In 2019, Bryan Washington rocketed to success as the modern bard of Houston with his debut story collection, . Depicting working-class characters leading complex lives in the city’s multicultural Third Ward neighborhood, it won Washington the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award and a number of other honors (including a 5 Under 35 prize and appreciation from President Barack Obama). In his eagerly anticipated follow-up novel, (Riverhead, Oct. 27), Benson and Mike, a mixed-race couple in their late 20s, contend with their future, their families, and the meaning of home. The story, told in alternating perspectives, launches in Houston, journeys to Osaka, Japan, and, finally, returns stateside. “I was really keen on writing a love story featuring characters from the communities that I hold dear,” Washington tells Kirkus, “centering the traumas that those characters may or may not have faced within their respective narrative arcs.” Film production and distribution company A24 recently purchased the rights to the novel for its television division, and Washington will adapt it for the screen himself. Kirkus spoke to him by phone; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s your connection to Japan?
A good friend of mine I grew up with in my old neighborhood, and we stayed friends—he moved back to Osaka. The first time that I went there was a trip to visit him, about six years or so ago. I had a lovely time, for no reason other than the folks I met were super warm and it’s really nice and felt very comfortable. The city of Osaka is very much itself, in the way that I think Houston is to some extent; and in a lot of ways analogous to New Orleans, although I don’t know exactly why that is—we’ll try to figure it out. After that first trip, excepting this year, I’m usually there once or twice a year. I edited a good chunk of the book over there. Being privileged to be privy to the warmth of folks in that city and their generosity—that was something that I wanted to try and get on the page.
We learn so many specific, intimate details about Benson, Mike, and the other people in this book, some from the characters themselves, some from others’ perceptions. How do you conceive of building characters who are very much themselves?
What was important to me was not to be prescriptive about characters or the relationships that they have—or the tangential relationships that they have, or the relationships that they don’t have—so much as illustrative. A large component of that was finding each character’s love language, so to speak, or how they extended or showed their love, how they didn’t, and also what they desired and why and to what extent. It was tricky structurally because it meant information would be delivered at wildly disparate points in the narrative. Significant details would be delivered to the reader in a conversation, in an offhand way or a way that didn’t belie the emotional weight….Being really strategic about what I revealed and when about each character was the intent.
The phrase “emotional weight” hops out at me. Are there certain scenes in this book you really put the fullness of your weight—your craft, your talent—behind?
Ideally, you’re putting your weight behind everything. That’s kind of a bullshit answer, but I also think it’s an honest answer. There are brief exchanges—at least a handful of scenes that are only 30, 40, 150, 200 words—and yet the information that they’re dispersing is deeply pivotal to a character’s narrative arc. [I was] playing with the conventions of what connoted an important scene: What happens if you make that pivotal moment only two lines? Or what happens if you stick it in the middle of a conversation that’s an entirely other thing? Or what happens if you have Mike or Benson say something that is deeply impactful regarding a relationship and yet the person they’re speaking to doesn’t realize it until five, six lines into the conversation? So just really, really playing with the idea of what mattered to each character related to what would ultimately matter to the reader.
Regarding the phrase “love language”: In this book there’s a lot of touch exchanged, especially between men, from the cupping of a younger brother’s head to the way two queer cis men lie entwined on a beach. There’s plenty of fighting and sex, too, and the way you portray caresses and collisions is very fine.
I appreciate that. I think that the ways in which bodies move or don’t move—whether it’s between, you know, romantic partners, whether it’s between siblings, whether it’s between a parent [and] child or something—that was really interesting to me, generally, and also interesting in the context of this particular narrative, because so many of the conversations are punctuated by silence and punctuated by increments and implications of things that aren’t immediately stated on the page. A lot of those gaps are, ideally, filled, or at least fleshed out by a character’s physical movements on the page, even if it’s as simple as a hand on your shoulder, inching closer to another character, or sex. Or the kind of sex that a character is having, what it means when a character allows one person into their body and doesn’t allow another person into their body. Or if a character is engaging in physicality that isn’t sex but is as satisfying to that character as sex….Trying to figure out how each character relates to touch or doesn’t was something that was at the forefront of me trying to figure out what they were to one another.
You also emphasize how these characters relate to food and drink, including but not limited to “a margarita”—well, several margaritas—“the size of your head,” which is a pretty evocative phrase.
The massive margarita is a common thing at a certain brand of Tex-Mex restaurant where you pay $7 or $8 for a drink that you think is going to be the size of a Coke can and it’s actually like a small child delivered onto your table. Food was another language for each of the characters. I’ve had a handful of friends say that they read [Memorial] like a cookbook, which is a really fascinating thing that I don’t think is terribly divorced from how I structured Ben’s and Mike’s arcs to some extent.
Why was Memorial the right title for this book?
One of the reasons is I like a one-word title, because you’re gonna be saying it quite a lot. You don’t want to be saying a five-word title like 255 times. Another reason is that “memorial” can be so many different things. It can be a mournful entity; it can be a joyous entity; it can be an emotion that doesn’t necessarily cut straight down the middle of one thing or another. What it felt like was a time capsule, irrespective of whatever emotional pocket it resided in. It memorialized something, right? If something is being memorialized, then it happened; but it also, perhaps, ended. So it felt like the emotional potential of that word and the fleetingness of that word were fitting.
Megan Labrise is the editor at large and host of the Fully Booked podcast.