Six Questions for Y.S. Lee

Y.S. Lee, Kingston, OntarioKingston author Y.S. Lee writes the impeccably researched, incredibly engaging Agency series, teen novels about a top-secret Victorian boarding school where young girls are trained to be the next generation of female investigators and spies.  It’s a fantastic premise, like Harriet the Spy meeting Sherlock Holmes in a dark alley. Lee’s understanding of her young characters’ psyches and her extensive knowledge of the nineteenth century setting make for compulsive page turning. We caught up with Lee to find out more about what it’s like to write in Kingston.

1. Teen literature has really taken off in the last ten years. What is your favourite thing about writing for younger readers?

Younger readers seem to feel a very direct connection with authors. They write to you, tell you what they liked (and didn’t!), and experience the stories in a very intense way. They’re  wonderfully enthusiastic and curious, and I love the conversations I have with this new generation of readers.

2. You have a PhD in Victorian literature, and in addition to publishing books for young adults, you’ve also published more academic titles. Do you find that your research for your academic pursuits helps you in the fiction you write? Do you research your fictional work differently than you’d approach something more academic?

Because I was already immersed in Victorian culture and history before starting to write fiction, I find it hard to draw a line between different kinds of research. But the idea for Mary Quinn (my heroine) grew from one scholarly article – so yes, academic research definitely helps with the novels!

Researching fiction is pure pleasure: I start with an idea, follow only the leads that most appeal, and don’t worry too much about theoretical frameworks and bibliographies. It’s quite self-indulgent.

3. The heroine in your Agency series, Mary Quinn, is a fantastic, feisty heroine, who lives in a secret training school for female investigators. The awesome premise and the rich Victorian setting is just begging to be adapted for the screen. Who would you choose to play Mary in the inevitable film adaptation?

Thank you! I’m afraid I can’t think of anyone specific, but I’d like the actress who plays Mary to be clearly intelligent and active – the reverse of the sleepy, languid type.

4. You’ve written on your blog about the issue of e-publishing piracy. How do you feel about the eBook trend in general?

eReaders feel formal and businesslike, to me. If they ever become truly environmentally sustainable I might buy one for research and travel, but most of my personal reading would still be on paper. For example, I love browsing friends’ bookshelves, or picking up a book they’ve left open and sampling what they’ve chosen. That could never happen in a thoroughly eBook world and I’d miss it.

5. Kingston’s a town teeming with artists of all kinds. What’s it like being a writer in Kingston? Do you enjoy being a part of the community here, and do you feel like this town influences your work at all?

I’m just starting to find my own writerly community, mostly because when I first started writing I was too shy to seek out other writers. I thought it was presumptuous, or something. But I experience Kingston as a set of communities – circles of friends and associates that overlap and connect in the most unexpected ways. It’s one of the things that most surprised me about Kingston when I first came, and which I love. Kingston is important to my work because it’s a beautiful, relaxed, comfortable place to live. It frees me to travel in my imagination, with the security that I’m coming back to a good place.

6.  I know you’re a lover of libraries, and you’ve even admitted to doing some of your writing there. I’d be a horrible librarian if I didn’t ask you to reveal your favourite branch of the Kingston Frontenac Public Library.

I’m at the Central branch at least twice a week, either alone (writing in a quiet corner) or with my toddler (considerably less quiet)!

Find out more about Lee’s books and check out her blog at

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