Exploring the art of prose


Interview: Jamel Brinkley

Jamel Brinkley’s debut short story collection, A Lucky Man: Stories, is out this week from Graywolf. The stories, most of which feature black male protagonists, are set in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Most of the protagonists are on a journey—both emotional and physical—and that sense of movement works its way through each story and through the entire collection. Each story opens up a world, and each character—no matter how minor—feels fully developed. This outstanding collection can rightfully be compared to the classic collection, Lost in the City, by Edward P. Jones.

We talked to Brinkley over email about the collection as a whole and about the craft in individual stories. His responses are thoughtful and expansive, as he considers both his own practice and how he’s incorporated what he’s learned from others. Reading his answers to our questions is quite like taking the best craft class, ever. This is an interview you’ll want to read slowly and revisit often, especially as you read and reread A Lucky Man.

CRAFT: Your debut short story collection, A Lucky Man, lives and breathes New York, with most of the stories located in one, or more, of the boroughs. And while I believe you grew up and went to school here, you’ve been away from New York for a while now, and I wonder how that impacts your work. Is it harder or easier to write about a place when you’re no longer there?

Jamel Brinkley: That’s a great question. I remember that someone who was trying to persuade me not to leave New York said something like, “It might be cool to write out there in the fields, but are they a match for the rhythm and energy of Brooklyn?” He made a compelling case, and I did begin to worry that I wouldn’t be able to write about Brooklyn and the Bronx while being so far away from them. But what I found, I think, was that my decades of life in New York had indelibly marked me. The memories that had stuck with me, threads of the obsessions and questions I write about, didn’t go away. Maybe my perspective on them was altered because I left New York, but memories are fluid and subjective anyway. As for the rhythm and energy my skeptical acquaintance felt I would miss, I could get that from books and music, which happily I could take with me. Besides, my immediate family and oldest friends live in New York, so I visit pretty frequently.

C: The collection moves in time from 1995 to the present, and while most of the stories explore memory and the impact of the past on the present, the final story, “Clifton’s Place,” is quite deliberately focused on the passing of time. Did you consider other ways to organize the stories? Did you write any stories specifically for the collection, or was it a matter of collecting the best and ordering them appropriately?

JB: I knew I was writing a number of stories focusing on black men, and I had hopes that enough of them could be gathered into a book, but I never wrote a story thinking that it was “for the collection” in any kind of predetermined way. I pursued each story with blinders on in terms of the other stories—at least in my conscious mind. During the editorial process, “Everything the Mouth Eats” was added and another story was taken out. My editors and I went through a few possible story orders, but I think “Clifton’s Place” always struck us as the closer. Why? I’m not totally sure, but I think it makes a different kind of sound than the other stories, maybe a sound that reads like the result of those other stories. Speaking of sound, I also like that it ends with music. The first story, “No More Than a Bubble,” begins with our two knuckleheads surrounded by, but not listening to, music at a house party. I like that we ended up with a musical bracketing.

C: One of the things I love in this collection is that each story opens up a world for the reader, in a way that has the scope of a novel. Often these are worlds that may not be familiar to readers. “A Family,” for example, introduces us to Curtis, who has recently come home after being incarcerated for twelve years. “Everything the Mouth Eats” takes place at a capoeira conference. How aware were you at the time you wrote some of these stories you would be opening doors for some readers, showing them people and situations that might be new to them? How does that impact the way in which you describe each world?

JB: I was very aware of it in the case of “Everything the Mouth Eats.” I had some knowledge of the world of that story because I was very active in capoeira for many years, but I knew most readers in the United States probably wouldn’t know much about it. So, craft-wise, it was important to have Eric, the narrator, be relatively new to it himself. It was probably important to have that scene, in flashback, in which he and Carlos discuss what capoeira is. Eric is also at some remove from the art form, even though he participates in it. He’s not very good at it, has some reservations, and is definitely not immersed in it the way Carlos and Sulay are. In these ways, he can kind of stand in for most readers in the story. Still, I did end up wanting him to have some level of familiarity and involvement. I didn’t want the story to be reducible to capoeira tourism. Much of the same could probably be said about “J’ouvert, 1996.” With the other stories, I don’t think I thought much about the fact that I would be opening doors for readers. Issues such as mass incarceration and gentrification, which some of the stories take up, shouldn’t be unfamiliar to readers.

