Walking Through The Gossamer Sensation of What Is Past: An Interview with Jamel Brinkley

Jamel Brinkley is the author of A Lucky Man: Stories, a finalist for the National Book Award, the John Leonard Prize, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; and winner of a PEN Oakland Award and the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. His newest collection, Witness, is forthcoming in August 2023. His writing has appeared in A Public Space, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Zoetrope: All-Story, Gulf Coast, The Threepenny Review, Glimmer TrainAmerican Short Fiction, The Believer, and Tin House, and has been anthologized twice in The Best American Short Stories. Raised in Brooklyn and the Bronx, he teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. 

During his visit to OSU as the Spring 2023 Visiting Writer, The Journal spoke to him about the freedom to wander in short fiction, getting the rain into your story, and the constant present of the past in writing and in life. 

The Journal: I’m taking a visual arts class this semester, and in it, we had a discussion about our “first works”—not necessarily the first work we ever made, but the first one that felt true to who they are as an artist—based on the book, No. 1: First Works of 362 Artists. I’d be curious to hear about what you might consider your “first work,” and what about it felt different than work you had created previously, or how it may have influenced the work that came after.

JB: I feel like there’s a few ways I could answer that question, but the response that’s coming to me now is there’s a story called “Infinite Happiness” in the first collection, which I believe is the first story I wrote from that collection, and which kind of feels like a first work in a way. Because it felt like a first person voice I was comfortable with—it felt like it was doing a lot of the things I wanted that kind of story to do, which was to have a first person narrator who was opinionated and had an attitude and was kind of casting aspersions outward, but in fact was revealing himself to be not very much better than the people he was criticizing. And that’s one of the things I think about a lot in first person stories, because when you write in first person, that character, who is also the narrator, has so much power in a story—you’re giving that character these god-like powers of narration. So for me it’s important to find ways to cut against that power, and to allow that character to reveal themselves without violating their point-of-view. That was a story where I felt like I was able to do that and also capture a certain era of Brooklyn that I knew. So a lot of things that were in that story were important to me, so it feels like a first work to me. 

The Journal: As someone who came to an MFA with full intent to write a novel but has fallen in love with the short form, I’d love to know what attracts you to short stories—especially for a short form writer whose work has often been described as “novelistic.” What do you think it means for a fiction to “feel” like a novel versus a short story? 

JB: There are a few questions embedded in there, good questions, and I’ll try to touch on all of them. What attracts me to the short story? I think I like the constraint. Other writers have said that short stories are the form, the written form, that are closest to poetry, and that feels kind of true to me, because they are these intricate little machines when you come down to it, and they kind of have to work if not perfectly, pretty close to perfectly. So I like that constraint, because I think it provides a useful sort of pressure on your creativity. It makes you be creative. It’s more impressive if you do a back-flip off a tightrope than if you do a back-flip on solid ground, you know? So it’s that kind of thing. 

The other thing is that I feel like short stories are close to the way I would narrate my life, like a collection of short stories, or a number of collections of short stories—I don’t know if my life has anything resembling the seamless unity of a novel. It sort of feels like these little pieces that I could narrate in terms of their small arcs, and sometimes they cross over each other and sometimes they’re distant from each other, but when you put them together, you can get a sense of a life. They feel close to memory to me, I guess I would say. 

Technically, you can have a slack part of a novel and the novel can still be wonderful. Some of my favorite novels have sections that I don’t love, necessarily. But this doesn’t mean that novels aren’t highly formal, and if the form isn’t right, the novel’s not going to be right. I guess I would say I do like that in a novel it feels like you have more room, even within that formalness, you have more room to digress. And that’s the thing that I try to cart in from a novel to a short story—the freedom to sort of wander a little bit, to go off-track, to stare at a minor character. They might not be very important but there’s something compelling or beautiful about that character that you want to keep in the story. Then you can kind of release them—they can go off and you can imagine them having their own story somewhere. I do like that quality. That’s why I love a writer like Edward P. Jones. Think about his second collection, which was published after The Known World, his novel. Those stories are big. And it feels like they just digress and move and the shapes are odd, but they still hold together in these wonderful ways. They still feel like stories. So it’s a little bit of trying to have it both ways—but why not try to have it both ways?

The Journal: The Chicago Review of Books said about A Lucky Man: “A lot of short stories exist in a snow globe, but the nine stories presented here are each a big bang.” Speaking of that novelistic scope, how do you know what to add in a story to make the world of your characters feel as vivid and alive as it does, and what to subtract, to ensure the narrative remains refined? Can you talk a bit about that balancing act?

