To read: perchance to sleep

July 9th, 2014

Hello, friends. Most nights, before I sleep, I read. This is a constant tension: I always want to read more. I know very well that I should sleep more. And the two seem mutually exclusive.

That aside, I thought I’d share my current stack of books with you.

Ying's current reading

From the top:

Fancy Cycling, by Isabel Marks. This is a delightful photographic catalogue of the kinds of tricks Edwardian children, ladies, and men can perform on bicycles. Most of them are astounding.

This is one of the simpler stunts but I love how the rider is looking directly into the camera. It feels very modern, despite her hat and long skirt.

This is one of the simpler stunts but I love how the rider is looking directly into the camera. The photo feels very modern, despite her hat and long skirt.

The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. My friend Trina lent this to me a few months ago and I’m fewer than 50 pages in. Sorry, Trina! I didn’t find it immediately compelling but she loves it so much that I plan to carry on. It’s just that all my other reading is getting in the way…

On the Yankee Station, by William Boyd. This is Boyd’s first collection of short stories, written before his first novel but published afterwards. It’s a bit uneven but very funny and strange and vivid. I began reading it for short-story inspiration (I’m writing one myself) but kept on because I love being in Boyd’s presence.

Jungle Soldier, by Brian Moynahan. A biography of my new hero/historical boyfriend, Freddy Spencer Chapman. Freddy’s a classic stiff-upper-lip subject and the biography is commensurately very thin. It fills in some details from his early and late life, but I’m better off reading…

The Jungle is Neutral, by F. Spencer Chapman

The Jungle is Neutral, by F. Spencer Chapman. This is my current favourite book and perhaps my favourite work of nonfiction ever. I really hadn’t expected to like Freddy so much. I was braced for a man of his generation (born 1907): a social snob, an unreflexive racist, an unapologetic colonialist. This isn’t the case at all. Freddy is immensely curious about the world, entirely willing to judge people on their individual merits and flaws, and endearingly passionate about food, even while suffering from bullet wounds, pneumonia, chronic malaria, ulcerated legs, blackwater fever, tick typhus, dysentery, and I-don’t-know-how-many-other ailments. Here’s how terrific this memoir is: I’ve been following Nick all around the house, reading excerpts to him. Another measure of how much I love it: I’m halfway through and already mourning the fact that it must end.

Two Years in the Klondike and Alaskan Gold Fields, 1896-1898, by William B. Haskell. I bought this in Ketchikan, Alaska, at a terrific indie bookstore called Parnassus Books. Haskell is very enjoyable company and reading him is such a lovely way to relive a family holiday while becoming familiar with the setting of my short story.

Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899, by Pierre Berton. It’s impossible to avoid Pierre Berton when you’re researching the Gold Rush. I lucked into this copy at the library’s used-book sale, and it’s been useful as a representative of the most romantic, legend-building, to-hell-with-historical-documentation view of the Klondike.

There it is: my reading brain, exposed. What are you reading, at the moment?


Bookmark and Share

5 Things About My Work-in-Progress

July 2nd, 2014

Hello, friends. The other day on Facebook, my friend Stephanie Burgis posted her answers to a meme, “Five Things About Your Work-in-Progress”. I was delighted! I read it, thinking, “Oh, it’s so great to hear more about what she’s up to!” Then I realized that I, um, NEVER talk about my work-in-progress. One reason is because I’m constitutionally secretive and vaguely superstitious about unpolished work. At some level, I seem to believe that if I discuss it in too much detail, my computer (or worse, I myself) will be hit by lightning. The second reason is because I’ve always assumed that nobody would ever be interested. Judging from my response to Steph’s post, I’m wrong about that. So I’m squaring my shoulders (both literally and metaphorically). Here we go:

1. I actually have 2.5 works in progress. For me, this is a lot. I’m writing the novel I refer to as The Next Book (more below). I’m also writing a short story for an anthology called Petticoats and Pistols, edited by Jessica Spotswood (again, more below). And starting in September, I’m joining The History Girls as a regular blogger. My first post, about historical fiction as a genre, goes up on September 3 and I’m now planning a second, about the history of Kingston Penitentiary.

