Meet the Tutors: An interview with Michael Jeffrey Lee

By Shana Shabazz


Why did you choose to come to Berlin?

I first visited Germany 5 years ago—my sister let me tag along on a work trip. We stayed in Berlin for a few days and I liked it very much. In late 2019 I was scheming up a new place to call home and thought to myself, “Berlin was pretty nice, maybe I should go there.” So I bought a one-way ticket and arrived in February 2020, just in time for lockdown.


What’s your writing routine like?

One of the first things I do in the morning, even before coffee, is to write in a notebook for half an hour. Sometimes I very boringly narrate my previous day, sometimes I write out my dreams, sometimes I have arguments with myself or I advise myself on various matters. This stuff rarely makes it into my stories, but it does help clear the cobwebs a bit. As far as the actual fiction writing goes, I try and get in at least three or four longer sessions a week.


How do you organize your plot timeline?

I tend not to plot much, at least not at first. Part of the pleasure of writing for me is the feeling of discovery during the act itself. More than stories, what I really tend to write are monologues, so for me, first drafts are about learning the contours of the voice. I want to let it talk, rather than tell it what to say. A bit spooky, maybe!


How do you work with or stay away from cliches?

I sometimes write from the point of view of characters whose language functions as a kind of mask, and who often resort to prefab expressions or figures of speech so as to talk around what is really going on. Or maybe they are completely unaware of what is going on. I come from a family that holds politeness and propriety in high esteem, so this manner of speaking is familiar. I do try and avoid clichés in the actual prose, even if I’m playing with the tropes of certain genres. Lately I’ve been experimenting with extreme directness.


What’s your advice for aspiring writers?

I guess I would say that if you’re writing you’re a writer. There’s always room for development but if you do it on a semi-regular basis then you’ve earned the right to that dubious identity. One of the things I often recommend to my students is that they free themselves from certain market-driven expectations for their work. Sometimes they believe they should be writing in a certain way about a certain subject that is actually quite at odds with what they are actually interested in. I encourage them to be ok with feeling like they’re not totally in control on the page.


What is the most optimal setting for you to write in?

I used to live in this cabin in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It had a screened-in porch and no internet. The porch was an incredible place to write.


What’s your favorite time of day to write?

Night all the way.


What have you done to stay productive during lockdown?

Some days are better than others. I found a strange job over the internet, which I do part-time. I’ve been writing fiction, lyrics for the next Budokan Boys album, and exchanging creative work with friends.


Do you do any special activities to give your brain more creative space?

The best thing I ever did for my writing was, at the tender age of 32, sign up for elementary piano lessons. I have no real evidence for this, but I think that learning to read music and developing my sense of rhythm really got things going for me in the prose department again. I’m also fond of reading out of my comfort zone. I’m up to my ears in poetry all of a sudden.

    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop