Bryan Washington, MEMORIAL

Bryan Washington, MEMORIAL

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Bryan. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Bryan Washington: Thanks so much for having me, Zibby.

Zibby: Congratulations on Memorial, your debut novel. I know you already have Lot, which was a collection of stories. Now your debut novel making a big, big splash in the world, congratulations.

Bryan: Thanks so much. It’s all very surreal. I feel like anytime someone’s interested in the thing that you’re trying to do, it’s deeply surreal.

Zibby: I bet.

Bryan: Massively surreal, but very grateful.

Zibby: I heard from your publicist that you are the next GMA Book Club pick, which I am so thrilled about. That’s amazing.

Bryan: That comment about things being surreal, it would’ve been surreal just to have the book come out. To see it on that scale, on that platform, you can only be grateful because it’s just such an unexpected thing.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I’m almost sorry I’m not talking to you after because I would’ve wanted to hear what it was like to have your book in Times Square and all the rest. Just DM me or something because you won’t be busy or anything.

Bryan: I’ll reach out.

Zibby: Aside from the success of your endeavors, let’s talk about your actual endeavors and all of your writing. I read so many of your amazing essays in all sort of different publications like BuzzFeed and The New York Times and just everywhere, New Yorker, fiction, nonfiction, all your stories. Let’s start with your roots going back to Jamaica. Can we talk about that a little bit? You wrote a few really beautiful pieces about that and having different cultures in different countries and going back and everybody clapping on the plane on the way to Jamaica, which, by the way, is one of my favorite places in the world. I think that’s why I want to talk about it.

Bryan: Anytime that you land. It’s just like, this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

Zibby: It’s one of the only places we regularly travelled to growing up. I just thought that’s what you did on planes.

Bryan: Oh, my god, can you imagine? I feel like that’s all we should do on planes. It’s so beautiful that we’ve landed in a lot of ways.

Zibby: Until I read what you wrote, it didn’t even occur to me it was only there. Then I had to go back in my head. I’m like, no way, was it really only to Jamaica? Anyway, you taught me something about my own life.

Bryan: When you fly to New York, no one seems terribly excited to be there. It’s just like, let’s get off the plane. I was born in Kentucky, but my mom’s Jamaican. Pretty early on, I had the opportunity to go back a handful of times. I think that with every piece that I’ve written, in some capacity, a lot of it has come down to the generosity of the editors that I’ve been able to work with because I’ve been able to work with a lot of folks who are so great at their jobs like Nicole Chung over at Catapult and Rachel Sanders who used to be at BuzzFeed and now Racheal Arons at the New Yorker. They’ve been super receptive to me writing about a lot of different stuff and not really siloing me into one particular beat. It’s made for a lot of opportunities to spread myself around as far as interests are concerned.

Zibby: I feel like this theme of travel and negotiating different relationships is very present in Memorial in many ways, and also the search for family and what that really means and all of that. Maybe you could start by telling people who don’t know what Memorial is about, what it’s about and how you ended up writing that novel.

Bryan: It really has depended on who I’m talking to. Sometimes I’ll call it a gay psycho-dramedy. I’ve called it a lowercase love story. My editor started saying a rom-com with teeth a few months ago. I actually really like that. It really does depend on what headspace I’m in. I just use one of them. I think that at its base, it’s a love story. I wanted to write a love story about characters that I wanted to read and that I hadn’t seen on the page. I wanted it to be a love story featuring characters in communities that were in conversation with one another as opposed to a reaction to trauma or a reaction to the obstacles, whether infrastructural or personal, that they may have been facing. Trying to write a love story that allowed room for each partner to grow into both that relationship but also the relationships around them and themselves was the overarching goal.

It started as a short story that I wrote for a zine. I was in the middle of writing another project that I will never turn back to. I keep turning back to this short story because it was easier to write, partly, but also because it was one that I wanted to see the ending of. Friends would tell me, “Hey, that’s actually a big clue that you need to just do that.” I was like, “No, no, no, no one would read this. It’s not marketable.” I pitched it to my agent. She was super receptive, but I was still a bit tentative. Then I pitched it to my editor, Laura Perciasepe. She was super receptive when she really didn’t have to be. At that point, I sat down and really seriously started drafting it. It took about three years or so and about eleven-ish drafts or so. It was a little bit of work trying to get it to come together and trying to get the different threads in the place that I wanted them to be. Really, it was just reaching toward the sort of thing that I wanted to read and the sort of book that I thought that I might enjoy if it existed that got me to finish it.