C: Your stories remind me of the work of Jhumpa Lahiri, Yiyun Li, and William Trevor, among others, for their deep focus on character and for the examination and consideration—the respect— of their characters’ lives. The collection feels as though it speaks, in part, to Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City. Can you talk about the writers who have influenced your work?

 JB: You just named three of my guiding lights. Li, Trevor, and Jones are all very important to me, and I return to their work again and again. I’ve been Yiyun Li’s student, and I had the pleasure of meeting Edward P. Jones in Iowa City. My good friend D. Wystan Owen and I got to have dinner with him and the late James Alan McPherson in 2015, a memory I’ll treasure as long as I live. Lost in the City is one of my most treasured books (and “Old Boys, Old Girls,” from Jones’s second collection, may be one of my favorite stories of all time). I’d say that my book is in the shadow of Lost—and what a shadow to shelter in! It shares a focus on black people in a specific place, New York instead of Washington, D.C.

I love these writers and their work for reasons you mention: the focus and respect and love for their characters. A less prettied up way of putting it, Jones has said, is that it’s not so much compassion as it is the responsibility to attempt to know and tell a character’s full story. I also admire those writers’ sentences, and the fact they flout some of the current conventional wisdom about story craft. For example, there’s an idea that you shouldn’t write short stories from multiple points of view. I can hear them all collectively laughing at that notion. I also like what Yiyun Li says about editing: “Editing is not about craft. It’s about finding the life in a piece.” When I read any fiction by those three writers, I feel as though they’ve all gone in search of the life. I’ve tended to think about revision in terms of attending to craft, and I still think conscious attention to craft should be kept largely out of the early drafting stages, but because of Li’s words, and the example of all three of those writers, I now aim for another, post-craft, life-seeking phase of my revision and editing process.

C: Yiyun Li often writes stories that speak directly to other stories: several of her stories respond to ones by William Trevor. In your collection, I felt as though the stories—while they may also be responding to other writers—speak to the other stories in the collection. Did you consciously write any of these pieces in response to another story, or are those connections there simply because of their proximity and their shared themes?

JB: I didn’t consciously write the stories in that way, so that they speak to other stories in the collection, but I see why you ask the question. I think in the years I spent working on these stories, I was circling a lot of the same territory, coming back again and again for another look, a slightly different perspective, a new angle. I try not to write by thinking explicitly about theme though, at least not until the very late stages of revision. There’s too much story stuff to worry about, and I think if you allow yourself to be guided too much or too soon by theme, you’re in the bad kind of trouble (as opposed to the good kind of trouble you court as a story writer). Still, as I look at the stories now, I see how you can think of them in thematic or situational pairs: “No More Than a Bubble” and “Infinite Happiness,” “J’ouvert, 1996” and “Everything the Mouth Eats,” and so on.

C: While this collection isn’t linked in the traditional manner, it feels linked by virtue of a number of common themes and threads, one of which is the focus on black men, with almost all of the stories featuring male protagonists. We see men at different ages, and in varied situations, but they’re all figuring out what it means to be black and male in America in the late 20th/early 21st century. As you were shaping the collection, how much did you consider how the stories would work together to create a prism of sorts, to allow us to see all these different men, side by side?

 JB: I didn’t think much about that effect until I began working with my editors on the collection and the order in which the stories would appear. I’m glad the stories feel linked, and not just like a bunch of stories tossed together. It was also important to emphasize the linkages while avoiding redundancy. One of the reasons the story I mentioned earlier was removed is that it had too much in common with the title story: a man misbehaving with a camera, attention to a father-daughter relationship, etc.

C: Another way that the stories feel linked to me is that every story is a journey. While many (most? all?) stories are emotional journeys, these stories often feature characters moving through time and space. In “No More Than a Bubble,” the journey starts up at Baker Field, at the tip of Manhattan, and ends somewhere unknown, deep in Brooklyn. Because of these peripatetic characters, I think, there’s an underlying restlessness and searching in each story, and the journeys also function as a way to keep each story moving along. Can you speak a little to both the restlessness and to the sense of movement that lives in each of these stories?

