There is something about Mackenzi Lee’s work that feels familiar to me. Not in the sense that it’s hackneyed or stereotypical, as if part of a giant metaphorical snake eating its own tail of rehashed literary ideas. Rather, her work feels like the type of novels sprung to life from my wildest dreams.
In the haze of my affection, there are too many aspects of her work that I like best. Lee’s writing easily commands attention through its charming wit and wry observations, but hidden in her humor are glimpses of a romantic lyricism so vivid that I am often left breathless at the imagery. And, while I typically find historical fiction to be dry and unrelatable, Lee uses her characters’ experiences to weave threads of shared humanity across the distance of time.
Perhaps what I especially enjoy is the subtly subversive nature of Lee’s writing. In reading her work I feel gently eased down a winding road of familiarity, the stories trope heavy and precariously predictable. But time and again that road forks, and I find myself in an excitingly different place in terms of plot and character development. The setting is still the same, but it feels like stumbling upon a new territory. It feels like breaking new ground, and the results of this exploration are always satisfying.
When I discovered that Lee and I would be attending the same fan convention, I reach out and, by some glorious twist of fate, schedule an interview with her. As a newly minted junior editor, I’m excited that my first big assignment is with such a rising star in the YA world. As a fan? I’m still super excited… but mostly scared shitless.
It certainly doesn’t help my nerves that I’m holding this interview in a place so unfamiliar to me. It’s the Sunday morning of Flame Con, and as a first time attendee I’m still getting acclimated to my brightly lit surroundings.
Out of all the fan conventions that occur each year, particularly in the tightly packed boroughs of New York City, few seem as universally beloved as Flame Con. It is a clear celebration of queer fandom and the groundbreaking work of various contributors to this space, from authors and artists to cosplayers and celebrities. As the epicenter of the event, the con floor is initially overwhelming due to the multiple examples of creative brilliance at every corner. There’s a sweet and fragile glee that permeates the air, every stray interaction with a stranger characterized by a sense of I’m glad you exist, I’m glad we’re here together. It’s nothing short of inspiring, really. It’s truly a sight to behold.
It’s also just a hare too loud to hold and record interviews, which is understandable. So we hide out in one of the many indie coffee shops in Brooklyn for our interview, nestled around a standalone countertop as early morning joggers and dog walkers pour inside. The borough is still struggling to find its identity under the weight of gentrification, and Flame Con is smack at the center of this sanitized bubble of glitzy public parks and cutely themed restaurants. It feels appropriate to me that we settle closer to the margins of this space, especially in consideration of the weighty topics I had in mind. Between more casual laments about the legendary brutality of New England’s winters and compliments about a quaint bookstore surprisingly local to us both, we thus discuss at length her recently released sophomore novel – The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue.
The novel is a queer twist on the classic adventure story. Readers embark on an 18th century Grand Tour (think of it as a gap year) across Europe with Monty, a roguish bisexual lord looking to enjoy the twilight of his youth before taking over the responsibilities of his family’s estate. Accompanying him on his intended romp are Felicity, his brilliant younger sister, and Percy, his gifted childhood best friend who now inspires feelings of intense, but seemingly unrequited, desire in our pining protagonist.
In discussing the inspiration behind the novel, Lee was drawn to the thirst for travel that seems to strike people all across history. She came across the concept of the Grand Tour during her senior year of college, when she worked as a teaching assistant for a freshman humanities class on the subject. While helping her students deep dive into the famous cities on their imaginary tours, Lee couldn’t help but be inspired by the nostalgia it sparked in her.
“I had just done a year abroad in Europe traveling and doing research for my thesis, so it was a cool bridge for me to be like, ‘Oh my gosh, people in the 1700s took a gap year like I just took a gap year!’” she tells me. “I’m very into the idea that history changes, but people never really do. So it was very affirming to see that in the 1700s people were still traveling to find themselves.”
And so The Gentleman’s Guide was born, highlighting what Lee calls the timeless belief in “the transformative power of travel on young people.” Her passion for history grounded the novel in an early modern setting, and an extensive research period spent perusing real and fictional accounts of that era (from travel guides to certain BBC dramas) helped enrich the story with humanizing details about everyday life.
