Bryan Washington on Father Figures and Other Complicated Relationships

Posted by Cybil on October 1, 2020
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Bryan Washington, the acclaimed author of 2019’s short story collection Lot, has returned with his debut novel, Memorial. The story follows Benson, a young Black day care worker in Houston, and his boyfriend, Mike, a Japanese American chef. They are on the verge of breaking up when Mike learns that his estranged father is dying, and he flies to Osaka to be with him. 
Memorial examines complicated relationships: in love, and within families, particularly between the main characters and their fathers. Washington says he “didn’t want it to be a narrative where a handful of queer men were dealing with their homophobic fathers and then they cut them off,” but he also didn’t want to write about “concrete acceptance” either. The result is a story that feels deeply human. 
Goodreads contributor Kerry Shaw recently interviewed Washington, reached by phone in Houston, where he currently resides. Their conversation has been edited.

Goodreads: When you tell people what the story is about, what do you say? I have a take, but I wanted to hear yours first. 

Bryan Washington: I usually say that it's about a group of folks trying to figure out how to be OK. Sometimes I'll allude to the relationships and the ways they can or don't change. But largely I've condensed it down to folks trying to figure out how to be people among other people. But I'm more curious about how you envision it! That’s usually more fun. 

GR: For me, two things come to mind: accepting one's parents and grappling with complicated relationships. 

BW: Both of which are major things that come to mind. 

GR: I’d also say that a big theme in Memorial is homophobia within families. Does that feel true or fair? 

BW: It certainly feels fair. My overarching concern, in trying to figure out the relationships between the main characters and their fathers, was less about having a family member who has a certain degree of homophobia and more about how the tether that you have as a family can affect the changing views of family members. 

What I wanted to explore was: At what point does someone's father stop being just a father figure, and when do they become an actual, flawed person?

I really didn't want it to be a narrative where a handful of queer men were dealing with their homophobic fathers and then they cut them off and that's the end of the narrative and it's very clean. I also didn't want it to be a narrative with some sort of concrete acceptance and everyone's happy because that didn't seem like how things usually are. 

I was most concerned with what I’ll call the creases between how children and their parents may relate to one another, especially when those fault lines aren't clearly defined. What does it mean when someone is not viewing you in the way that you feel you should be viewed, but you see that they're trying, for example? Is it fair to give up on them altogether? I'm not really interested in answering those questions but just putting them into the narrative and seeing where those conversations lead.
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GR: It reminds me of a great line in the book, "Everybody’s somebody’s villain," though what you’re describing is more nuanced. Each relationship was a living, breathing thing. 

BW: Yes, it’s a dynamic relationship between the two. A lot of it was seeing where that could lead or couldn't lead.  

GR: Can you talk a bit about how you wrote the book? 

BW: I was a lot more tactical with the process than I was with Lot. I think Memorial can be read in three parts. I wrote the first part and then the second. Once I finished the second part, I edited the first and second in tandem, since I had a sense of where the characters were going. And then, after I did the edits of the first two parts, I wrote the third. Immediately after I finished the third part, I went back and edited the first toward the second and the second toward the third. All of that would be one edit. 

So, I did that about six times by myself; then my agents and I went through and we did another two rounds of that sort of edit. And then my editor and I went through and did a round and a half of that edit. So that's a fair amount of footwork in terms of trying to figure out what went where. 

GR: Did you give yourself a goal to write a certain number of pages or words every day? 

BW: I have friends who do that. I'm not really into a word count, so to speak. I knew that there were a certain amount of scenes that I wanted to finish or work toward every day, even if I didn't finish them. So, one day that meant three scenes, particularly if they were shorter ones. If there was a scene that carried more emotional weight, I might spend a week on just that. I wanted to finish each day on the verge of the next section. That way, I always knew what I’d be starting with the next morning. 

And that really worked out, especially the first time through the narrative, because there was never a period when I didn't know where I was going to start the next time I opened my computer. 

GR: Do you have any writing rituals?

BW: No, I'm pretty boring. I mean, I usually write in the morning. In non-pandemic times, I'll cycle through various coffee and boba shops in Houston. In Osaka, for the most part, the editing that I did was in coffee shops.

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GR: You got to work on this in Japan. That's cool! 

BW: In non-pandemic times, I go once or twice a year, just because I have friends out there and it's nice to visit and hang out. But for the book, for the purposes of editing, I was there most of last summer just trying to get the book into a shape that made the most sense.  