2. I’m really nervous about the short story because it’s meant to be only 5000 words long. I have no idea how I’m going to compress so many ideas into such a short space! Its working title is “The Fabulous Garrett Girls” and it’s about a pair of sisters running a tavern in Skagway, Alaska during the Gold Rush, and their confrontation with the legendary con man, Soapy Smith. I’ve absolutely adored the research for it but now I have to compress it all into a (hopefully) rollicking story about a pair of accidental con artists. Wish me luck!

Broadway, Skagway, AK, 1898

Broadway (the main street), Skagway, AK, in 1898

3. As part of my research for “The Fabulous Garrett Girls”, I’ve once again been immersed in scenes of heavy toil, knee-deep muck, women wearing men’s trousers, women performing unusual jobs, travel by horse and on foot, and people who are not what they say. Sound familiar, fans of the Agency? The only thing missing, really, is a good romp in a sewer. I haven’t been able to find any enthralling narratives of frontier sewer action. Yet.

4. The Next Book, as I’ve been calling it, also has a working title: Monsoon Season. It’s set in the British colony of Malaya (now two independent countries, Singapore and Malaysia) during the Second World War. I’ve been working on this book for a long time – almost 12 months at this point. That includes two false starts, during which I tried to figure out just how I was going to tell this story. I’ve now found a structure that seems to work, and I’m fine-tuning my narrative voices. Yes, voices: there are three. It’s been quite complicated and nerve-wracking. I’m still not quite sure I can pull this off. But I remain optimistic.

Explorer, soldier, and naturalist Freddy Spencer Chapman (he's the one in knee socks)

Explorer, soldier, and naturalist Freddy Spencer Chapman (he’s the one in knee socks)

5. My research for Monsoon Season led me to the extraordinary figure of Freddy Spencer Chapman, a British explorer, naturalist, and soldier whose life really should be made into a film. For about three years during the Japanese occupation of Malaya, Spencer Chapman was considered missing and presumed dead by the British Army. In fact, he was alive, hiding in the dense Malayan jungle, and performing work that included destroying bridges and trains, attacking Japanese soldiers, and collaborating with local Communists who were also resisting the Japanese military government. Despite being ill for most of his time in the jungle (at one point, he was unconscious from pneumonia for 17 days and only realized this after the fact, when he noticed the lapse in his journal entries), Spencer Chapman also kept notes on bird species and collected plant seeds to send to Kew Gardens. I’m about to begin his memoir of that period, The Jungle is Neutral.

And that’s what I’ve been up to. Exciting times! What are you writing and reading, friends?

Bookmark and Share

You Are Stardust

June 25th, 2014

Hello, friends. Today, I want to share with you a book that I happened upon in my local indie bookseller, Novel Idea. It’s a picture book called You Are Stardust, by Elin Kelsey with artwork by Soyeon Kim.

It blew my mind.

You Are Stardust, Kelsey:Kim

It starts with perfect, confident simplicity: “You are stardust. Every tiny atom in your body came from a star that exploded long before you were born.”

Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 12.34.33 PM

As it begins, so it continues. Every statement in the book is grounded in scientific fact. Every sentence is calm and minimal, yet a powerful spur to wonder. “You started life as a single cell. So did all other creatures on planet Earth.”

image from You Are Stardust

“Salt still flows through your veins, your sweat, and your tears. The sea within you is as salty as the ocean.”

image from You Are Stardust

“From ocean to sky to land and back again, the same water has been quenching thirsts for millions of years.”

image from You Are Stardust

“Each time you blow a kiss to the world, you spread pollen that might grow to be a new plant.”

image from You Are Stardust

I actually find it difficult to articulate how profound and inspiring I find this book. I want to gush. I want to buy a copy for every child I know. And I want to sit quietly and read and re-read it, and stare for hours at the exquisite illustrations by Soyeon Kim.

The book itself is packaged as a kind of gift. If you unwrap the dustjacket, you’ll find photos of each diorama Kim built, which were then photographed to create the illustrations. Kim offers notes on specific elements of each diorama: flowers picked from her garden and carefully dried, paper dyed and curled to look like waves. And the endpapers show some of Kim’s notes on her artistic process.

There’s also this video to walk you through the illustrations and how they changed as a result of conversations between Kim and Kelsey.

I hope you enjoy it. And then I hope you run out and buy/borrow a copy of You Are Stardust and let it blow your mind, too.

