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Michael Jeffrey Lee: The Short Form Interview

Lately all of Clarice Lispector’s narrators have been killing me.

Author of Something in My Eye: Stories, winner of Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction

The Interview

You've talked of narrators as performers, which is evident in your first-person narrators, but also in some disruptive third-person narrators (eg. "Last Seen"). Then there's the heritage of oral story-telling—a literal “performance”—in a more traditional third-person narrator as well, the kind you've employed to a great effect in the fairy-tale-inspired "Five Didactic Tales." How do you feel about third-person narrators and their omnipresence?

When I read fiction, I rarely feel as though I’m getting to know the author, thank God, but only his or her narrator, this fictional person he or she has created to tell the story. Learning the narrator’s habits, predilections, neuroses over the course of the story—I find all of this really pleasurable. I feel that there’s always a narrator present, no matter the point of view, even when there isn’t an “I” on the page. This is an obvious thing to point out! But these masks are fascinating, these personas that these writers pick. Even when the prose is poor, the portrait that emerges of the narrator can be really satisfying. I guess I’d extend this to nonfiction as well—I can’t help analyzing the personality responsible for the words. A bad habit, maybe, because in nonfiction it means psycho-analyzing the writers themselves, ha ha. I highly recommend reading Chicken Soup for the Soul in this way.    

Even when the prose is poor, the portrait that emerges of the narrator can be really satisfying.       

Who are some of your favorite narrators?

I think Joy Williams’ narrator in The Changeling is extraordinary—the speaker’s grief is always threatening to derail the tale and engulf the whole book. I like Barthleme’s happy-go-lucky fascist in “I Bought A Little City.” I like the demon that seems to narrating Carver’s “The Bath.” I find the voice of Brian Evenson’s “Younger” profoundly moving and disturbing, maybe moving because of how disturbing it is. Lately all of Clarice Lispector’s narrators have been killing me.  

Your stories read as if, like Etgar Keret, you're a writer for whom the short story comes as a natural choice of medium. Is that true? How welcoming are you of the expectation that a writer who's debuted with a story collection follows up with a novel?

Oh, I don’t know about that. In a way I hope not, as I’m working on a longer project now. I mean, it isn’t going to be anything symphonic, but I am trying to sustain a voice for longer this time around. I wonder where that expectation comes from. Do people think that novels are more “mature” than short stories? The line between story and novel seems pretty blurry these days: recently I’ve read some mighty slim volumes announcing themselves novels. It doesn’t matter.  Sometimes I wish everyone would just call it fiction and be done with it. Yet I suppose one does see a lot of “he or she is at work on a novel” on the backs of debut story collections. I’m certainly guilty of that. Maybe I just caved to all that pressure. And if I’ve been in denial of my true calling lately, I’m OK with that, I guess. Short fiction: I’ll return to you one day.    

Some of the “alternative” forms in your collection—the title story as a poem-like series of snippets, and another as country music lyrics—seem to be more a result of you being a songwriter rather than a product of an intensive writing class. Is that the case, or are you actively interested in pushing the form?

Well, I’m just a singer, not a songwriter, and thankfully not both. It’s funny, when you say it that way, it makes me want to just stick to the standards and leave the short stories behind for good. But lately I’ve been feeling like an actor just as much as a singer and a writer: an actor still waiting for his big break.  But it’s true that some stories in the collection do have a rather sketchy, tossed-off feel. But I fear that’s a result of regular old ineptitude rather than any particular hobby of mine.

I think I made a mistake in suggesting in previous interviews that I was in despair… despair is too strong a word.

You've talked about having been in despair when most of your stories were written, and that seems to lend the collection a kind of raw energy. Is there anything such as being too happy or optimistic to be a good writer?

I’m glad the rawness worked. I tried to write them rawly, in a way that forced the reader to consider my level of awareness, and I supposed it helped that I happened to be in a raw state when some of them were conceived. But I think I made a mistake in suggesting in previous interviews that I was in despair… despair is too strong a word. Sometimes the grief was real, sometimes it was induced and performed, and sometimes I was quite happy. Swinging high and swinging low, I guess. In Joyce Carol Oates’ Black Water there’s kind of this grim joke that runs through it, about how if one is living at all, living life and not dead and still making plans, then one is an optimist. Which is funny, and probably true. So I’m not about to make any sweeping statements about writing and optimism and happiness. They are words that fill me with genuine dread.

In your title story you describe a scene you saw out of the train window: "Under an overpass, several afflicted but affable persons seated on a sofa enjoyed a cracked conversation," which you witnessed in real life. How do you feel about airports and airplanes?

I don’t like them very much. I was in a few of them today and was reminded again.

Recommended by Michael Jeffrey Lee

St. Cecilia or The Power of Music
Excerpt

After a few days during which they had listened to the preacher's tales of the remarkable events in the Netherlands, it happened that the nuns of the convent of St Cecilia, which at that time stood just outside the gates of Aachen, were due to celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi; and in consequence the four brothers, inflamed by misguided enthusiasm, youth, and the example of the Dutch Protestants, decided to provide this city, too, with the spectacle of an iconoclastic riot. The preacher, who had already more than once been the ringleader in similar enterprises, took steps on the previous evening to collect together a number of young men devoted to the new doctrine, students and the sons of merchants, and they spent the night in the inn wining and dining and cursing popery; then, when day dawned over the city's battlements, they provided themselves with axes and all kinds of instruments of destruction in order to set about their wanton task.

We read it in The Marquise of O & Other Stories.

Originally published in Berliner Abendblätter.

The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky
Excerpt

As a matter of truth, Jack Potter was beginning to find the shadow of a deed weigh upon him like a leaden slab. he, the town marshal of Yellow Sky, a man known, liked, and feared in his corner, a prominent person, had gone to San Antonio to meet a girl he believed he loved, and there, after the usual prayers, had actually induced her to marry him, without consulting Yellow Sky for any part of the transaction. He was now bringing his bride before an innocent and unsuspecting community.

We read it in An Experiment in Misery.

Originally published in McClure's Magazine.

The Grub
Excerpt

I generally bought my books at the Libería de Cristal or the Libería del Sótano. If I was short of cash, I'd pick over the specials table at the Cristal, but if I was sufficiently solvent, I'd go to the Sótano for the new titles. If I had no money at all, which was often the case, I would steal from one or the other, without favoritism. But in any case, I would invariably pay a visit to both the Librería de Cristal and the Librería del Sótano (located, as the name suggests, in a basement, across from the Alameda). If I arrived before the shops opened, I'd look for a street vendor, buy myself a ham sandwich and a mango juice and wait. Sometimes I'd sit on a bench in the Alameda, tucked away in the shrubbery, and write. All this lasted until about ten in the morning, which is when the movie theaters began to open up for their first screenings. I preferred European films, though if I was feeling particularly inspired, I wasn't averse to Mexican New Erotic or Mexican New Horror, which were pretty much the same thing, anyway.

We read it in Last Evenings on Earth.