In her fourth book for young adults, The Downstairs Girl, Stacey Lee introduces 17-year-old Jo Kuan, a Chinese immigrant in the New South, who secretly dwells beneath the floorboards of a local newspaper printer. By day, Jo is a lady’s maid for the malicious daughter of one of Atlanta’s wealthiest families; but, by night, she secretly pens the column “Dear Miss Sweetie,” giving advice to genteel southern ladies and challenging ideas about race and gender. Lee spoke with PW about discovering Jo’s story through research, how her law background impacts her writing, and how her approach to storytelling has changed over time.
How did you begin writing for teens?
I have been writing all my life. A lot of the stories I was writing when I was a youngster, between ages six and eight, were just the ideas that popped into my head and were more a reflection of my experiences at the time. And then, when I was around 13 or 14, I wrote a novel based on some fairy tales that I had grown up with. That was really the first time I started to form a cohesive book.
We didn’t really have a young adult category when I was growing up, so I started writing more adult things after middle school. I didn’t start writing in the young adult space until I was in my 30s. I was a lawyer and writing was my hobby. I was doing a lot of writing at night and decided I’d make a serious attempt at writing a book and getting it published. By then, the young adult category had been born and I loved reading it; I could connect to a lot of the issues that come up in YA fiction. I think that category continues to hold so much appeal for me: I love that it wrestles with firsts, trying to be independent, and finding your tribe.
Why did you finally feel it was time to pursue publication?
I had been writing all my life, but I never seriously thought I could get published unless I was writing a book about a Chinese person and that specific experience. The things that were being published about Chinese heroines were basically immigrant stories; we got the same kind of story again and again. I thought that’s what the market wanted, so, unless I wrote something like that, I was never going to be published. I didn’t want to only write that.
My husband heard something on NPR about how we have the power to do anything we want; we just have to set our minds to it. There are all these societal things that work against us, of course, but his point was that if you open your mind to the possibility, you can do it. My husband challenged me. I had all sorts of excuses as to why I couldn’t do it, but then I thought, “Why couldn’t I make a living doing the thing that I love?” I gave it my all and it worked out for me, knock on wood. But it was for sure an accumulation of a lifetime of story writing. I don’t think I could have done it without that practice.
From where did the premise of The Downstairs Girl come?
I had always wanted to write a book set in the South. There’s something about it that has always appealed to me. There’s this veneer of gentility over a history of ugly racism; I feel that stories set in the South are really able to explore the complexity of human nature. I didn’t see many stories about Chinese people set in the South, but, as I started learning about the history of Chinese immigration to the United States, I learned, unsurprisingly, that there were Chinese people there. And I say unsurprisingly because the Chinese have been called the “Great Immigrants”—they’re kind of everywhere.
The Chinese came over after the Civil War to replace the field slaves. There was this idea that Chinese people were hardworking, could withstand the hot temperatures, and were very compliant. The southerners soon found that they weren’t so compliant after all; many of them ended up running away and breaking their contracts, disappearing. I say disappearing because they didn’t want to stand out. They found that the best way to survive was to form micro communities or to assimilate. They just sort of blended in. I was fascinated to learn of a Chinese community in the Mississippi Delta that had settled there after the Civil War, serving this great need between white and black communities, which didn’t mix.
My in-laws told me about a place they had visited in Canada called Moose Jaw. It was a whole community of Chinese people who lived underground, trying to escape the racism of the day. It’s preserved and fascinating; you can visit it. Then I learned that there were places like that in the United States that have been uncovered during construction. Workers will find underground tunnels and remnants of the lives that were lived there. I thought to myself, wow, this would be an interesting convergence of those two ideas.
At what stage in your writing process does research happen? Do you have a tried and true method of research?
I do a lot of research in order to find the story. For me, I always seem to look for the place first. For Outrun the Moon, for example, I started with San Francisco. I wanted to write about a key event that affected Chinese people in San Francisco, so the San Francisco Earthquake was a natural fit. For The Downstairs Girl, I wanted a setting in the South, and Georgia spoke to me. When I started researching Georgia, it all kind of fit because Atlanta was the gateway to the New South and where all the railways converged.