JB: Restlessness and movement seem appropriate to emphasize in a collection focused on New York City. And of course restlessness is a great quality for a story character to have, but it’s also interesting to think about movement and mobility in terms of race and class. So much of how racism, income inequality, and other forms of oppression work is about restricting free movement, controlling space, and limiting access. In that sense, I really like that my characters are in motion, going from place to place even if it’s somehow risky to do so.

As you mentioned, a journey keeps a story moving and it provides what Antonya Nelson calls a shaping device. Where a journey begins and ends can communicate something of what a story is about. So, for instance, in “J’ouvert, 1996,” we start in a cramped, small, familial space, move into open, peopled spaces, and end in an open, but somehow intimate space with Ty and Omari. “Clifton’s Place” begins by ushering us into the bar in the way an outsider would experience it, and it ends by entering the bar again, but the space is very different, and maybe Ellis and Sadie are now the outsiders. The journey in “A Lucky Man” is a day at work, with Lincoln heading to his job at the beginning and going home at the end, but it’s anything but an ordinary day. I think these kinds of journeys suggest things about the meanings of those stories, but without being too heavy-handed or awkwardly symbolic. Story-wise, journeys are great because they invite the possibility of encounters and trouble. They make possibility possible, as one of my writing teachers once said. In these and other ways, there’s often something a little magical about a journey. I think my work is grounded in what is called realism, but I’ve had readers suggest that there is a subtle fairy-tale-like quality to some of the stories too, which I like.

C: “Wolf and Rhonda” is the only story that changes point of view and, interestingly, it’s also the only story that features a female point of view. We begin with Wolf, and we end with Rhonda. Can you talk a little about what it was like to both write from a female point of view and switch POV throughout the story? Was Rhonda’s POV always in the story? Did you find yourself privileging one character over the other?

 JB: Beginning with Wolf and ending with Rhonda is part of that story’s journey, for sure. Time and place have their pull on both characters, but Wolf, in his preoccupations with the past, moves backwards in time, and with Rhonda, in her sections, we move forward. I did know from the beginning that I wanted to write a story with two different points of view, and once I discovered Rhonda would be a character, I knew the other POV in the story would be hers.

It was challenging to write from two points of view, but I suspect that some of that had to do with the fact that I’d been encouraged not to write that way. In terms of Rhonda, I think about all the well-deserved critiques of female characters written by male authors. We, male writers, just need to reckon with that kind of critique and do so with humility. It certainly seems true that men have a much harder time writing women than the other way around.I’m sure the same is true of white authors writing non-white characters, or straight authors writing queer characters, and so on. To write convincingly across privilege from the more privileged position is more difficult, period. But I also like what William Trevor said: “I write out of curiosity more than anything else. That’s why I write about women, because I’m not a woman and I don’t know what it’s like.” The combination of humility and curiosity appeals to me, much more nowadays than the premature claims of empathetic understanding that writers often make. I prefer the acknowledgment of a lack. “I don’t understand so I’m going to work really hard and ask a lot of questions in an attempt to find out.”

I think that’s how I approached writing Rhonda. Did it work? Who knows? I probably failed in more ways than are obvious to me. I was certainly taken to task in a workshop for how I had written her in one draft. But interestingly, more readers have felt that Rhonda is the more interesting of the two characters, and that the story’s approach to her felt more internal. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back here, but I do think that for most of the story the narrator is observing Wolf more than inhabiting him. Part of that is deliberate—in some ways, to me, his journey in the story is from type to character, or revealing the character hiding within the type—but part of it may be that I took more care throughout in my attempts to be humble and curious with Rhonda. I’ll readily admit that she’s my favorite of the two characters. But, again, I’m sure there are ways that I failed.

C: I had read four of these stories in literary journals before I read the collection. When I reread those stories, I felt as though I was reconnecting with long-lost friends or acquaintances. This underscores for me the way that your characters are built, the way that they’re so completely developed. Can you talk about how you go about understanding your characters and allowing them to be seen so clearly by your readers?

