Jamel Brinkley has gone from aspiring author to one of the most buzzed-about writers in recent months, racking up a raft of critical praise in the process. A Lucky Man, the New York City native’s short story collection, debuted last May. Readers were immediately drawn to its detailed and often moving evocations of character and setting. Its a National Book Award Finalist and, most recently, garnerd the Ernest J. Gaines Award, which recognizes rising African-American writers.
The book’s nine stories center on black boys and men. Brinkley’s meticulous visions yield a mix of compassion and wonder; his straightforward prose and character-driven narratives are both emotionally complex and oddly universal. The people that populate these stories ache to find their place amid often challenging circumstances.
Brinkley loved to read as a kid, which eventually led him to study literature at Columbia University. He later attended the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, where his first stories began to take shape.
CityBeat recently connected with Brinkley, who discussed everything from his evolution as a writer to the role of fiction in today’s chaotic cultural and political landscape.
CityBeat: Your stories are very detailed and specific in terms of the descriptions and setting but they are also quite universal in their themes and the types of things that happen to the characters. How did you go about balancing those two things?
Jamel Brinkley: If I’m not mistaken, I think Flannery O’Connor said, “The more you stare at an object, the more of the world you see in it.” I think that’s true. I think the path to the universal, the path to the things that people have in common, is through the specific. It seems like a paradox but I think it’s true. The more that you pay attention to the granular details of people’s lives, the more you sort of get the rhythms, the shapes, the colors — all those things that make up the details of someone’s life — the more you can capture that, the easier it is to see what that life has in common with a completely ostensibly different life. I really do think that you can’t just leap directly to the universal. You have to go through the things that are particular and that are detailed in order to bring that character’s story to life so that people can connect with it on a higher level.
CB: Your prose style is pretty straightforward and accessible as opposed to using florid language or long, complex sentences. Was that an overt choice on your part? How did you develop your voice?
JB: Interestingly enough, in my early attempts at writing, my language was more ornate. Part of what I had to learn fairly early on was how to quiet that down. I do love language for the sake of language but I think I was overusing that, using it as a crutch and not paying attention to some of the other elements. As I’ve been developing as a writer, I think that, yes, language is important but character has sort of risen to the top of what’s most important to me. I don’t think I have enough control of really ornate language for it to reveal character in a way that I would want it to. If I were to use that kind of language, I think it would sort of obscure the story and obscure the characters. I had to find a medium ground where the language can still be beautiful but also clear enough that it doesn’t get in the way of the story.
CB: What role do books — and specifically fiction writing — have in the fast-paced, attention-altering, technology-driven world we live in these days?
JB: It’s a good question. I’m heartened to see that book sales are doing pretty well and that independent bookstores are thriving in ways that maybe a few years ago we didn’t expect them to. You’re right, we do live in a fast-paced social media environment of hot takes, but, especially at this moment in this country, we have a very poisonous political atmosphere that’s really about lies in the worst sense — lies in the interest of greed, lies in the interest of harming people. And I think that fiction writing, telling stories, is sort of like lying for good. The fact that we can exercise our imaginations — tell stories to try to entertain each other, to try to edify each other, to try to get people interested in lives other than their own — I think that’s the value. Because so much of what is out there prompts us to be selfish and negative in some ways, I think fiction writing is important to train the brain in another direction.
CB: You seem to have been drawn to reading stories and the immersion of oneself in the imagination at an early age. How did that come about for you?
JB: Probably for a few reasons. My mother was very invested in my being a reader from when I was very young. She would always take me to the Mott Haven Branch of the public library in the South Bronx and I would just come away with stacks of books all the time. That’s one reason. Another reason is that I think a lot about physical space and how much space people have. Growing up we didn’t have a lot of space. There wasn’t a lot of room. It was hard to find your own space, hard to find privacy, and for me, an important way of finding privacy and space was through reading stories and reading about characters. Creating space in my own mind through books was really important for me. I’ve always been a very internal person, sort of retreating into my own mind; stories have really made that possible.
Jamel Brinkley will read from and discusses A Lucky Man, 4 p.m. Friday (Feb. 1) at the University of Cincinnati’s Langsam Library. Fore more info, visit artsci.uc.edu.