In the Spirit of Curiosity: Talking with Jamel Brinkley

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Jamel Brinkley’s first book, A Lucky Man, contains nine stories focused on manhood, blackness, and family. The stories take place in Brooklyn and the South Bronx, and follow narrators of varying ages as they attempt to navigate a difficult world. Author Charles D’Ambrosio describes the book well: “Ambitious themes arc across the entire book—troubled masculinity, family in all its broken forms—but on a lower frequency these are love stories, intimately told.” 

Brinkley was raised in the Bronx and Brooklyn, New York. He is a graduate of Columbia University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His work has received fellowships from Kimbilio Fiction and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and will appear in The Best American Short Stories 2018, edited by Roxane Gay. Beginning this fall, he will be a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford University.

We spoke through email about how he goes about making a short story, what he looks for in a reader, and his relationship with social media.

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The Rumpus: What have you been up to since I last saw you in Key West? What does the life of Jamel look like these days?

Brinkley: In 2016, I was finishing up a post-graduate fellowship year in Iowa City. A few amazing things happened during those months. I sold my collection to Graywolf, and I found out I was awarded the Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I moved to Madison in August, and spent that academic year teaching creative writing and working on book edits. Then, last year, I moved from Madison to Los Angeles, where I live now. The book came out a little over two months ago. I spent about two or three weeks doing a handful of readings, but things have since quieted down a bit. Right now, I’m just trying to make ends meet, support the book, and get to work on new fiction. In the fall, I’ll start my fellowship at Stanford.

Rumpus: How do you go about preparing for a fellowship like Stanford?

Brinkley: I’ve been pretty fortunate with the various writing communities I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of. This fellowship means re-entering a long-term, structured workshop environment, which I haven’t participated in as a student in three years. I’m looking forward to the deadlines, the feedback, and the camaraderie. I think my preparation will involve getting into a more organized writing routine again and preparing myself to be as generous and rigorous as possible with the work of my peers, reading each submission on its own terms.

Rumpus: What are your thoughts on residencies and fellowships in general—how do you approach them?

Brinkley: I think residencies and fellowships are such a gift, especially in this country, where the arts aren’t as supported as in other places. Residencies can be a bit of a mind-fuck though, because you want to take advantage of every possible moment of the time you’re given, whether that’s a week or two or a month or more. My first experiences with residencies were stressful in the beginning stages. It takes me a while to get used to a new environment, so it’s usually been the case that I’m not very productive during the first few days, and then I get anxious about not being productive, which can lead to further problems. I’m learning to value the solitude, the time to think and read, and the care shown by the staff members of the residencies themselves. All those things are important for artists and the work they produce.

Rumpus: My favorite story of yours remains the one I read in our workshop with Antonya Nelson at the Key West Literary Seminar. Can you talk about how this story came about?  

Brinkley: At the time, I was a little obsessed with a story called “The Ascent” by Ron Rash. His story features an imaginative young boy in dire circumstances, and I was just really impressed by all the small choices he made so perfectly in writing a story that I found, and still find, really affecting. I think it’s a marvel of third-person close narration. I wanted to write a story that was kin to his in some way. Of course mine turned out to be much different, even in the use of point of view that I so admired.

The other part of it was a memory I had as a kid of going to summer day camp in the South Bronx. Back then, we would be so excited when we went on these trips to privately owned swimming pools in suburban homes. It was only later that the strangeness, racial and otherwise, dawned on me. I wanted to explore that strangeness and that excitement. 

Rumpus: How do you go about getting a first draft down? Do you write it in a few days, or over a longer span of time? How drastically does the first draft change as you revise? Your stories tend to fairly long, compared to some—twenty, thirty pages. Do the drafts start out long so that you cut them down, or short and you expand? Or do they generally stay the same length?

Brinkley: It takes me longer than a few days to get the first draft of a story down. Probably a couple of weeks at best, and that’s likely to be when I’m facing a deadline. Even my first drafts get written fairly slowly. With all the uncertainty I deliberately write into, it’s important to me to get the sentences pretty solid. The sturdiness and sound of the sentences is what allows me to take that next step into the dark. Of course, I end up revising most of those sentences later anyway, but compositionally it’s important for me, from the beginning, to write what at least feel like good sentences. My first drafts start out pretty long, usually in the twenty-five-page range, and in revision they tend to get a little longer, probably by a few pages. Whatever I tighten, craft-wise, ends up spilling out again. Maybe that’s a lack of discipline on my part, but also, I hope, that’s a function of revising in the spirit of curiosity and of trying to make my stories more lifelike.

Rumpus: What does writing a short story feel like to you?

Brinkley: It feels like my arms are being pulled in two different directions and like I’m walking in pitch darkness. I don’t plot my stories ahead of time, and I’m definitely figuring things out sentence by sentence, asking lots of questions in pursuit of some truth about my characters and of the story’s ending. Stories, being short, demand a kind of gathering, a logic of closing down, but I also have inclinations toward opening out, expanding, and tunneling down. When I write a story, I always feel like I’m trying to find a balance between these two demands or impulses.

Rumpus: I was reading your interview with Aaron Teel at American Short Fiction, and what you said about how your teachers made your growth as a writer possible really resonated with me. I didn’t know how to write a story, not really, until I did my MFA. Maybe I would have learned elsewhere, but I feel so grateful I learned through these specific people. And the time after the MFA is so interesting, when you have to move forward, often without much contact with those same teachers and peers. What did your post-MFA years look like in terms of continuing your practice without those people? Do you have any words for those wondering what to do without the structure of their program?

