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Interview with Felicia Lee

Lee, Felicia
Davis, Daniel
Date of Interview: 
Relationships with people and places; Stories and storytellers
Felicia Lee talks about becoming a librarian, stories she read, and traveling.
Charlotte Narrative and Conversation Collection
Collection Description: 
Daniel Davis interviewed Charlotte, NC residents to collect various stories for a class project at UNC Charlotte.
FL (Felicia Lee): I think this is a wonderful idea what Danny is doing. I'm Felicia Lee, the Librarian or as they call it, the Media Coordinator at J.T. Williams Middle School. And books are my business and I love to, um, hear people talking about books and how they influence their lives. Because indeed they do. And when Danny was first telling me about reflecting back into my childhood and what books had such an impact, I am thinking how I used to be terribly scared of spiders and, uh, I just would scream and shriek and run the other way even though, uh, size relatively. Spiders a little old thing and I'm a great big old thing. But when Charlotte's Web was read to me, uh, all of a sudden I saw that, you know, Charlotte, uh, Charlotte was just a lovely little spider, sweet personality, marvelous story. Um, with, with her becoming the pig's friend and I'm no longer afraid of spiders. I admire their beautiful webs and, uh, the way they reproduce. Um, now if, uh, you know your dates and when Charlotte's Web was written [school bell sounds] OK. When the school bell rudely interrupted [chuckles] us, um, I was saying that if you know your dates, Charlotte's Web was written in 1952 [intercom announcement] There goes that thing. [More announcements over the P.A.] Turn that off. [Break in recording] Charlotte's Web was written in 1952. And, um, that's, you know, just, just barley scraping into my, uh, childhood. So it may, in fact, be something that I read subsequently. But I'm, I'm, uh, you know, letting it be part of my childhood. And getting rid of my fear of, uh, spiders and insects. OK. We'll go on to what really did, uh, influence me and that was Sinbad the Sailor. And those stories were read to me. That was a whole series, like the, uh, Bobbsy Twins or the Hardy Boys-type series except that I never read those.
DD (Daniel Davis): Uh-huh.
FL: But Sinbad the Sailor was a great adventurer, and, uh, sailed the Seven Seas and traveled all over the world. And my mother especially enjoyed reading those to me, because she herself was a traveler. She was an orphan, uh, who, uh, took off at age, uh, 18 from the orphanage on ( ) and, uh, got a job in China, uh, as a-.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: -Secretary at the embassy in what was called Peking, China then. And so the Sinbad the Sailor stories and her stories intertwined, uh, built this incredible lust, um, for me in travel. And now, at this stage in my life, I find very many of the books that I read are in fact travelogues. That's my favorite kind of reading, an adventure story.
DD: Um, has, so would you say that the book, has that influenced you to travel in your life? Like to go to different places?
FL: Very definitely and I have in fact. I did not strike out as early as my mother, but I was not an orphan. Um, I started my travels in my mid-twenties as soon as I could scrape together enough money and, uh, started making trips, uh, to Europe. [P.A. announcement] Wait until we get through these interruptions here. ( ) And I've got right now, I have two students who are coming to work in the library.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: And I need to, they are, um, seventh graders and I'm going to just get them set up with their assignment and I'll be right back.
DD: OK. [Video interrupted] Did, did, uh because of the story Sinbad the Sailor, uh, that, uh, influenced you to travel when you got older? Where are some of the different places? You mentioned Europe, where are some, some of the other places you have traveled?
