Michael Jeffrey Lee’s Uncomfortable Gothic: An interview

By Nathan C. Martin

Michael J. Lee denies any connection between his work and the Southern Gothic tradition, despite characteristics in his stories that might suggest one. This is not only because he’s originally from California—which disqualifies him in the first place—but because he feels too perpetually unmoored to align with any regionalism.

“My time in the South has been unreal,” he says. “I feel unattached to the South in the same way I felt unattached to my home state. The narrators in these stories are very much outside the places they’re passing through.”

Lee moved to New Orleans in 2004, only to evacuate the following year for Katrina. He bounced around the country and eventually came back, in late 2005. He left again in 2006 to attend the MFA creative writing program at the University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa, where he studied with Michael Martone and Kate Bernheimer. He returned to New Orleans in 2009. His workshops in Tuscaloosa demanded 6 – 12 stories per semester, which left Lee scraping the barrel of his inner life for whatever material he could come up with.

The stories in Something in My Eye, recently released by Sarabande Books, resemble what I’d expected from the psychological residue of the odd, artful, and funny person I first encountered about a year ago, when my Mardi Gras date stormed upstairs at Mimi’s to confront him about some way or other he’d done her wrong. Knowing Lee personally since then made it easy to recognize the dark jokes in his book—they’re pervasive—because I could imagine him coming up with and chuckling about them. But they’ll surely be lost on some others, like the person who reviewed the book for Publisher’s Weekly—Lee and I had a good laugh at that. Luckily, author Francine Prose saw Lee’s humor, and she selected his book for the 2010 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. Honestly, it’s not that hard to spot as long as you’ve got a sense and appreciation for the depraved.

Along with being a funny and dark book, Something in My Eye is also a queer book. This is not to say it should be filed under “Gay Lit.” or Lee should appear at next year’s Saints and Sinners Literary Festival, but the characters’ sexualities are often enough ambiguous or confused to fall within the tradition of John Waters or Tennessee Williams, adding an element of provocative tension to stories that are already surprising and unwholesome. In the opening story, “Warning Sign,” the narrator grips a phallic pen that explodes ink onto his hand while he describes for a cadre of reporters the relationship he had with his roommate, who the previous day had committed an unspeakable “atrocity.” In “Whoring,” two male friends combat sexual tension between them by “whooping it up” at a whorehouse all night. In others, the homosexuality is more explicit, as in “I Shall Not Be Moved,” in which a midget and an elderly bartender with a tracheotomy fellate a young man in the French Quarter as a hurricane approaches.

Something in My Eye is a collection of exquisitely crafted short stories that press into the hinterlands of isolated human experience. Lee will celebrate the launch of the book on Thursday, March 15, at 7 p.m., as part of the Room 220 Live Prose at the Antenna Gallery reading series. He will be joined by Dean Paschal, emergency room physician and author of the celebrated local cult classic By the Light of the Jukebox. As always, the event is free, complimentary libations will be on hand, and donations are appreciated.

Michael J. Lee teaches at Tulane as part of the school’s continuing education program, as well as at NOCCA. He is associate fiction editor of the New Orleans Review, and recently completed a novel. He spoke with Room 220 last week in his apartment above a barber shop on St. Claude Avenue, as the tanker trucks rolled loudly east on their way to the pipelines.

Room 220: Is this book essentially a product of your time in the University of Alabama MFA program?

Michael Jeffrey Lee: I think it’s fair to say that. I took great pains to mask the fact that I was a student, but I think it’s pretty obvious that some of these narrators are privileged. I was also trying to get away from writing about Katrina—I spent two years not writing about Katrina, on purpose. It’s in there, but not on the surface.

Rm220: After the actual deluge of Katrina there was a deluge of bad writing about Katrina.

MJL: In 2006, I was reading for the New Orleans Review and we put together an issue with post-Katrina writing and pre-Katrina writing, side-by-side. It ended up being a good issue, but I read a lot of immediate, raw responses to the storm, both by people who had clearly seen some shit and by people who had occupied pretty privileged positions. Of course, the most uncomfortable of that prose was from the people who were, you know, trying to get in on some of that suffering. I became really worried that I had been handed a kind of golden opportunity and set about not trying to exploit it right away. As hard as Katrina hit my psychologically, I had a fair amount of shame about not losing any property, and my apartment didn’t flood. I had only recently moved to the city, and I had no real ties to the place yet. It felt dishonest for me to write.

Rm220: Let’s talk about “Contemporary Country Music: A Songbook,” which is ostensibly a story comprised of song lyrics, but reads something like a free-verse redneck tragedy about a soldier’s homecoming.

MJL: I came to writing as a very frustrated musician. Music was my first love. I worked in a record store in my teens and romanticized the music of rural America quite a lot, growing up in the suburbs of San Jose, California. And I romanticized the South. I had read a lot of Faulkner and O’Connor, and I got very into the Harry Smith Folk Anthology when I was about 18 or 19. “Contemporary Country Music” was born out spending a lot of time driving around with my girlfriend in Tuscaloosa and listening, out of morbid curiosity, to the several local country stations. The bald didacticism of the songs was funny to me. I studied them. I couldn’t stop myself from listening to them—Toby Keith coaching people on how to feel about foreign countries.