Zibby: Wow. Your writing style is very unique. Rough around the edge is not — I don’t mean that in a bad way. Maybe raw around the edges. It’s just so — I used to have a good vocabulary. Today, it’s failing me. Now I feel like I insulted you, which I obviously did not mean to do. I don’t mean rough around the edges.

Bryan: No, rough around the edges, that’s amazing as a description.

Zibby: It’s just so raw. I don’t know how else to say it, bold. You don’t mess around with words you don’t need. You don’t use flowery language that has no use. You just say it. It’s in such a sparse way that’s even more powerful, especially the dialogue and your use of punctuation. I was really into it.

Bryan: I so appreciate that. I’m really interested in the silences between characters and the spaces between what characters say to one another and also the spaces between what’s actually said by someone and what they understand and what they internalize and how the context in which they’re in when they hear the thing can impact what they actually take with them and how when that context changes, perhaps, their memory or their internalization of the thing that they heard could change as well. Really playing with the space between what’s said and what’s understood is always in the back of my head. Also, I’m hyperconscious of accessibility when it comes to language. That might have to do with the fact that I wasn’t the most prodigious reader growing up. What’s most impressive to me or what’s really most amazing to me as far as fiction is concerned is folks who use a simplicity of language in order to get five, six, seven, eight, nine different themes across at the same time. Really striving for that is important to me generally, but also for Memorial too.

Zibby: Oh, good. Okay, great. Good, you tried to do that. That’s awesome.

Bryan: There was a little bit of tension on it, so it’s been nice to hear — I feel like you try to do a thing and then it’s like, did I do the thing? Then other people tell you, you did the thing. I can talk about it now.

Zibby: You did the thing. That’s awesome. Wait, go back to not being a big reader growing up. Did you not like to read at all? Were you a late reader? Tell me about your reading in childhood and maybe just your childhood. You said you grew up in Kentucky, but now you’re in Houston. What happened in between? Where’d you go? Tell me about growing up. We only have a little bit of time. I’m like, tell me your life story.

Bryan: Oh, my god, who are you? I was born in Kentucky, moved to Texas when I was three or so. The first house we lived in was just outside of Houston proper. It was a very white neighborhood, a very white subdivision. The street itself was deeply diverse. My parents’ friends, and there are a cohort of folks who moved to that area at the same time, was deeply diverse. I was really fortunate to be privy to a lot of different folks coming from a lot of different communities, cooking a number of different cuisines. I think that my earliest reading ventures were cookbooks, partly because of the fact that my parents worked. If I wanted to eat, I had to cook. I didn’t know how to do that, so really just bugging friends and bugging friends’ parents. Reading cookbooks was how I passed my time pretty early on. I did all of the Texas cis-boy things. I was really into football for a time. Then I was no longer. Once I stopped playing football, it left my brain. It entirely evaporated.

Zibby: What position did you play?

Bryan: I played fullback, which was an experience. I was pretty slow, so it really didn’t make sense structurally for me to be doing that. What I really fell into narratively was film. It’s a boon now. It’s something that I can appreciate now. I watched a lot of foreign film, or foreign from the States in either case, so the ways in which you could tell a story both structurally and also narratively. The kind of stories that you could tell always seemed really wide open to me. We had a local Blockbuster. They had everything. You can travel the world at Blockbuster. A lot of my early narrative edification was through film. Then I went to the University of Houston for undergrad. I took a class with a guy named Matt Johnson. He was incredibly generous with his time and deeply kind as far as what I was trying to do on the page. It was encouragement to just keep going. It was really fortuitous to meet him. Then I did an MFA after undergrad. I met Joanna Leake who was also deeply generous with her time and deeply encouraging, so being really lucky to meet folks who were into what I was trying to do and receptive to it.