FL: Right, yeah I, uh, uh, I've just about every country in Europe and then I went over into Turkey. And I did, in fact, take a boat all along the Turkish coast starting down near Syria and, uh, pulling into different ports all along the Turkish coast and, and up into Istanbul. And I really, uh, loved that. And it was also handy having my brother living over there in Turkey at the time.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: Um, my, my kin from my father's side are all from Germany. In fact, my father is from Germany. And so, uh, a lot of the travel that I do right now is, is, uh, to Germany, with them acting, uh, my cousin, uh, Verner who is in Dusseldorf acting as a tour guide, which is real nice having a native there. I have always longed to do the South Sea.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: And in fact, I have applied for jobs at different points in my career in, uh, Fiji and in Guam. And the one I most nearly got was in New Zealand. Um, I was like the, the second runner up for, for a position as a library director at a small college. And, um, that kind of broke my heart that I didn't get that job and also my husband's because he said the best trout fishing is in New Zealand and it would have been fun to go there. But, um, I've done a lot of philosophical readings when I was an adult and, and the most common theme is, "Bloom where you are planted," that no matter where you are in the world that, uh, you know, you can, you can, uh, find happiness.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: Um, I think the books that I'm reading right now, uh, and I overheard you, uh, asking, uh, the previous person who you interviewed, um, about current readings. They are by this guy, Bill Bryson, um, who was on the bestseller list a couple of years ago with a book called A Walk in the Woods.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: And its, um, a hike of the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Katahdin, Maine. And, uh, I like very much to hike and do a lot of, uh, hiking here in our North Carolina mountains. And, and it's a humorous account of hiking because clearly I'm not the most, uh, perfect specimen of physical fitness, not to mention, mention age. But Bill Bryson is kind of an over-weight middle-ager who just puts one foot in front of the other and, uh, has hiked the Appalachian Trail. He also wrote a book about England he was living in England called Notes From A Small Planet. And he walked across England and that is influencing me for my next trip, which will be to England. Which, somehow or another, I said I had been to most of Europe, I've always skipped right over, um, England, the British Isles. So, uh, I hope to either next summer or the summer after to walk across England. And Bill Bryson has been very responsible, um, in, um, having, you know, making me want to do that. Um, when I, when I think you got me all worked up now. [Laughter] Books and reading and everything. (Laughs) Um, it's funny at this school because I, I have a group of seventh and eighth graders and we do a competition called Battle of the Books and the students have a list of 30 books from which they read. And we get together over lunch every other week and discuss their readings. And I'm hoping that, um, you know, you will be able to meet, um, you know, and interview, uh, a couple of these students from the Battle of the Books group-.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: -Because they are really enthusiastic in, in, uh, current kinds of readings that may help, uh, middle-schoolers figure out what their lives are all about: moral issues and, and, uh, that kind of stuff. But the way I got into being a librarian was when I was an undergraduate at the University of Maine, um, it, studying English literature, I went to the Maine library and I found this book that sounded really interesting to me in the catalog. But it was not on the shelf so I asked the librarian if I could have that book. And she said, "No." She said, "No. Why would you want to read that? That's erotica."
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: "Do you know what erotica is? You know, it's like pure sex." And I said, "You old biddy." You know, here she was, here's a book that's listed in the catalog-.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: Why have it in the first place and then prohibit a person to read it?
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: So, um, I thought, "OK. I'll be a librarian," and I'll just, um, you know, if the books are there, I'm going to encourage people to read them. I'm not going to withhold and I'm not going to censor. I might give some warnings-.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: -But I thought, you know, uh, she's really an old biddy. And I don't, not matter how old I get, I don't want to be an old biddy.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: [Laughing] Let's stop for a minute. [Video turned off momentarily]
DD: Um, I was going to ask you, um, you, um, now being a librarian you have one daughter, correct?
FL: That's correct.
DD: And I was just wondering if, uh, if she was influenced to read, you know, more books or was it, uh, she really, did she really get into reading because of you being a librarian?
FL: Yeah. That's the $64,000.00 question. That's a really good one because we read every night even from before the time that she knew how to read, it was sort of like closure to the day. It was an end of the day, uh, activity, uh, there, uh, when I was putting her to be I would, uh, sit by the side of her bed and read her a story. And she just counted on that. And now we've got a couple of people standing outside the door jumping up and down, so let me see what they want. One moment, please. Yes? [Video turned off momentarily]
DD: You were, you were, uh, you were mentioning about how your daughter was influenced to read books because of you being a librarian and you were talking about how you read to her at night.
FL: Uh-huh.
DD: Could you expand on that?
FL: Yeah, that's kind of a wind-down to the day. And, um, if everyone were to read, if every parent were to read to their child at a young age, on, uh, even from babyhood, you know, kind of as, of as of relaxation, um, and a bonding time, then I think everybody, um, would just have a great love of reading. Um, some people do develop that in adulthood because they didn't have that, um, privilege as children. But you know that any, anywhere that you can, uh, impact people and say, you know, read to your child even if your child doesn't know how to read, to start right now. And we started with some of the obvious, like the Winnie the Pooh books and did the whole Winnie the Pooh series. And, um, we, uh, you know, kind of went on to, uh, we did, uh, traveling kinds of books, too. There was one about a dog named Shaggy Furface, um, who was kicked out of his terrible home. And he, um, had to travel the world to find a little girl who would finally take care of him. But somehow or another, uh, I was always drawing on books that were, were somehow or another travel adventure or maybe animals, um, from spiders to dogs. And, uh, and I see now how that's influenced her because she, at age 28, um, loves to travel. And, uh, so it is, is, uh, just amazing through the written word and, and, what you hear and read. And she's a wonderful reader, though, um, now I think she's into a lot of, uh, more popular literature, even some of the Grisham, the lawyer stories. And some of Danielle Steel's romance stories, which I must admit, I've never read.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: Um, I just haven't been attracted in that direction. Um, during, I think, during the age and stage where you are, Danny, and, uh, in college, the book I read then was called The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: And it was about an architect and it didn't make me want to be an architect, you know, because you're trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. But what it did do for me was give me the feeling that it's OK to be different. And the architect in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead had dared to be different and he did a different kind of architecture.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: And, uh, so that dare to be different theme has stuck with me, right up until, you know, this advanced age. Um, let's see what else?