Rm220: It seems like a contradictory position, to be someone who romanticizes rural America, but then degrades it. You wrote a story making fun of contemporary country music, which is, like, the official music of rural Americans.

MJL: Maybe. There’s something so pleasurably grotesque about contemporary country music. It has completely abandoned the working class, but it keeps insisting on being working class, even though it’s clear they actually don’t give a shit about the poor. To watch those singers try to wear the clothes of the rural is a particularly fascinating drama for me to watch. But, I suppose I could relate to their desperation in trying to prove their authenticity, myself having come to the South after being infatuated with its culture. I know my move to the South was, in some ways, a search for some sort of cultural authenticity, as sad as that may be. I think people move to this town in search of legitimacy—badassery. And it doesn’t bother me—I did it myself. Especially post-Katrina, this was a hotbed of authenticity, Ground Zero for the remaking of an authentic self—which is probably part of the reason why I came back. That, and I knew I could probably find a job pretty easily.

Michael J. Lee and his book (photo: Aubrey Edwards; book cover art: Daniel Richter)

Rm220: The forest appears regularly in these stories, almost as a sort of trope. It seems that with the heightened consciousness of environmentalism, popular culture’s conception of nature these days is that it’s either idyllic and precious or threatened. But in these stories, the woods are this sort of wild place that hold evil and mystery. They’re home to bands of abject tribes who chant and storm the mansion, communities of little people who hail as heroes those who kill full-sized humans, and the hiding place for escaped prisoners who encounter the devil there—or, at least, that creepy guy from Lost Highway.

MJL: I’ve never particularly romanticized nature. And some of the stories in here make fun of the idea that the woods are a place for revelation. I grew up near some woods in California, and I guess they were a sanctuary in the way nature can be—a reprieve from civilization. But I was also aware early on of how already compromised nature was. I hiked on the Appalachian Trail when I was 22, and I spent like $400 on the gear alone. The whole process seemed suspect from the get-go. But I disagree that the forests in these stories hold evil. They aren’t a place of revelation, but they do bring change—like the forest creeping in on the mansion in “The Great House.” Or maybe they just bring confusion.

In Alabama, I was introduced to the Brothers Grimm and the fairy tale form by Kate Bernheimer, one of my teachers, and that was a revelation. A lot of these stories simply never would have happened had I not read those tales—“Five Didactic Tales” is clearly a reaction by my blown mind after reading the Grimms. A lot of the Grimms’ stories are symbolically suggestive of a lot of things, but it’s very difficult to have a concrete analysis about what the storytellers are actually up to. I liked their flat, abstract language. They seemed to be full of unrelieved anxiety, which I could relate to.

Rm220: You narrators are often very self-conscious, apologizing for talking too much about their families instead of telling the “interesting parts” of the story, or awkwardly explaining their motivations. Where do you think this tendency comes from?

MJL: When I started writing these stories I became aware very quickly that the only thing that was going to keep me interested was if I honestly addressed the fact that I was an uncomfortable writer—uncomfortable with narrative in general, and explanation, and the fact that I was exploiting my life for this. All of it gives me the willies. A lot of these narrators’ voices came out of an assignment by Michael Martone to intentionally write a bad paragraph. I took it home and thought about it seriously and I came back with this voice that was abject, repressed, but I thought there was something to it. School was great because I was encouraged to pursue exhausted and frustrated voices.

Michael J. Lee in Tuscaloosa, face painted ‘Bama red

Rm220: Many of your narrators possess something I’ve decided to call “unreliable sexuality.” I assume this isn’t simply a recurring plot device you like to employ.

MJL: No, those are the people who I know, and that’s me. I talk a lot of shit about the act of writing, but one thing I think it’s allowed me to do is to unlearn the repressions of my youth and confront my own bisexuality. One of the reasons I’m so thankful that I was encouraged to try my hand at strange voices is because the point at which I began composing a lot of these stories, I had recently been clued into my attraction to men. I began writing them very much in a kind of stunned state.

It became very clear when I was writing in Alabama that the most interesting style I found for my narrators was a repressed style. Once I happened on that voice, I was aware that I ran the risk of sensationalism, or disingenuous dabbling, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt like an honest response to inner turmoil. That voice, in its isolation and sexual angst and ambiguity felt right on the money, and I knew I had to follow it. I knew that there was probably something pretty powerful about me dramatizing this turmoil I was feeling, and even making light of it.

When I offered these stories up to the class, it felt great. The environment that I was in, in Tuscaloosa, was really interesting, too. I ran with a group of dudes who were doing their best to imitate Barry Hannah—hard-drinking, macho, straight.  But it became pretty clear that there were other forces at work in our camaraderie—I was definitely feeling them. Or, maybe it was just me, but I think not.