The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee is making its way into the world today. I’ve really enjoyed Stacey’s previous novels so I’m thrilled that it’s finally available to all of us.
Summary: By day, seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan works as a lady’s maid for the cruel daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Atlanta. But by night, Jo moonlights as the pseudonymous author of a newspaper advice column for the genteel Southern lady, “Dear Miss Sweetie.” When her column becomes wildly popular, she uses the power of the pen to address some of society’s ills, but she’s not prepared for the backlash that follows when her column challenges fixed ideas about race and gender.
While her opponents clamor to uncover the secret identity of Miss Sweetie, a mysterious letter sets Jo off on a search for her own past and the parents who abandoned her as a baby. But when her efforts put her in the crosshairs of Atlanta’s most notorious criminal, Jo must decide whether she, a girl used to living in the shadows, is ready to step into the light.
To help celebrate release day, Stacey Lee answered a few questions about her new book and her writing life.
CB: As I started reading an excerpt of The Downstairs Girl, it struck me that like a costume designer for a period drama, your book likely required researching fashions of the 1890s. Are clothes something you have an interest in and did you have any challenges or fun discoveries during your research?
SL: I absolutely love clothes and I enjoyed this part of the research process. I was surprised to see how fast fashion changed, notwithstanding limitations like the cost of fabric and the time it took to sew an outfit. But like today, what was in season last fall could be very different than what’s in season this fall, and those in the know had to keep up to remain if they wanted to be invited to the good parties. I also found it fascinating to see how political currents affected fashion. With the freedom afforded by the advent of bicycles, women started getting rid of their corsets and wearing bloomer-style trousers. And a hundred years later, we have yoga pants, and isn’t life so much easier because of it?
CB: What are some of the situations Jo encounters that are related to being not only a woman, but a woman of color?
SL: Simply walking down the street is an act of subversion for Jo/Miss Sweetie. It wasn’t quite proper for single women to walk unescorted down the street, and as a Chinese woman, she got more than her share of strange looks, some of them hostile. Blacks were expected to give way on the sidewalk for whites; for Jo, she just did her best to blend in and not attract too much notice.
CB: Can you share some examples of the type of questions Miss Sweetie answers in her column?
SL: Miss Sweetie speaks on everything from the politics to love, and especially love. Here’s an example of one of her columns:
Dear Miss Sweetie,
My sisters and I wonder why must women suffer a few days each month?
Bloated, Crampy, and Spotty
Dear Bloated, Cramoy, and Spotty,
Because the alternative is worse, although they do get to vote.
CB: Are there aspects of society in 1890s Atlanta that mirror issues we are experiencing in the US in the present?
SL: Definitely. We like to think we’ve come a long way toward racial and gender equality, but we still have miles to go. Racism is systemic and deep and will require people to be brave like Miss Sweetie and stand up for what they believe in, if we ever want things to change.
CB: The cover of The Downstairs Girl is absolutely gorgeous. On your Instagram account, I’ve seen several lovely pictures of your book along with tea cups. Does tea play a part in the story or is it just a big part of your life?
SL: I do love tea. There’s something very civilized and comforting about it. And Southerners do love their sweet tea. A novel set in the South about Chinese people without tea would be true travesty.
CB: What would a perfect writing day look like for you?
SL: A perfect writing day would involve a shady spot in a sunny location with a view of nature and an internet connection. Snacks, too.
CB: Thanks so much for taking time to share with us! I look forward to meeting Jo/Miss Sweetie.
Stacey Lee’s earlier novels are Under a Painted Sky [My review], Outrun the Moon [My review], and The Secret of a Heart Note [My review]. You may find her online at her website, on Twitter @staceyleeauthor, on Facebook, and on Instagram.