Literary Hub

On Writing a Short Story: ‘Everything is Always Happening, All the Time.’

The first time I met Jamel Brinkley, he made a remark so sharp and so true that I let out a loose holler of laughter in an alleyway. He had delivered the observation with such wry politeness that there could be no defense against it. When I opened his debut collection, A Lucky Man, I encountered that same quiet compassion and keen eye for detail. Jamel attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and received a prestigious creative writing fellowship from Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. A Lucky Man has been on almost every Most Anticipated and Must Read List for the summer, and it’s easy to see why.

Brandon Taylor: In the opening story of this collection, “No More Than a Bubble,” we encounter a familiar scene: two young men at a house party scoping out two women. But what follows is one of the most uncomfortable stories I’ve ever read. And in later stories, there seems to be a common motif of characters encountering the most uncomfortable incarnation of their desires and wishes. Can you talk a little bit about how you court and shape discomfort both for your characters and for the reader?

Jamel Brinkley: It might be true that discomfort is one of my own primary modes of experience. So much of living has been about discomfort for me. Maybe discomfort is related to vulnerability and sensitivity, and maybe for me it’s one of the most effective ways by which a person or character can be presented with the opportunity to grow or change, or at least have their settled notions of themselves pierced to open up a space (a wound?) for self-reflection. I’m deeply suspicious of the idea that people or characters can suddenly undergo deep and genuine change, or that radical change and true epiphanies are common, but I am completely faithful to the idea that there are moments when we can be profoundly shaken.

It’s a cliché in fiction to have a dog barking in the distance, but what happens when that dog actually shows up? What happens when harmless potentialities peel themselves from the inert background, become fully animate and dimensional, and intrude on our mental and physical space? Naomie, one of the girls in ‘No More Than a Bubble,’” says, “There’s always more to what you want than what you wanted,” and generally speaking I think she’s right. What characters desire, and what we as readers desire for the characters, can be so simple and solid, but what they actually get as a result of their pursuit is complicated, unstable, and fluid, especially when those desires involve other characters and their desires and complexity. Or, what you want might be difficult or impossible to name, but it hears you calling it anyway, and it answers with full, unavoidable force.

BT: This collection contains quite a few longer short stories, which to me feel like a different breed of story. It’s not quite novella length but its maybe a little longer than the typical short story (whatever that is). What are your thoughts on the long short story?

JB: I used to teach high school English, and sometimes students would grouse about how hyper-interpretive English teachers are. It seemed silly to some of them that we could seemingly find symbolic meaning in even the most banal detail and that we were seemingly encouraging them to do the same thing. Being good at English class, some of them felt, meant being good at finding (bullshitting?) symbols at every turn. Of course their characterization of literary instruction was an exaggerated one, but I bring it up for a reason. Sometimes very tightly compressed stories can feel as though they are offering themselves up a little too easily and earnestly for symbol-hunting and other analysis of that kind. Or maybe what I’m saying is that my own unsuccessful attempts to write shorter stories have felt that way. They feel airless to me, and each sentence feels merely (and so embarrassingly) instrumental, as though it has been written in color-coded neon ink, to be read through a megaphone.

“Everything is always happening at the same time, and that truth about time is what makes life dense, confounding, rich, and haunting.”

Since a number of my stories are journeys, a greater length helps me engage and take advantage of the interesting possibilities inherent to that shape, such as detours and random encounters. Longer stories also enable me to play with time in ways that aren’t strictly limited to a vivid, central present story and a gray, subordinate back story. I like that “minor” characters are granted more room to emerge. I like that I can slow down the pace and find layers to explore. Longer stories demand the particular kinds of shapeliness and tension you find in shorter stories, but I like that they permit me to include some of the lifelike “untidiness” one is more likely to find in a novel.

BT: The way that you handle time in these stories is so complex and so delicate that at times, I found myself gasping. Short stories are often defined as the moment in a character’s life that causes that life to change. And I think what you demonstrate so deftly in these stories is how that moment is really a summation of moments. In your stories, everything is always happening at the same time. Can you talk a bit about your approach and your thoughts on time?

JB: There’s a kind of dummy version of the short story that I find myself writing against. So, for example, a short story has to take place on “the day that is different.” Well, yes, sometimes, but that model, hardened into a rule or a law, contains a theory of time, one which can mislead you into thinking that everything prior to that day is less important than or subordinate to that day. The past is permitted only insofar as it feeds into the present or “real” story. But my experience has been that the past can be as (or more!) alive, seething, persistent, and forceful than whatever is going on in the present. I’m drawn to writers, like Edward P. Jones and Alice Munro, whose stories convey the past just as vividly as the present. I’m drawn to writers, like William Trevor and Yiyun Li, who aren’t afraid to write “aftermath” stories, in which the most overtly dramatic thing has already taken place and the present story is set in its wake. I think you’re exactly right: everything is always happening at the same time, and that truth about time is what makes life dense, confounding, rich, and haunting.