This research also allowed her to learn about and then lean heavily on the classic literary tropes of the adventure genre. Losing your luggage or butchering a barely mastered language in front of strangers are the usual mundane struggles young travelers face abroad. Meanwhile, The Gentleman’s Guide is quick to make good on the excitement promised from its premise. Following scenes of hilarious debauchery at stuffy society parties and other networking events, our trio unearth a scheme that marries science, the occult and a seriously concerning political conspiracy. Soon Monty, Percy and Felicity are fleeing for their lives across the continent, facing off against mad scientists, conniving nobles, corrupt highwaymen, and ambitious pirates along the way.
Taken together, it feels like one of those insane study abroad experiences you hear about from your parents or on the news, warning about how dangerous it is to leave the comforts of home. At the same time, just like any good adventure story, it leaves us longing for the wacky travel adventures we’ve always dreamed about or, if lucky, have experienced in our own lives.
Yet there is more than action, drama and intrigue to keep readers on the edge of their seats with interest. The Gentleman’s Guide explicitly focuses on characters not typically seen in adventure novels. Along with that aforementioned “queer twist,” between them Monty, Percy and Felicity hold unique identities in regards to race, gender, and disability. As a reader, it’s a pleasant surprise to see such explicitly diverse characters take centerstage, especially as calls for representation seem to be slowly transforming the literary landscape.
As an author and historian, it was important to Lee to make these characters the heroes of her story. “I was frustrated with the way that our historical narratives are so often dominated by straight white men,” Lee says. Whether this focus is purposefully exclusionary or simply misguided, she says the result is often the same. “Women, minorities and queer people are just erased with this myth that, because of historical accuracy, they were so busy being oppressed they couldn’t do anything.”
This means there are more personal tribulations our trio deal with throughout their journey. Both Monty and Percy are queer young men, but as our narrator we primarily see this queer identity play out through Monty’s perspective. Having Monty call himself bisexual outright would have been too anachronistic for the time period, since the modern concept of sexuality did not exist in the 18th century, but Lee deftly works around this lack of explicit identification to inform readers about the historical realities of love and attraction.
“I wanted them to understand that there were queer people in the 1700s. You can’t read around it,” she says. “I think about my own experiences and I don’t know how you can believe people in history, even without understanding the concept of sexuality, would not understand themselves well enough to know who they love and who they want to be with. I believe we do a huge disservice to queer people in history in saying that just because they didn’t have modern ideas about sexuality, they wouldn’t have understood themselves well enough to identify it.” While Monty fully embraces his sexuality, readers see him deal with the heartbreaking societal marginalization he experiences because of it, from strangers to family alike.
In addition to being queer, Percy is an obviously biracial young man trying to find his place in the upper class English society he has inherited from his white father. He encounters various forms of racism that prevent him from the privileges and opportunities that Monty, as a white young man of similar enough status, takes for granted.
At first, these are small and individualized moments of microaggression: fleeting looks from strangers, a stray comment asking for confirmation of Percy’s rank, and conversations with people adamant to proclaim how they are so sympathetic to “the black cause” and so very much not racist. I groaned at these moments, thoroughly reminded of the almost hilariously benevolent racism I know so well as a black woman. But as these moments become systemic, impeding our trio’s progress as potential rescuers refuse to help so long as Percy exists as a free black person, harsher recollections of similar experiences in my own life stopped me cold. It’s a testament to Lee’s writing that she can capture this duality so well, even from Monty’s limited perspective on the matter. Percy’s frustration and pain are visceral consequences of his environment, and it is treated with all the honesty and respect it deserves.
As a white author, Lee took considerable care in her exploration of race. “I did a lot of research about the lot in life that people of color would face at the time. I tried to find and read stories of actual people from that time period that I could reference. Along with my research about how the time period treated people, I talked to people today who shared these marginalized identities about their experiences as humans in the world and how they interact with their identities. Then, I used this information to find a middle ground [in the novel].”
