Today’s post features Co-Host Shenwei’s interview with New York Times Bestselling historical fiction author Stacey Lee. Her fifth and most recent book, Luck of the Titanic released on May 4th!
About Luck of the Titanic
From the critically-acclaimed author of The Downstairs Girl comes the richly imagined story of Valora and Jamie Luck, twin British-Chinese acrobats traveling aboard the Titanic on its ill-fated maiden voyage.
Valora Luck has two things: a ticket for the biggest and most luxurious ocean liner in the world, and a dream of leaving England behind and making a life for herself as a circus performer in New York. Much to her surprise though, she’s turned away at the gangway; apparently, Chinese aren’t allowed into America.
But Val has to get on that ship. Her twin brother Jamie, who has spent two long years at sea, is there, as is an influential circus owner, whom Val hopes to audition for. Thankfully, there’s not much a trained acrobat like Val can’t overcome when she puts her mind to it.
As a stowaway, Val should keep her head down and stay out of sight. But the clock is ticking and she has just seven days as the ship makes its way across the Atlantic to find Jamie, perform for the circus owner, and convince him to help get them both into America.
Then one night the unthinkable happens, and suddenly Val’s dreams of a new life are crushed under the weight of the only thing that matters: survival.
About the Author:
Stacey Lee is a fourth-generation Chinese American. A Southern California native, she graduated from UCLA and got her law degree at UC Davis King Hall. Now she plays classical piano, wrangles children, and writes young adult fiction. Stacey lives outside San Francisco, California. Under a Painted Sky is her first novel.
Visit Stacey at: www.staceyhlee.com
Follow her on Twitter: @staceyleeauthor
Follow her on Instagram: @staceyleeauthor
Q: As a historical fiction writer, research is one of the foundations of the writing process. What kinds of things have had you had to research that you didn’t think of looking up before starting a draft but ran into questions about while drafting?
A: SO MANY things! For LUCK OF THE TITANIC, one thing I had to investigate was where Chinese were buried in England. If there was money, the ashes could be sent home to China. If not, the Chinese were often out of luck, since cemeteries didn’t want them hanging out with the good folk, even dead.
Sometimes, I have to research something, but I don’t want to because I think it’s going to be too hard, and I do everything I can to ‘write around’ it. Inevitably, I spend more time avoiding it than if I had just buckled down and researched it. An example is the engineering behind the Titanic— two four-cylinder, triple expansion, inverted reciprocating steam engines and one low pressure Parsons turbine. Did the information I learned make its way into the story? You may not see it on the page but knowing how it was run did help me write those important collision scenes. For LUCK OF THE TITANIC, I also learned more than I wanted to know about Merry Widow hats, water closets, and coal holes.
Q: Although historical fiction takes place in the past, it’s not necessarily irrelevant to the present day. For example, anti-Chinese racism remains a problem and has undergone a resurgence due to the racist rhetoric about the pandemic. Do current events inform how you approach your storytelling? How do you create historical stories that resonate with a present day audience?
A: I’d go so far to say that historical fiction is about the present because we can’t appreciate the past without putting it into the context of the now. Historical fiction is escapist on one hand, but I think you can’t read it without emerging with questions about who we were then, and who we are now. This is the one of the most important things writers of historical fiction can offer readers, this idea that one can’t change the past, but one can be changed by the past.
Q: Historical fiction requires a balance of fact and imagination to breathe life into a story, and where the lines are drawn as far as suspending disbelief goes is often a question of power and whose narratives are given weight in historical records. In particular, historical fiction stories that center people of color in the United States or Europe or other currently white-dominant settings are often seen as “unrealistic,” making the act of bending the truth more fraught for writers of color in the genre. How do you decide when and how much you’re going to take liberties with the source material/context when you approach your writing?
A: Such a great question. When in doubt, I tend to go for it, and I try not to care so much what people think. For THE DOWNSTAIRS GIRL, I got wind of a few disbelieving comments about whether a Chinese girl could win a horse race in Atlanta 1890. I don’t know if any actually did, but I can tell you there were a lot of nobody-girls doing lots of remarkable things throughout history that they weren’t supposed to be doing and the world will never hear about them. Jo Kuan stands for those girls.
Q: I love the names you come up with for your protagonists (Sammy Young, Mercy Wong, Mimosa/Mim, Jo Kuan, Valora Luck). How do you go about picking names for your characters (who aren’t real historical figures)?
A: I try to stick with names that were popular at the time, but also something memorable and unique. I try not to use anything too precious. “Samantha” made a good name for my heroine in UNDER A PAINTED SKY because it could be shortened to Sam or Sammy when she was in disguise as a boy. In OUTRUN THE MOON, mercy was a quality that fit Mercy Wong’s character, and also an Anglicization of her Chinese name, Meh-Si. In THE SECRET OF A HEART NOTE, perfumer Mimosa was ‘flowery’ intentionally and means ‘touch me not,’ which aligns with her character’s resistance to physical touch. THE DOWNSTAIRS GIRL “Jo” was simple and basic, like her character. And my latest heroine in LUCK OF THE TITANIC, Valora, well, I will let you figure that one out.
Q: I saw the news that you made the NYT Bestseller list for paperbacks with The Downstairs Girl. As someone who’s been following your work since 2016, I’m so happy to see you reach this publishing milestone! What lessons have you learned during your publishing journey from debut to your fifth published book?
A: That is so kind of you! I definitely try not to take myself too seriously even if my books make cool lists like the NYT! Writing is not my life—it’s just one of the things I love to do. And like everything I love, I try to pour my best into it.
Q: Can you tease us with what comes next?
A: I have a new middle grade fantasy coming from Rick Riordan Presents next year unofficially titled WINSTON CHU VS. THE WHIMSIES about a kid who receives the dubious present of a broom and dustpan who begin to wreak havoc in his life. I’m having so much fun writing it. I also am working on more historical fiction, with new heroines that would probably be good friends with my old ones.
So excited for this middle grade title! Thanks a bunch for your thoughtful answers!