DD: Um, now were there any storytellers in your family, of stories that were told more verbally, not so much, uh, in books? But you know, stories that were told verbally by, uh, grandparents?
FL: Yeah, um, actually, uh, my, my, father did this whole City Mouse and Country Mouse series-.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: -And, uh, that he, he verbalized to us. I did not have the good fortune to have grandparents who were alive, but, uh, he, he uh, was always talking. It would be like, uh, an adventure each night of what was happening when the city mouse went to the country mouse's home and vice versa. And those, those were very um, well told. It always amazed me. Where did he get those ideas? And I suspect he got the ideas from his readings.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: Because he, um, is a quiet reader. And now he's 88 years old and in a retirement home. And whenever I go to visit every other day, I see he's got three books going at any given time.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: And he marks the pages with clothespins. So I picked up, uh, yesterday when I was visiting this one book he was reading about Art Buchwald. It was some kind of, uh, story about I'll Always Have Paris.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: And, uh, whoa. There's that traveling theme again. Um, but, he said, "Oh, this is a wonderful story about a man traveling around Italy," he said. Well, I looked at the book and it was really about France.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: Well, when you get to be 88 years old, you get, uh, a little bit muddled.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: But, by the same taken, the fact that he's still reading like crazy and getting a lot of enjoyment out of it, um, at that elderly stage.
DD: Uh-huh. Now were, did your mother read? I mean, did she influence you with reading?
FL: And, uh, yeah she, uh, read. In fact, she was the one that first introduced me to some of the Newberry Award winning authors. Um, and she was a great believer in going to the library. We never bought books in our family.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: We were always library users, um, and she would take me to the library, uh, and we would walk away with a stack of books, which from a young age, that was almost hard for me to comprehend when she would sit there and faithfully read through those books. And, um, Strawberry Girl was one that I remember was a Newberry Award-winning book. Which, uh, does everybody know what a Newberry Award-winning book is?
DD: Um, no. Could you expand on that?
FL: Yes. Yes, uh, each year there is like a book council that awards the prize to what they, uh, as a group decides is the best-written book for, um, kind of young people, young people-.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: -For school-aged children. And Strawberry Girl is one Newberry Award-winning book that, uh, I remember from my childhood which clearly, was a long time ago.
DD: And that, and that was influenced by you mom?
FL: And that was her reading. But she read so much to me. In fact, in many ways, she almost overwhelmed me with reading. And until, you know, the little old biddy librarian at the University of Maine-.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: -Pulled that little incident with me, I really at that time had never thought I would be a librarian.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: Or go into the book business. I was basically looking to be, well, I wanted to be a home economist-.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: -And just to cook all day long. Or as it turned out, since I had to dissect animals, um, which I love the little animals, they said I had to take a Zoology class, though I never got over the idea of being a home economist, and I thought, "Well, I'll teach English."
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: And, uh, but after a semester of teaching down in Louisiana, um, I thought, "This is not a, not an easy way to earn a living." Teaching, being confined in a classroom all day long-.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: -With all these students pounding, uh, all around. And so I went to Library school at Louisiana State University and got a Master's in Library Science. And, you know, I've had like a 33 year career in libraries. In college libraries, business libraries, engineering libraries. I worked for NASA.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: Which is where I picked up my husband in the book stacks of the NASA Library. We were somewhere between the black holes and the quasars or pulsars or something like that.
DD: Uh-huh.
FL: Um, so libraries can provide much more than books. Sometimes they can provide a potential spouse.
DD: Um, well, I tell you what we've learned a lot about you as an individual and how stories have affected your life and, uh, really appreciate you taking the time to do this interview. And I know that it will be a benefit for those people that will watch it at UNCC. And again, thank you very much, Miss Lee.
FL: Been my pleasure.
DD: Have a good day.
FL: You, too.