Monty’s sister Felicity, a young woman more interested in medicine than marriage, has to juggle people’s sexist expectations of her with her own desires for the future. It’s a common enough theme in historical and modern interpretations of the time period, but Lee says that there still persists some notion that having a “strong female character” of this nature is unrealistic. “Again, [people] say that women were so oppressed they couldn’t get anything done and they wouldn’t even have that gleam in their eye to consider the possibilities of gender equality, which I think is bullshit because you don’t have to have had something to know that you want it.”
[Our interview hits a natural pause. Lee takes a bite out of the blueberry muffin she’s having for breakfast, and for some reason I totally think it appropriate to launch into a follow up question. Lee likes the question, but her desire to answer is at war with the food she’s currently eating. The result is a fun moment of audio that sounds like, “Sure, let me swallow my muffin – a full minute of guttural swallowing noises,” which makes us both laugh even though the moment has me mentally preparing to break out the Heimlich maneuver if need be. I promise to include this in my interview write up, and then we’re back to business.]
Lee tells me that the development of Felicity’s character came right from history, specifically from a fun research project. “I’ve been running a project for the past year and a half called Bygone Badass Broads where every week on Twitter I highlight a historical woman who I feel not enough people know about – so, I write a long ass thread about that woman.
“A lot of women that I researched for this ongoing project ended up influencing Felicity and this idea of a woman in the 1700s who knows what she wants and wants to go for it, knowing there are going to be barriers because of her gender. But she’s very aware of those barriers and is very willing to fight back against them. [Specifically], Felicity was very much influenced by real women who were doctors and health professionals, things like that.”
Not only does Lee show these differing forms of systemic oppression coming from the outside world, but she also demonstrates instances of interpersonal violence among the trio that effectively mirror these painful misunderstandings in real life. Monty is the type of character who “never takes anything seriously” in order to avoid thinking too critically about past trauma. However, due to his flippancy and the other axes of privilege his race and gender afford him, he initially fails to take into account the unique struggles that Percy and Felicity experience. It is not from purposeful malice on his part, but a lack of understanding born from never really interrogating his beliefs. Nevertheless, neither Monty nor the reader are coddled for these mistakes: it is clear that Monty is fucking up and, while he feels guilt, the narrative focuses its attention on the pain he is causing his loved ones. Readers thus have the pleasure to watch his attempts to better understand Percy and Felicity, and the strength of these scenes comes from their sincerity.
Lee purposely made this situation reflective of her own experiences. “I thought a lot about a defining thing in my teenagerhood, which was recognizing that the people around you have lives that are as complicated and full and emotional and have as much pain as your own. It’s not that everyone else is a supporting character or an extra in your world; it’s that everyone is the hero of their own story.
“Monty realizes that everyone around him also deals with a lot of shit, some of it he can understand, some of it he can’t. But at some point you have to accept that you can’t always understand other people’s pain, so you have to go to them and ask them, ‘How can I help you, how can I protect you, how and when should I be stepping up for you?’ You have to have dialogues with the people you love about how you can best help them if you can’t always understand them.”
This important lesson seems to be most applicable to teenagers who, just like our young trio, are grappling with these situations for the first time. But Lee wanted to reach a broader audience with this lesson as well.
“It’s definitely something I’ve taken into account as a writer for teenagers specifically, as hopefully we can teach teenagers about this stuff earlier,” she tells me. “But also so much of YA is read by adults these days, so you have to take both readers into consideration. I am an adult woman who didn’t think about these things until fairly recently, so I think there are still a lot of adults who are just learning about privilege and intersectionality and are barely starting to consider these ideas in a modern context, let alone a historical one. I definitely thought about that, so I think [this novel] is more a product of the world we’re living in now than specifically writing for just one audience.”
Thanks to Lee’s nuanced examination of privilege and identity, The Gentleman’s Guide shines as a refreshingly complex example of fiction. Coupled with all its aforementioned virtues in style and storytelling, as well as its ultimately moving conclusion, it’s near impossible for fans to imagine how this novel could be anything but wildly successful.
