Michael Jeffrey Lee on ugly writing and his short story collection Something In My Eye.
I read Michael Jeffrey Lee’s debut collection of short stories, Something In My Eye, this past winter, and I have not been able to shake it. Each story is delivered in a peculiar voice but all of them have a feeling of being imperative; every opening gives the feeling that a valuable secret lies in the next few pages, and Lee delivers on that promise. Some are startling or grotesque, but none are transgressive for the sake of being transgressive. Ideas and conventions around sexuality, class, violence, religion, and nationalism are taken on in narrative form, all with humor and bizarre elegance. It’s no wonder Francine Prose named this collection the winner of Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction.
Catherine Lacey Before this interview can go anywhere, I need to know about your career as a nightclub singer. Where do you sing (or did you sing) and what are your standard songs?
Michael Jeffrey Lee Well, I am really ruing the day that I ever wrote that bio for myself, not realizing how permanent it would be. That part of my life is more or less over, and I’m happy about it. No more lugging my own gear everywhere. I used to sing at places in New Orleans like the Circle Bar or Siberia—another cozy little spot—but both recently lost their music licenses and now feature nothing but improv comedy. The standards I sang had titles like, “I Will Think Much of This Kindness,” and “The Angel,” and sometimes I would sing Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight,” but not in a way that would have made the master proud. I regret the other things I listed on my bio as well: none of them really apply anymore.
CL You really covered a lot of ground in Something In My Eye. You bend expectations of gender or sexuality. Usually I’m all for stuff like that, but the story “Whoring” made me pretty uncomfortable, which says a lot. Can you tell me a little about how that story came about? Did you worry about being offensive or was that the point?
MJL Ah, “Whoring.” Perhaps you’re not in the minority there. I once brought the house down reading it, though everyone in the audience was very drunk. Actually, afterward, a friend came up to me and said, “That’s the darkest thing you’ve ever written. Don’t think I didn’t see through all the cheap misleading jokes.” He had a point. Well, it had a similar genesis to many of these stories: the first sentence leaped out at me after several hours of clearing my head on the page, and I followed it. I was feeling rather angry and pained that day and steeped in garbage. I remember that, too. I was trying consciously to keep the story as blunt as possible, as if the narrator’s jaw was clenched. Also I was trying to offend myself by writing it, a little bit, though I had some external targets in mind as well. It’s nice to show one’s self something nasty once in a while, I think. Some of those lines really smoke! The part about the whorehouse having a whore in every window I got from Dylan’s “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” who I believe nicked it from a traditional called “Rove Riley Rove.”
CL The story titled “Contemporary Country Music: A Songbook,” has the momentum of a thriller novel despite a totally nontraditional form. Can you tell me about the experience of writing it?
MJL Well, that one just sort of happened. A friend had given me a songbook containing some really dubious tunes sung in the southland before the Civil War, because he thought that my own work was some sort of twisted minstrelsy anyway, and that’s where the idea for a songbook came from. The creation seeds for these stories were often not planted much deeper than that, alas. But one day, with all this good stuff rattling around in my head, I sat down in my ratty blue chair, took a deep breath, wrote some pushy song titles, then streamed out some voices beneath them and broke them up with the slashes because I thought it created an interesting effect. I wanted it to be a soldier-coming-home melodrama in which the characters all spoke like gremlins. I finished it in about four hours and then dared not show it to anyone for a long time—I thought it was awful. But later on I had the courage to unveil it, and it got a few thumbs up, and so, slowly, I convinced myself of its worth. And that is the story of “Contemporary Country Music: A Songbook.”
CL You did a great interview with Nathan Martin in which you said you once had an assignment from Michael Martone to write a “bad paragraph.” Can you tell me about how that assignment went down, what others turned in, and maybe a little about “the Ugly” more generally in literature? Any favorite Ugly books?
MJL Well, I thought I bombed that interview. That man makes me uncomfortable. The assignment went like this: go home and write a bad piece of prose, the worst you can muster, and return ready to read it. The responses varied, some with bad grammar, some riddled with clichés, some with very incompetent narrators. Almost all of them were superbly written. For me a very busted narrator emerged. He was talking about “sweet eggs” and a woman who used to make them for him, whose name was “Abele.” She was dead. I think I was really hopped up on Barthleme’s more clownish stories at the time. But I was able to develop that bad voice into something a bit more compelling later on. Focusing on the narrator’s inability to tell the story instead of consciously trying to write superlative prose freed me up immensely. It allowed me to exploit my, as Von Kliest says, “half-talents.” And sometimes I’m just in the mood for homely prose that’s heavy with ambiguity, which is of course a very popular American style of writing, some say the style that Twain invented and Hemingway improved and maybe Carver perfected in that demonic book of his, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Those are three ugly books that are very good. Lately I’ve been going abroad for my fix: Bolaño’s Nazi Literature and Last Evenings feature some monumentally ugly prose, masterfully imagined, of course. “Anne Moore’s Life” from Last Evenings is so great: that narrator is stunningly handicapped. Berhard’s The Lime Works is another favorite ugly book.
CL There are types of characters in your collection that aren’t typically seen in the average contemporary short story. Was that on purpose or do you find yourself gravitating to those kinds of voices?
MJL Oh, those were the voices I wanted; I wrote them because they didn’t immediately bore me or anger me the way that most do. I was in not the best shape through much of the writing of that book, and I was deeply suspicious of any attempt at sincerity on the page. From myself, anyway. Every time I sat down to write a “realistic” story during this period I would just start laughing: “John went to the store when he should have just gone home,” or something like that. The faith one has to have in the world to write a sentence like that! What a joke!
CL Image, voice or narrative—which do you find yourself inspired by most often?
MJL I was going to answer voice, voice all the way, without a doubt, but then I remembered that more than one of the tales was shaped by something I once saw while riding a train from Alabama to Georgia: three ragged people sitting on a couch, which sat on a riverbank, in the shadow of an overpass, passing a brown jug back and forth and conversing with each other very politely, as if what they were doing was the most normal thing in the world. Also the dwarf from the last story, he was someone who used to pass my stoop in New Orleans every morning on his way to the bar. In those cases I guess the image pierced me and provided the spark for the voice.
CL Having something in your eye is a particular kind of debilitating discomfort. Can you tell me a little about where the title came from?
MJL I really rubbed my hands together happily and conspiratorially when I hit upon that one. The manuscript’s working title was The Lonesome Vehicle, and I’m glad I got away from that—it was too plaintive. I liked “something in my eye” because it sounded like a song, like a bad old song. Something your wasted grandparents would listen to. I also liked it because it’s what people say in a maudlin movie when they are trying not to cry. And since the collection was born of intense pain and discomfort with a dash of embarrassment and also some dribbling moral sentiment, I thought that it worked perfectly.
CL The stories have a lot of range in many ways but at the same time they all carry this kind of dissonance. Did you write them all in the same time period or did they appear more slowly?
MJL All of them were written during a two year period, except for “The Buddy,” which is quite old, something I carried around for many years, showing it to new friends whenever I made them. It’s how I showed them I was human.
CL You just told me that you’re working on a novel that has become disastrous. What do you think disaster has to do with creativity?
MJL Yes, and I suppose I wouldn’t really have it any other way. I don’t really know. Disaster sometimes demolishes people, sometimes it fires them up. We’ll see.