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Interview: February 26, 2018

Mackenzi Lee is the bestselling author of THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE, an 18th-century romantic adventure featuring a young bisexual British lord, his best friend/secret crush and plenty of hedonistic hurrahs. Mackenzi drew upon her background in history to write her book, but soon realized that there were plenty of amazing historical women who deserved more attention and kicked off #BygoneBadassBroads, a weekly Twitter series where she spotlighted forgotten women. In BYGONE BADASS BROADS, Mackenzi shares the stories of 52 of these remarkable trailblazers from all over the world. In anticipation of the release of this incredible new book, we had the opportunity to ask Mackenzi about the success of her Twitter series, compiling stories for her new book and, of course, the gorgeous art. Read below for her answers! In the preface to BYGONE BADASS BROADS, you talk about being a history major and not seeing the types of badass ladies you had grown up reading about and, perhaps more important, not seeing any “nonwhite, nonwestern, not straight women.” Can you tell us more about your time as a history major and how it felt not seeing the kinds of women who had made you fall in love with the subject?

Mackenzi Lee: Half of my education was done abroad in England, where I worked on a thesis with a social historian whose specific area of study was women’s experiences during the Wars of the Roses. I knew I wanted to study Wars of the Roses when I arrived because I was obsessed with Shakespeare’s plays set during that time, but I hadn’t considered focusing on women in this conflict where the participants were almost exclusively male. Working with her and learning the names of the women who had a less visible hand in the conflict was the first time I began to become aware of how many women in  history had operated between the lines, manipulating men and running the show out of sight. It’s silly that I hadn’t realized it until then, but I had the sort of high school American education where women only showed up to be wives to powerful men. It was this work with this professor that led me to strike out on my own and start looking for the stories I wasn’t hearing in my history classes.

TRC: BYGONE BADASS BROADS began as a weekly Twitter series that became highly popular. How did you go about learning about the women who did not make the history books? What was your research process like?

ML: Lot of googling.

I now have places I know to look for the sort of history that has slipped between the cracks, and many very kind historians have shared sources with me. But in general, I just click on every link and read every story that may possibly contain a badass lady in history and follow every lead. They don’t all pan out into stories worth telling, but I chase them all just to be sure. 

TRC: Did you ever expect your series to take off? When did you know you had something special going on?

ML: No! I honestly thought I would lose all my Twitter followers (the few I had at the time) because everyone would get annoyed with me and all my wild threads about the sort of subjects I had always felt very alone in my obsession with.

TRC: Do you have any fan encounters that stand out from this time?

ML: The best email I’ve gotten was from a mom who said she and her daughter read my stories together. When her daughter was having a difficult time in middle school, she and her mom would use the stories from Bygone Badass Broads to inspire her. She would be brave like Irena Sendler. She wouldn’t care what people said about her, like Annie Cannon. She would stand up for others like Edith Garrud. It was an amazing email. I still think about it all the time, particularly when the world feels dark and scary. It’s always comforting to know that we walk in the shadows of thousands of women from history who have fought and survived and thrived in the face of oppression.  

TRC: Although you’ve written a few novels, including the explosively popular THE GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE, this is your first time writing nonfiction. How did BYGONE BADASS BROADS become a book? What was the transition from fiction to nonfiction like?

ML: I’ve always wanted to write nonfiction because of my history background, but never thought I’d be allowed to because I don’t have a PhD and my writing voice tends to be a little...informal. I originally took to Twitter to tell these stories because it was one of the places I felt like I could write completely in my voice. The transition has been surprisingly easy, partly because the team that worked on the book has been amazing and partly because it has been such a passion project for me. I feel so lucky I got to tell these stories--and continue to feel lucky that people want to read my versions in particular.

TRC: One advantage/disadvantage of Twitter is the character limit. Did you face any challenges when turning these tweets into longer format stories?

ML: The opposite! Breaking these long, often complex stories up for Twitter killed me. Getting to write them in long form was glorious! I could write complete sentences! Use line breaks for emphasis! I didn’t have to use abbreviations or … or 1/10. It was glorious.

TRC: Did any of the women you’ve tweeted about not make it into the book? If so, how did you choose the 52 women featured in the book?

ML: Yes, the book is about 60/40 women I’ve covered on Twitter and women who I haven’t. I wanted to make sure fans of the series had new stories to enjoy too. I have a list with hundreds of women on it that I had been using for the Twitter series, so, when deciding who to feature, I mapped out every woman’s ethnicity, location, religion, sexual identity, gender identity, area of expertise, and time period, because I wanted to make sure the collection represented the stories of diverse women. It’s important when we’re talking about women’s history to not just talk about the straight white women, even though their stories are often easier to find.

TRC: BYGONE BADASS BROADS is stunning, and your fans have really enjoyed the snippets of art you’ve been releasing on your Twitter. Can you tell us a bit about finding and working with the illustrator, Petra Eriksson? Do you have a favorite illustration from the book?

ML: I didn’t find or work with Petra at all--that was all done through my publisher. They hired her and she worked with the art director at Abrams. My part was so easy--I just got to swoon over a long string of delightful emails containing each subsequent portrait. Petra’s art is gorgeous, and I’ve loved her style from my first look at her Instagram. The colors and patterns and graphic shapes are the sort of bold style I’ve always been attracted to. I feel so lucky she was part of this project.

In terms of a favorite…, don’t make me pick! They’re all my favorite!

But I really want the dinosaur bones cape Mary Anning is wearing to be a real thing I could buy.

TRC: This is probably a tough question, but do you have a favorite forgotten female historical figure?  What about a favorite not-so-forgotten one?

ML: Again I scream DON’T MAKE ME CHOOSE! They’re all my favorites! So instead of picking favorites among the 52 women in the book, my favorite less forgotten and unfeatured woman (but who the first woman I featured as part of #BygoneBadassBroads on twitter) is Mary Shelley. My first book is a Frankenstein retelling, so she and her wild life have a special place in my heart. They form the foundation of my career, both in terms of the subject matter of my book, and the fact that she established the place of women women in speculative fiction, and I feel I owe her a debt for that.

TRC: If you could spend a day with any of the women featured in BYGONE BADASS BROADS, either in her era or ours, who would you choose and why? What would you two do?

ML: NO WHY DO YOU DO THIS TO ME IT IS SO HARD TO CHOOSE. I would never want to time travel because cholera and no clean water or internet. So I’d make her come to modern day. I would probably spend a day with La Maupin, the bisexual swordswoman opera singer hell raiser of 1600s Paris. It would be a day to remember.