Craft, Process & Finding the Life: Jamel Brinkley Talks to Jonathan Escoffery
Jamel Brinkley's debut collection, A Lucky Man, has garnered great praise from all corners of the literary community. According to Publishers Weekly, “the nine stories in Brinkley’s promising debut address persistent issues of race, class, and masculinity across three decades of New York City’s history.”
In anticipation of Brinkley’s appearance with Margot Livesey at Harvard Book Store on Monday, September 17th, he talks to Grub Instructor Jonathan Escoffery about his writing process, the value of writing conferences, and whether or not there is a secret to his success as a multiple fellowship awardee.
JE: The nine stories in your debut collection, A Lucky Man, primarily take place in the Bronx and Brooklyn. I was a teenager in the mid-nineties—in Miami, not New York—but I was especially blown away by your stories that take place in that time period, with protagonists who are around that age. They felt very, very real to me; they brought me back to that kind of setting and that feeling of the time and the age in a way that I don’t think I’ve been able to locate in literature until now. Did you have to use any tricks to mine your memory of that time, or did you do a lot of research? What was that process like for you?
JB: I think, honestly, that that’s the version of New York that has stayed with me. I grew up in New York, so I was there before the nineties. I didn’t really get to explore the city with freedom until [the nineties], and, to me, that’s sort of like a golden era of the city, so anything that came before is kind of tainted, and everything that’s happened since is a little tainted for me, and the time you mention is the part that’s stuck in amber. Even when I go back now, and even when I lived there afterward, and I would see all the changes that were happening—all the gentrification, and everything—I’m always comparing it to the version that I knew. So I didn’t feel like I had to do a lot of research. I did some research—for the story about J’ouvert [“J’ouvert, 1996”], for instance—which I have had firsthand experience with, but I wanted to do some historical research. Otherwise, not really; it’s just sort of this excavative work with what lives within me; that’s what I pulled from.
JE: How long has it been since you last lived in New York full-time?
JB: It’s been five years. I left New York in 2013.
JE: I left Miami seven years ago and I find my imagination is definitely still there. Every once in a while I get a little bit of an idea for a story in the Boston-area or maybe the Midwest. Is your imagination still firmly grounded in New York or are some of these other places starting to edge in?
JB: The work that I’m playing around with right now is definitely about New York. The only other place that’s sort of seeped in is Virginia, which is where my family is from, but none of the new places—the Midwest, California—those haven’t made it to my imagination or my stories yet.
JE: Are we going to see a novel set in 1990s New York from Jamel Brinkley coming in the future?
JB: I don’t know; it could be. The thing that I think is a novel is actually set in Virginia, but there might be some nineties flashbacks in there from New York.
JE: You’ve done a lot of interviews; is there anything that you have hoped somebody would ask about the book that people might have overlooked in the interviews? Something that you felt excited about but that just hasn’t been asked?
JB: I don’t have a particular thing in mind, but I think the questions that I’ve been most excited about are the ones that go off the script that has been attached to the book. I get a lot of masculinity questions, which is fine; obviously the book is about a bunch of dudes, and it is about masculinity, but the more exciting questions have been about the other things that people are seeing in the book. That always makes me sit up because I realize that, Oh, ok, you’re not just going by the catalog copy. Anything like that is interesting to me and makes me think, and I appreciate when a reader sees multiple things in the book.
JE: I was reading your interview in Craft magazine. Something that really stood out to me was this idea that you talk about regarding a later stage of revision—after you’ve drafted the story, and after you’ve done a revision with craft elements in mind, you go back again and you do a craft-free revision that’s more about bringing out the life in the story. Can you talk a little bit more about that, your process—how you know you’re bringing out the life, or finding life in the story? I don’t know if there’s any story in particular that stands out to you now that you remember going back and changing one little thing that made it sing and brought it to life?
JB: I’ve been fortunate enough to have lots of different writing teachers, some of whom are really rigorous about craft, but some of whom have an approach to writing that is not about craft at all; it’s really about humanity, or consciousness, or something called life, whatever that is. And one of my teachers says that revision isn’t about craft; revision is about finding the life. I like that idea, so at the same time that I have a lot of respect for craft, I’ve seen the ways in which—especially coming out of a workshop setting—a piece can be really burdened by technical stuff, and craft-level stuff, and people can go too far with that. Craft is necessary, but I think it can also drain the life out of a piece. One thing I like to do with a story is go back and, for instance, look at the minor characters; I pay attention to them especially because I think minor characters are most likely to be subject to the plot or to the main character. They can often feel the least lifelike, so I go back to those characters and see if there’s something I could do in their dialogue or their action that isn’t serving the larger purpose of the story, necessarily; they are doing something just for themselves, so that the reader gets the impression that when the minor character goes off the page, they open up a portal that you could follow them through and they would have their own story.
