Author Mackenzi Lee Talks Literature, Labels and Ladies of History

Mackenzi Lee.

Mackenzi Lee is a historical young adult fiction author. Her novel, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, depicts a young bisexual man, Monty, who falls for his best friend, Percy, while traveling together across 18th century Europe.

First, was there anything that led to you writing The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue? Anywhere you got your idea?

In college, I studied abroad so I got to travel through Europe. When I came back, my first job was assistant teaching a humanities course. The course structured around the idea of taking your grand tour in the 1700s and what would you have seen and where would you have gone and then a deep dive into the art and architecture.

I had never heard of the grand tour before! Having just come off my year and a half abroad, I related to it deeply and attached myself to it. It reinforced the idea that people don’t really change? History changes but people don’t. I held onto the grand tour idea for a long time, and as I worked in history, I became frustrated with the fact that most of the stories I heard were about straight white guys and that if you wanted to do any women’s history, queer history, or non-Western history, you had to take specialized niche courses that met in dark basement rooms with no windows.

So two things came together where I really loved and wanted to write an adventure novel, and it seemed like a grand tour was a great place to set one, but I also wanted to fight back against this idea that like, in order to be historically accurate, you have to only talk about straight white guys.

How did writing Gentleman’s Guide differ from writing your previous novel, This Monstrous Thing?

It was very different. Monstrous Thing I wrote before I had a book deal. I had an agent but I wasn’t in the publishing sphere, really? So, it was created from this place of tremendous freedom. I didn’t feel any pressures other than the ones I was putting on myself. I felt like “I can make this however I want to.”

Then, writing Gentleman’s Guide, I had an agent, an editor, a brand and a very very small fanbase. It seemed very… stifling at first? I actually wrote Gentleman’s Guide as an attempt to get out of that. It was like, “I’m just gonna write something fun for myself and it’s gonna be tropey and silly and adventurey.” Then it ended up being published.

But it’s different to write something once your first book is out there and people expect certain things from you. In grad school, right before I got my book deal, one of my mentors told me, “You need to enjoy this time before you’re published.” I remember thinking, “That’s insane, why would I enjoy that time? The end game is publishing. That’s the goal I’m working towards.” Now I super understand what she meant. Basically, it’s a gift to be able to create things that feel like they’re just for you. Then you throw them out there and see if they stick.

Since the book is a period piece, what did you have to research most extensively?

Oh gosh. Everything. [Laughter] Things that I researched a LOT were queer culture and traveling in the 1700s, so how you’d get from place to place and how long that would take. I researched a lot about epilepsy, how it was treated and stigmatized, both in the modern world and in the past. Those three things were probably the most researched.  And I learned that history was not kind to anyone with any kind of chronic illness or disability. And we still have a long way to go, but I’m glad that we’ve made some progress.  Actually history was very unkind to mostly everybody [laughter].

Do you have any favorite scenes in the book?

I really like the scene where Monty flirts with the bank teller. It was fun to write and also it was his first moment where he gets to be competent and helpful instead of… in everybody’s way. [Laughter] I just think it’s a fun scene. It’s one I read from a lot when I’m asked to read from the book.

Were there any scenes that you liked but ended up having to scrap?

A lot of stuff got cut from the book. In its earliest stage it was like, 130,000 words which is far too long and now it’s about 90,000. So, a lot of things got cut, but on one side of it, I was like, “I can’t cut anything! Everything is important, I wrote the book because it’s important and necessary!” Then you cut it and look back like, “Why did I ever think I needed that?” Everything that got cut was for a good reason. There’s always single lines I lament and think are funny that I couldn’t find a place for, so they live in a document on my computer, “Use this someday!”

Were any of the characters based on real people? Historical figures or people you know?

Felicity is definitely an amalgamation of many women in history. I run a side project called Bygone Badass Broads which is a Twitter series about vastly unknown women in history, who I think more people should know about. Felicity, especially in the next book, was influenced by these women who were crusaders and pioneers for equality in their fields. I get frustrated with the idea that if you have a strong, independent, free-thinking woman in historical fiction, she’s anachronistic because women weren’t like that. That’s us projecting onto the past when, really, we have so many examples of women who were like that. Women who recognized that the system was against them and fought that. So, Felicity was definitely influenced by a lot of the women I’ve been reading about for the [Twitter] series.

Percy’s story came a little bit from the real story of Dido Elizabeth Belle who was a mixed-race woman, raised among the English nobility in the 1700s. Percy’s upbringing is a nod to her because–I’m a very white person–and I assumed, until I heard her story, that everybody in the upper echelons of 1700s British society was white. So, that was an eye-opening piece of history for me. Percy’s story is a nod to Belle and the impact her story had on me.

