itself, but I cried myself to a pulp in the theatre. I can still feel how limp and ragged I was by the end – chest aching, eyes burning. It was great.

If you could be on a Reality TV show, which one would it be and why?

I’m the last person on earth who would volunteer to be on a reality tv show. Unless Jeopardy counts…

If you could visit any place in the world where would you travel to?

Right now, I’d go to India. I’d practice yoga in Mysore, eat coconut-flavored everything in Kerala, and visit a good friend in Delhi.

What one thing about writing do you wish other non-writers would understand?

That I can’t think while you’re talking to me? (hi, Mom – love you!).

What was the best advice you’d ever gotten about the publishing industry? The worst?

Best: Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing, or what’s hot. Just focus on your craft.

Worst: Any prescription or laundry list for writers that presumes one size fits all.

Can you give us one do and one don’t for those aspiring to be a writer?

Do: read widely and deeply. You have to be a reader before you can be a writer.

Don’t: take any one person’s advice too seriously (unless it’s your agent!).

What is something readers would be surprised you do?

Sometimes, I feed my cat by tossing pieces of kibble into the air which she then catches with her front paws. I guess that makes me a crazy cat-lady.

Our theme for this month is Resources On The Net. What are your favorite resources on the net.
For primary sources in historical research, I love Lee Jackson’s Dictionary of Victorian London ( and the Proceedings of the Old Bailey ( They’re terribly addictive: long after I’ve found what I first wanted, I keep flicking through more and more pages.

On publishing in general, you can’t go wrong with lit agent Kristin Nelson’s Pub Rants (, where she blogs about very useful, topical issues in publishing. I’ve also recently been reading The Intern (, who’s both whip-smart and very funny.

Can you give us a sneak peek of your next book?

I’d love to! The Body at the Tower is the second novel featuring my girl sleuth, Mary Quinn, and it opens nearly a year later. Disguised as a poor apprentice builder and a boy, Mary braves the grimy underbelly of Victorian London — as well as childhood memories of fear, hunger, and constant want — to unmask the identity of a murderer. Assigned to monitor a building site on the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament, she earns the confidence of the work crew, inching ever nearer her suspect. But if an irresistible desire to help the city’s needy doesn’t distract Mary and jeopardize her cover, unexpectedly meeting up with an old flame just might…

How can readers get in contact with you? (mail, email, website)

I love hearing from readers, who can find me via:

Email: ying [at]
Website & regularly updated blog:

The Agency

Rescued from the gallows in 1850s London, young orphan (and thief) Mary Quinn is surprised to be offered a singular education, instruction in fine manners — and an unusual vocation. Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls is a cover for an all-female investigative unit called The Agency, and at seventeen, Mary is about to put her training to the test. Assuming the guise of a lady’s companion, she must infiltrate a rich merchant’s home in hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. But the household is full of dangerous deceptions, and there is no one to trust — or is there? Packed with action and suspense, banter and romance, and evoking the gritty backstreets of Victorian London, this breezy mystery debuts a daring young detective who lives by her wits while uncovering secrets — including those of her own past.

Y. S. Lee is hosting a contest. Stop by her site to see if you can win.

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