It is a balancing act! Well, the first thing I would say is that I think it helps to have models that give you permission to do those things. That’s why Jones is important to me; writers like Alice Munro, or Deborah Eisbenberg are important because it feels like they have this sensibility that can’t be contained in the boniest form of a short story. Once you have these models, of people not only doing it, but doing it brilliantly, it feels like you can do this kind of thing too. I had a teacher once who said of Edward P. Jones’ work that it feels like as the story moves, he’s going from the soul of the story, to the soul of the story, to the soul of the story . . . That’s the form. If you think of a story as having a soul—it’s probably not very helpful, but I think it’s inspiring, and it feels like you can kind of shake off some of the rigid movements of a more tightly constructed short story. Just sort of follow where a story wants to go, because a character wants to go there, because you respect your characters. Oftentimes that’s enough. If it feels like you’re following or honoring your characters just enough to sit with them for a while, even if their thoughts, their actions, don’t necessarily go along with your plan for the story, just honoring that character feels like something that’s important. This kind of goes back to Chekhov, honestly, you know the way his characters just sort of do what they want. The critic James Wood has this phrase about Chekhov’s characters. He says that they “mislay their scripts” for a moment. He feels that they stop being characters per se, they just become people. I guess those moments are worth it; I guess that’s what I’m saying. Those moments when a character has a surprising or random thought or action, even if it doesn’t drive the story forward, that feels worth it to me because it adds to the texture that you need. And I think the balancing act that you’re asking about is all about revision and instinct. There’s only so much wandering you can do before you just wander completely away from the story. You have to remember what the spine of the story is, and constantly remind yourself of that. But I think once you have a firm sense of what the story is, it permits you to wander. When you digress, you have to digress from something, right? And when you know what that something is, you can come back to it. So there’s no surefire craft trick that tells you how to do it, but I think that if you respect your characters you can get those magical moments. And if you really know through revision what the story is, you know where you have to return. So it’s that sense of digression and return that you have to cultivate draft by draft. 

The Journal: I’d love to hear about how your collections have come together. At what point do you start seeing connections between multiple works? How conscious might those links be? How do you know when a work belongs in a collection and when it just doesn’t?

JB: I should try to talk about this as specifically as possible, so I’ll talk about it with A Lucky Man and then with Witness, because I think they’re a little different. 

So I wrote most of the stories that are in A Lucky Man during my MFA program—or I should say that I drafted them at that point, and then took a couple of years to revise them all. I sort of relentlessly wrote stories in those two years, and I wrote more stories than the number of stories that ended up in A Lucky Man. There are nine stories in that collection, and I think I wrote twelve or thirteen stories, somehow. And there are two things—at least two things—I should mention: one, when I was writing those stories, for a long time, I had no sense or aspiration that I was writing a collection. I vividly remember other folks in the program talking to each other like, “Oh, how’s your novel?” And they’d ask me, “How’s your collection?” and I’d be like, “What are you talking about? I don’t have a collection.” And they’d be like, “Okay…seems like you do!” So it took me a long time to see it. And the second thing I should say is that once I did see it, the connections were surprisingly apparent to me, but only among those nine stories. So the other three or four just didn’t belong, whereas these stories spoke to each other. I felt there were these subliminal connections that made them bind. I think when you sequence a collection, it helps to bring those connections out: figuring out what goes first, how the stories fall from each other in sequence, and what story closes. And I think what that showed me is that there’s a way with a collection that you can kind of trust parts of your mind that you don’t always have conscious access to. Of course, certain things were on my mind, explicitly, when I was writing those stories. But I think a lot of the things that bound them together were things that I wasn’t necessarily explicitly thinking of, but of course my mind was. And it took standing back from those stories to figure out, oh, these are a collectionthose others are just some stories. So that was really useful. 

With Witness, it was maybe a little different. I think I realized sooner in the process what the collection seemed to be, what was binding the stories. And so, I think with the last story or two that ended up in the collection, I knew I was writing something for a collection, whereas that was not the case with A Lucky Man. I wrote all those stories thinking of them as just individual stories. So with this book, there’s a story I added really late in the game, but I knew where I wanted that story to sit. I knew the company I wanted that story to keep, which was different for me, because I typically don’t write with that much foreknowledge. I’m very much a “mystery writer,” trying to figure things out as I go. And with this one, the process of writing the story was still figuring a lot of stuff out, but I kind of knew more things about the main character and what he was wrestling with when I wrote this story, because I knew what the collection was. The last thing I’ll say about Witness that became a sort of guiding idea for me . . . a quote from James Baldwin became really important to me, and in this line, he basically says that there’s a very thin line between a witness and an actor, but the line is absolutely real. And that quote to me was powerful enough but also suggestive enough that it could guide me without making me feel too restricted. This idea of witnessing what you see out in the world, how you act in response to what you see: those are loose enough but also compelling enough that I felt I could write to that. And I felt like I needed both, that guidance and that freedom.

