This past summer, well before Bryan Washington’s debut novel had come out, he was negotiating the television rights for it (read the CultureMap story here). That should have been a sign that Memorial was going to be a really big deal.
Set in Houston, Memorial chronicles the relationship of Benson and Mike, two young Houston men who live together. Mike is a Japanese American chef at a Mexican restaurant, while Benson is a Black day care teacher. Washington describes the book as a “rom-com with teeth” that will make you laugh, cry, and even hungry.
Since its release on October 27, the tome has been named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Must-Read Books of 2020 and picked up as Good Morning America’s November book club selection, and has been a No. 1 bestseller on Amazon’s LGBT Literary Fiction list.
Washington, who previously published a collection of short stories called Lot, sat down with CultureMap for a Q&A about the book and what’s next for him.
CultureMap: This is technically your debut novel, but you saw so much success and positive reception of your short stories book, Lot. You’ve said before that Memorial also started as a short story. What was different about Memorial that you wanted to make it into a novel?
Bryan Washington: I think that the crucial difference is that with Lot specifically there were questions that I had — whether they were structural or thematic. I was able to hold them just long enough for the length of finishing a short story. Whereas for Memorial, there quickly appeared to be concerns that could last the length of time that it would take to finish a novel. And that really stuck with me. I was in the middle of working on a new project at the time that wasn't going super well. I had spent time on the short story and its characters — it left an impression on me. I kept turning back to them. So, really, it was being left with a narrative that I felt like I could spend an extended amount of time on, was, I think, the biggest difference.
CM: I know you describe the book as a romance and a dramedy. What inspired you to write this cross genre story?
BW: I just think that for me, in a lot of ways, I wanted to write a book about two queer men who were trying to figure out what it meant to be okay as a couple, and also what it meant to be okay as individuals, just as a person. And in order to do that, it became pretty clear quite quickly that it would have to be a book, which many different things could be true simultaneously. Like, I didn't want someone to walk away from it feeling as if the one character or another were right. Or one character or another was wrong and learn from that work. I felt like as far as we're concerned, it wouldn't quite fit down the middle, you know, or it would ideally be a book in which many different things were happening simultaneously.
CM: If you had to boil the book down to one or a couple messages or themes, what would it be?
BW: Well, I think that was pretty clear for me from the outset was that I didn't want there to be like a massive takeaway or a major message by the end of the book. But insofar as there's a theme, I think that was what was important to me was making sure that each character had the capacity for growth and the capacity for affection and acceptance, even if the way in which they convey it, that looks radically different from what another character might view growth and acceptance, or what's out in the larger culture might be as good. Making sure that the characters had space to bring those around them closer to them was really important to me.
CM: The book is set here in Houston, and it’s safe to say there’s not a lot of books set in Houston. Why was it important to you to set your writing here?
BW: For that exact reason, in a lot of ways. It's a city I care a good deal about, and I like to see it and narratives whenever I get the chance to do that. It's been a really cool experience, let alone to have folks be receptive to it, to work with a team that's receptive to it. But also the city is so full of warmth and generosity and diversity that it makes for a great space to have narrative. There are any number of stories in any number of communities and this would be happening at the same time. So, it's a place that's definitely rife for the story.
CM: With Mike, one of the main characters, being a chef, there’s a heavy presence of food (an amazing Houstonian pastime). Were you inspired by any particular Houston eateries? What are your favorite spots around town?
BW: I don't know that I had a direct inspiration so much just like a larger culture of culinary appreciation of diversity and inclusion the city. I wrote swaths of the book at Antidote Coffee, and I wrote swaths of the book at Tapioca House — as well as other coffee shops. But I don't know, just like the general culture of the city's food scene is just really important to me and really interesting. And they're more than a handful of restaurants that like make cameos, so to speak. I'll name something offhand, or I'll just like lightly mention a few details about (a restaurant). And someone could probably say, "Oh, that's Ninfa's" or "Oh, that's Agora or Siphon Coffee." So really being conscientious about which details I use and when I use them. It's really important to me.
CM: So basically there are little Houston Easter eggs within the book?
BW: Yeah, if you can pick them out, then you got like a really keen eye. Some of them are very obvious though. It might just be the way that a chair is by the door in a specific way — what an entrance could look like or what it would look like from a booth in the back of the restaurant.
CM: The book is already being made into a TV show and you’re writing the script right now. What’s been the most challenging about this process and what are you most excited about the show?
BW: I've been really fortunate to get to work with the A24 folks. I think that our collective vision, so to speak, is just to make something that's really cool and something that we would all want to watch. And something that is true to the book in as many different ways as it can be — but also that's very much its own thing. So, the biggest challenge I think, is trying to figure out how to really utilize the visual aspect of the forum and to really pull out what I couldn't pull on the page.
Now that we have audio and visual, what in the story, can we like really exacerbate and extend and what corners can we sort of play with that wouldn't have otherwise been possible on the page. I'm just trying to figure out what that looks like in practice. And then actually making it work, I think will be a challenge. The negotiating and auction process took about two months over the summer. And there were about 10 to 15 folks were interested. The A24 folks in particular were just really great and easy to talk to you from the outset. And I felt like we can make something really cool.
CM: Lot received amazing recognition and you’ve scored some significant writing awards. What’s been the most unreal or impactful shoutout or award you’ve received?
BW: It's all unreal one capacity or another. But I think that the big thing that has stood out in a lot of ways from everything else is when — you know, you have your daily revolutions, like your coffee shops or the places you get takeout from — when those people there say hi, and recognize me from the work, that's like visceral, but that's also like really cool it's folks in your community that are seeing what you're trying to do and are receptive to it.
CM: What’s next?
BW: I think the immediate goal is trying to make the best iteration of the show possible. And for me, as far as like planning next projects is following my interest. I've been really fortunate to get to work with outlets with editors, with teams that have been receptive to the things that I'm trying to do and the things that I'm interested in or who have overarching projects that I've been like really receptive to, and that I've gotten to, you know, sort of tag along with them or so hopefully having more chances to have more opportunities to work on things that are capturing the folks who are working on them, which is like a really generous thing and a really rare thing and something that I've been really excited to have gotten to do.
Natalie Harms is the editor of our sister site, InnovationMap.