Lee was concerned, however. She confesses “how impossibly niche” her novel felt when she first started to write it, as it was during a time when queer characters were not as explicitly referenced in literature. “There was this trend where, if you had queer characters in your book, no one was going to outright say it. Instead, the jacket copy and the synopsis would be like, ‘And then the boy develops a special bond with his best friend.’ There was so much of this really coy, coded language that drove me crazy because, like, I can’t figure out which books are about queer people and which are just queerbating! So I was concerned going in that this explicitness was going to be something I would have to fight for in my work.”
Instead, overwhelming support has come from numerous directions. From day one her publisher has adamantly strived to promote The Gentleman’s Guide as “the Big Queer European Road Trip,” and some of the best conversations she’s had about the novel have come from readers – particularly “awesome” and passionate teenagers – who feel a deep connection to the characters and themes presented in her work. After only two months since its release, Lee’s novel has been a professional success as well, with numerous starred reviews, local industry awards, and a well-deserved spot on The New York Times bestseller list already under its belt.
And there’s certainly more to look forward to from this prolific author. For starters, Felicity will be getting her own spinoff sequel called The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy. Whereas in The Gentleman’s Guide she is overall “fairly awesome as the moral compass and the foundation for the little trio,” Lee will present a new side to the badass character that shows “her flaws, insecurities, and the things about her that are ugly and mean sometimes.” In my shocked happiness about this sequel news I forgot to ask about a release date, but I’ll be sure to keep this novel on my radar for the next few months.
Speaking of badass broads, the aforementioned Twitter project has also been turned into a book by the same name, set to release during International Women’s Month on March 13, 2018. With gorgeous illustrations by Petra Eriksson, Lee will employ her witty and insightful narrative style in profile pieces on remarkable women from all over the world and across history. She is especially excited to share this upcoming novel because she feels a certain kinship with these women and the remarkable accomplishments they achieved in their lives. While it is difficult to pick her favorite woman – an unfair question on my part, as they really are all amazing – given our current political climate, she schools me on Irena Sendler and her work as an ally to Jewish citizens of Poland during WWII.
Lee is also at work Semper Augustus (expected in 2019 or 2020), which chronicles the height of the tulip mania phenomenon that overtook Holland in the 1630s. Lee will explore a time of strange spending habits among the nouveau riche : “The Netherlands had just become independent from Spain and were kicking ass in trade all over the world, so people who never had money before suddenly had money now. They didn’t know how to spend it, so they bought a lot of ridiculous stuff. And in the early 1600s, since the tulip was fairly new to Holland, people became obsessed with it as a status symbol.
“So, people started to buy tulip bulbs and, as happens when people start buying the same thing at the same time, this economic bubble sprung up around tulip sales to the point that, at the peak of the mania, tulip bulbs were being sold at the price of a house.” Seeing this as a golden opportunity to exploit, two siblings set out to try and pull off the ultimate con. Despite the sheer hilarity of this premise, Lee let me know Semper Augustus will be a heavier, quieter novel. “Nothing blows up in it!” she says, and yet it still sounds very appealing.
At this point in our interview, I had gushed about The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue and her other upcoming work with all the professional candor I could muster without succumbing to my strong urge to fangirl. It’s not everyday you have the opportunity to meet an author committed to groundbreaking work, and Flame Con was definitely making me a bit emotional. In perfect alignment with the convention’s theme, The Gentleman’s Guide offers hope for brighter, more authentic representation of people’s varied identities and a full life after survival. And I know that I will certainly not be the last person to sing Mackenzi Lee’s praises for many years to come.
Her response to all this praise? A mix of humble surprise and pride, her voice rising happily against the pop music flitting through that indie coffee shop. “I feel lucky. It’s really lucky that a lot of people responded positively to my book, really understood what I was trying to do with it, and have been great champions for it. It’s something that I feel like is very personal for me, but it’s also just a book that I care tremendously about and love very, very much. So it’s wonderful to see so many people loving it as much as I do.”