A Q&A With Mackenzi Lee, Author of the #1 Summer Kids’ Indie Next List Pick

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Independent booksellers across the country have named Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (Katherine Tegen Books) as their number-one pick for the Summer 2017 Kids’ Indie Next List.

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee“Get ready to swoon over this book,” said Marika McCoola of Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder meets Sorcery and Cecelia in this delicious, historical romp. Monty and Percy, best friends since forever and Monty hopes maybe something more, are headed off on their grand tour. Despite severe prohibitions on alcohol, sex, and other vices, Monty is determined to have a decadent time. But they get more than they bargained for when Monty accidentally steals an important object from the French court. Filled with highwaymen, pirates, and heart-pounding exploits of a romantic nature, this is the summer road-trip adventure you’ve been waiting for.”

Lee, whose given name is MacKenzie Van Engelenhoven, is the events coordinator at Trident Booksellers & Café in Boston, Massachusetts. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history and a master of fine arts degree in writing for children and young adults. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Atlas Obscura, Crixeo, The Friend, and Newport Review, and her debut novel, This Monstrous Thing (HarperCollins), won the PEN-New England Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery Award.

Here, Lee discusses the inspiration behind The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue and how her work as a bookseller has influenced her writing.

Bookselling This Week: What inspired you to write The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue?

Mackenzi Lee, author of The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue
Photo Credit: Mariah Manley and Boston Metropolitan Waterworks Museum

Mackenzi Lee: In college, I was lucky enough to take my own grand tour, though mine was significantly less decadent than the one in the book. My undergrad degree was in history, and, as part of it, I spent a year in England, where I worked on my thesis and took every opportunity to explore Europe (via cheap flights, hostels, and a single backpack) and marinate in all those cheesy sentiments about the transformative power of travel on young people.

My first semester back in the U.S., I worked as a teaching assistant for a humanities class that was structured around the question, “If you were a young man on your grand tour of Europe in the 1700s, what would you have seen?” I hadn’t known about the grand tour before that, and as someone who was spending most of her time aggressively wishing she was back in Europe, I latched onto the idea. I’ve wanted to write a book set on a grand tour for a long time, but didn’t start working on what would become The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue until I was stuck on another project and decided the best way to get out of my funk was to write something that was just for me — a soapy and sometimes silly adventure novel with all my favorite tropes that would remind me writing could be fun. The process was so joyful because I was writing it just for me.

BTW: How did you learn about the life and culture of the 18th-century European cities that Monty, his sister, Felicity, and Percy explore on their grand tour?

ML: I read a lot of journals, travel guides, and firsthand accounts from tourists of the period. It was helpful to get to look at these cities through the eyes of English tourists of the time, both for the historical perspective and since they often made their observations in comparison to what their lives were like back home. Since everything in history feels foreign to me, as a modern human, it was so helpful to read these accounts and learn what the English tourists found exotic and exciting. It also helped me get an idea of their day-to-day lives on a tour — what they’d eat, when they’d sleep, what their accommodations were like, how they’d get from place to place, and how they’d pass those long hours on the road.

BTW: Percy is a fascinating character, in that he’s queer, multiracial, and has epilepsy, a largely misunderstood disability at that time. What inspired his creation?

ML: The initial inspiration for Percy came years ago, when I learned about Dido Elizabeth Belle, a biracial woman who grew up in the upper classes of England in the 1700s (I found her story through the biopic Belle, directed by Amma Asante). White girl that I am, it had never occurred to me that there were people of color living in what I thought was the exclusively white European society of the time. I started seeking out more information about the experiences of people of color living in Britain in the 18th century and found that there weren’t just a few of them — there were a lot. Which then sent me down the research rabbit hole of reading, researching, and thinking about the experiences of other marginalized people in European history, how their identities intersected, and how they are often erased from our modern accounts of history.

Percy and his relationship to Monty came from my own teenage experience, a seminal part of which was the realization that the people around me all had emotional lives that were as complex as mine. Over the course of the story, Monty, who has been a slow-motion disaster for the several years before the book starts, slowly begins to realize that his best friend, Percy, is a complete and complex person beyond his relationship to Monty, and that part of what has made him that person is learning to find his footing in parts of his identity that isolate him from the rest of his world.

BTW: In a time when it was scandalous to do so, both Monty and Felicity stray from the norm — Monty pursuing a queer relationship and Felicity her interest in medicine. What do you think Monty’s life would look like if he were a teenager in today’s world? How about Percy’s or Felicity’s?

ML: When we study and write about history, I think we tend to forget the individual experience. Instead, we rely on general statements that likely represent a part of the population but not all, but those are the narratives that often get repeated. Which is often why the phrase historical accuracy is used to exclude minority narratives from historical fiction. My favorite part of my research was overturning these stereotypes in my own head as well as through the book. Reading about queer subculture in England in the 1700s and the way queer people were able to make lives with the people they loved — often free of persecution and sometimes even open and accepted by their immediate community — was hugely enlightening. Similarly, with Felicity’s experience — I’ve been running a Twitter series for over a year now called #BygoneBadassBroads, highlighting forgotten women from history, and so many of them and the ways they overcame sexism to pursue their passions provided historical evidence that women like Felicity did exist — they just had the deck stacked against them from the start because of their gender.

So I don’t actually think Monty, Percy, and Felicity’s lives would look dramatically different if they lived today. In all likelihood, Felicity would still find herself in the minority and bump up against sexism and stereotypes as a woman interested in STEM. Percy and Monty would probably be able to be more open about their sexuality, as well as have the vocabulary to more accurately describe it, but they’d still run into homophobia in places.

I think the biggest difference would be that Monty would be active on Instagram — and a big fan of the selfie #SexyAndHeKnowsIt.

BTW: Will we be seeing more from Monty, Percy, or Felicity? If not, what’s next on your agenda?

ML: I have a nonfiction book coming out next spring called Bygone Badass Broads. It’s a collection of illustrated (not by me) essays about forgotten women in history who broke boundaries and kicked ass. In terms of more from the trio….stay tuned!

BTW: How has being a bookseller influenced your pursuit of creative writing?

ML: The indie bookstore community was the first place in the book world that I really found my people. I started working at a bookstore when I was in grad school, and I thought it would be a retail job I’d work until I had my MFA and got an office job. Instead, I found a career in bookstores, and really came into my own as both a reader and writer. Being a bookseller keeps me excited about writing because I am surrounded by other booksellers who are so passionate about what they read, and customers who are so hungry to talk books and find new favorites. Getting to interact firsthand with consumers and see their passion for the subject energizes me as a writer, especially when the business of publishing has me down.

BTW: As a bookseller, what would you recommend for readers who love The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue?

ML: As a bookseller, I literally always have book recommendations. If you’re looking for more historical adventure novels with some spunk, I’d recommend The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson (a murder mystery set in a hellish and completely real debtor’s prison, the Marshalsea, and narrated by a sassy fallen gentleman), The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman (about lady bare-knuckle boxers in the 1700s), and Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer (the kickoff book of my favorite historical series of all time, about a young woman charming and adventuring her way through a life at sea in the 1800s).