Fiction In Conversation
New Routes in Fiction:
JAMEL BRINKLEY with Alec Niedenthal
It feels nice to find innovative fiction that doesn't play games, that tells the story straight. Jamel Brinkley's work is like that, impressionistic at times—interested in the light on the water, the glint on someone's hair—but always caught up in the drama of what it means, and how it feels, to have an interior life. To be cramped in one self, isolated and private, when you want to be and do so much more. These are stories of the undersung, not those on the absolute margins but trapped in the middle of them, between light and shadow. We meet the guy sneaking photos on the subway, the frightened kid who loses sight of his brother in the rush of a parade.
My favorite stories in Brinkley's book, A Lucky Man, zoom-in on those lost to view, the lonely, the quiet. By taking them seriously, and bearing witness to the way the world pressures them—and the way they push back—Brinkley gives them a kind of grace, an autonomy. We see them strong in their weakness and weak in their strength—we see, in story after story, how the past comes after them: relentless, ruthless and true.
By the book's end, you start to feel that Brinkley isn't writing fiction so much as chipping away at sculptures, at 3D figures, in the sense that he shows you the whole person—but only at a specific moment at time, in one specific pose. These stories aren’t saying "this thing happened" so much as "this person lived." And they are extraordinary.
I spoke to Jamel Brinkley over the phone.
Alec Niedenthal (Rail): I noticed that many of these stories had an interesting situation. You’ll give us morally complicated individual or protagonist, and then you often bring us back to a moment in the past that justifies or illuminates why this person acts in this way. That struck me as very risky and difficult to do—but it always worked and felt very sincerely done, not just for the sake of “plot” and “character development.” Why were you motivated to do that?
Jamel Brinkley: That’s an interesting observation. In some ways, when I play with time in my stories, I feel like I’m trying to write against a dummy version of the short story where the backstory comes in merely to explain a moment in the present. I try to think about those moments in the past not as just explanatory, but as moments that are still alive, not static, not “here’s why it’s this way.” Rather, “here’s why it’s still alive.” In this character’s consciousness or unconscious. Or alive in the character’s life in some other way. My intention in going back is to put those moments side-by-side with the present, not to subordinate them. It’s hard to do, but a lot of the writers that I admire do that. If you read Alice Munro or Edward P. Jones, they go into the past but it doesn’t feel like backstory, strictly speaking, but as something that’s as alive as the present story. Something that doesn’t illuminate one moment via backstory, but rather puts all these moments that are more or less equally alive next to each other.
Rail: There’s a feeling of parallel timelines—I think what you said about the unconscious, that this is happening on an unconscious level, is interesting. The idea that it’s not like, X sat down and remembered the time when Y happened. It’s more complicated than that.
Brinkley: I hope it is.
Rail: I think so. I remember from A Known World, for instance, it was almost an aesthetic point Edward P. Jones was trying to make, and also a point about what kind of thing the individual in history is—almost against the will of the reader, taking us back to a prior moment that suspends the action in the present.
Brinkley: I think that’s kind of how I often experience time. Moments from the past, memories—whether it’s an accurate memory or a memory that I’ve somehow altered. The past, that memory, feels somehow more alive and haunting and disturbing than whatever is going on in the present. We think of the present, in this dummy version of fiction we’re talking about, as what’s alive. The present is often not that interesting at all—what comes after you and grabs and fixates you is the past. It’s not static at all. It’s something that’s very much animate.
Rail: It insists on itself.
Rail: The most interesting kind of counterexample to that is the last story in the book, “Clifton’s Place,” where this bar is the living past that’s being overwritten by the profoundly uninteresting present of a bunch of wealthy gentrifiers. I found that story very compelling. I rarely have this reaction to works of fiction, and when I do it’s really special—I read that story maybe last Friday and then on Saturday I went to this bar in Fort Greene, Frank’s. Do you know it?
Brinkley: I do.
Rail: I saw it very differently after having read that story. It’s interesting because I’ve read whatever articles about gentrification, people being pushed out, one culture overriding another—things like that—but I’d never felt it on such a bodily, concrete level as I did after reading that story. It’s interesting because when you’re writing about something so topical, it can sometimes come off as overly so. In your case, there’s a deeply felt element to it. What do you think it is about a work of fiction that can change minds in a way a piece of journalism can’t?