Bookmark and Share

The Cat Came Back

June 18th, 2014

Hello, friends. On Father’s Day, our family drove out to the United Church hall in the village of Battersea, Ontario, for a concert by children’s musician Gary Rasberry. It was a lovely afternoon with thoughtful and inventive music for children, astoundingly gifted musicians (including Sheesham Crow, from Sheesham & Lotus), and church-lady pie.

True story:

Me: May I have two coffees, please?

Church lady: That’ll be $4.

Me: Oh, and a slice of pie, too.

Church lady: Okay. That’s… $4.

One of the songs Gary & friends performed is “The Cat Came Back”. If the song is new to you, know that it’s a gleefully nasty folk song about the attempted destruction of an unloved cat. Despite dynamite, electrocution, guns, drowning, hot-air balloons, train wrecks and the mysterious disappearance of several humans, the cat prevails. It’s the kind of macabre thing that so many children love. Plus, it’s ridiculously catchy.

If you’re Canadian, you probably associate the song with children’s musician Fred Penner. (Here’s a recent-ish video of Penner performing “The Cat Came Back” for an audience of adults, many of whom probably grew up watching his TV show.) I’d always assumed that Penner wrote the song but at the concert, Gary and Sheesham mentioned that the song dates back to the American minstrel tradition of the nineteenth century.

The Cat Came Back, Harry S Miller

“The Cat Came Back” was originally published in 1893 by Harry S. Miller, but the first commercial recording seems to have been some 30 years later, in 1924. I really like the idea that the song got established in performance, both public and private (I picture a multi-generational family gathered around a slightly-out-of-tune piano and bellowing, all together, “It just wouldn’t stay a-waaaaay!”) before finding its way into the commercial music industry.

But here’s the main thing that I really must mention in the history of “The Cat Came Back”: Miller’s original lyrics are written in African-American dialect (Georgian, according to wikipedia), which means they feature non-standard grammar and creative spellings to signal pronunciation: “of” becomes “ob”, “yellow” becomes “yaller”, and “with” becomes “wid”. So the song isn’t just about an irate and desperate Mr. Johnson who will do anything to be rid of his cat; it’s about black dialect and a black singer. (I imagine Mr. Johnson is black, too, although that’s ambiguous.) A large part of the song’s comedy is predicated on black people saying and doing laughable things. Don’t believe me? Its original title was “The Cat Came Back: A Nigger Absurdity”.

I’m not suggesting that we should stop singing “The Cat Came Back”. That would involve cutting a hole in American folk music history. And the joke works perfectly in standard English, stripped of its racist context. But, as ever, we need to be alert and to remember all the peculiar and shadowy aspects of our cultural histories. Performers like Gary and Sheesham are slipping clues to the adults in the audience. And I’m grateful to have my horizons widened through an offhand comment at a children’s music matinée.

Bookmark and Share

Shakespeare’s English

June 11th, 2014

Hello, friends. I’ve had a copy of David Crystal’s The Stories of English for a long time now, but never managed to get around to reading it. That’s about to change.

Today, I came across a fascinating article about what English accents used to sound like. In it, linguist Gretchen McCulloch explains that there was a major shift in English pronunciation during the late eighteenth century. Because North American colonies were founded before that transition, Canadians and Americans now speak with accents that are derived from the old pronunciation.

The most obvious example, according to McCulloch, is our pronunciation of Rs (in words like car, yard, and farm). Basically, the English used to do it; the emigrants who first settled here did it; and so we still do it. In contrast, Australia was used as a penal colony after the linguistic shift, and that’s why Australians today don’t pronounce their Rs.

Anyway, embedded in McCulloch’s short article is this terrific video featuring linguistics expert David Crystal and his actor son, Ben Crystal. In it, they demonstrate what Shakespeare sounded like in “Original Pronunciation”, or OP.

If you don’t want the fluff about the rebuilt Globe Theatre in London, skip ahead to 3:00. But don’t miss the Crystals’ compare-and-contrast readings of Shakespeare! It’s startling, inspiring stuff.