JE: I love that. I would love to see a story that revisits the men in the park in “J’ouvert 1996.” I can see so many storylines, because those are some really real minor characters. That was crazy good, like I could spend a lot of time with each of them.
JB: That’s a good idea, actually. I might want to try that.
Jamel Brinkley portrait (L) credit: Arash Saedinia; Jonathan Escoffery portrait (R) credit: Colwill Brown
JE: You’ve talked about really appreciating your teachers and your MFA program, and the fact that while these institutions should be examined critically, for the most part, you’ve had a positive experience?
JE: Do you have any advice for students who want to know how they can do their part to be teachable, how they can make themselves available to mentorship, so that they’re not coming away having missed out?
JB: One thing I found is that some students can’t get comfortable with a teacher if that teacher isn’t saying something the student already goes in wanting to hear, or isn’t repeating some version of their worldview back to them. I’ve found it useful to have teachers who do reflect my worldview. I’ve also found it useful to have teachers who have a very different outlook on fiction, because what it forces me to do is to think about why I might disagree with them, and to articulate why I might disagree with them, and I think that articulation is important because previously I may not have any idea why I thought the way I did. But if a teacher is assertively saying fiction does this, or character does this, or plot does this, and I think that’s wrong or not necessarily the case, it forces me to think through my instinctive feeling about that. I guess what I am saying is that it’s ok to have teachers who you disagree with, if it forces you—or can force you—to clarify your own aesthetic and your own ideas about writing. I would say, be open-minded. Be willing to sit in a room with a more experienced writer who thinks about writing in a completely different way than you do. That can be really instructive too.
JE: So, let me ask you this, because I’m curious. We both just got back from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Did I hear you right? This was your fifth time at the conference?
JB: That’s right. Yeah.
JE: And we both have the Kimbilio Fellowship in common. How many times did you go to that retreat?
JB: I’ve been to Kimbilio once.
JE: And you have done Tin House, and Callaloo, and Napa Valley?
JE: So talk to me about the importance of doing all of these conferences and retreats. What is it that you’re getting out of those experiences?
JB: I think I’m getting different things at different times depending on when I’ve gone. I went to Callaloo ten years ago. That was crucial because not only did I meet a community of writers of color, it was my first time in an organized workshop setting. It was nice to combine that organized instruction with that kind of community. The next time I did workshops was a few years later, a year before I went to my MFA, so that would’ve been 2012. That was important to me because I wasn’t confident at that point. I didn’t know if I was really a writer, and I wanted to immerse myself and see. I did four different workshops that summer; it was crazy. And that was crucial for me because I had a number of instructors take me seriously, and ask me, was I willing to take that risk and put writing at the center of my life? Since then, whenever I’ve gone back, whether it’s to Kimbilio, or Tin House, or Bread Loaf, it’s mostly been about the people. I’ve met amazing people at all those places, some of whom are my peers, some of whom are slightly more experienced, some of whom are way more experienced, and that’s the biggest thing I’ve gotten out of them. I didn’t meet my agent at any of those conferences. I didn’t meet my editor at any of those conferences. It’s just about the friendships I’ve made and being exposed to exciting work—really cutting-edge, fresh work, and first books, and writers who are doing amazing things.
JE: And now you’re on your way up to start the prestigious Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. You’ve also been a fellow at the Wisconsin Institute, which is another extremely competitive fellowship. So, what’s your secret? Asking for a friend. [Laughs]. No, but, for real, writers want to know that type of thing. If you could tell us about your approach to your writing samples, that’d be great. But maybe you could also talk about anything you’re doing outside of the writing sample, because we all know you’re a phenomenal storywriter at this point. Is there something in your personal statements that you feel like you are just knocking out of the ballpark?
JB: I think the statements tend to be pretty straightforward. I haven’t done anything special there. One thing to say is that I have applied multiple times to both of those things, so it’s not like it happened just right off the bat.
JE: I think that’s good for everyone to hear.
JB: Yeah. This is my fourth or fifth time applying to the Stegner, so it definitely wasn’t something that happened right away.