The Journal: Earlier this year, I read Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode, and ever since, I’ve been fascinated with thinking about the different shapes and structures narratives follow other than the traditional “arc.” In consideration to those ideas, are there any shapes you feel compelled by? How do you set out structuring your stories—and does that ever change in revision? 

That’s a good question. I like how that book is scrutinizing the idea of the story arc as the necessary story shape. That feels useful to me because I think every story has its own shape. One thing I’m compelled by is Alice Munro’s idea of experiencing a story like experiencing a house—that is super fascinating to me. I’m not sure I entirely understand it but she talks about when she reads stories, she can start reading the story anywhere, and just kind of move around in it. And it is like a house, right? You don’t necessarily follow a certain path through someone’s house or your own house, so that seems really compelling to me. I’ve been really interested in stories where the shape comes in the form of fragments. A lot of my students have been writing or wrestling with the idea of narrating trauma, for instance, and how do you do that? And the fragment or fragmentation seems to be one story shape that a lot of them are considering or thinking about. It’s interesting because you have a narrative form of fragmentation that actually is, at the same time, resisting narration. So all these things are on the page, but the typical way we would move through a story, with natural connections of a linear sequence—all that stuff is taken out if you have a bunch of fragments. And it calls on the reader to do a lot of work, and it honors the trauma, in a way. It sort of honors the presence of the trauma, and the challenge that trauma exerts on the ability to narrate anything. You can’t assimilate the traumatic experience so how can you narrate it? So I think fragmentation is one thing I’m thinking about, and this house metaphor is another thing I’m thinking about. I’m not sure in my own stories if I actively think about shapes beyond the arc—maybe they play with the arc shape in some way, but you can probably put a narrative arc on most of my stories. But in my reading life and in my teaching life, I’m certainly compelled by other shapes.

The Journal: In reading A Lucky Man, I’m struck by the particular way each story traverses time—it feels like every narrator is on a precipice between past and present, and similarly haunted by both, visions of who they were and who they should be. Like how in “J’ouvert 1996”, the father tells the narrator to stop sending pictures of himself, because he can only see him as the boy he used to be, or in “A Lucky Man,” Lincoln remarks about the divide between him and his wife in thinking that “time had not treated them equally.” In Joan Silber’s The Art of Fiction, she writes that “Time is always in some way the subject of fiction . . . Storytelling is always the contemplation of time.” How much might you agree with this idea? What does time mean to you when writing? What does it mean to your characters?

JB: I totally agree. I think the subject is always time, in a way, you know? It kind of goes back to your last question—maybe the arc isn’t the best way to represent the way a character is experiencing time. Maybe it is fragmentation, maybe it is a kind of wandering progression through a structure, like a house. I think in my stories, I’m always trying to erode or make porous the boundary between what we sort of clumsily call “frontstory” and “backstory.” Because I think that that division isn’t always so neat—it’s probably rarely that neat, or maybe never that neat. There’s that famous Faulkner quote about the past not being past—I actually prefer what he goes on to say in that quote, because he talks about the experience of living in the present is like laboring through webs of the past. And I love that idea, that you’re just constantly walking through this gossamer sensation of what is past. And that’s the way I aim to write in most of my stories—it’s not like here’s what happening now, here’s what happened twenty years ago, and now let’s go back to—you know, like the past neatly explains why the character is doing something in the present. I don’t think that’s what’s happening; I think that the past is always mysterious, constructed—it’s always kind of a question. You’re always kind of reliving it. And so as you move through life, as you move through your present story, you’re always moving through your past story as well. And I kind of want to capture that feeling of a character laboring through these webs, and that nothing you do is discretely set off from what we call “backstory.” The backstory is always there, it’s in the air, even when you’re not aware of it, you’re walking right through it all the time. 

The Journal: “Everything the Mouth Eats” begins with the line, “I’ve started this story many times and deleted the page many times.” I was wondering how do stories begin for you? What does it take for a story to feel true, and start a life of its own?

JB: I think they begin in different ways—for instance, that story began as an attempt on my part to talk back to another story that I love. One of my favorite writers does this: Yiyun Li does it a lot. A lot of her stories are talking back to William Trevor stories, or Elizabeth Bowen, or other writers that she loves. And so with that story, I was trying to talk back to “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin. Although that beginning, that first line that you quoted is actually an allusion to The Fire Next Time, I believe, when he’s writing to his nephew [“My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation”]. So that’s one way that stories begin for me, I’m just caught up with something in a story that I love and I want to try to write back to it. Having that story there as a starting point is really useful, but inevitably your story is just going to go in a different direction and become its own thing, and I love when that happens. It’s like, oh yeah, I’m not talking only to you anymore, I have something to say now. 