Bookmark and Share

Ahistorical Fiction

June 4th, 2014

Rivals in the City by Y S LeeHello, friends. Here we are: this week, in the UK and Australia, Walker Books publishes Rivals in the City. (The US/Canadian edition will come in February 2015 from Candlewick Press.) I am tremendously excited to see this fourth novel come into the world and meet its readers. I’m also rather wistful: it’s the last Mary Quinn mystery.

The part I’m saddest about? I’ll never again write dialogue between Mary and James. I absolutely adored writing them in and out of arguments. The part I’m happiest about? Leaving Mary poised to make her way in 1860s London, entirely on her own terms. To me, this feels like a triumph.

Like all good endings, this final pub date has made me think about Mary Quinn’s beginnings. One of the best questions I’ve ever been asked, as a writer, was a couple of years ago at Kingston WritersFest. It was from a high school student. While I can’t remember her precise words, it went something like this: “The premise for the Agency is clearly a fantasy. But you’ve chosen to write the novels as realist historical fiction. Why did you decide to blend the two?” Isn’t that a beautifully analytical question?

To mark the publication of Mary Quinn’s last adventure, here’s my answer, in the form of a short essay about what I call “ahistorical fiction”. (If you don’t want to read expository writing, I’ve posted the first chapter of Rivals in the City here, for you.) If you’re curious about the idea of ahistorical fiction, please read on. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Ahistorical Fiction

My title is neither a typo nor a lousy pun. I really meant “ahistorical fiction”, which I define as a subset of historical fiction that includes elements which stand apart from mainstream history. I’m not talking about fantasy (set in an imagined world that may or may not straddle our own) or speculative fiction (which includes fantastic, supernatural or futuristic worlds). Neither do I mean fiction that is broadly anachronistic (Napoleon with a smartphone!) or counter-historical (undermining the very idea of history). Today, I’m here to defend the use of ahistorical elements in otherwise realist historical fiction.

The obvious, reflexive objections are:
1. Doesn’t that undermine historical fiction as a genre?
2. Why bother with ahistorical fiction at all? Why not write something else?

My short answers:
1. No, it enriches it.
2. See answer no. 1.

Are you ready for my longer answers? In the afterword to Code Name: Verity, Elizabeth Wein explains some of her plot choices and acknowledges that her first priority is not perfect historical accuracy. Instead, she says, her goal is simply to tell a really good story. I like that justification; it’s at the core of my writerly impulse, too. And Wein makes it sound so clean and easy. But I think it skims over some of the tricky decisions and border-drawing that happens when writers carefully include ahistorical elements in their work.

When we use ahistorical elements, we’re being selective. We’re not haphazardly inventing conveniences to rescue a stalled plot or sprinkling in some cute embellishments. Instead, we’re trying to open up our understanding of historical relationships. For Wein, this is having an English girl pilot crash-land in Nazi-occupied France. For me, in the Mary Quinn mysteries, it’s the creation of a women’s detective agency in 1850s London. In both cases, the ahistorical element is technically possible (just about). For my detective agency, I’m leaning on two historical precedents: the beginning of progressive girls’ education in the mid-nineteenth century (Bedford College was founded in 1849) and the career of Aphra Behn, the eighteenth-century playwright and spy. (The Agency is also an affectionate homage to Miss Climpson’s “typing bureau” in Dorothy L Sayers’s Peter Wimsey novels.) These specific historical leaps allow writers a different way of asking the big question at the heart of historical fiction: what if?

When I began to write A Spy in the House, the first Mary Quinn novel, I wanted to focus on an orphan girl without any advantages of money, social status, or education. I quickly realized that such a novel would be a swift, bumpy descent from poverty to prostitution to prison and, almost inevitably, early death. (This last sentence basically gives away the plot of Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin, which I highly recommend. It’s a gorgeously excessive tragedy not the least bit diminished by its inescapable ending.) Yet I wanted to rescue my protagonist, not sentence her to death. I decided to play with ideas of power by giving my orphan, Mary, a quasi-realistic opportunity to make her own way in the world: a handful of allies, a good education, a job that was more than underpaid drudgery. She would carry with her the baggage of her childhood suffering, but she would have a second chance. It was my way of using fiction to right an ongoing injustice. It was also a way to, in David Copperfield’s words, make Mary the hero of her own story.