On some level I think it’s kind of a lottery. I can imagine that person sitting there at the other end of this process, looking at way more samples than they can accept, and it’s just a matter of picking and choosing, but—let me think about this—if I had to think about the writing I submitted that was successful, I see that the pieces that were successful at Wisconsin and at Stanford were the ones, honestly, that, I don’t know if they’re the most technically proficient, but they were the ones I was most emotionally invested in, and maybe that showed. So there are pieces where I’m wrestling with stuff that is maybe rooted in experiences that I’ve had, or thoughts I’ve had, and, I don’t know, it’s probably not a big enough sample size to say, but it is interesting that the two pieces that earned me those fellowships were the ones that were really emotionally challenging, as opposed to merely technically challenging.
JE: So it may not be so much about proving one knows the craft of storytelling, that they can put a story together and successfully show what they’ve learned in classes, especially if the technically proficient story isn’t the one that has the heart. Often the raw stuff is punching through as unique in some way or another, or it touches people in a unique way. That’s really cool to know.
I think it’s a lot more common these days for professors or writing instructors to talk about leaning into your strengths rather than trying to build up that weaker writing muscle, or aspect of writing that you’re maybe never going to be great at. When you were gaining your confidence as a writer, was there a point where you thought, Wow, I’m good at X? Like, I’m really good at structure, or I’m really good at voice? Was there something that gave you your foothold and helped you gain that confidence?
JB: The baseline has always been the prose itself, which is funny to say, because sometimes I feel like—especially while I’m drafting a story—I’m writing some real stinky sentences, but even in my earliest workshop experience at Callaloo, the piece I submitted was just a mess—the structure, I mean—but the one thing that Mat Johnson said, and Nelly Rosario said, was, You know how to write sentences. So I always felt like I could lean on that—that I could write or revise a sentence and get that right, and everything else was a process of figuring out how to make characters, how to structure a story, how to end a story, where to start a story. All that other stuff happened by learning on the fly, but the thing that I’ve always tried to feel confident about is the prose itself.
JE: It sounds like you draft sentence by sentence, like you’re getting the energy from the last sentence before you move on to the next.
JE: Do you also have an idea where a story is going, if not where it ends? Do you have a loose idea but you need to get the prose right before you can get to that idea, or are you completely writing toward discovery?
JB: I tend to write toward discovery, and I prefer it that way. I get worried if I can see too far into the future of a story. That’s just me. Edward P. Jones says the opposite. He’s like, You’ve got to work the whole thing out in your head. He makes fun of writers who don’t know the ending. But I am one of those writers who makes fun out of his need to—well, I like the sense of discovering the ending. The ending, to me, doesn’t exist until almost all of the sentences leading up to it are on the page. The ending comes from those sentences; it doesn’t exist without them. It’s not a thing that exists independently, so it can only come from those sentences and those sounds and those characters. I want to work each step of the way until the ending begins to reveal itself.
JE: Do you have any emotional response when that story is finished? I think of Zadie Smith talking about finishing a novel and laying down under a tree in the backyard and crying. Because I feel like in this way that you draft—and I draft in a very similar way—if you don’t know the end until you get there, there’s more opportunity for that ending to really hit you as the author of that story.
JB: Being a writer and being a reader aren’t the same thing, but I do hope that my process of composition resembles reading enough so that if I’m surprised by an ending, or if I’m saddened by an ending, or whatever my emotional reaction is, I think I can count on the reader having the same feeling, or a similar one, and that’s what I’m going for. So, when I get that—I don’t know, that combination of, what do they say, surprising but inevitable?
JE: Right, right.
JB: That’s a cliché, but I think it’s true. You just want to reach a point when you know it’s the ending, so that’s the inevitable part, and then the surprise comes with whatever emotion it conjures up in you.
JE: That makes a lot of sense. What’s the longest it’s taken you to finish a story? Because I always feel a little envious of those writers who can mock up the scaffolding for the story very quickly, and then they can knock it out scene by scene because they have this plan. For me, I worked on one story—just the first draft—for a year, and some people who don’t write stories don’t know how long it can take. Are you still able to write these things in a month, or two months? How long are these things taking you to write?
JB: I can maybe write a draft in a month or two months; it probably won’t be good, but it’ll be sufficient to show to a workshop. But for me that’s just the beginning. Revision is the thing that can take a long time. That could take months and months—who knows how long? And then you have those stories that you still haven’t gotten right. I’ve got a story that I started over three years ago and it’s still not right. I keep taking it out, playing with it, and putting it back in the drawer. So, it depends on the piece.
JE: I’m looking forward to your upcoming reading at Harvard Book Store. I know interview questions are different from questions at readings a lot of the time. Is there anything that you like audiences to ask you, or would like audience members to ask you? In what way do you like to engage with an audience?