Brinkley: Well, I’m sad to say it, but I’ve hardly written any new work in my post-MFA years. Part of that is because I was revising this collection, at first on my own and then with my editors at Graywolf, but part of it, I’m realizing, is because I need deadlines and without workshop I no longer had any. I think finding some structure is key, whether it’s with a writing group or one writing partner. Some people don’t need to rely on others like that, but I bet many people do. Even though I haven’t been writing much, I still feel like I haven’t abandoned my practice, because I’ve been reading. I think it’s crucial to keep reading, not necessarily in the same critical way we read in workshops, but in a way that is careful and descriptive. I find it really helpful to be able to describe, as objectively as possible, what a writer has done.

Rumpus: What qualities do you look for in a reader? How do you go about sharing work with friends?

Brinkley: I look for people who read widely and often, and who aren’t too caught up in workshop orthodoxies. Sometimes I meet folks who read only contemporary American fiction (never poetry!), or only white fiction writers, or only men. A reader like that isn’t likely to be someone that I would seek out for critique of my own work. I actually don’t share work with friends very often. Maybe two or three people tops, and then not very often. I have to feel a significant amount of trust with anyone that I share work with. 

Rumpus: I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling some relief when you say you aren’t writing much at the moment. I find that I’m less inclined to write new stories while reworking old ones. New drafts seem to require such a different mindset. What do you think of the idea that we seem to have—or I do, anyway—that writers should be constantly creating? Or is it more that we are constantly processing information, running it through us and filtering in some way?

Brinkley: I think the idea that you have to put words on a page every single day can be such a burden. Some people can and do write that way, and I can sometimes, when it’s going really well. But I think it’s just as valuable, if not more so, to think about the work, to read, to think about writing and other forms of art in general, to think about other disciplines and about politics. Exercising and stretching the mind is more of a priority to me than writing a certain number of words per day. But of course I understand that many writers work with significant time restrictions, in which case the imperative of getting the words down is totally understandable.

Rumpus: You’ve mentioned how the work of Danielle Evans, along with a few other writers, granted you permission. How so?

Brinkley: I just think Danielle Evans is a remarkably smart, funny, and observant writer. I teach one of her stories, “Virgins,” pretty much every time I teach writing, and I’ve been so excited by the new work she’s published. She, along with folks like Edward P. Jones, Alice Munro, and Deborah Eisenberg, gives me permission to write longer stories, stories that challenge some of the received “rules” about writing without losing their shapeliness or emotional resonance.

Rumpus: What is it about “Virgins” that you find compelling to teach?

Brinkley: Students always enjoy reading it, first of all, and I just think it does so many things so well in a way that helps me illustrate them. I think Evans manages Erica’s first-person point of view really well, she makes brilliant use of a catalyst character (Erica’s friend Jasmine), and until the very end of the story she brilliantly escalates its tension, conflict, and stakes. The dialogue is great, the voice is great, the understanding of adolescence. It’s all there.

Rumpus: Is there one received rule that you’ve found to be particularly unhelpful?

Brinkley: I think I’m most skeptical of rules about point of view. POV is such a flexible, lively organism in writing fiction that often I’m not even sure what it is. But I feel sure that rules like “there can be only one POV in a story” or “avoid switching POV” are completely arbitrary. In general, I am skeptical about rules. When I teach, I always speak in terms of “ideas” or “suggestions” or “tools” that writers are free to use, abandon, or argue with as they please. The thing is just to make intelligent and informed choices (but also to trust your instincts!) based on what your story requires.

Rumpus: What does writing do for you?

Brinkley: Writing causes me a lot of stress and it ruins my posture. All that sitting is really bad for you. Aside from that though, it places me in a position that I’ve recently come to value more and more: the position of being patient with doubt, of not making knee-jerk decisions or judgments that lack nuance, of respecting the maze of my own mind. I feel like social media culture often promotes impatience, self-righteousness, an urgency to speak or decide that approaches recklessness, and modes of critique that are often harsh and baseless. It makes me feel crazy sometimes. Writing makes me feel crazy, too, but in a different, better way.

Rumpus: How do you see social media and the role it plays in promoting a first book? Is there a certain way you gain satisfaction from posting online? This seems like such an overwhelming process, and one that is discussed a lot, but I wonder how it fits into your day and if there’s any sort of guiding principle you have when you approach online social spaces

Brinkley: I’m fairly active on social media, but more as a reader and a sharer than someone offering original content. I’m more of a re-tweeter than a tweeter, for instance. I have a love/hate relationship with social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. I think there’s a certain brilliance that people who are adept at those platforms show, but the platforms also cause me to feel anxiety, frustration, and despair sometimes. I see that social media can be huge in promoting a first book, or any book, and I’ve tried to do what I can in that respect, but I also resist showing myself too much. It’s the book that I want people to know about, but to the extent that that involves trying to create a cult of personality, I’m just not interested. In the end, I’m just a very private person, and I prefer certain kinds of discourse over some of the ones that social media platforms sometimes invite us to participate in.

Rumpus: Is there anyone you’ve been paying attention to recently who is especially adept at posting and/or curating?

Brinkley: Among the people I pay attention to on Twitter are Kristen Arnett, Doreen St. Felix, Alexander Chee, Danielle Evans, Kima Jones, Laila Lalami, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Christina Sharpe, Benjamin Dreyer, Hanif Abdurraqib, Elizabeth McCracken, Kashana Cauley, and of course Astro Poets.

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Photograph of Jamel Brinkley © Arash Saedinia.


Maria Anderson is from Montana. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, Big Lucks, and The Atlas Review. She is an editor at Essay Press. More from this author →