GR: About half the story takes place in Houston and about half is set in Osaka. The settings feel vital to the story. How did you land on those cities? 

BW: What was really important to me was trying to find a way to take the warmth and generosity that I've been lucky to experience in both cities and put that on the page in a way that wasn't a bore to read. 

Also, I was interested in how the character's origin point impacts their internal and external weather. Who do they think of themselves as? Who do they ultimately become? And what happens if you switch where the character is—all of a sudden, they're in a new place, in a new context? Without the context that you came up with, or if you haven't been told who you need to be, who do you end up as? So, those were two questions that I was trying to circle around. 

GR: How did you get the idea to make Benson a teacher in a day care? 

BW: You're the first person to ask that. The funny thing about the book is that there aren't very many things where there's like a one-to-one correlation with my life. But one of the closest things is that I worked at an after-care, day care place for about five years. And it was a really cool, really fun job.

GR: I'm surprised it was a cool job. I just say that as someone with small children… 

BW: Well, I got to leave! [Laughs.] And that distinction is very important to make clear. I always knew I was going home. 

GR: It was one of many fun details in the book. So much of what I appreciated about Memorial was that none of it felt like something I'd read or seen before. It felt like a cool indie film. Were you thinking in terms of movies when you wrote it? 

BW:  I don't know that I was aiming for it, but it was something I was conscious of, in terms of questions like: What does the scene look like? How are folks moving around in any given space? I was just trying to paint as clear a picture as possible for the reader. 

I feel like I came to literary fiction a bit later than many folks in my cohort. So, a lot of my primary education, as far as narrative is concerned, came from watching and rewatching films incessantly and trying to get a sense of how to structure a story. 

GR: Which films stand out to you now as being particularly influential? 

BW: Yi Yi by Edward Yang was deeply influential in terms of seeing how to structure a story without being heavy-handed. It helped me understand what it looks like to guide the audience, in lieu of telling them explicitly what was happening. Also, Y Tu Mama Tambien, City of God, and Central Station were all really important to me. 

GR: You say you came to literary fiction late. Can you talk a little more about that? 

BW: Yeah. I'd say late, with an asterisk. I started reading in my late teens. I feel like there's a lot of folks who know at 9, 10, 11, 12 years old, that's what they want to do. But that wasn't my situation. So, a lot of my foreground was through watching and rewatching those films. So, when I did start reading more extensively, the brunt of it was literature in translation. And then I branched off from there. 

I was lucky in that I didn't have a deeply ingrained sense of what you could do, because I was just reading and watching so many different things. Structurally and thematically, it seemed like what you could do on the page was wide open, which was very exciting. 

GR: I’ve read that you had a college professor who was very inspirational to you. Can you say more about that? 

BW: Yeah, there were two folks I studied with who were really generous with their time. One was Mat Johnson at the University of Houston, [where I did my undergrad]. He wrote Pym and Loving Day. I love his novels, and he's also really big in the comic sphere. I really appreciated working with him and the time that he took with me. But I think there are quite a few folks in my cohort who, if you were to ask them if they knew Mat Johnson or had worked with him, they'd say super glowing things. 

Also, at the University of New Orleans [where I did my MFA], I got the chance to work with Joanna Leake. She was so kind in terms of taking time with my writing from a very, very early standpoint. They were both really big advocates for what I was trying to do at the time and also now. 

GR: What are you reading now?

BW: I finished Rumaan Alam's Leave the World Behind two weeks ago, and it's so good. Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom came out this week, but I read it a month ago, and it really stuck with me. Samantha Irby's essay collection was really important to me. The Japanese writer Yu Miri had a great novel that was translated into English and published in the U.S. this summer: Tokyo Ueno Station. Also, Simon Han is the debut author of a novel called Nights When Nothing Happened, which comes out in November. I read it last year, and I remember thinking, Wow, this is really awesome.  

GR: You teach creative writing at Rice. Is there any advice you give people who want to be writers? 

BW: The first thing that I say is to be wary of free advice. [Laughs.] The second is to not pay too much attention to what's in vogue with the market at any given time, especially when you're starting out, because the market doesn't know what it wants until it wants it. So just try and do the thing that you're trying to do, to the best version or iteration of that story.  


Bryan Washington’s Memorial will be published in the U.S. on October 24. Don’t forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

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