The Downstairs Girl, our ParnassusNext selection for August, tells the story of Jo Kuan, lady’s maid by day and pseudonymous advice columnist by night. In 1890 Atlanta, Jo lives in a secret underground basement with her uncle as they make their way in the margins of society.
Stacey Lee tells stories of young women who have fallen through the cracks of history. I fell in love with her writing while reading her first novel and I am often putting her novels Under a Painted Sky and Outrun the Moon into the hands of YA readers at Parnassus. I am thrilled to interview Stacey and I can’t wait for you to read her new book. —Rae Ann Parker, Director of Books and Events for Young Readers
Rae Ann Parker: The Downstairs Girl is a historical novel with many themes that today’s readers can identify with. How did Jo’s story come to you and what do you hope readers take away from it?
Stacey Lee: I had always wanted to write a story set in the South. When I learned that Chinese laborers were shipped in post-Civil War to replace the field slaves, the idea of my story began to take root. I had known that ‘yellow peril’ had caused some Chinese to take extreme measures to be safe from scapegoating, like living underground. These communities are still being unearthed today.
Jo, who lives underground, symbolizes anyone who feels she must somehow hide the truth of herself because of societal or familial expectations. It might feel safer to stay hidden away, but safer is not always better. We all have things to say. Learning how to speak up helps us feel valued and a part of the community. And by honing our voices, we can change the world.
RAP: The effect of the Chinese Exclusion Act, an immigration ban in the late 19th and early 20th century, and the reception of women of color in the suffrage movement are woven throughout the novel’s storyline. Your books share stories of people who may not often be seen on the pages of YA novels. Why is it important to you to write stories for young adults?
SL: I think the “young adult” age is such a critical period of our lives. Young adults are still young enough to dream of magic and possibility, yet old enough to think for themselves and to begin to make real change in the world. I love that sweet spot.
RAP: Your main character Jo is an advice columnist, writing under a pseudonym. I think her willingness to give advice through the newspaper when many of her readers would not listen to her if they met face to face is a fascinating display of her character. Writing the advice column must have been fun. What was your favorite letter you wrote for the novel?
SL: Yes, it was so fun to take on an alter-ego. My favorite letter:
Dear Miss Sweetie,
My sisters and I wonder why must women suffer a few days each month?
Bloated, Crampy, and Spotty
Dear Bloated, Crampy, and Spotty,
Because the alternative is worse, although they do get to vote.
There were so many “taboo” subjects that were not allowed to be discussed in polite Victorian company, but that Miss Sweetie faces head on. Plus, it’s always satisfying when I can kill two birds with one stone (e.g., working the suffrage angle in there).
RAP: You read Atlanta newspapers from the time period in your research for the book. Did you read anything that fits into the category of “truth is stranger than fiction”?
SL: It was fascinating to read about all snake oils being peddled, like “Cocaine Hair Dressing,” and “Obesity Bath Powder,” which was just baking soda. I guess there will always be a market for body insecurities!
RAP: If you could travel back in time to spend one day with Jo, what would she tell you about herself?
SL: She would tell me her ideas, that it’s important to work hard, but to take time to ride your horse, too. I believe if I asked her what piece of advice she would give young people today, she would say to: 1) take up a hobby (she recommends knot-tying); 2) wear a hat, and 3) get involved with your community. Someone needs you to make a difference!
RAP: And finally, we ask everyone: what’s your favorite thing about indie bookstores?
SL: It’s hard to pick one thing! I love indie bookstores because they are such lovely, civilized places. People there are smart, helpful, and there’s always something to talk about.