 JB: Part of how I work with characters is trying to approach them with the humility and curiosity I’ve already mentioned. I also think about how long Edward P. Jones has his characters and their stories live in his head, and that’s before he even writes a word! I try as much as possible to allow my characters to lead the way, which may just be a mental trick or a kind of delusion, but I think it’s an artistically necessary one—for me, anyway. If my characters are going to lead, and not just be functions of the plot, they need to be substantial; they have to have depth. They can’t be flimsy, pushed around, or dominated. I cringe when I hear or read writers say things along the lines of what Lionel Shriver expressed during her infamous and very problematic sombrero speech, maybe the least of the objectionable things she said: that an author uses characters for his plot, that they belong to him, “to be manipulated at his whim,” she said, “to fulfill whatever purpose he cares to put them to.” She spoke of writers exploiting characters: “The character is his creature, to be exploited up a storm.” Well, that’s just not how I think of characters or fiction writing at all. It reminds me of Vladimir Nabokov saying, jokingly or not, “My characters are galley slaves.” As you can imagine, what that kind of approach suggests, in terms of aesthetics and ethics, just doesn’t sit well with me.

I focus a lot on discovering my characters’ contradictory impulses, the things that make them interesting, not too easily or uniformly legible or reducible to a theme. I’m constantly asking questions, which makes for first drafts that come out very slowly. I’ve also been encouraged to think of every character, like every person, as having a rhythm, a specific baseline pulse or tempo that the time of the story itself works with or against. Again, I may be deluding myself, but I really don’t feel like I’m in control of my characters. I invite them to do certain things, but I can tell by how they do those things whether or not they really want to.

C: In several stories, including “Infinite Happiness” and “No More Than a Bubble,” the story uses a flash forward toward the end, with the retrospective voice helping to make sense of the events of the story. I often find flash forwards to be such effective and interesting devices, to take the reader out of the moment of the story in order to shed light on it. Were the flash forwards in these stories there from their beginnings, or did you add them later in revision? How do you see the value of using a flash forward?

 JB: As I recall, the flash forwards were there pretty early on in both stories. The challenge was handling the retrospection throughout the stories, especially prior to the flash forwards. Of course, retrospection is a looking back, at something the narrator still doesn’t fully understand, at something that can help make sense of something in the narrator’s present, and so on. It has precisely the power you mention, taking the reader out of the moment of the story, but managing that power can be a huge and interesting challenge. In other words, I’ve been convinced that retrospection, as a lens or an interpretive device, can sometimes get in the way. It’s often best for the reader to be more or less fully immersed in what the narrator is looking back at, in the drama as seen from the perspective of the younger self, with as little interference as possible from the older, wiser, and often more clear-headed self. Look, not everyone will think about it this way. I had a decisive disagreement with one magazine editor about how the retrospection in “Bubble” should work, which is fine, but it’s my story, and after working on it for years I knew how I wanted it to work.

I like my characters to be cared for and attended to, but not coddled. A retrospective narrator, with her knowledge, experience, and more distant perspective, can act as a form of excessive shielding of the younger version of herself, like an overprotective parent. If you’re not careful, the language used can reflect that parental narrator rather than the language that is truer to the heat of the moment or scene in question. The way I decided I wanted the two stories you mentioned to work is that the retrospective narrators, A.J. and Ben, sink almost entirely into their younger, more foolhardy selves. Reliving your own nonsense is a painful thing to do, but it seems true to how I often think and obsess about moments from my past. Each of the flash forwards, coming near the end of the stories, acts almost like a belated safety valve, a breath taken after being submerged for so long underwater. But of course, the safety of the flash forwards isn’t free and pure. They may help make a little more sense of the events of the story, but they are probably sources of pain and further complication too. A new perspective can give you an uglier angle. The light a flash forward sheds can be muddy. In her essay collection, Yiyun Li has a line I’m reminded of right now: “In retrospect little makes sense—perhaps all stories, rather than once-upon-a-time, should start this way.”

C: In the Acknowledgments, you thank Brigid Hughes and A Public Space. Can you talk a little about working with APS and what that did for your work and for your career?

