... Ying S. Lee on her book "The Agency", the Victorian age and Womens' Rights ...
The Agency trilogy is set in Victorian London. Its heroine is Mary Quinn, a smart, feisty 17-year-old with a criminal past and an uncertain future. The first novel in the series, A Spy in the House, follows Mary as she's rescued from the gallows, trained as an undercover agent, and sent on her first assignment, into the house of a rich merchant suspected of smuggling. The world of The Agency, a secret all-female intelligence force, is dark and dangerous - far from the "tea and scones" stereotype of historical fiction.
Im not sure why others like the Victorian period, but I love it because its such an exciting time: technology is evolving, world maps are being redrawn, social values are being revolutionized. Its true that the British Empire was well established, but it was also being challenged and transformed. And while there were clear social hierarchies, women and men constantly rebelled against these. Right now, we think we live in a fast-paced, exciting, potentially confusing era full of change, but the nineteenth century wasnt that different. Its simultaneously very like and unlike our own time a sort of fantasy universe, except that it really did exist.
Sales so far have been very good and Ive had terrific responses from readers which is a huge relief, as well as an honour. A Spy in the House, the first novel in the trilogy, will be published in the USA in spring 2010, and Im so excited to report that DTV has bought German-language rights for the whole trilogy! Theyre scheduled to publish the first novel in October 2010. Weve also sold rights in Spain, Italy and Japan.
I was drawn into the period by its literature. I love the work of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, the Brontës, Elizabeth Gaskell, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Tennyson. These writers shaped the way I thought about the era, and made me love the cultural context in which they created their art.
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 havent 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 this is where Ive gone my own way and written a novel that is, in some ways, totally unhistorical. Its a book about trying to be independent at a time when that was especially challenging.I began by wanting to write about the nineteenth century, and for me it was a question of finding a story that fit the period. Its interesting that you mention the struggle for womens rights. Womens choices were grim, even for the clever. You could be a governess (underpaid, powerless look at Jane Eyre, and remember thats a happily-ever-after story!).
I think comparisons are inevitable because theyre an easy way of describing a book quickly. People do mention both Charlies Angels and Sally Lockhart, and I generally find it flattering. I watched Charlies Angels as a kid, and wanted to be one of them (the dark-haired one).
And I first heard of the Sally Lockhart trilogy after Id written the first draft of the novel that became A Spy in the House. I panicked and immediately read The Ruby in the Smoke. After reading it, I relaxed the two books arent that close and felt good about carrying on with my novel. (I changed the heroines surname, though: she was originally called Mary Lockett, and that was just too weirdly close.) While I hope The Agency novels have their own merits, Im always pleased to be mentioned in the same breath as Philip Pullman!