Ahistorical elements in historical fiction are a way of rearranging the furniture. They’re also a bit like social history’s quarrel with the great-man narrative of history: what about everybody else? What if we shift our focus away from what’s always been there, and ask a different question? The use of ahistorical elements is born of love and respect for history and historical fiction. As in any relationship, though, sometimes you bump up against its limits. Sometimes you crane your neck, trying to see what exists outside its bounds. Sometimes, a fresh idea knocks you breathless. And once you’ve considered it, it helps you to see your old love anew.

Bookmark and Share

In the presence of misogyny

May 28th, 2014

Sometimes, I despair of this world and the people it contains.

I try to work hard, to take responsibility for my mistakes, to be grateful for my privileged life, to see the world from other people’s vantage points. I try to raise my children to do the same. I try to remember that most people in my life do so, too. I try to remember that there are many, many decent and reasonable people in the larger world. And then something like the Isla Vista killings occurs – only a month after the terrorist kidnapping of some 270 Nigerian schoolgirls. I haven’t a single wise thing to say about either.

Here’s an excerpt from one of the most insightful responses to Elliot Rodger’s killings I’ve read so far, by Laurie Penny in the New Statesman. (Thank you, Vee, for posting this to Facebook.)

The ideology behind these attacks – and there is ideology – is simple. Women owe men. Women, as a class, as a sex, owe men sex, love, attention, “adoration”, in Rodger’s words. We owe them respect and obedience, and our refusal to give it to them is to blame for their anger, their violence – stupid sluts get what they deserve. Most of all, there is an overpowering sense of rage and entitlement: the conviction that men have been denied a birthright of easy power.

from “Let’s call the Isla Vista killings what they were: misogynist extremism”, 25 May 2014

The Belle Jar is equally thoughtful:

We don’t know if Elliot Rodger was mentally ill. We don’t know if he was a “madman.” We do know that he was desperately lonely and unhappy, and that the Men’s Rights Movement convinced him that his loneliness and unhappiness was intentionally caused by women. Because this is what the Men’s Rights Movement does: it spreads misogyny, it spreads violence, and most of all it spreads a sense of entitlement towards women’s bodies. Pretending that this is the a rare act perpetrated by a “crazy” person is disingenuous and also does nothing to address the threat of violence that women face every day.

from “Elliot Rodger and Men Who Hate Women”, The Belle Jar, 24 May 2014

I hope you’ll read both linked articles in full. I’d appreciate knowing what you think.

My overwhelming sense is of a need for urgent action: we have to push back. We need to weed out any sense of entitlement in ourselves and in our children. We need to speak up in the presence of misogyny, and do so persistently and constructively and fearlessly.

And that is always the hardest part.

Bookmark and Share

And suddenly, BOOM

May 21st, 2014

Hello, friends. Like almost everybody else along the eastern seaboard, we’ve been holding our breaths for spring. Most people agree that we’re about a month behind the usual weather and temperatures. But suddenly, last week, spring SPRANG. The grass seemed to turn green overnight. Trees budded and blossomed. Perennials leapt into action.

The third weekend in May is a holiday, here. Absurdly enough, it’s called Victoria Day, in honour of the long-dead monarch of another country (May 24 was Queen Victoria’s birthday; only Canadians know that). It’s the traditional holiday weekend when people open up their summer cottages, go sailing, and light fireworks. In our family, we garden. Here are some images of how I spent my long weekend.

strawberry fieldsStrawberries! We planted these last year and forgot to pinch off the blossoms, so I was relieved and excited to see what promises to be a good haul. Each blossom will turn into a strawberry.

IMG_1735Rhubarb from our friends Michelle and Brian. We have to leave it alone this year if we want the plant to establish itself permanently. It’s hard, though. I keep dreaming of roasted rhubarb, this slow-poached rhubarb, these rhubarb hazelnut squares.


This year, our five-year-old son has his own little garden bed in which he’s planted seeds of his choosing. He selected only things he likes to eat: cherry tomatoes, sunflowers, butternut squash, and watermelon.


Our bleeding heart bush gets bigger and more bodacious every year.


The magnolia tree is still small and slow – a couple of weeks behind the long-established ones in the neighbourhood – but I love it so.

IMG_1742Sour-cherry blossoms. When we bought this tree in the fall, we were thinking only about the fruit. It was such a lovely surprise this spring to see the blossoms appear.