And Monty and I are a lot alike! [Laughter] It’s not the most flattering thing to say about myself but I definitely channeled a lot of my voice, humor and flair for the dramatic while writing Monty. He also harkens back to my teenage experience and my realization that other people’s lives are as full and complicated as yours. That’s a lot of Monty’s process and his character arc in the book, him realizing that other people around him have their own lives, pain and issues, and it’s not all about him. That’s something I distinctly remember becoming aware of as a teenager and I definitely thought of my own teenage experience when writing about Monty.

How do you feel about the fanworks created for the book?

Oh my gosh, it’s the greatest thing in the whole world. I’ve become gluttonous, where I’ll get on Twitter and be like, “Why did nobody send me fanart today? This seems like a waste of a day.” No, but when I was a teenager, I was a really intense fanfiction writer and I distinctly remember how much I had to love the things I was writing about. I think about how much I love Star Wars and how much you have to love something to create something that interacts with it in your own way. The fact that people feel that strongly about this book is mind-blowing and overwhelming. It’s just the greatest thing ever. Warms my little heart.

[Laughter] I actually have fanart on the background of my phone right now and it’s so GOOD!  It’s beautiful and it’s so just, I can’t explain! It blows my mind I love it so much. It’s so cool to see people take the text and then do their own thing to it. It’s literally the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me.

If the main trio was in modern times, would they label themselves regarding sexuality or other identities?

I think so. I think they would all embrace the labels. I think Percy would be more reluctant–I’ve been pretty outspoken about the fact that I think Monty’s bisexual and I’m talking more in the second book about Felicity being on the aro/ace spectrum–but I think Percy would be inclined to just embrace the “queer” label, in general. So, I think they’d be into the labels.

But I say that as someone who isn’t crazy about labels. I want teenagers, and everyone, to know that labels aren’t really important and if you can’t find a label that you love, that’s okay. You can just be yourself if there’s not a word for it. What you are is still real and valid. But I know that some people find tremendous strength in finding a label, a word to describe themselves.

I’m ace, like Felicity, so having you announce, “Hey this awesome character is on this spectrum,” finding a label and finding others who share that label can be a really empowering thing.

Yeah, it can be really empowering. I think there’s a lot of people who are on the opposite end of that spectrum. When you can’t find a label that quite fits, you can feel like an outcast among your people, I guess? It’s complicated and it’s so individualized and so many of these conversations happen on the internet where you can’t really give things the nuance they need.

Are there any books or authors you find yourself going back to?

My favorite books are Frankenstein. From the first book I wrote, it’s obvious that I love Frankenstein. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein is one of my favorite books. It’s a great historical novel about female friendships relationships between young women and it’s one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever read. I love the book One Day by David Nicholls. It follows two characters for 20 years of their lives and checks in on them each year on the day they met. I love that book and I reread it almost every year because I feel like, as the characters grow up, I grow up with them, so every year when I read it, I find different things that I relate to. So, that’s my trifecta of favorite books: Frankenstein, Code Name Verity, and One Day.

Monty’s last name “Montague,” is that a reference to Romeo and Juliet with the idea of “forbidden love” since he’s bisexual?

[Laughter]  It’s not, actually!  His name actually came from two places. First he was sort of named after the card game, Three Card Monte. The other place his name came from, it’s the weirdest story ever. There’s a Broadway musical called A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which I share half a title with. I saw that show years ago, before this book was even a glimmer in my eye. I thought it was so funny and I really loved it, but the thing I took away most was I said, “I love the name Monty and I want to use that for a character someday. So, I named him Monty from A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.

The book didn’t have a title yet. I never thought I would end up sharing half a title with the musical. When it came time to title the book, I pulled “The Gentleman’s Guide” from a guidebook I’d read from the 1700s called A Gentleman’s Guide in his Tour Through Italy. My editor really liked it, then we came up with “Vice and Virtue” and I was like, “This is great, I love it!” Then I was like, “Oh no! Where have I heard this before?” [Laughter] It was so strange, I ended up sharing half a title with the play, the inspiration where the name Monty came from. I actually had some weird person on Twitter– which is the story of my life–who was tweeting at me aggressively like, “You plagiarized this musical!” and I was like, “No, that’s… that’s not what happened.” [Laughter]

Your next book “A Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy” comes out next year. Can you tell us anything about that or is everything top secret?

It’s pretty secret right now. I will tell you that it’s narrated by Felicity, which everybody knows. Monty and Percy are in it, which is something I get asked a lot, but they aren’t main characters. It’s about Felicity teaming up with two girls from different places in Europe who come together and team up to do science and piracy.  [Laughter]  There will be a full synopsis one day!

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