After living abroad while attending university, Mackenzi Lee returned to the United States where she began writing novels with vivid European settings. As an author and events coordinator at Trident Booksellers & Cafe in Boston, Lee is immersed in the world of books. Her forthcoming novel, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, is a caper through 18th-century Europe, following a young man named Monty on his Grand Tour with his best friend (and crush), Percy, and little sister, Felicity. Lee spoke with PW about being both an author and a bookseller, the role travel played in bringing her novel’s European setting to life, and queer characters in historical fiction.
In addition to being a published novelist, you’re also a bookseller. How has your role as a bookseller had an impact on your writing?
When you’re interacting on a day-to-day basis with people coming into the store who are so excited about what they’re reading and what to read next, it keeps you excited about books. It’s really easy to get bogged down in the business side of publishing, so for me being a bookseller reminds me why I write books. There are people out there who don’t care at all about marketing dollars, advances, and festivals. It’s a good reminder that what really matters is the story and that there is a reader for every book.
Has being a bookseller changed how you approach events or the ways you interact with your readers?
When I watch other authors do events, I’m reminded how important it is to take time to talk to readers. Lots of reader come from long distances and are willing to stand in long lines. I’m always most impressed by authors who take time to talk to and thank fans. [Trident] had Joy the Baker in the store recently and she took 10–15 minutes with every person who came up to get their books signed; she was so personal and inspiring.
History is clearly an interest of yours. What is your research process like?
I generally start by reading other historical fiction set in the period. Then I stop once I start writing, otherwise I tend to compare my writing. Historical fiction has always been my access point for history; it’s what made me interested in history as a kid. When you read historical fiction you get a personalized level of interaction with history. From there I try to do general overviews of culture, politics, and economy. I read as many primary sources as possible.
You have to start writing before you feel like you’re ready; you’re never going to feel like you know enough. At some point you have to go for it, writing with the Merriam-Webster webpage open. You’re going to constantly be researching things, like trash cans in the 1700s, then you’re not even going to use that research. Your copyeditor is going to catch things, always.
Do you do any traveling for research?
I do! I’ve been super lucky to get to travel for all my books so far. If you’re an author and are able, I really think you should.
My first book, This Monstrous Thing, is set in Geneva, Switzerland. Shortly after turning in the book, I used some of my advance to visit Switzerland. It was thankfully early enough in the process that I could adjust some things in the book based on what I discovered during my visit. There’s a sense of wonder that I experienced when I was in Europe—everything felt very new and foreign. I was always walking around with my mouth hanging open. I hope that sense of specialness and otherness translates onto the page. A lot of it is sounds, smells, and sights. When you’re researching a place, you can’t know what it feels like to have cobblestones under your feet and to cross canals; being there allows you to see the details. In Geneva, even though I did so much research, I felt like I had so many things totally wrong. I didn’t know that there were all these sloping streets and narrow stairways to connect them; you can’t know that unless you’re there to experience it. It also helps to describing things accurately when you can have a similar experience to your characters.
For Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue I mapped out the itinerary before I even had a plot for the book. The places were all based on my favorite cities in Europe, all places I visited while living abroad during college.
For my 2019 book, Semper Augustus, I visited Amsterdam.
Can you share a few pieces of research that informed The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, but don’t necessarily take center stage?
One of my most helpful sources was the journals of James Boswell, a young man in the 1700s. He went on a Grand Tour and kept very extensive journals which are, of course, aggressively mundane in places. He includes details of day-to-day life: what they were eating, where they were staying, and his likes and dislikes. I found a lot to relate to in them.
Setting and clothes change, but people fundamentally stay the same. We still take gap years and tell young people to experience culture. The idea of a gap year and the Grand Tour connects us across centuries. Boswell’s very relatable emotions really informed the tone of the book and what I wanted to bring to the characters.
When did you learn about the tradition of the Grand Tour, and did it immediately strike you as an ideal frame for a novel?
The Grand Tour flourished from the late 1600s to the early 1800s. Young, rich, white guys with an awkward period of time between finishing school and waiting for Dad to die to take over the estate. It would usually last between one and five years. These young men would live in various cultural capitals and experience art and scenery while sowing their wild oats.
In college, I did half of my undergrad in the U.K. I was a history major writing a thesis about the War of the Roses and the role of women, but went all over Europe on 10-pound Ryanair flights. My first semester back [in the U.S.], I worked as a teaching assistant for a humanities class, which was structured around the idea of being a young man taking his Grand Tour. At the end of the class, students wrote papers about their ideal Grand Tour. I had never heard of a Grand Tour, which was shocking to me having just come from Europe. I latched onto the idea and shelved it away in my brain.
As I struggled to write my second book, I decided to write something just for me on the side. I never intended for anyone to read this book, I just wanted to write something ridiculous and fun. When it became clear that the book I was slogging through was doomed, my agent supported me in continuing the Gentleman’s Guide project.
How would you describe your relationship with your agent?
I’m one of the super lucky people who live in the same city as my agent, Rebecca Podos. We actually see each other quite a lot. She’s also an author; I even interviewed her at her launch party. I signed with her four or five years ago [when she was] a new agent. My first book never sold, but she stuck with me. She understands my books better than I do. I think what you want in an agent is someone who understands what you’re trying to do and helps you do it better.
