The heroine of Rebecca Lee’s debut novel, The City Is a Rising Tide, is Justine Laxness, a young 30-something working for an alternative-medicine nonprofit in New York in the early ’90s.

The nonprofit, whose funding has come mostly from an eccentric millionaire now under investigation by the IRS, wants to build a hospice in China–but the site it purchased has just been annexed (without compensation) by the Chinese government for the expansion of the Three Gorges Dam. Justine is the only one who knows; she hasn’t told her boss yet, because despite an 18-year age difference and the fact that he knew her when she was a child, she’s in love with him, and wants only to protect him from the failure of his dream–at any cost.

What makes the book work is the same thing that made Lee’s reading at the Regulator last month so enjoyable: the sharp, subtle and bitingly sarcastic wit that permeates every utterance both character and author make. Lee, a professor of creative writing at UNC-Wilmington, followed her uproarious reading with an enlightening and wide-ranging question-and-answer session that meandered from the book’s title (“I thought for sure they’d make me change it”) to her bittersweet relationships with her copy editors (“They’re like your significant other for three months, then you never hear from them again”) to her next project (a historical screenplay about a love triangle among Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lydia Emerson and Henry David Thoreau) to songs for Chinese youth that heroize Mao Tze Tung, to insider gossip about the Iowa Writing Workshop.

The City spans the globe, with scenes in China, New York, Saskatchewan and even here in North Carolina. But, as she told me in an interview following her reading, the 10-year project all started with a single image.

“It started as a short story that, instead of closing down, just kept getting bigger and bigger,” she said. “There was an image at one point of the main character meeting with an old friend at the South Street Seaport. They’re standing there, the moon is over his shoulder, and she fantasizes that the moon is the earth and they’re dead or something and they’re looking back at the earth.

“So I had that imagine and I just kept unpacking it, thinking: Well, who is he? I knew he was a childhood friend, but what has happened in his life that he’s now meeting up with her? And really technical questions: What’s her job? And that brought me into the nonprofit world. Things just accrued to that image, and the whole book grew out of it.”

The book’s focus on China, which provides Lee’s novel with a central metaphor that enriches nearly every narrative and thematic thread, came about as a kind of happy accident. “I don’t know how I even got to China,” she said. “I think the characters needed a project, and I’d spent some time in Hong Kong. I’ve started to notice what subjects make it into one’s writing, in terms of what you’ve lived, and there’s a lag of about five years for me, where something happens and five years later it has enough associations in my brain to be interesting and come out in my writing.”

Five years, of course, also happens to be precisely the length of time which has passed since the World Trade Center was destroyed, and although nothing related to the War on Terror is ever mentioned in the book, there’s an almost
palpable sense of pre-9/11 nostalgia hanging over the whole novel, a longing for the way things used to be. The first line refers to the now-demolished Fulton Fish Market, and the Twin Towers themselves make an appearance late in the novel.

“The view out my window was the World Trade Center towers,” Lee explained, “and they’re suddenly gone. I had a lot of images of them in the book, and I had to take a lot of them out, because I felt like I was making too much of a point of it. When that happened, it felt like nobody could ever write about New York City ever again without invoking that. Now all these books are coming out about 9/11, so it’s just the amount of time that we let pass, again five years, where now it seems OK.”

The impermanence of the prosperity of the 1990s, our retrospective awareness that the good times couldn’t last, is the perfect atmosphere for The City Is a Rising Tide. Justine narrates the story from a time 10 or more years after the events described, and repeatedly hints of very bad times to come.

Lee is often asked in particular about the book’s understated and ominous ending, which leaves many readers wanting more. In the book it’s called ‘the room before the pain,’” she said. “There’s a time before terrible things happen that seems great when you think back to that time, that’s when things were still good. And I wanted to end on that time, and I don’t really know why. To me, it felt like the most alive time, before things turned bad.”

“Fiction can’t accept things right when they’re happening,” she added. “Maybe it’s boring but I think about this all the time–I’ve noticed that technology in fiction lags way behind. When I was in grad school in the early ’90s, you could barely write about an answering machine without
somebody being like, ‘Oh, aren’t we fancy?’”

Having spent so much of her life in writing workshops, first taking them and now teaching them, does Lee ever imagine bringing her own work into her classroom, to see what her students might say about it?

“Some people do that. They bring their work in and they let the students talk about it. I would die. I’m horrified that they’re even reading this book now, our graduate students. I get an e-mail from the occasional one this summer: ‘I just bought your book.’ I feel like saying, ‘Don’t read it! Don’t do as I do!’”