JB: Well, I’m just appreciative to have an audience at all. If people come out—especially strangers, not just my friends who feel like they have to come—I appreciate that, and any question that comes out of genuine curiosity, I appreciate that too. Sometimes audience questions can be weird. Especially if you’re a black writer, or a writer of color, or a woman of any race, the questions can be off. But one thing that I’ve heard from more experienced writers is, when you get a question like that, unless it’s truly offensive, the thing to do is to remember that this person is interested in you and your book and they came out to the reading, so figure out in your own mind what the best version of that question is, and answer that instead.
Sometimes I’ll get a funky question, and instead of getting upset about it, I’ll see if there’s a space to figure out, What is the ideal version of that screwed up question? And then just respond in that way, without addressing how screwed up the question is. That’s a nice way to go about it—it’s aspirational, to do that.
JE: Yeah, you’re taking a generous approach. I feel like I always have that one friend present for these awkward audience questions who gets madder at it than I do, you know? They’re watching from the sideline, and they’re like, Jamel, don’t answer that question, or, Let me answer that! And you know they’ll respond in a less diplomatic way.
JB: Yeah, sometimes they’ll be in the audience and they’ll ask the next question and go back on the other person; it gets funny. I can’t promise I’ll be that generous, but that’s my goal.
JE: That is a good goal to shoot for. Any advice for our GrubWrites readers, people who are hoping to get that book deal? Maybe they have an agent, maybe they’ve got a manuscript out on submission, and they’re waiting patiently—or impatiently—to be where you’re at? You’re blowing up right now, the book’s doing—hey, you won an award today, didn’t you?
JB: Yeah, I announced it today [The 2018 Sister Mariella Gable Award].
JE: That’s what’s up. The book is getting a lot of attention. What advice would you have for the writer who’s a stage or two behind you, who’s hoping to come out, hoping to solidify themselves as a writer? Because we all have those doubts—we’re all like, I spent all these years on this project, got the education, made the sacrifices, but is it all going to add up?
JB: That’s a good question. I think my advice would be that it is important to always have something new going, and I say that for a number of reasons. Being a writer is not the same thing as being published—if you even want to be published. If you’re a writer, you should write regardless, whether you’re being published, whether you’re waiting to be published, whether you’re waiting to get an agent, or waiting to hear back from an editor. I think it’s important just to keep writing, and that’s the purest thing. The other reason I would say that is because once you do get the agent and the editor, so much of publishing is waiting. You’re sitting around waiting to hear back about the next round of revisions, or who’s interested in your book, or whatever, so I think it’s important to keep being productive, even if it’s just to reduce the anxiety of all that waiting. Then, you’ve always got a next project; you want to keep things going forward, and not rest on the submitted thing—and you might feel like you deserve to rest—but I think it’s important to keep going, to have more stuff in the pipeline.
JE: That sounds like really good advice.
Jamel 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.
Jonathan Escoffery earned his MFA in Fiction from the University of Minnesota where he was a DOVE fellow. He has received awards and support from Passages North, Prairie Schooner, Kimbilio Fiction, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, The Writers Room of Boston, the Somerville Arts Council, and elsewhere.
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Colwill is the Writer-in-Residence at Wellspring House, Instructor and Consultant at GrubStreet, and Fiction Editor at Pangyrus magazine. After graduating a scholarship awardee of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, Colwill found representation for her first novel, Before We Tear Our Selves Apart, with Robert Guinsler of Sterling Lord Literistic, which is currently on submission to publishing houses. She is a recipient of the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize, a finalist for the 2019 Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize, a finalist for the 2019 Reynolds Price Fiction Award, a finalist for the 2019 Lit Fest Emerging Writer Fellowship, a "Notable Entry" in the 2019 Disquiet International Literary Prize, and has received fellowships and support from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The University of Texas at Austin, the James A. Michener Foundation, Boston College, Kansas State University, the Anderson Center, and GrubStreet. Colwill’s work has appeared in Solstice Literary Magazine, The Conium Review, Poetry and Audience, and other places, and her essays have featured on Dead Darlings and GrubWrites. Along with Pangyrus, she has also served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine and The Conium Review. Colwill is especially proud to call herself a founding member of the Back Porch Collective, a Boston-based group of writers. With members connected to Cuba, India, Albania, Atlanta, Bosnia, Miami, Jamaica, and the UK, they bonded over a common passion for global narratives and literature’s potential to create empathy and understanding across all geographical, political, and cultural borders. Hailing from Yorkshire, in the north of England, Colwill is determined to introduce the word “sozzard” to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and services, please visit colwillbrown.com.See other articles by Colwill Brown