Teen Press Corps Member Evelyn Interviews Author Mackenzi Lee
by Evelyn Eaton, BookPeople Teen Press Corps
Evelyn Eaton: What would you say your first experience writing is?
Mackenzi Lee: When I was a kid, I read a lot of audiobooks because I had a hard time looking at words on a page and I read the same audiobooks over and over because they were familiar. And then I read a lot of StarWars novels, and that sort of translated into writing a lot of StarWars fanfiction. But as soon as I got to high school, I had a really hard time reading classics and became bitter and resentful towards books in general because I kind of stopped reading. So I did my undergrad in history and wend abroad for a couple of years to work on a thesis and while I was working on my thesis, a professor there told me my papers read like novels. That’s when I realized that maybe I was writing history in the wrong way and in the wrong medium.
EE: How do you begin books? What do you start with, characters, plot, setting?
ML: A lot of my books come from historical settings that I’m interesting writing about, and more specifically historical phenomenon. I am very much a subscriber to the idea that history changes but people don’t really. I really like this idea that in the 1700’s people were still taking a gap year to go abroad and learn and also be hedonistic. I recently heard someone say that every generation thinks they invented teen rebellion. Generally, I write about historical settings I don’t know anything about going in, because even though I am a history major, I had a very narrow focus for my thesis which leaves me with these gaps of knowledge that I’m trying to write in. And this is where the panic comes in.
EE: Where you do you see yourself in the characters?
ML: The least flattering answer I can give to this is…I am a lot like Monty. A lot of his emotional struggles, despite having a lot of different challenges in our lives, he and I have a lot of similar coping mechanisms—I am NOT an alcoholic. But in terms of feeling like you’re not good enough to help the people you love. Part of you feels like you’ve intensely failed this person you loved. It’s a weird feeling and that’s something I’m trying to come to terms with through writing this book.
EE: Your characters have a lot of development throughout the book. When you were starting to characterize them, did you have the change in mind when you started writing the book or did it happen naturally?
ML:A combination of both, I think. Percy and Felicity were not as fleshed out when I started writing. I focused on Monty and his journey. His journey was always in my initial plan for [the book]. Felicity and Percy grew out of being vehicles from his growth and became their own characters and got their own growth through the novel. And even the best laid plans get revised and changed throughout the writing process.
EE: Has it ever felt like the characters have become their own beings and are leading the story?
ML: Oh, yes. It’s something I always kind of roll my eyes at when authors say that the character surprised me and “They were walking down this direction and I wanted them to walk this direction” I’m like, okay, that’s fake. But then it DOES happen! It’s more of in the process of writing, you’re digging and you uncover things you don’t expect and suddenly you’re more interested in the shiny rock you discovered than the thing you were digging for. Sometime’s I’ll write a line flippantly and sort of look back at it like “that’s an interesting line”. So yeah, every once in awhile there are things I totally didn’t see happening. More for me in terms of character than I think anything else.
EE: What is the history of the title of your book?
ML: The title was actually incredible painless to get to. I read a research book called “The gentleman’s guide to his tour through italy”. And I sent this to my editor and I was like “I really like the cadence of this title”. I turned to her and was like “I need the second part of this cause I have the first half: “gentleman’s guide to-” and she was like “Vice and virtue!”
EE: You have a character Monty who is bisexual and you mention queerness a lot throughout the book. What would your message be to kids reading this book, possibly as part of the LGBT community looking for solace?
ML: When I was studying history, I was so frustrated with the fact that all the history classes you took were all about straight white guys and history about anything else was in a basement room with bad air conditioning and it was terrible. So I ended up doing a lot of research on my own. And the more I read about queer history, the more I find a lot of solace in the fact that queer people have always existed and thrived, they’ve always been more than the tragic sub-plot in a BBC period drama. For me, what I most hope queer teens will take away from the book is knowing queer people have always existed and they’ve always found a way to live their lives happy and fulfilled. You can make it work.
EE: What would you have to say to aspiring young writers?
ML: I would say: take yourself seriously. As soon as you start writing you are a writer, and nobody is going to vouch for you except you. Call yourself a writer, take yourself seriously, and invest in yourself as a writer because nobody but you is going to do that. Be your own advocate and be fierce on behalf of your own writing. And know that there’s not one good way to do it, everyone’s process is different. Trust your own process, follow your own rules, and don’t get freaked out when people tell you “that’s not the right way”.