Zibby: Amazing. Why didn’t you give up? What made you keep going? This is the thing I’m always most curious about. Eleven drafts of Memorial, why not just put it aside? What drove you to keep working on it?

Bryan: I’ve gotten to think a lot about it now. At this point, it seems like a bit much. When I wrote Memorial, it wasn’t a book that I wrote on contract. If I hadn’t finished it, then no one would’ve cared because there was no financial obligation one way or the other. I really wanted to see how it would end. I was teaching ESL at the time, which is a job that I loved. I would teach and then I would write on the weekends or write during lunch. If I had a day off, I would go to the coffee shop and work on it. I just wanted to see how it would end. For the longest time, I thought that I would finish an iteration of it, and then I would show it to my friends and then they would read it or not read, and that would be the story of Memorial. I was quite all right with that. I was quite happy with it. Really, just wanting to see what a narrative where there isn’t really a clear antagonist and where there are characters that are hopefully approaching one another from a place of love and from a place of growth could end up and what that would look like, it was and is really important to me. Just trying to see if it was a thing that I could do was the driver in a lot of ways.

Zibby: Interesting. Was there anything in your life that happened, particularly I’m referring to not especially the mother-in-law, but the mother-in-law-ish person coming to stay from Tokyo and the boyfriend jetting off and leaving the — I’m not explaining this well — leaving the new person there so that he doesn’t have to deal with his mother. It’d be like I start dating someone and I’m like, see ya, you hang out with my mom. That would not play probably even now, and I’m married. What inspired that? Where did that piece of it come from?

Bryan: That scenario arrived for me intact. There isn’t really a one-to-one correlation between any of the characters and any of their arcs and things that I’ve experienced. The most tangible one might be that I worked at an aftercare place for five years. It was a job that I really loved. Aside from that, there’s not a lot where you could draw a direct line. At the same time, I wanted to read something featuring the kinds of relationships that I’d had, the kind of relationships that my friends had had. Trying to put that on the page was really important to me. I knew that if I wanted to write a story in which the ending was open for the characters, not necessarily structurally open, but open as far as a possibility for them, I would need to at least create a stable foundation in the intro, a sort of bait and switch. If you’re going to read the narrative about one particular thing, like a very strange , and then it becomes something else or it becomes many different things. I was really lucky in that that scenario arrived mostly intact from the very outset. At the same time, I think that was one of the very few things about the book that from the beginning I knew that this will probably stay. Everything else changed a handful of times, at least, over the course of writing it.

Zibby: I was struck in one of your essays about the experience with your uncle in Jamaica where you saw a group of gay men around a boat. You were like, oh, look, great. Before you knew it, your uncle was hurling stones at them. You were just standing there. Then you all just paddled off or something like that and left the men. You were like, well, I’m not coming out to this crew. Forget that. How did everybody in your family then react to this book which is very open and graphic? I don’t know if that’s the right word, but very graphic, as many sexual scenes are no matter what. You’re right in that it doesn’t happen as often in literature between two men. What does your family think about that?

Bryan: The family members that I know have read it have been overwhelmingly positive. I gave a galley of it to my mom once I had a solidified galley back in December. She would send updates every few weeks just sort of like USPS telling me, it’s here right now, not whether they liked it or not whether they finished.

Zibby: Just her page number?

Bryan: Like, the galley is in Atlanta. That galley’s in New York. This is the person who has it. Everyone that I’ve heard from has been really supportive of the story and really just overwhelmingly positive toward what I was trying to do. I feel like if everyone is positive that also makes me a bit weary because I’m like, what am I not seeing? I’m grateful for it, but it also comes back to this idea of what I wanted to try to do with the book is not operate in binaries and not silo characters into archetypes that don’t give them room to change or room to grow or room to expand their language or to silo them into one position or another. They may not have the language or the lexicon to have the conversations that the folks around them, whether it’s family, whether it’s lovers, whether it’s friends, want them to have, and just putting every character in a position to be able to move toward goodness. So far, everyone has been overwhelmingly supportive, which is also a bit concerning. I’m waiting for the other shoe to fall. It’s very strange.

