As one of the people who edited My Worst Ideas, I admit I’m biased. But it is an exceptional, and exceptionally strange, short story collection, which is only underscored by the fact that Michael Jeffrey Lee settled on My Worst Ideas as the title. Was that daring? Misguided? A bit of both? Whatever it is, that’s the weird spirit that draws me to this book again and again. For Lee, all the pieces in the collection have something in common: none are quite what you would call short stories. Some are “just crummy anecdotes or reminiscences, or ominous dialogues happening in a void—others just short scenes cut off somewhat randomly.” Want an example? In one of my favorite stories, “The Burned-Out House,” a thirty-five-year-old laconic narrator moves into a burned-out house, works as a hamburger vendor, barely registers some very morbid events, and observes pleasantly about his time in the burned-out house, “I got a lot of reading done, especially on weekends. Old newspapers, cereal boxes—whatever was around.”

In that same spirit, here is a scrap of an interview with Michael Jeffrey Lee, conducted by email between our respective homes in Las Vegas and Berlin, but destined for the back of a cereal box at a continental breakfast room.

Eva Richter: What is the ideal place for a reader to be in order to understand My Worst Ideas?

Michael Jeffrey Lee: A liminal place, an uncertain and unsettled one too. Would be great if they approached the text as a hungry ghost does food.

Who is the author whose work most influenced My Worst Ideas; what would you ask them if you were to meet; and what would be their hypothetical best and worst response?

If I’m trying to flatter myself I would say Robert Walser. If I’m trying to be honest I would say Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, editors of that late twentieth-century American horror anthology Chicken Soup for the Soul. If I met Robert Walser’s ghost, I would ask if things had improved for him since passing on. Best response would be yes, worst response would be no.   

How did your approach to writing change between your first and second short story collections?

For the first book I felt free to be mostly fantastical. I don’t know what happened in between. Various disasters happened. Narratives that had sustained me for years about my own motives were shown to be false. I opened my eyes and was frightened. I sensed a certain immolation occurring—I smiled a terrible smile. I started poking fun at my shattered self.   

How has living in Berlin versus New Orleans shaped or changed your writing?

I got to Berlin when the pandemic started, and so perhaps predictably I wrote pieces that were fairly frigid, sun-deprived, and claustrophobic. But my reading lately has been rangy, often speculative and cosmic, and that’s reflected in some of the work, too. I am still stretching out here. 

What is the plot of your strangest short story in as few words as you can use to describe it?

Sacrificial pigeon helps man overcome friendlessness. Or: baby delivers cryptic messages of doom.   

If you were going to rewrite one book in your tone and style, which would you choose?

Maybe that Tom Hanks novel. 

Has writing fiction helped or hurt your life?

When it’s going well I think, I am doing what I was BORN to do. Scaring people, making them chuckle! This is the LIFE! I made a GREAT decision when I decided to become a WRITER. What a FUN hobby Ive pursued! I feel VINDICATED by my life choices! When it’s going bad, when I’m shut up in my room marinating in my own juices, cut off from friends and loved ones, crying intermittently, I think that I live in hell—that I have chosen to live in hell—and am irrevocably harming myself. 

Is there a (not-obviously-controversial) writer whose work is so off-putting you would end a friendship with one of their acolytes?

Gosh no! When friends are into crappy writers or bad books, I try not to hold it against them too much. I too have terrible taste sometimes.  

Is there a writer whose work is so extraordinary you would maintain a friendship with them no matter how off-putting they are?

I actually have a hard time hanging out with people who identify as writers.

What is a short story you especially enjoy teaching, and why?

I like giving people Can Xue’s “Rainscape” or “Roses at the Hospital.” There’s often an initial resistance or bafflement. I offer a few possible interpretations, but my favorite way to discuss it is to track the mood, the shifting space—figure out how the style achieves its particular dream state. And to question what a “meaningful” aesthetic experience actually is.  

Where would Thomas Bernhard live if he had to move to the United States today; would he still be able to write under these conditions; and what would you sacrifice to see him write, produce, and direct a romantic comedy of Concrete?

Some place with a lot of trees and good air quality. I just imagined him on the Olympic Peninsula, though he’d flee during fire season on account of his lungs. I think he might get along with the Log Lady from Twin Peaks. He would find the US stressful. I think he would probably teach German lessons online to be able to afford his rent. I think his brain would be fried by staring into the screen all day and he would be heavily medicated. If I heard he’d been given the chance to write, produce, and direct a romantic comedy of Concrete, I would smirk and think to myself, Good for him, but I would sacrifice nothing.   

What is the worst idea you pursued in your life?

I was always a soccer player, but one year, because all the cool kids were doing it, I decided to try football. I was really bad at it, hated the whole milieu. No place for sensitive, non-psychotic boys like me. I was relegated to third-string kicker. 

When, why, and how did society begin the inexorable descent into decay that it currently finds itself in?

It’s been downhill since the dinos died out.  

When youre editing your work, what is the quality you subconsciously strive for, and what are some ways you change your work to attain it?

I like to keep the freaky undercurrents that often arrive unconsciously in first drafts. I guess I want the smooth surface of the text to remain slightly troubled. I aim for dumb-smart in revision. If a sentence gets too clever, I dummy it up.  

What is a notable reaction you received from someone who read My Worst Ideas?

A friend said that they found the collection to be even darker and heavier than my previous collection—a real feat, they thought. 

Eva Richter is an editor of the independent publishing house Spurl Editions. She translated Monsieur de Bougrelon by Jean Lorrain, and My Suicide by Henri Roorda, from French into English. Currently living in Las Vegas, she also writes fiction.

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