Photo credit – Gya Watson
Jamel, you write short stories and are working on a novel. Could you compare the experience of creating short form vs. writing long?
The first thing I should do is confess that up until about two years ago, I was deathly afraid of writing short stories. The gaps in my knowledge of short stories, which are still significant, were then enormous. I was all about novels, and in a drawer somewhere I have a 600-page dung heap of a novel that is probably still steaming and stinking things up. I workshopped part of that novel at the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop a few years ago, and I found much to my dismay that I had absolutely no understanding of structure. What I had written was an incoherent mess.
The novel I’m working on now might more accurately be called a novella, or at least I envision it that way. I’m trying to be way more modest about the scope and the pages, trying to be more mindful about structure, to exert more control so that it doesn’t turn into a “loose baggy monster” of the worst kind. I’ve been working more on stories than the novel recently, and my sense is that both forms are difficult as hell. Stories call for an extraordinary amount of control and efficiency, and in those miniaturized spaces, I find it particularly challenging to maintain the feeling and soul and voice I want while making things happen satisfactorily on the emotional and action plot levels. I’ve had a hard time ramping up the tension. I get caught up in sentences, a fact that is bad enough in a story, but imagine 600 pages of that nonsense!
The level of description and depth in your writing is phenomenal. Have you come to this from the foundation of years and years of reading and writing, or as this always been your inclination? Either way, who out in the world are your greatest influences?
Well, thank you, first of all. I do think I’ve always been drawn to vivid writing, to details and images, the possibilities of rhythm in a sentence and a poetic line. In high school and college, I fancied myself a poet, and I was devastated when I discovered that there was an unflattering name for what I had been writing: purple prose. One of my challenges is to avoid layering on images, adjectives, and details in such a way that my writing becomes obscure, muddled. So while I used to love Nabokov at his most florid, now I try to pay attention to writers who have a firm handle on what sentences can do, who know when to tighten and release the reins. This wishful list of influences will be necessarily incomplete, but here goes: James Baldwin (his essays and short stories), the James Joyce of Dubliners, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez, J.D. Salinger, Marilynne Robinson (especially Housekeeping), Junot Díaz (especially Drown and Oscar Wao), Charles D’Ambrosio, Barry Hannah, Lee K. Abbott, Toni Morrison, Denis Johnson, Edward P. Jones, Amy Hempel, Nathaniel Mackey, Tobias Wolff, Gayl Jones, William Trevor, Alice Munro, John Edgar Wideman, Jhumpa Lahiri. I’ll stop here, with guilty feelings about leaving off so many of the fiction writers I admire, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Q-Tip, Black Thought, Lauryn Hill, Mos Def, Ghostface Killah, and MF Doom as folks who inspire and perhaps influence me. And don’t get me started on jazz!
Lions, tigers, or bears?
Lions, without question. I spent many years as an employee, undergraduate and graduate student at Columbia, whose mascot is the lion. I’ve also been called a lion because of my hair, here and there by friends who are adherents of Rastafari, and more significantly by former students who thought I looked like Simba from The Lion King. There’s not much that’s lion-like about me beyond that; I’m a November baby, and I’m definitely more Scorpio than Leo.
The character, Claudius Van Clyde, in your story, “No More than a Bubble,” comes across as an archetype, a kind of jester, large and laughing, in love with life; yet through the narrator’s eyes, Claudius is truly flesh-and-blood with vulnerabilities and a demeanor that lead him and the narrator to near disgrace. Is this larger archetypal view something you intended, or a natural direction that the story took? Are there Claudius Van Clydes in your life, the kind of magnanimous personalities that beg for story?
I did intend it. Claudius strikes me a particularly “New York” kind of character, in both the literary and life senses. There are many versions of Claudius Van Clyde where I live, in Brooklyn. These are folks who strike me as needing or wanting to match the grandiosity of New York City. In a place teeming with stimuli, they make elaborate efforts to draw attention to themselves, to make things swirl around them, and I think that they often have fascinating reasons for doing so. I’ve written about a couple of these character types. I think they draw my attention because they are so unlike me and because I have such strong and complicated feelings about them. I guess I’m happy to play Nick to their Gatsby.
How has teaching high school English had an effect on your writing, from managing time to influencing the subject and slant of your writing? The twist and swerve of language in your stories are completely new, utterly unique. Are you inspired by your students’ vocabulary and by the street-speak and sounds of the boroughs?
For me, teaching high school English pulls from the same well of time, energy, and mind that I need to write. So during the school year, I get very little work done. If I’m lucky, if there aren’t piles of student essays waiting to be read and graded, I get some work done on weekends. Otherwise I rely on holidays and seasonal breaks. Right now I teach in a very traditional independent school, so if anything my work with these students pulls me towards writing that is canonical. The qualities in my language that you very kindly describe, the vocabulary and the urban rhythm and vernacular, probably come from the way my upbringing, musical influences, more “experimental” reading, and earlier teaching experiences dance with the more traditional and canonical work I’ve been immersed in over the last four to five years.
Exciting times ahead! You’ll be leaving New York, as the Iowa Writers Workshop awaits you, and you begin in the fall, yes? A quotation you gave me from Ellison’s Invisible Man seems quite fitting: “The end is in the beginning and lies far ahead.” What are your expectations, goals, and dreams as you approach the next two years? And beyond?
Yes, this is the first time in my conscious existence that I’ll be living someplace other than in New York City. I’m nervous and thrilled. I’m thrilled to have the gift of time, which is something that Lan Samantha Chang, the director of the Iowa program, emphasized to me in her typically generous and clear-headed way. It seems like such an obvious thing, but when you reach a certain age and have established routines, relationships, a career, realizing how enormous and precious a gift time might require someone like Sam to believe in you and your work enough to force-feed you a healthy dose of clarity and plain good sense. I’m thrilled to have the time and the opportunity to say “yes” to everything, which was Lee K. Abbott’s advice to me: study with everyone, take poetry classes, read read read. Despite the suspicion and criticism the Workshop sometimes engenders, it seems like it can’t possibly be a bad thing to spend two years reading and writing in a high-quality program where the very town takes you seriously as a writer. I want to finish my short novel and build a short story collection, but my real goal is to say “yes” to everything, to throw myself fully into this two-year conversation with brilliant teachers and peers, and into what Charlie D’Ambrosio described as a conversation with yourself “in the solitary struggle of writing sentences.” Of course, I want to be published someday—what writer doesn’t?—but I can wait for that to happen. “I want to be an honest man and a good writer,” as Baldwin said, and I think my experience at Iowa will help with at least one of those goals.
Jamel Brinkley is a writer from Brooklyn, New York. He has degrees from Columbia University and teaches high school English in New York City. This fall he will begin study at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.