I did a lot of research into exactly when I would set the story, the actual date. That becomes important because I wanted to make sure the locations I’d selected for scenes actually existed at the time. I had to find the right date that fit all the story ideas I had, like homing in on streetcar segregation as representative of the growing divide in society, so it became a very specific timeline. The research informs the story.
Research does happen along the way, too, when I realize I don’t know anything about horse races and things like that.
How do you begin to synthesize your research into a novel?
While I’m conducting research, I have an idea in my head about where I want to take the characters. With Jo, I knew it was going to be a book about her stepping out of the shadows. She starts underground, so eventually she is going to end up above ground. I start by considering what pieces I’m going to need to move her story forward, but the process certainly isn’t linear. In fact, I took quite a detour with this book.
There was so much going on in 1890. There was suffrage, the introduction of Jim Crow laws, industrialization, the start of monopolies. I tend to overdo things and, in my zeal to understand all these elements, I ended up writing about a side character. I was two-thirds of the way through the book when I had to put the brakes on because I realized I didn’t see my main character in any of the scenes. I realized, I wasn’t writing her story anymore and I had to essentially rewrite the book. This happened twice! The first time, I was writing a different character’s story because I was feeling a lot of injustice and stress about the current political situation; it was a much darker book. The second time, I over-corrected. The third time was a charm. So, not the most linear process.
How has your background in law had an impact on your research or writing process?
I think I’m the type of person who is kind of risk-averse. I worry a lot that I’m not going to get it right; the fear of doing harm or somehow erasing an experience motivates me to over-do it. I tend to be a person who needs to learn a lot about something to fully understand it.
I was taught in law school how to get to my point and be efficient in writing. In fact, we were fined a quarter for every adjective we used in our legal briefs! It taught us to choose our words carefully.
Do you feel that the way you approach writing has changed since the publication of your first novel, Under the Painted Sky?
Definitely. I think being under a deadline has its ups and downs. One learns to be as efficient as possible because now you have readers, and publishers, waiting for your next work. At the same time, it can also hinder that organic creation process. Sometimes ideas just take time to percolate. I’m a great believer in taking time not to actively write, if that makes sense. Getting out there and experiencing life is necessary to writing good stories, whether that be through hanging out with friends, seeing shows, reading books, listening to music. I’ve had to learn to write efficiently and allow myself the time and space I need to do the job right.
I’d also like to think I’m more aware of the lives I could be impacting, and hopefully that awareness has translated into more thoughtful writing. I find I’m always returning to the notion of how the actions of one person can affect the lives of many, for better or worse.
What do you hope readers gain from your novels?
As someone who took a long time to find her voice, I hope my stories can empower readers to find and use their unique voices. But I also would love, if through my stories, people can gain a fuller appreciation of history and our place in it. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s] Hamilton said it best, “History has its eyes on you.” It’s up to us to recognize the struggles that allowed us to have the things we have today, so that we can be vigilant over those rights and act when they are threatened. And, also, I really like to write a good story.
Have you received any memorable feedback from young readers?
I always love it when readers tell me they finally see someone who “looks like them” in my books. It never gets old. I always think of the Easter egg hunt I went on when I was five. The race was less about finding, and more about speed, because the eggs were just set on the lawn, plus they were extra-large and made of shiny gold plastic, so you couldn’t miss them. Cautious turtle that I was, I didn’t get a golden egg. I like to think when I’m writing a book, that I’m putting a golden egg out there for the right reader to find.
Are you already working on your next historical novel? Or can readers look forward to another book with a contemporary setting?
The next book is also historical. It’s about the Titanic. A little-known fact is that there were eight Chinese people on the Titanic. Six of the eight survived, which is a testament given that they didn’t speak English to understand directions or warnings. People don’t know that because it wasn’t recorded: they were turned away when arriving in the States because of the Exclusion Act, turned away automatically, even after that trauma. So, I’m writing about them. I hope that’ll come out next year or the year after.
The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee. Putnam, $17.99 Aug. ISBN 978-1-5247-4095-5