Otherwise, it’s often something you were just talking about, not letting things go. Stories will begin because something won’t let go of me, or will just stay with me. Often it’s a place, or a voice, that just stays in my head, and I feel like I have to write about it. For instance, there’s a story in my new collection that’s set in Brooklyn—it’s set at a location that’s essentially the Brooklyn Museum. I was thinking about the Brooklyn Museum because when I lived in New York, I would go to this monthly event called First Saturdays, and it was always a fascinating event because this huge cross-section of people from Brooklyn and other boroughs would come, a huge diversity of people. It was a mix of music, visual art, and sometimes film, so various arts were represented. And people of all ages. And what I remember about going was that you never knew who you were going to encounter. It just felt like it was inevitable that you were going to see someone that you didn’t expect to see. And that stayed with me, that sense of completely unpredictable encounters. The story I ended up writing was this completely unpredictable encounter that becomes very troublesome for the main character. But I love that feeling, so I wanted to capture that feeling of being in that place, because it just stayed with me, it felt like this doesn’t happen everywhere. Of course it happens, especially in a place like New York, but there it felt really intense and more likely to happen. So either I’m talking back to other stories, or a place or a voice just has this grip on me. What was the last part of your question?

The Journal: What does it take for a story to feel true, and take form—you know, when you start something and it’s not quite the way you have it in your head and you have to kind of recombobulate a few times?

JB: My sense of it is similar to what a lot of writers have talked about—I feel a story starts to feel true when it starts pushing you around a little bit. One of my old teachers would talk about the feeling of when you’ve put down a couple of good sentences, or a couple of good details, or a couple of good scenes in a story, then you have the sensation of losing options, and that sensation of losing options should actually be a good one. It can be scary, but it should be a good sensation, because it means the story is exerting a discipline on you, and exerting its own rules on you. So you know these beautiful details that you’ve set down on a page are actually making certain bad decisions not possible anymore, or they’re sort of suggesting to you, no, don’t do that, follow this path. So for me, when I get that feeling of this is becoming difficult, like this story is kind of fighting me—it’s awful, of course, but it also makes me feel like this story is true, this story is becoming its own thing, it’s not necessarily bound to what my conscious mind wants it to be. I have to respect a lot of what it wants to be. The other thing I would say is that I think a story feels true when any change you try to make to it makes it worse. It’s like, no, no, no, this is it, this is its form, this is its essential form, so I have to respect that, I have to stop messing around with it.

The Journal: What most commonly stumps you in writing? What have been some challenges you’ve faced in bringing your beginnings to their rightful resting place?

JB: That’s a good question . . . I feel like every story has its own seemingly impossible challenges, but I’m trying to think of what recurs. . . I think one of the hardest things to do in stories is to—I see this in my own work, I see this in my students’ work—one of the hardest things to do is to honor all of the characters in a given story. And it’s hard because one of the things you want to do, if you’re writing character-based fiction, one of the things you often want to do is to be true to a certain point-of-view, to a certain perspective on the world. So you’re kind of pledging allegiance to one character in a way, but the difficult task is to do that, but at the same time, not allow that allegiance to one character to diminish the autonomy and the complexity of other characters. So the thing that I always end up wrestling with is how do I write a story that’s deeply embedded in a character’s point-of-view, that feels true to the character’s point-of-view, while also looking at the other players, and making sure they’re not just becoming functions of the plot, sort of adjuncts of the main character, and getting pushed around by the sensibility and the desires of the main character. So how do you render a world in which the subjectivity of your main character is really richly rendered, but you’re also true to what’s external to that subjectivity—which to be honest doesn’t really care about that subjectivity. As we know from our lives. Neither of us wanted it to rain today, right, but it’s raining! If we had our choice, it wouldn’t be raining. But how do you get the rain, metaphorically speaking, into your story? Even if your character doesn’t want it to be there. So for me, a thing that recurs is that how do I make sure that the things that external to my privileged character, the things and people external to my privileged character, how do I make sure those things are autonomous and true and complex, at the same time that this character is rich and true and complex. It’s very difficult!

A Lucky Man is available for purchase through Graywolf Press

Jamel Brinkley is the author of A Lucky Man: Stories, a finalist for the National Book Award, the John Leonard Prize, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; and winner of a PEN Oakland Award and the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. His newest collection, Witness, is forthcoming in August 2023. His writing has appeared in A Public Space, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Zoetrope: All-Story, Gulf Coast, The Threepenny Review, Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, The Believer, and Tin House, and has been anthologized twice in The Best American Short Stories. Raised in Brooklyn and the Bronx, he teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.