Visiting Author Series: Stacey Lee

We’re delighted to welcome Stacey Lee to Sixteen to Read’s Visiting Author Series. Stacey published her debut novel, the critically acclaimed Under a Painted Sky, with Putnam in 2015. In May 2016, she followed it up with Outrun the Moon, which Kirkus has called “powerful, evocative, and thought-provoking.” Stacey’s third novel, The Secret of a Heart Note, is due out from Katherine Tegen Books on December 27.

Sixteen to Read’s Sonya Mukherjee recently chatted with Stacey about writing, publishing, and what she’s learned so far.

Stacey, thanks so much for taking the time to drop by. To begin, we’d love to hear about the earliest stages of your career. What was the querying process like for you with your first book, Under a Painted Sky?

I began querying when I was fifteen, and that was a very long time ago, before there were computers. All told, I queried about seven different projects at various stages of my life, from picture books to YA. Each project received more nibbles than the prior one, and so I knew I was moving in the right direction at least. Plus, with the advent of the Internet, it became easier to figure out what I was doing right or wrong through sites like Query Shark.

For more detailed information about perfecting a query letter, my agent Kristin Nelson of Nelson Literary Agency and I chatted about my original query for UAPS at Literary Rambles.

What aspect of the publishing experience was most surprising for you that first time around? And what was the most fun?

I was surprised by how many people it takes to make a book. There are so many people involved with getting a book on the shelf, marketing people, salespeople, publicists—I’m still not sure I met everyone who worked on UAPS! The most fun was meeting some great author friends along the way. I couldn’t have done it without their support!

Your first two novels were both historical, while The Secret of a Heart Note, which comes out next, is contemporary. What drew you to writing historical characters and settings? And after starting with historical, what appealed to you about contemporary?

As a fourth generation Californian, I always wondered about those Chinese ancestors of mine who first touched down on American soil. So that’s what led me to write UAPS, as well as my second historical, Outrun the Moon. But I also love writing in other genres, like contemporary with a little magic, which is how I describe The Secret of a Heart Note. That one arose from my odd synesthetic ability to ‘hear’ different scents and my interest in natural perfumery. It’s different animal than my historicals, but everyone who has read it says they can tell it’s me who wrote it.

What’s your writing process like? Has it changed over time?

I brainstorm on paper. I take lots of walks to develop those ideas, then plot out some emotional beats I’d like to hit. Then I start writing soon after I get a general outline going. It’s definitely an organic process for me, and often what and who I intend to write about changes along the way.

You’ve been quite prolific. Your first book just came out last year, and you have two out in 2016. How do you balance your writing time with all the other tasks related to publishing and promoting your work? Do you have set schedules or plans that help you divide your time?

I don’t watch TV! I just have to clip bits of time here and there and hope and pray it all gets done! With two kids, it’s definitely a challenge because I don’t start writing until around 9 or 10 pm. I stop around 1 or 2 am.

Can you share anything about what you’re working on next?

Another historical that might or might not involve stagecoaches. J

Lightning round:

Favorite writing beverage: iced coffee with almond milk

Favorite place to write: in my home office

Music to write by: I need quiet. I get too distracted by song lyrics.

Last book you read: I’m reading The Reader by Traci Chee.

Author from the past you’d most want to meet: LA Meyer, author of the Bloody Jack series, who passed away in 2015.

First thing you’d do if you could time travel to one of your novels’ settings: What a great question. I’d learn how to ride a horse.

Best thing about living in the 21st century when not time traveling: Anesthesia.


Sonya Mukherjee shares her inspiration for “Gemini”

A few years ago, I watched a documentary about Abigail and Brittany Hensel, twin sisters who are conjoined in a side-to-side position, sharing just two arms and two legs. At the time, they were high school students living in Minnesota. The documentary showed quite a few different aspects of their lives, from the medical concerns when they were born to how they shopped for clothes. But through it all, there was a strong sense that despite being conjoined, these two girls were basically very typical, all-American teenagers—normal, well-adjusted, and comfortable with themselves.

Sonya Mukherjee photo

I was immediately impressed with the Hensel twins, and with their family, who clearly had done an amazing job of allowing them to become independent, confident, and well-integrated in their community. And a few years later, when Abby and Brittany starred in a reality TV series that showed them finishing college, I was, if anything, even more impressed with their transition to adulthood. They were driving a car, playing volleyball, and interviewing for teaching jobs, and they were doing it all with confidence and grace.

That first glimpse into the Hensels’ lives got me thinking a lot about their situation, and feeling very curious about what it would be like. I also found myself thinking that in many ways, Abby and Brittany seemed more like my image of regular teenaged girls than I had ever felt myself to be in my own teen years.

In adolescence, I often felt awkward, odd, and unsure of myself. I am actually a pretty average, typical person, residing in a pretty average, typical body. But unlike the Hensels, who cheerfully describe themselves as being “just like everyone else,” I never felt that I was just like everyone else. And I actually had very mixed feelings about that. While one part of me feared being too weird, another part rebelled against normalcy, feeling that I wanted to be unique, and that normalcy represented stultifying conformity and convention.

To be clear, I have not met the Hensel twins, and their documentary and reality series are all I know of them. For all I know, one or both of them may also have a complicated relationship with normalcy. I’m sure they have private thoughts and feelings that they didn’t share on camera, and I have no way of knowing what those might be. I only know the personalities that they presented to the cameras.

Those public personalities, though, form a stark contrast to the confusion of self-doubts, insecurities, and internal rebellions that I felt as an outwardly very ordinary teenager. And so, in watching them, I started to wonder: What if someone more like my teenage self—congenitally anxious about being too weird, and simultaneously chafing against the requirement to be normal—were in the situation of being a conjoined twin? What would that be like?

That question was the beginning of the inspiration for Gemini. It put me on the road to researching much more about this condition and the experiences of many different people who have lived conjoined lives. Not surprisingly, their personalities have varied a lot, and their experiences have, too.

In writing this story, I’ve tried to be true to what I’ve learned about those experiences, and to the feelings that real conjoined twins have talked about, while also creating two distinct protagonists who are not based on any specific real people—except that each of them, of course, has some of me in her.
I can only hope I’ve done justice to their story.