Stacey Lee, Young Adult Author of Under a Painted Sky

Young adult fiction is really popular right now, but people may not realize there’s more to the genre than just dystopias and John Green. One of the most acclaimed and unique YA debuts of 2015 was UNDER A PAINTED SKY, by UC Davis law school alum Stacey Lee. A historical western about a Chinese-American violinist and a runaway slave who disguise themselves as boys during the California Gold Rush, the book garnered star reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, and has a strong 4.0 rating on Goodreads. I reached out to Stacey Lee to talk about her books, the path to publication, and diversity in YA fiction.

HC: You went to UC Davis as a grad student and got a degree in law! Can you tell us about your experience with that, and how you made the transition from law to writing? 

SL: UC Davis King Hall School of Law was an amazing experience. As an extreme introvert who likes to sit at the back of the room, I was a bit of a fish out of water and I lived in constant fear of being called on in class via the Socratic Method. What I didn't expect was how law school would sharpen my writing. Adverbs and adjectives are scrutinized very carefully. For me, that translated to clean, tight prose.

I practiced law for almost a decade before getting married and leaving my job. It wasn't a hard transition at all, as I'd been writing 'for fun' every since I was a kid and suddenly I had the time to focus on the craft of it. Those carefree days didn't last long though. Soon after I quit, I started having kids. Now I only write between the hours of 9 pm and 1 am.

HC: What was the inspiration behind your debut novel? Did you do a lot of research? Were there any western movies or other books that influenced you? 

SL: My mother's side came to the US via California in the late nineteenth century, and I'd always wondered what life would've been like for a Chinese girl at that time. My dad arrived in the fifties, traveling by himself at age 11 to a country that didn't want another Chinese kid. There were Chinese Exclusion Laws back then. Dad loved western movies, and I think he always envisioned himself as a bit of a cowboy, growing up in hostile territory, him against the world. So these two elements converged into the story of a Chinese girl in 19th century America using the vehicle of a western.

Slavery was an open issue in the mid-19th century and the idea that Sammy might have a traveling companion who is a runaway slave intrigued me. Sammy and Annamae are contrasts, yet share similar values.

And yes, I did a lot of research, starting with the children's section of the library. Once I sunk my teeth into the Gold Rush and Westward Expansion, I graduated to more adult materials, including pioneer diaries and accounts of slaves. Also, I did field trips, like visiting a working ranch, Asian American museums, hiking the California emigrant trail, talking to forest rangers, and attending a cowboy cookout where I met a 90 year old maker of stagecoaches and wagons.

HC: What drew you toward writing YA fiction? How about historical fiction? 

SL: Someone once said that we write from the age in which we're still working out issues! I hope that's not true for me, but I do enjoy writing about the coming-of-age experience, something everyone can relate to. Feelings are so raw and new, and every experience is felt so keenly. Juicy stuff!

I love reading historical fiction and so perhaps that's why I write it.

HC: Could you give us an idea of the day-to-day life of a writer?

SL: For me, when I'm in active writing mode, I try to turn out 2,000 words a day. A book always starts with a series of emotional beats which I hope to hit, and the story gets filled in from there. I am a 'pantster' —someone who writes without too much of an outline, as I find that the process of writing often takes me to places that I don't expect/can't predict.

HC: What can you tell us about the process of getting your novel published? 

SL: My agent told me it would be an uphill climb to sell this book as historical fiction rather than a hot seller. We were rejected 26 times before the last publisher asked for a revision, which ended up leading to a sale. After sale, it takes about eighteen months to get through the editing process. There are several rounds of edits where you're working closely with your main editor. After the bulk of those edits are done, the manuscript will go through copyedits, content edits, first pass pages, proofreading—lots of steps along the way.

HC: In addition to writing, you're a team member at the We Need Diverse Books campaign, which champions greater diversity in children's and teen's literature. Can you tell us more about WNDB and its mission? 

SL: We Need Diverse Books is a non-profit organization founded in May of 2014 for the purpose of promoting diversity in children's literature. It grew from dissatisfaction about the numbers of diverse narratives being published—only about 7.5% of all children's books contain diversity despite our population being almost 40% diverse. This number hasn't changed for about thirty years. As readers, we need to demand more diverse books from publishers, supporting diverse authors (e.g., buying their books, or requesting them at libraries), reviewing them, and sharing them with others.

HC: So what’s next for you?

My second historical is out this May—OUTRUN THE MOON, about a Chinese girl who impersonates an heiress to gain entry into an all-white school but her plans are shaken up when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake hits.

I also write contemporary YA fiction; CATCH A FALLING HEART is out in December 2016 from Katherine Tegen/Harper Collins, about a teenaged perfumer with an extraordinary nose who accidentally fixes the mother of the school soccer star with the wrong love elixir, and has to undo her mistake before her mother finds out. This one was inspired by my own strange nose!

HC: What advice would you give to college students who might be interested in writing? 

SL: Be persistent. It doesn't happen over night, and when it does, we all hate those writers.

Thanks to Stacey for such a phenomenal interview. Under a Painted Sky is out in bookstores now, and be sure to check out Outrun the Moon when it comes out May 24!