Zibby: Holding your breath a little bit.

Bryan: Not too long. As soon as I say this, I’m going to get a text, so-and-so is .

Zibby: You’re like, oh, good, I was waiting for that one.

Bryan: Exactly. Confirmed.

Zibby: Are you working on anything new now?

Bryan: Yeah. I have a project that I’m trying to get into shape. I don’t know if it’ll stick or if it’s just a hiccup and then it’ll go away. The biggest thing on the horizon is that I’m adapting this series for television. A24 is producing it. Rudin Productions is assisting in the production. A big thing for me during the option process was that if it was going to end up on screen, I wanted to be a person to adapt it because it just seemed like a really cool opportunity, for one thing. Also, there was a certain way that I wanted it done or a certain way that I wanted to see it. I’m really fortunate that A24 was super receptive to that. They’re such great folks. The Rutin Production folks are such great folks. Trying to figure out what the iteration on screen will look like will probably keep me busy for a while.

Zibby: I would think.

Bryan: Yeah, just a little bit.

Zibby: That sounds like a big job to do.

Bryan: It’ll be an undertaking. I’m working with really cool folks. I think that everyone is approaching it from the standpoint of, we just want to make a cool thing, a really solid thing. I think it’ll be a good experience.

Zibby: I didn’t mean job in a negative way. I meant an exciting, fulfilling, wonderful project.

Bryan: No, it is work. It is certainly work. I’m in the midst of all of this work. I’m like, oh, my god, more work. I have to cast a positive light on the amount of work it is because otherwise it would be untenable.

Zibby: I feel like it actually might be easier than most to adapt just because I feel like your scenes are so visual. I can see it all, like the taxi or whatever, the car pulling up to the curb at the airport and the kitchen scene with waking up late and having the mother-in-law character be there. I see it. I don’t know if that’s what’s in your head, but I have a clear vision of those scenes.

Bryan: When I’m writing, I pull a lot from film because so many of my narrative reference points and so many of my structural reference points are from things that I’ve seen. Trying to paint as clear a picture of the world and of the characters and of their interactions as possible is really important to me and something that I really set out to do. That probably comes through more in the editing process once the story is actually there, trying to hone it and cut away all of the unnecessary bits so that you just have story. You have the reader, and they’re able to, ideally, have a relationship with that story. It becomes their own.

Zibby: I feel like I have to use what you keep referring to as — what do you say? Your narrative creative process or something through film? I feel like I need to use that to justify the amount of TV I let my kids watch. I’ll be like, no, no, no, they’re just bolstering their film narrative of storytelling.

Bryan: That’s exactly what it is. They’re expanding the canon.

Zibby: Expanding the canon, thank you. That’s even better. They’re expanding the canon. I’m just going to leave them in front of the TV. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors other than perhaps watching lots of TV?

Bryan: Watch as much TV as you can. Other than that, one thing that I would say is not to take too much heed of the market, which can be an incredible temptation, especially when you’re first starting out or if you feel as though you don’t have connections or if you feel like you don’t have a byline or if you feel like you need to add more to your byline. The market really doesn’t know what the market wants until the market wants it. For Memorial, a difficulty when it came to initially drafting it and then editing it was that there weren’t too many direct comps that I could pull from. There really weren’t very many total comps that I could pull from. It wasn’t until, really, probably early March of this year that I was convinced that like six people would not read it. I would just try to tell the story that you’re trying to tell to the best of your ability and really create a world on the page, which is going to be difficult regardless of what your narrative looks like or what you set out to do. If you’re able to achieve that, I think that that’s the biggest boon in a lot of ways.

Zibby: Awesome. Great. Thank you, Bryan. Thanks for our little chat today. I hope I didn’t offend you.

Bryan: No, no, not at all. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Thanks for coming on. I’ll be watching Good Morning America to see when everything’s announced. I’m so excited for you. That’s awesome.

Bryan: Thanks so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Take care.

Bryan: Likewise. Please take care.

Zibby: Bye.

Bryan Washington, MEMORIAL