BT: You’ve already spoken at great length in other interviews about the themes of masculinity that recur in this collection, but something I’m still quite curious about is the role of intimacy in these stories. We see again and again, the men in these stories trying to connect with each other and with the women in their lives who occupy an array of complicated roles. It seemed to me that collection was not interested in masculinity writ large so much as the ways in which masculinity made intimacy more difficult to achieve or maintain. Can you talk about intimacy and how you see or don’t see it operating in these stories?

JB: I want to thank you for this question. One fear I’ve had, as I’ve watched the collection emerge and find readers, is that its various concerns are being simplified and pigeonholed, stamped with the singular thematic label of masculinity. Of course that theme is in the air presently, as we engage in an important and necessary critique of toxic masculinity, and on a surface level, with male protagonists in every story, my book lends itself to that thematic labeling. But I never consciously set out to write a book about masculinity. I never began any of the stories thinking, This will be about masculinity. You’re right to point to intimacy as a concern. Vulnerability, loneliness, and privacy as well. The kinds of things that shape friendships, romantic/sexual relationships, and families. Those things feel more primary to me as felt experiences, closer to the nerves. Masculinity feels more conceptual, or it feels like it is itself made up of things that are more primary or granular, if that makes sense. To go at masculinity head-on, for me at least, would be a mistake.

But, yes, to answer your question more directly, I do think intimacy, and our confusions about intimacy, are at the heart of these stories. The ways in which we confuse intimacy and sex. The ways in which attraction might be operative in supposedly heterosexual male friendships. The ways in which the space of intimacy can feel like a violation or also become a space of potential or actual violence, especially in the case of siblings. The things people will do or accept out of desperation for intimacy. These kinds of questions are fascinating to me. I realize that, in the interest of exploring them, I like putting my characters in physical spaces that draw or force them close together.

BT: The collection also seems interested in the permutations of loss and the permutations of family, often within a single story. A family seems like a kind of ideal unit for a writer to try out different modes and effects of loss. What are your feelings about the domestic space and what are the questions you’re most drawn to regarding families in your fiction?

JB: Families and domestic spaces are great for the kind of fiction I’m interested in writing. Domestic spaces, especially the kinds of small, cramped apartments that poor and working class urban families tend to occupy, force people together in ways that court some of the elements we’ve been talking about, discomfort, intimacy, and privacy (or the lack thereof) among them. I also like that families tend to come with webs of obligation already loaded in. Desires multiply because there are multiple people, and duty can energize or make active a character who otherwise doesn’t want (to do) much of anything at all.

In terms of ideology or desire, families can be powerful because there is such a prominent and idealized notion of what a family is supposed to look like. The whole idea of the white, well-off, heterosexual nuclear family that is marketed to us. Any deviation from that ideal family can feel like a massive loss or lack. So part of why Ben is so angry in “No More Than a Bubble” is that his family has been broken. The missing father is a haunting presence in “J’ouvert, 1996.” Notions of what a real family and real home are supposed to look like have a powerful grip on Freddy and his imagination in “I Happy Am.” And so on. I’m interested in how people construct families, in life and in their own minds, out of a deep desire for them, but also, and often at the same time, how people resist and rebel against such a collectivity. I’m also interested in how families act as a profound kind of training ground for what it means to be human, and what happens when the way we’ve been trained comes into contact with entirely different notions of what it means to be alive.

BT: Finally, I’d like to know about the other forms and genres that inform your work. And the writers and artists who keep you fed, in an artistic or spiritual sense.

JB: Music and poetry definitely inform my work. Someone recently pointed out—I wasn’t aware of this—that music or dance appears in almost every story in the collection. Maybe that’s not profound or unusual, but the collection does name or allude to specific musicians: Ol’ Dirty Bastard, The Fugees/Lauryn Hill, Willie Colón, James Brown, Ray Charles, Antônio Carlos Jobim, T-Bone Walker, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, Bunny Wailer, Burning Spear, The Abyssinians, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, and Donny Hathaway (multiple times!). These names give a pretty good indication of the kinds of music that inform my work and feed me, but yikes is that list male! In real life my playlist has way more women.

Carl Phillips, William Blake, and Robert Hayden are the poets mentioned or alluded to in my book. Ralph Ellison gets a nod. “Everything the Mouth Eats” was inspired, in part, by James Baldwin. I’ve already mentioned some other writers who are important to me: Jones, Li, Munro, Trevor. Like you, I am a Mavis Gallant stan. I’d also mention James Alan McPherson. There are so many writers I could list, and I know I would unintentionally leave people out and then feel terrible about it. Let’s just say I feel fed by a pretty wide range of short stories, poems, novels, essays, films, television shows, criticism, music, and visual art. It’s very strange and alarming to me when writers don’t read, or when artists snobbishly make distinctions between “high art” and “low art.”

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