World Before Page: A Conversation with Jamel Brinkley / by Peter LaBerge

BY LEAH JOHNSON

 Jamel Brinkley, author of  A Lucky Man  (Graywolf Press, 2018).

Jamel Brinkley, author of A Lucky Man (Graywolf Press, 2018).

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.

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Leah Johnson: Hi, Jamel! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions about this raw, moving collection. When you began to craft A Lucky Man, what works and what tradition, if any, did you believe it to be in conversation with?

Jamel Brinkley: Thank you! I appreciate the opportunity. In terms of your question, I didn’t think about the fact that I was writing a collection until fairly late in the game. Prior to that, I was just working on one story and then another story and so on. In some cases, I felt I was trying to be in conversation with individual stories by other writers, including “Old Boys, Old Girls,” by Edward P. Jones, “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin, “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” by Yiyun Li, “The Mistress,” by Gina Berriault, and “The Ascent,” by Ron Rash. As I began to think of the stories as a possible book, I thought of them as being in conversation with Edward P. Jones’s two collections, which are very important to me. I was drawn to the geographical focus on one place and to the careful, loving, and honest attention to the lives of everyday black people.

LJ: You said you “began to think of the stories as a possible book.” At what point did or does that happen for you?

JB: I honestly don’t think I was truly convinced until I got a literary agent, but then again, maybe not until she told me a year and a half later that I had completed enough stories, with enough to say to one other that we could begin sending it to book editors. People in my MFA program would refer to the stories I was workshopping as part of a collection, but I didn’t really take that seriously. In my mind, I was just learning how to write. But I guess every new story or novel is a process of starting over and learning how to write it.

LJ: You’ve spoken previously about leaving your PhD program because of the inaccessibility of language used to discuss the writing. I’m wondering if A Lucky Man was a stride towards grounding contemporary fiction in something more attainable for a more diverse audience? And if so, how has the discourse surrounding the book so far interacted with that intention?

JB: I wouldn’t say that I had that intention actually. But I did want to write stories in which the language was clear, first of all, with controlled flights of what you might call lyricism. It’s been interesting to see readers call the language of the book precise and simple on the one hand, and poetic or even “mannered” on the other.

LJ: You’ve worked with language in a number of different ways—as a teacher, an academic, a writer—but I’m curious about what it was that spurred you into making writing your own fiction more central in your life?

JB: The desire to write my own fiction, which I suppressed, denied, or redirected for a long time, wouldn’t go away. Eventually I would just find myself doing it, though without much discipline or direction. I finally took a series of writing workshops during the summer of 2012, and the teachers I met then were very supportive of my work, urging me to consider placing it more centrally in my life. Their encouragement helped me believe in my potential as a writer.

LJ: I want to spend a second on process, and more specifically, what the process was or is for writing a collection so deeply grounded in place. What did the day-to-day of crafting this collection look like for you?

JB: I’m a daytime writer, typically in the morning, or from the morning into the early or mid-afternoon. In a first draft, I proceed pretty slowly, just discovering the story and its characters sentence by sentence. The grounding in place helped because it gave me something solid to knock up against during a process in which I’m otherwise fumbling around. Aiming for a solidity in the prose, even in a first draft, also helps me. Once the chaos of a first draft is done, I try to see what’s there, particularly what’s there that I hadn’t really intended to put there but what might actually be useful or important. This can be very difficult to do without a workshop or other readers, by the way. From that point on, in revision I’m just trying to work on one element at a time. I may have a draft where I’m working only on the dialogue, or one where I’m working only on one specific character. I try not to work on more than one thing in a given draft, so hopefully by the end the whole story feels layered and carefully attended to.

LJ: You have quite a revision process. How do you know when a story has reached its final form? And after that, how did you know when your collection was done or ready for submission?

JB: I stop when I feel like I’ve done all that I can do, taking into account some of the feedback from workshops and trusted readers. I never think, “This is it! It’s perfect now. Not a word can be touched.” But I do know I’m reaching the end of what I can do on my own when I’m done addressing the technical concerns I can see. In her Paris Review interview, Toni Morrison says, “I work very hard in subsequent revisions to remove the writerly-ness from it,” and I find myself doing something like that near the end of a draft. I feel like intense technical revisions tighten up a story, but maybe too much. I try to loosen things up near the end, to relax the language and the story a bit so that it feels more like life. I also look forward to the chance to work with a good editor. I’m not a parent, but I imagine that the feeling I have when I send a story out might be similar to a mother or father watching their kid go out into the world. You know they’re not at all perfect, but you hope you’ve done a fine enough job with them that they can fend for themselves and have a good existence overall.

LJ: What struck me in multiple stories in this collection was the discursive nature of the dialogue. It was equal parts sharp and honest. I was struck by the scenes between Claudius and Ben and Naomie and Sybil in “No More Than a Bubble”, off rip. Is there any advice you’ve received on how to make dialogue jump to life that you could give writers who struggle with it?

JB: Dialogue can be hard to teach, but what I’ve found most useful to keep in mind is to prioritize the sound of the speech more than the content, and to allow the dialogue to sometimes move at odd angles. I like the idea of dialogue sounding exactly right, but also reflecting our human tendency to hesitate, to dissemble, to be preoccupied and less than fully attentive to others. That’s how I work to get the tension and contrast in rhythms that I want my dialogue to have.