Brinkley: Well, one thing I would say—I’ve been thinking about empathy a lot lately. And it’s a word that’s thrown around a lot in literary circles. It’s used to praise a work of fiction or a work of art, but I’ve been sort of thinking about that term and interrogating it. I was reading one thing the other day—I forget who the author was—but it mentioned that scientifically speaking, empathy has its limits. So, for example, we tend to empathize with people who look like us, or with people who are “better looking.” One thing that stands out to me now in reference to your question is that we tend to empathize with individuals rather than groups. So you can empathize with a small child who’s suffering better than you can the victims of a mass murder. And so in terms of fiction, and in terms of that story, it’s taking on gentrification in a way that one or two other stories hint at only slightly. What was important for me in that story was to seat the story in terms of these characters—in terms of Ellis, the main character, for instance. That might be part of what you mean.
I’ve read plenty of articles about gentrification, the violence of it and so on, and intellectually you understand what’s going on—it may conjure up a sense of outrage and what have you, but it’s different when you focus in on an individual. To the extent that empathy is the amazing thing we make it out to be, what fiction can do is seat you in the life and consciousness of a character—a person, an imagined person—and make that experience more felt rather than intellectual, if that makes sense. That’s part of it. Longform journalism is more interesting to me than the typical articles you would read—you get that depth of focus on a person, which you don’t necessarily get with pieces that are about numbers and statistics, years, trends. There’s something about our capacity to focus on an individual that makes fiction effective and affective in that way.
Rail: One of the things that makes that story so complex is there’s another element to it, which is not on the surface related to gentrification. The owner of the bar, Sadie—she and the protagonist, Ellis: they have something that develops which is not quite romantic and not quite not romantic, something which deals with the presence of the past, something which is not subsumed totally under the category of a critique of gentrification. It’s a strange almost otherworldly element that sticks out of the rest of the story and is difficult to lay cleanly on top of the criticism of gentrification, which makes it feel so alive and so like so much more than just what it could otherwise be.
Brinkley: I think it’s difficult for me to write a story with a thematic focus from the outset. It’d be difficult for me to set out to write a critique of gentrification. You mentioned Frank’s in Fort Greene—my story is inspired by a bar in Bed-Stuy called the Tip-Top Bar, which has some similarities with Frank’s. That bar just stuck with me, not because of gentrification, but just being in that place, what it looked like, the people who worked there, the people who were patronizing it. I just wanted to write about a bar that was similar to the Tip-Top Bar. It started from that tiny kernel and then I kept asking questions. How long has this bar been around? Who owns it? What’s it called? Why is it called that? Just sort of wrote into the story that way. If I’m writing about that bar in contemporary Brooklyn, of course gentrification would likely be one of the factors involved. But I never intended it to be merely a critique of gentrification. It’s just one of the factors of this place. It’s one of the factors in the story of Ellis and Sadie. And that’s life. You know, we’re all subject to these forces. But most days we are not merely the victims of those forces. It’s just one of the things that conditions us from day to day. I just wanted to capture the life and focus on Ellis’s loneliness. And around that were other things, like gentrification.
Rail: I wouldn’t call that effect empathy, but it’s something that kind of skirts around the definition of empathy. You can see yourself in that context, you can see the quotidian details, the street, the light, the trees. I wouldn’t call it identification either. It’s really interesting though. I did want to ask, because I always feel so starved for new fiction that is really invested in representing everyday details in new, exciting ways. I sound like an advertisement, but your book does that. How did you discover your interest in portraying, say, the way the light strikes someone’s skin or gets pooled in someone’s shoulder blades when she rises out of a pond? Where did those come from?
Brinkley: Probably a couple of things. I’ve always been interested in poetry and visual art, and the way that those forms draw your senses to very specific details. That can’t be reduced to anything else. What do I mean by that? I taught high school English for four years. The thing you end up doing and also resisting as an English teacher is you’re teaching kids to make interpretations. And if you’re not careful, every single thing they read in a poem or a story or a novel or a play is representative of something else. Every single thing is symbolic—a metaphor for this. Once you start talking about the green light in Gatsby, the whole book is up for grabs. I remember some days I would come into class and just read a description and try to get the students to appreciate that description for its own sake, for its beauty, for the sound of the words, for the image it conjures in your minds, not because it means something about capitalism or ambition or what have you. There’s this meaning-making machinery that the mind becomes, which can become scary to me. It means we’re not experiencing thing on a basic, primary level. Sort of just being alive in the world with other people who are alive. Those details by themselves, if I’m writing them correctly you can’t argue with them; you can’t transform them into something else. They are what they are. That feels like a stone in the story you can step on that moves you across the story. You don’t have to pause at every paragraph wondering, What is the author doing here? What meaning has she embedded in this? No—just be in the story like you are in the world, experiencing it. I don’t think we need to convert every detail in the story into some other currency. I want the thing to be the thing. That’s really important to me.
Rail: Did that ever feel like a risk you were taking as a writer? To not convert everything into meaning that pushes the story along?