Do you think it helps that she’s also an author?
Oh, yes, definitely! She’s my most trusted editorial source. It’s nice to have someone who acknowledges things that are normal writer feelings and, at the same time, Hulk-smashes them as an agent.
Your main character, Monty, is unapologetically bisexual in a time when being openly queer was not the norm. Can you speak a bit about your inspiration for his character?
Some of the most interesting research I did was about queer history in the 1700s. I grew up in a very conservative religious community. I was the person who, the first time someone said Abraham Lincoln was gay, horrifyingly thought: “That can’t be true because there were no gay people back then!” As I’ve studied history more, I’ve encountered more people who were open about their sexuality. People like Anne Lister, who was considered the first open lesbian. She was born in the late 1700s and wrote extensive diaries; she was a very self-aware, modern lesbian. Charity and Sylvia is a great book about two women in a same-sex marriage in early colonial America. There were more gay bars and clubs in the 1750s than in the 1950s.
I discovered that in a lot of cases, historical accuracy is used as a way to erase minority experiences. We use blanket ideas like “all queer people were oppressed,” when the reality is that there are also many people who were really open and had communities accept them. Queer experience varies so much based on location, community, and direct surroundings. We don’t account for the same type of variability in historical fiction [as in reality]. Monty’s experience encompasses both sides of the spectrum. He has people who are very intolerant and unhappy with who he is. Then there are people in his life, like Percy and Felicity, who are open and try to understand his point of view.
How aware were you of balancing historical accuracy against potential anachronisms that might have been necessary from a plot standpoint, either regarding Monty’s sexual openness or other aspects of the story?
So aware. That was the battle with this book and with a lot of historical fiction. As an author, you want characters both of their time period and accessible to modern readers. There are period-appropriate attitudes that could isolate them completely from the modern reader. I always consider at what point to err on the side of contemporary vs. historical. In Gentleman’s Guide, Monty, Percy, and Felicity don’t have the vocabulary we do; they don’t have words for sexual orientation and many other things they deal with in the book. They don’t even have the same concept of sexuality as we do today. It’s hard to wrap your mind around that as a writer and even harder to put it into words.
Is writing a historical romance, particularly a queer historical romance, more challenging than writing a contemporary romance novel? What are some of the challenges to consider?
I knew from the start that I wanted a queer romance that ends happily, with both people better because of it. I wanted it to have the same happy ending that contemporary romances so often get, not just coded gay characters in the background or a doomed gay romance. Most gay historical romances have a bittersweet edge, but I wanted to write a happy romance without reservations, because happily-ever-afters for queer characters haven’t quite reached historical fiction yet. It’s important for queer people today to see that we have existed forever and we have found ways, even in places that seem to reject us, to have fulfilled romantic and sexual lives with those we love.
You tackle racism, sexism, homophobia, and prejudice in your latest novel, but you still manage to provide balance with humor and romance. How do you find this balance?
Monty’s voice was there from the beginning. It drove the book. He uses humor as a defense mechanism, a way to avoid talking about hard things. I don’t think that humor and hard topics are mutually exclusive. Humans exist every day with intense darkness and intense light. We can have conversations about hard things and then make jokes the next; that’s realistic. I was really aware that a lot of historical fiction can intimidate people because we assume it will be humorless and serious, so I also wanted to make sure Gentleman’s Guide had humor.
Your weekly Twitter project #bygonebadassbroads, which you describe as a “weekly historical ladies storytime,” is soon to be available in book form. What inspired this project? Did you hope this project would one day leave the world of Twitter and find a wider audience?
I absolutely did not think it would ever leave Twitter! It didn’t actually occur to me that it could be a book until editors approached my agent about it. They had rejected Semper Augustus, but asked about Bygone Badass Broads.
The project came from my constant frustration with the myth of historical accuracy being used to erase women from historical narratives. There’s this idea that women were too oppressed to get anything done, which made me so angry. I was also frustrated with social media; I didn’t know how to have a positive relationship with it. So I started talking about women in history I thought were interesting. I began with Mary Shelley—on her birthday—and expected to be unfollowed en masse. As I added more profiles, readers thanked me, and said they were looking forward to it each week. It was such a positive response; I felt like I was putting something out there that made me happier and also helped other people feel more positive about history. We walk in the footsteps of centuries of women who have fought back against tyranny, which helps me function on a day-to-day basis.
Will the book include women not profiled on Twitter?
Yes! There are 52 women (one for every week of the year). 60% were featured on Twitter, but now have expanded biographies because I wasn’t limited by 140-character tweets. The other 40% are new profiles. They’ll be illustrated by Petra Eriksson, who is based in Barcelona. I love her art; it’s graphic and stylized with really, really bright colors.
Can you tell us about what you’re working on now?
Semper Augustus is currently in revisions, but I’m also working on a companion spin-off to Gentleman’s Guide about Monty’s sister Felicity. It’s called The Ladies’ Guide to Crinoline and Crime and will hopefully release next fall. It has the same travel components as Gentleman’s Guide, so lots of different locations, and a science girl gang. I’m excited to explore Felicity’s vulnerabilities that weren’t explored in Gentleman’s Guide because she was so busy being a boss!
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee. HarperCollins/Tegen, $18.99 June 27 ISBN 978-0-06-238280-1