The story of a community of people raising fish in small, pristine glass tanks in dystopian America might seem far removed from reality. Chang-rae Lee revealed the story’s real-life origins as part of the Alpha Delta Phi Society visiting writer series, in a Tuesday night reading of his most recent book “On Such a Full Sea.”
Lee is an English professor at Stanford University and has published numerous short stories and novels, including “Native Speaker,” “A Gesture Life,” “Aloft,” “The Surrendered” and “On Such a Full Sea,” which was published in 2014.
“I never thought I would write such a book. I enjoyed science fiction as a kid, but I never wanted to write it,” Lee said.
The book depicts an eerie future, and grapples with love, a road trip, factory life and most of all community. The American Library Association recently named it a Notable Book of the Year.
Narrated in the first person plural perspective, the story presents everything through the eyes of the imaginary community B-Mor, which has risen from the remains of Baltimore.
The imagery of a post-apocalyptic city came to Lee as he was taking the train home from a writing conference in Washington, D.C. Lee was simultaneously captivated and frustrated by the deteriorating, seemingly forgotten urban neighborhoods in Baltimore.
Lee said he thought, “What if people from poisoned industrial communities in China moved in here?”
His research for the novel began with exploring factories along the Pearl River Delta in China. At the reading, Lee described one particular town he visited that was inhabited by mostly 18 to 21 year-olds who produced about 80 percent of the world’s miniature electric motors, by his own estimations.
Lee’s writing process is methodical. “I am certainly quite painstaking in terms of liking each sentence that I like. I want it to fit into the whole … I’ll probably work that sentence a dozen to 20 times before I move on,” he said.
This attention to detail has been evident since Lee began writing at a young age.
“I started writing poetry and stories equally … and got encouragement from some teachers, which for me was very important, because I was not someone that was raised with the idea that being a writer or being an artist was something that can be anything else besides a hobby,” said Lee.
Lee was born in South Korea and immigrated to the United States before he entered kindergarten. Having to learn English at that age, he reflected, has made him more deliberate with his diction and rhythm.
He encourages others to read more slowly.
“I would say it’s the difference between riding on highway 75 and walking that same road,” said Lee. “You notice a lot more. If you go that fast, you get the big picture, but you won’t get all the different levels of intent and accident.”
Lee, who scrapped the first draft of “On Such a Full Sea” when he realized it said nothing beyond what non-fiction writers had already published, believes fiction must be about more than the facts.
“A novel is not just about its subject. It’s not just about the information. A novel has to do something else; it has to exist and breathe on other levels,” he said.