Those photos are a good summary of my weekend. I pruned, I weeded, I seeded, I transplanted. (I read, too, of course – but not in daylight hours!) Is it spring where you are, friends? What did you get up to?


Bookmark and Share

Suddenly, it’s very real

May 14th, 2014

Hello, friends. One of the strangest things about writing a book is knowing – or, more accurately, discovering – that it’s done. I mean finally, irrevocably, too-late-to-change-a-comma done. For me, this revelation usually foists itself upon me when I open an envelope from my lovely editor at Walker Books, Mara Bergman.

Rivals in the City (Walker Books ed)

It’s not that I’ve been unconscious throughout the editorial stages, of course. But editing is very much a process that clips along on someone else’s timeline. An email pings, a package of page proofs arrives; I look things up, I shuffle words. There’s usually a very tight deadline, which means that I’m working late into the night, and never have the chance to do the final read-through I really want to do. And then the whole thing vanishes again.

Eventually, however, my words come back to me and they’ve been transmogrified. They’re sandwiched between covers – in this case, one that’s embossed! There is my dedication, standing alone. There is the sharp, sawdust aroma of printer’s ink on paper. And so much work – thousands of hours, dozens of people – compressed into an object you can balance upon your palm.

It’s a gorgeous moment. It makes me gasp and feel proud and foolish and grateful and incredulous, every time. (It’s also a terrifying moment: there will be errata.) But more than anything, I am ready. I can’t wait for Rivals in the City to make its way into the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.

Three weeks, now.


Bookmark and Share

Nostalgia and serendipity

May 7th, 2014

Hello, friends. I spent yesterday morning very happily shuttling around libraries.

The first was Stauffer Library, the humanities and social sciences library at the university where I did my PhD. You could say I know my way around it. For a few years, it was as familiar to me as my own apartment. I had the positions of the stacks memorized; I knew which photocopiers worked best; I was on nodding terms with even the crustiest of staff. Heck, I had a personal study carrel on the fourth floor, with a lockable shelf where I kept my books. Nerd aristocracy, that was me.

Until yesterday, I hadn’t been back to Stauffer since that slightly bittersweet day when I returned the last of my library books and gave up the key to my study carrel. (I really loved that study carrel. I wrote tens of thousands of words in that carrel.) And then, this week, I needed to borrow a book. I was curious how the library might have changed, whether it would smell familiar, how they might have reinvented the “information commons”, aka the place where everybody used to check email at rows of sticky-keyed public computers. I was expecting a pleasant compare-and-contrast.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the rush of nostalgia that welled within me when I touched the outer door. Even the resistance of the door against my arm, the curvature of its handle in my palm, felt absurdly right. I crossed the foyer (empty, now that the academic year is over), entered the library itself, and suddenly, I was back. The only slightly discordant note was the absence of my backpack. I don’t think I’d ever entered that library without its weight on my shoulders.

After finding my book (I went to the wrong end of the stacks at first), I walked a circuit of the fourth floor. I even paid a visit to my former study carrel. Stauffer is still a terrific place to work: quiet, with lots of natural light. But I felt like a tourist there, an outsider who should know when to move along. And that’s appropriate, too.

Nostalgia is a fundamentally limited emotion or approach; it gilds the view, offers a shiver of delight, and little more. Worse, I think it inhibits more productive thoughts or feelings from developing. That’s a realization I’ll need to hold fast as I continue work on The Next Book. The past is elusive enough, without the fog of nostalgia.

After leaving Stauffer, I continued to the public library. And there, in the Friends of the Library’s book sale, was this:

Shinozaki, Synonan My Story

Syonon: My Story, by Mamoru Shinozaki, is a memoir that’s been hovering at the edges of my research for The Next Book. I’ve thought, repeatedly, must chase that down. And there it was, sandwiched between The Wealthy Barber and What is My Cat Thinking? (I swear I didn’t make that up.) Really, what were the chances? And what if I’d given in to nostalgia and sat down to work at Stauffer? I might never have found Shinozaki.

Some of the most serendipitous moments of my life have been in libraries. How about you, friends? Have you had any big moments – serendipitous, nostalgic, or otherwise – in libraries, lately?

Bookmark and Share