Brinkley: A little, especially with short stories. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that novels are more tolerant of that kind of detail. You can go off and have these lyrical few pages, just sort of meander a bit more, whereas stories—maybe I’m invoking that dummy version of the story again—the idea is that every sentence has to contribute to the meaning of the story. And if there’s anything extraneous, it needs to be cut. That kind of constraint that the story places on you is something that I like as an artistic challenge. But it’s also something I resist. I don’t want my stories to be meaning-making machines. I want them to be experiences. I’ve definitely heard in workshops, why do you have that here? This page can be cut. This character’s not important. In some cases, that’s right. In many cases, however, I think, I’m not just trying to write an equation here. I’m trying to convey an experience.
Rail: So when you first are in the drafting phase of a piece, how do you know when the tone starts to sound right?
Brinkley: I write first drafts very slowly. Which is a source of sadness for me, because I end up revising a lot anyway. I know a lot of writers who write first drafts very slowly and then revise it one time. “It’s done!” I’m not like that. But I write very slowly, and part of it is that I’m trying to find the sound the story should make. I find it sentence by sentence. I was thinking about this the other day, because I’m working on a new story and it is painful. Painful. I’m just working on the first two paragraphs for weeks. The problem was I hadn’t found the right sound. I would go back and change the syntax of a sentence, just the sound of it, adjusting the formality or informality. And I think finding that took so long because the story couldn’t move forward without finding the right sound. I think that’s part of why I write so slowly. In the opening pages, I need to find the kind of sound the story will make.
Rail: Do you rewrite those opening pages again and again? Or is it that you really take your time with them?
Brinkley: I rarely will sort of scrap what I’ve written and start completely over. I’ll look back at a particular sentence and say, “This story is wrong-footed right now.” So I’ll go back and labor over the sounds of sentences that are essentially largely the same, but it could be a word or two that’s not right—the syntax is off, or it could be the name of the character. I’ll write three or four sentences and then for the next several days play with those three or four sentences until I feel comfortable with the sound they’re making, and then I’ll move forward.
Rail: What do you revise for? What do you leave out of your first drafts?
Brinkley: It varies from story to story. One thing I find myself coming back to fairly often: the right shapes for the scenes. Sometimes I’ll write scenes that haven’t gone on long enough or have gone on too long and I’ll cut a paragraph or two. The sequence of the scenes. Sometimes I’ll realize there’s a missing scene. Or I’ll find I’ve written an extraneous scene. That’s one thing I’ll look for. Dialogue is something I think a lot about. Sort of finding that middle ground between dialogue that works dramatically and dialogue that grants each character his or her autonomy. This line belongs in this story, but the character isn’t just saying it to move the story forward. What the reader is getting from it is that this character is an individual and could, potentially, have his or her own story. They’re not just here for the benefit of the main character’s story.
I don’t know whether you’ve heard about this, but the writer Robert Boswell has this insane revision method, which he recommends for use after a workshop. He uses it himself. He calls it transitional drafting. You read over a draft after a workshop and you’ve got all these thoughts about how to fix it. The worst thing you can do is try to fix everything at the same time. His idea is that with each draft you should focus on one thing. There might be a dialogue revision. All you do is focus on the dialogue in this revision. And then in the next draft, you focus on shaping the scenes. Then you have another draft about secondary characters. Whatever might come up in a workshop, each element merits its own draft. He does it really intensely apparently—he’s very meticulous and will write 75, 90 drafts of a story. I’m more streamlined, but I do like the idea of focusing on one element at a time.
Rail: Another thing I wanted to ask: how you managed masculinity in these stories. Your male characters so often think in ways the story itself does not think about women, about what men should be—many writers collapse the distance between character and story, where the story itself seems to be making sometimes misogynstic judgments. How did you manage that distance between character and narration, such that I never thought: this story is saying this bad, objectionable thing?
Brinkley: In the third-person stories in the collection, in order to manage that distance, it was important for me to establish the range of the narrator—that the narrator can go in very closely to the character but can also sort of pan out. Once you establish that range, the “camera” of the story can give you the character’s thoughts—as flawed as they are—and it can also zoom out, give you context, other characters through which to observe the character’s words and behaviors. In the third person, it’s important to establish that the narrator will not be attached entirely to the main character. It’s going to zoom in and out. We’ll get a panoramic view, a way of setting the character to scale. We can zoom in and get intimate but also see the character in a larger context and observe him from a distance.
