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Y. S. Lee

As a child

I was born in Singapore and lived there until I was two and a half. At that age, I spoke English, Chinese and Malay. Then, my family emigrated to Canada and I promptly forgot everything except English. I’m still a bit annoyed about that. I grew up in Vancouver and Toronto, was bookish and bespectacled, played the piano (not well), danced ballet (even worse), raced a BMX bike (briefly!) and read while walking (through hallways, going to school, on the way home…). My favourite authors were L M Montgomery and Madeleine L’Engle, but I was voracious rather than picky. I’d read odd and “inappropriate” grown-up books rather than go bookless.

As an adult

I spent a long time at university, did three degrees, and really enjoyed them all. My PhD thesis was, quite accidentally, the starting point for The Agency trilogy: while researching working-class culture in the Victorian era, I found an article about foreign sailors who settled in Liverpool, married English women and had families. That got me thinking about port towns, polyglot communities, and the kind of girl who might come from that sort of background. A couple of years later, that theoretical girl became my heroine, Mary Quinn. People sometimes ask if I “always” wanted to write, and it’s true I had a lifelong habit of writing bits and scraps for my own satisfaction. But I only found the courage to write a novel through my husband, who told me that yes, my stuff was good enough. Thanks, Nick.

As an artist

A Spy in the House is my first novel and it went through a few incarnations. I began it as a historical novel about the Great Stink, but hadn’t much sense of where things were going. Then, searching for structure, I wrapped the core ideas around a mystery plot and wrote a 95,000-word novel for adults. It was my agent who observed that I’d written a coming-of-age story, and why not shape it for YA readers? I’m so glad she did. I shed 30,000 words, a couple of characters, and a secondary subplot, and it’s a much tighter, zippier novel as a result. For more about me, please visit

Things you didn't know about Y S Lee

  1. I have tried, and tried, and tried to learn to wolf-whistle. Can’t do it.
  2. But I can stand on my head.
  3. And have double-jointed elbows!
  4. I am afraid of prunes and cream sherry. Also, earnestness.
  5. When I was five or so, I broke my nose.
  6. There’s a bump on the bridge of my nose as a result, and I like it.
  7. I cry every time I read Middlemarch (by George Eliot. Highly recommended.)
  8. My favourite TV show is Dr Who.
  9. My first paid job was cleaning my parents’ bathroom for $5 a week. Slave labour!
  10. My favourite magazines are The New Yorker, Azure and Top Gear.

Website links:

Y S Lee

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