Mackenzi Lee never planned to be a writer. She loved books as a kid but wasn’t a strong reader: She would mostly listen to audiobooks and read the same Star Wars novels over and over. As she got to her teens and started reading classics and adult fiction, she hated them so much that she stopped reading all together. “I started thinking about reading as a thing that was miserable and difficult and something that was done to torture people,” Lee says.
She still loved stories, though, and began finding them in history instead. “For me, history is just a collection of stories about people,” she says. “It sometimes feels like fantasy in that it feels like a world that is so different than ours that I cannot imagine living in it or that it really existed. But it did.”
She studied history in college with the intention of becoming an academic, but her courses’ narrow focus on straight white men and the narrative of the past that they had built frustrated her as a bisexual woman. “I got tired of queer people especially only being a tragic subplot on a BBC period drama because I was finding all these stories on my own of queer people in history who had had relationships and lived very openly with partners and had romantic lives and their community was fine with it,” she says.
Studying abroad in England, she was increasingly discouraged by the narrow perspective of historians and by realizing that she didn’t quite fit in to the academic world. “My mentor…told me once that my papers read like novels,” Lee says. “You can’t say things like ‘Richard III paced his tower angrily muttering, “I’ll get you next time!’’” Lee recalls her mentor saying. Lee was also traveling a lot and started reading again, since that’s what you do on planes, which led to rediscovering the books she had loved as a kid. Writing fiction started to seem like a logical next step.
Her second novel, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, distilled Lee’s interests into novel form: Monty, a fun-loving, bisexual British lord, embarks on a tour of 1700’s Europe with his sister Felicity and Percy, the bi-racial best friend he’s secretly in love with. It is a funny, queer and just a little bit magical adventure story—Lee’s favorite kind of story and, as it turns out, a lot of other peoples’.
Following the success of Gentleman’s Guide, Lee’s written a sequel, , which follows Felicity’s attempts to break into the medical field. After she’s repeatedly turned away from the medical schools of Great Britain because of gender, Felicity embarks on a madcap journey to reunite with an old friend, meet her idol, and hopefully jumpstart her career as a doctor.
Like Monty, Felicity is a very different kind of protagonist. She is purposefully prickly and superior and can often be unintentionally cruel to those who care about her. Even more radical is Felicity’s complete lack of interest in romantic or sexual relationships. “If she were a modern girl with a Tumblr and a Kinsey scale she would probably identify someplace on the asexual-aromantic spectrum,” Lee says.
This kind of representation is important to Lee: In addition to Monty and Felicity, the book includes a bi-racial, epileptic violinist and a queer Muslim pirate princess, as well as a diverse range of tertiary characters. “I want queer teenagers and disabled teenagers and asexual teenagers to know you have always been part of the narrative,” she says. “There have always been people like you and they have not just survived their life but had full, complete lives and done incredible things.”
Alex Heimbach is a writer and editor in California.