In the first person, the most important thing was probably to establish some kind of retrospection. All first-person stories are more or less retrospective, but it was important to me to have, in some cases, the characters looking back—years later—to establish that distance. Presumably they are older and wiser, even if still problematic in some ways. But opening up that kind of distance is crucial. So in the very first story, the first sentence reads, “It was back in those days.” It was important that we get someone looking back at his very foolish behavior from his days in college. In both modes, first and third person, it felt crucial to open up the possibility of distance and range, so the stories weren’t limited by the character’s limitations.
Rail: Yeah, and it felt very important for you to have those limitations. To not have characters who were non-problematic.
Brinkley: Yeah, definitely. But the risk is, when you’re writing about black characters, you’re writing into a discourse where you can easily be writing merely about trauma, or merely about people being victims. The knee-jerk reaction to this might be to write impossibly angelic characters, which I didn’t want to do either. So to avoid both of those possibilities it was important to show the characters being limited and problematic in the ways we’re all limited and problematic, but also open up a space so the stories don’t become endorsements of problematic behaviors.
Rail: It’s interesting when you’re writing about black main characters, that you run the risk of accidentally saying something you don’t want to say. God, that seems like such a hard balance to get right.
Brinkley: It is challenging. Especially, we’re at a time where we’re questioning a lot of norms in our society, as we should be—norms of misogyny, patriarchy, etc. So when you reproduce those things we’re questioning, it can be scary to write about people with those views or tendencies. Is the story misogynistic? Is the story promoting racism or sexism? I think realists still do have a responsibility to write about people as they are; but there’s an ethical obligation to not endorse those views.
Rail: And not leaning on received narratives is important. I’ve been struggling with this a lot—I’ve been working on this novel about political violence in the Deep South, and it’s tough because I want to satirize the delusion of whiteness and the madness of whiteness in that part of the country, and in this country as a whole, but I’m not interested in writing characters who are straightforwardly racist. That’s not something I want to reproduce. So you have to get at it sideways or something.
Brinkley: When I set out the stories side by side, two things jumped out at me. I have more than one black male character who is or has been in prison. I have more than one black male character who doesn’t have a father. Those two things could easily become just reproducing the received ideas that black families don’t have fathers and that black men are criminals, or what have you. So it was important for me to open up a space for context: so in the second story in the collection, the character’s father is in prison. It was very important that that character see black fathers around him. They are very minor characters, essentially details, but when he’s walking around the playground, talking to the old men, he’s seeing black fathers. It was important for this book to not promote a sense that African-American families are broken or without fathers. Or that black male criminality is an outsized issue.
Rail: That’s really interesting. In that story—I love that story—I think more about his search for a father than his absence of a father. It’s not like he’s sitting there thinking, “Oh, I wish I had my father.” He’s almost not consciously thinking of it. Maybe it’s that avoidance of cliché and tropes—these are real situations, there are people without fathers and you’re interested in writing about those characters. But you do it in a way that doesn’t lean on the received.
Brinkley: Part of how I like to try to do it goes back to one of your previous questions—it’s the detail. To puncture that clichéd narrative, go smaller than the cliché. Find something that can’t be absorbed by the cliché. Those little details—this kid doesn’t have his dad around. But that’s not going to be the fine detail that makes up the story. Throughout the day, there are all these other things. It’s not just writing into the cliché, it’s writing that day and all the things he hears and sees and smells.
Rail: These characters are very perceptive. They notice a lot. When you’re writing protagonists, do you try to write characters with the same level of insight and self-awareness?
Brinkley: I think it is important to try to write characters who are at least as intelligent as you are, no matter your background. They can be lower class, working class, undereducated in the formal sense, but there should be this throbbing intelligence the characters have. That’s important to me. Even if they’re not self-aware, they’re observant. They see what’s going on around. Their intelligence shows itself. But it is important to me that I’m not being condescending to my characters, in other words. That’s crucial to me.
Rail: Do you think it’s possible to write a character who’s less observant and do it in a way that’s non-condescending?
Brinkley: We should think about intelligence in a very broad way. My characters might not always be as overeducated as I am, but there’s something about them that shows their alertness and aliveness to the world. Maybe that’s what I mean by intelligence. I feel like I’ve met so many people who are alive to the world in ways that I’m not. And it’s so interesting to me. I think about the term “street smart.” I’ve met a lot of people who would be called “street smart,” in contrast to “book smart.” But street smartness is such a fascinating and robust intelligence. I remember being a kid and wishing I were more street smart. I think whatever form your intelligence takes, however your intelligence most clearly manifests itself, that’s what I’m interested in. I think everyone has a way—well, our President excluded—of manifesting that intelligence. We all have a unique way of being in the world. Almost everyone has it. If I haven’t found that in a story, I feel that whatever story I’ve written is probably a failure.