Sunday, May 3, 2009

Interview with Y.S. Lee, author of A Spy in the House

I am very excited to feature my first ever interview! Y.S. Lee is the author of a very unique and exciting new young adult historical mystery, A Spy in the House, first in The Agency trilogy.

About The Agency: A Spy in the House:
At a young age, Mary is rescued from the gallows by a woman masquerading as a prison warden. She is taken to Miss Scrimshaw's Academy for Girls. The school, Mary learns, is a front for a private investigation agency and, at 17, she is taken on as an agent. In her new role she is catapulted into the family home of the Thorolds to investigate the shady business dealings of Mr Thorold.

The Agency: A Spy in the House is out now in a paperback edition from the UK, which can be purchased from or as well as from The Book Depository which has free worldwide shipping. The book will be published in hardcover in the US in the fall.

And now, on to the interview!

The Agency: A Spy in the House is your first novel. What was your journey to publication like?

I was ridiculously lucky. This is my first novel and it took me about 2 years to write (it went through a lot of revisions, and didn’t even start as a mystery). Once I had a polished manuscript, I found an agent within a couple of months. She suggested another major revision (more on that below), and after I finished that, she sold it within a month. Honestly, the contract negotiations were the longest part of the process. But I know how unusual my journey was.

What made you decide to write young adult historical fiction? Have you always had an interest in history?

I originally wrote A Spy in the House for adults; it was my agent who pointed out that in many ways, it was a coming-of-age story. She suggested revising it for YA readers, which wasn’t much of a leap at all. I made the main characters, Mary and James, a few years younger, and cut about 30,000 words. But the core of the story and the novel’s themes are totally intact. Writing historical fiction was always my first instinct. I studied history as an undergrad, and my graduate work was in Victorian lit. It might feel more natural for me to write about the nineteenth century than the present day!

What kind of research did you do for A Spy in the House and its sequels?

Much of the research happened well before I even thought of writing a novel. I spent years reading Victorian novels and researching nineteenth-century culture (my PhD subject), so when I decided to write fiction, I was already immersed in the period. But there was lots of concrete research to do. I read articles and books (academic, non-academic, contemporary, Victorian), went to museums and art galleries, studied maps, and walked obsessively around London. I love research, so all this was really fun.

The main character of A Spy in the House, Mary, has a rather unconventional life for a young Victorian woman - saved from the gallows and trained as a spy. Was her character inspired by any real women from Victorian times?

She was reverse-inspired! One theme that comes up again and again when you study the nineteenth century is how desperately limited women’s lives were. If you were rich, and headstrong, and unconventional, you could do as you pleased. But otherwise, your choices were grim. If you had some education, you could be a schoolteacher or a governess. Later in the century, you could be an office clerk (though male clerks angrily opposed this). And if you were poor, like Mary, your main choices were between gruelling labour, selling things (possibly your body), or petty crime. So the whole concept of the Agency – a secret, all-female intelligence force – is definitely a fiction.

What do you hope readers will learn from The Agency trilogy?

Well, I’m not a fan of books that shove lessons down readers’ throats. There’s certainly a feminist thread running through the books, but that’s me; I couldn’t write otherwise if I tried, and it’s not something I’m trying to “teach” readers. I just hope they’ll enjoy the adventure, the atmosphere of Victorian London, and the banter between Mary and James.

Can you tell us a bit about the next two books in the trilogy and when they will be published? Do you have any other current writing projects you would like to talk about?

The Agency 2: The Body at the Tower comes out in spring 2010. In it, Mary goes to work on a construction site to investigate a suspicious death. To do so, 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 sure she’s 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 on the scene…The Agency 3: The Traitor and the Tunnel, publishes in 2011. It’ll feature Mary working at Buckingham Palace, scandal in the royal family, a high-profile murder, and a family drama of Mary’s own. I’m just starting to write this now.

When you aren't writing, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I had a baby last year, so the idea of “spare time” is pretty theoretical right now! But I’m a compulsive reader, a lapsed yogi, a wobbly cyclist and an avid cook, when I get the chance.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Every writer I admire is/was fabulously well-read, so I try to emulate them. And if you can find a sugar daddy/mama to support your habit, so much the better.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

There’s a free excerpt from A Spy in the House at my website: And there’s a different “sneak preview” at my publisher’s site: I hope you enjoy them!


Amelia said...

Great interview! This book sounds really interesting. I'll have to go find myself a copy!

GreenBeanTeenQueen said...

This sound really interesting. Great interview too-I'll have to look this one up.

Y S Lee said...

It was fun to be interviewed. Thanks, Rebecca!

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