 JB: My first published story appeared in the pages of A Public Space, and my second story did as well. The journal’s advocacy of my work helped my book get published, through the partnership it has had with Graywolf. Brigid Hughes and Yiyun Li, who is a contributing editor there, are both brilliant, and I absolutely love the way they approach editing. They’re great with line edits (Li once color-coded my sentences; as I recall, purple highlighting meant they were bad), but what I’m thinking of more than that is the way they both so generously interrogate a story. Most of the edits I got were questions. Some were posed so I could clarify matters that were fuzzy, but most of them invited me to think more broadly and deeply about the world of the story. The questions helped me learn how to know my stories and their characters better, achieving clarity beyond what appeared on the page in ways that subtly, but often crucially, affected what ended up on the page. As with my editors at Graywolf, I always felt pushed, but respected and trusted at the same time. Not every editor can do all those things well and at the same time, believe me. The way Hughes and Li read my individual stories has made me a better reader in general.

C: In terms of your process, where does a story often start? Do you have a sense of a character or an image? Or do you think more about a question that you might want to explore, something that you don’t quite understand?

JB: I usually start with an impression of a character, a snippet of dialogue, an image, a place, or a memory. I need an anchor of that kind that can act as an initial compositional resource, but over the course of the writing that anchor usually dissolves, shrinks, shape-shifts, or vanishes entirely. I like to write into mystery and uncertainty, and I’m fine—though maybe not when it’s happening!—if a story starts to go places I hadn’t expected at all. In that sense, I probably subscribe to a version of the writing process described by Richard Hugo, whose ideas I was introduced to by Charles D’Ambrosio. The process requires the writer to distinguish between “the initiating or triggering subject,” which gets you started, and “the real or generated subject,” which you come to discover. Sometimes I wish I could do the Edward P. Jones thing and think about a story until I figure out the climax or ending and then write towards it, but I think I prefer not knowing the ending until I’m almost there. So, as a quick example of all of this, when I started “Clifton’s Place,” all I knew was that I wanted to write about a place that was based on the Tip Top Bar in Brooklyn. That’s it. My time spent at the actual bar had struck me and stayed with me for some reason. As I wrote, all the questions I had about my version of the bar—What’s my bar called and why? Who owns it? How has it changed or remained the same?—led me to where the story ended up.

C: I know you edit and refine your stories carefully. Can you talk a little about your revision process? Is a story ever really done?

JB: My first drafts take a long time because I’m asking lots of questions, like the ones I just mentioned. They also take a long time because I edit on the sentence level as I go. I can’t write the next sentence until I’m satisfied with the previous one, which is ridiculous because I often end up heavily revising those sentences later on anyway. But I need to feel a sturdiness under my feet as I go, maybe as a balance to the next scary step into the void.

Once a draft is done, I like to let it sit for a while, if possible, and then I reread it and start thinking more consciously about craft. I’ll try to tighten things in terms of craft, paying attention to all the things that come up in writing workshops: scene, point of view, story shape, etc. For this, I’ve found that I like to use a version of Robert Boswell’s transitional draft method, in which you focus on just one thing during each revision.

That used to be it. But then, as I mentioned earlier, I now like to have a revision stage that follows this. If the revisions attending to craft successfully tighten a story, I then like to loosen the story up again, just a little. I absolutely think a story should be crafted and well shaped, but I also believe it should not be schematic or stiff. I like the shape of a story to be organically felt, or seen only through rereading and studying, not in-your-face obvious. So I look for little ways to make a story, and its characters especially, more life-like. That can be through dialogue or action or whatever else. Anything that can shake the characters loose a bit from the designs of the story, its narrator, or its protagonist. I like it best when it feels like all the characters have been given their due, that they have their own lives and their own stories that could potentially be written. This stage of revision might be seen as my way of honoring the initial stage of drafting, with all the mystery of that encounter with life, language, memory, and the imagination. Of course, this all sounds a little pretentious, so I’ll end by emphasizing that I’m pretty new at this, and, if I’m fortunate enough to keep writing, I’m sure many of my ideas will change.

JAMEL BRINKLEY is the author of A Lucky Man: Stories (Graywolf Press/A Public Space Books). His fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Best American Short Stories 2018A Public Space, Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, The Threepenny Review, Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, Epiphany, and LitMag. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was also the 2016-17 Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. His work has received support from Kimbilio Fiction, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, the Tin House Summer Workshop, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Beginning this fall, he will be a 2018-2020 Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford University.

 Photo credit: Arash Saedinia