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"My Spicy Mysteries": An Interview with Michael Jeffrey Lee

Michael Jeffrey Lee first book, Something in My Eye, won the Mary McCarthy Prize and was published by Sarabande. New work has appeared or is forthcoming in BOMB, DIAGRAM, and Parcel. He lives in New Orleans.

His story, "The Burned-out House," appeared in Issue Seventy of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about productive ambiguities, colorful neighbors, and the house as a metaphor.

Please tell us where this story began for you.

This story began with the rather absurd first line: I was about 35 when I moved into the burned-out house. “Right, then,” I thought, “Time to figure out who said this.” It’s interesting because the early drafts had a much more plaintive tone—the narrator seemed on the verge of tears the whole time. It droned on rather sadly and prettily for about 10 pages—the structure was more or less the same. However, during some conversations with (patient) friends, it was suggested that I might try to be a bit more violent with the voice, try making him more of a brute, someone who would put up a tougher front. And these suggestions, to use a phrase the narrator might employ, blew it wide open. It helped that around that time there was this interesting fellow in my neighborhood, who, when he wasn’t performing random acts of kindness for his neighbors, was screaming racial and homophobic slurs at the top of his lungs, usually in the middle of the night. A complex individual, to say the least. I thought about him while re-writing.      

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard claims, “[t]he house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” How do you think the speaker in this story would respond to this?

I think he’d say, “With all due respect, Doctor, it sounds to me like that guy spent most of his childhood pulling his pud in a quiet corner, counting sheep. I’ll bet good money he never spent one night in a burned-out house, not that I’d particularly recommend it.”

Mysteries are peppered throughout this story. There’s the mystery of the speaker’s history, the mystery of the previous tenants buried in the backyard. How do you choose which mysteries to resolve in a story and which to leave unanswered?

I really like the idea of the mysteries peppering the story. My spicy mysteries. But your point’s well taken. These ambiguities are always at the center of my work. I’m going to talk about my first drafts again, forgive me, but one of the ways in which they’re always lacking is in the inelegance of these ambiguities—they’re too vague in their suggestions, they open up too many interpretive possibilities, so the work feels intentionally obscure and self-indulgent and shuts the reader out. Or often the opposite is true, and I’m spending too much time explaining things better left alluded to. But to answer your question it’s usually just a process of trial and error. I’ll have a conversation with myself along the lines of, “Well if the narrator says this then it will suggest this, and this and this, and do I want that? Is that a productive ambiguity?” In the first draft, the narrator spoke of a distant family, but that did something I didn’t like to the story—it kind of steered it sentimental, so I cut it. I thought it would be better, more pleasantly vexing, as a question mark.

Why is the house “burned-out” as opposed to run down or abandoned?

Without playing my own critic too much, I’ll say it’s obviously connected to his inner state (although he’d vehemently deny it—he even tries to shoot down the house-as metaphor reading). But why “burned-out?” Well, he’s a bit charred by life, you know, a bit ashed-on, a little run down but not abandoned. But don’t count him out. He’s made some bad decisions but he’s still got that dirty smirk, don’t you worry. He’s been through the fire, and now he’s peeling right before your eyes. I also liked the way “burned-out” reflected his relationship to narrative itself, perhaps my relationship too. Exhausted, wore out, nothing but dregs, adios.             

What projects are you working on now?

I’m working on something longer, a novella probably, nothing too ambitious. I’m in the mixing stages of an album I sang on. I’m slowly attempting to become a legitimate musician—been practicing a lot of piano. Bard of the Burned-Out House, that’s what they’ll call me. Thanks for this interview. These were great questions.

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