LJ: I’m headed to Kimbilio for the first time at the end of the summer (yay!), so I have to slide a question in specifically from one Kimbee to another. Did writing in community with other black folks provide you with something that other spaces didn’t—especially as your work seems to wrestle so heavily with issues of race and class? If so, what name would you give to that something?

JB: Congrats! I’m so glad the Kimbilio community exists. In a way, the discussion of craft was heightened at Kimbilio (and at Callaloo, another community I’ve been fortunate to be a part of), maybe because we recognized that craft isn’t apolitical and that race and class and gender aren’t separate from craft. In other, predominantly white spaces, where craft is more likely to be seen as some kind of “pure” thing, people can get tripped up by matters of race, class, gender, and politics. Danielle Evans has said something like, “Some work needs to be done in the world before it can be done on the page.” It feels to me like a place like Kimbilio represents work that has been done or is being done in the world, the work of making authentic community.

LJ: You were raised in New York, and the strength of that relationship to the city is woven beautifully throughout the collection. Has living in other places for grad school and for fellowships changed your relationship to the work at all?

JB: I lived in New York for decades before I moved to the Midwest and, now, to the West Coast, so I think something essential about the city, or at least the city in a certain era, has been indelibly stamped on me. I wrote most of the stories in this book while living in Iowa. It’s hard to say whether that resulted in some kind of loss. I wouldn’t be surprised if it did, but I was able to get the work done, and I think the whole “distance brings clarity” effect was in play too.

LJ: From The New Yorker to Entertainment Weekly, A Lucky Man has been a major part of the conversation of what not to miss this year—and rightly so. That seems like a magnificent way to debut. How are you processing the reception—both the good we’ve seen or the maybe not-so-great that we haven’t? How are you staying grounded?

JB: I’m the sort of person who doesn’t get too excited when things are going great, but who can fall into despair when things aren’t going as well as I would like. I’ve been very pleased with the positive reception the book has gotten so far, and I’m grateful to the team at Graywolf for the huge role they’ve had in getting that reception. While the overall reaction has been good, of course I’ve obsessed over the lukewarm pre-publication review that was riddled with errors, or the fact that the New York Times, for example, decided not to review the collection. Like Erykah Badu said, “Now keep in mind I’m an artist and I’m sensitive about my shit.” What has helped to keep me grounded is meeting or hearing from readers and booksellers who enjoyed the book. It feels like a miracle that anyone has read it! The other thing that has kept me grounded is the experience of reading from the book in New York with my mother and brother in the audience. The book is dedicated to them, and to have them there and to see how proud they were of me has helped keep everything else in perspective. I’ll never forget that evening.

LJ: The collection opens with an epigraph by Carl Phillips, and as I read the book I couldn’t help but note how deeply poetic much of the language is. It seems like there is a definite interplay between genres in your work. What poets are you reading right now?

JB: I’ve just finished the new Terrance Hayes collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, which I really enjoyed. Jenny’s Xie’s Eye Level and Tarfia Faizullah’s Registers of Illuminated Villages are two others I’d mention. Last week I was excited to read a new Layli Long Soldier poem, titled “King,” which was published online by Wendy Xu at Hyperallergic. Keith S. Wilson has been putting out exciting work, and I’m looking forward to his forthcoming collection, Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love, with Copper Canyon Press. I’m still thinking about a recent Traci Brimhall poem, titled “Dear Eros,” which VQR published, and Safiya Sinclair’s “Gospel of the Misunderstood,” recently published in The New Yorker. I’ve been rereading Joanna Klink’s Raptus, as I often do when I’m going through it. I’m looking forward to returning to some June Jordan and Wanda Coleman, and to reading Lynda Hull for the first time.

LJ: What sustains you in this work?

JB: Eating well, sleeping well, reading, and spending quality time with friends and family are all important. But I would also mention this: The writer Kaitlyn Greenidge has been posting excerpts of Toni Cade Bambara’s essays on social media. In one of those excerpts, Bambara says the “underlying standard” in the book reviews she wrote was this: “Does this author here genuinely love his/her community?” I think that’s terrific and true. And even if my work doesn’t shy away from sadness, tragedy, and flawed humanity, ultimately I write out of love for my community. That’s why it’s equally important for me to try to get pleasure, humor, joy, strength, and striving onto the page. Telling the entirety of the story, out of love and a desire to tell the truth, is sustaining for me.

LJ: Now that A Lucky Man is out in the world, what’s next for you—with the Stegner Fellowship and beyond?

JB: More stories, and maybe a novel too! I have a few projects going, and some notions about others that I haven't started yet. We’ll see what works out.

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Leah Johnson is an essayist, fiction writer and hopeless midwesterner currently moonlighting as a New Yorker. Leah is a recent graduate of the MFA writing program at Sarah Lawrence College and a 2018 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow. Her work—which can be found at Bustle, Electric Lit, Yes Poetry, Cosmonauts Avenue, Faded Out, and elsewhere—is centered on the miracle and magic of black womanhood.