Bryan Washington is a writer from Houston. His fiction and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, BuzzFeed, Vulture, The Paris Review, Boston Review, Tin House, One Story, Bon Appétit, MUNCHIES, American Short Fiction, GQ, FADER, The Awl, Hazlitt, and Catapult, where he wrote a column called “Bayou Diaries.”
His first book, the short story collection “Lot,” comes out March 19 from Riverhead. You can catch the 25-year-old Washington in person at Austin’s BookPeople on March 20 for a reading and book signing.
I chatted with Washington on the phone this week. We spoke about the importance of Houston in his work, his arduous world-building process, and crafting a magical adventure buddy comedy story about characters who don’t often get to experience that kind of narrative.
Amanda Faraone: I wanted to talk first about setting because it’s such an important part of your work. Houston looms large both in your collection and in essays I’ve read from your column on Catapult. When you started working on this collection, did you always know that Houston was going to be the main through-line or was that something that emerged in your work more organically?
Bryan Washington: I think it was the latter. It emerged over the course of 4 or 5 or 6 stories. It wasn’t a question for me of whether the stories would be set in Houston, because they kind of were by default. I don’t know that it was a very intentional decision to bring out the characteristics of each hub. But when I started thinking about the work as a collection and a cohesive whole, my original goal was to have the through-line be Houston and each story represent a hub from the city — and that ended up falling through when I became attached to a handful of narratives and a handful of the voices that those narratives belonged to. It was when I started focusing on their specific concerns and their specific conflicts that their individual experiences of the city began to color the rest of their stories, and in that way, writing about their Houstons became a lot easier, because the question on my end became less of, “How do I write about Houston en masse?” and more, “How do I write about this specific character’s experience of Houston?” and, “How does this specific iteration of Houston relate to their problems and what they’re trying to do in their lives?”
AF: That makes a lot of sense to me. And I thought you had such strong characters throughout your collection. They felt very fresh and alive to me and not like characters I’d seen before, which was exciting. I did notice that some characters get repeated and keep coming back and many of the protagonists have a similar viewpoint. I was wondering if you had considered or would consider going even further and creating a novel with any of those characters because they felt like they had such rich backstories.
BW: It means a lot, hearing that they read as having rich backstories. A part of that was due to my trying to build a world for each of those characters and in the process of building a world, let’s say a story is 4,000 words, I probably wrote at least 25- to 35,000 for each of those characters within that specific story trying to get a sense of who they were and how they navigated the world. I had to do that in order for them to be a bit more real to me and for their voices to become more seamless for me. It was through that over-writing that I was able to fall into what felt comfortable for me in terms of projecting their voice and getting them out there.
I don’t know that I would throw them into a novel right now. I just finished another novel but the characters are different — although it has quite a lot to do with Houston still. But I think working with my editor was pivotal in terms of making each of the respective narratives into a cohesive whole because she saw what the book could be and we worked to weave everything together, so that instead of many stories about various Houstons, it became a collection that was projecting a very specific mood of the city.
AF: I love hearing about your process and how much work you did on those characters. I heard another Texas writer, Bret Anthony Johnston, who runs the Michener Center for Writers now, speak once, and he was talking about the difference between writing a story and a novel. And he said, “You do the same amount of work and at the end of the story process you have 20 pages and at the end of the novel process you have 300 pages.”
BW: I agree, 100 percent. The amount of emotional toil that goes into a story, at least for me — and I guess, for Johnston as well — is not terribly different from what goes into a novel. Because even though the length might be significantly shorter, the scope and the weight that you’re trying to imbue in a short story should reach for that which you find in a novel, because you want it to have that same impact and lingering effect. You don’t want to bore a reader, most of all, for me — and that’s going to require work, irrespective of the form you’re working in.
AF: I did want to talk about the story “Bayou” from your collection. I loved the characters and this buddy adventure story you tell centered around this magical animal. What sparked you to write that story? And in the process of working on it, how did you know when it clicked and was building in the right way?
BW: Well, I’m glad you enjoyed it, that means a lot. It was one of the stories that took the longest to write out of any in the collection, partly because it was difficult to get the mood that I wanted for that particular story, to where it was funny when it needed to be funny and had weight where it needed to have weight, and there was a certain sentimentality that I wanted to try and imbue throughout it without it being a sentimental story. It was just really difficult to do that.
I think my original aim was reading and watching any number of narratives where you have a neighborhood or community where this unreal or magical element enters the community, and more often than not it was three white kids — specifically, 3 white cis boys— who found something somewhere and they go on this crazy adventure and they come back and everything’s different for the rest of their lives. I wondered what would happen if you took those same elements and you brought them to a different community and to a set of protagonists who were more familiar to me but were perhaps very unfamiliar to the possibility of that kind of narrative touching them. And that in itself was interesting to me.
I was lucky because I edited that story with Patrick Ryan, who’s over at One Story, and he was so great and so helpful when it came to adjusting certain moments, heightening the mood in one area or another, and knowing when to cut back on dialogue and when to enhance it—he was really insightful. And when I was working on the collection at large with Laura Perciasepe, who is my editor at Riverhead, she’s just a genius and she was helpful at heightening certain themes and moments throughout that story so that it could become closer to what I wanted to try and make it in the end.
AF: Throughout this process, from working on your collection to publishing it and now being in the promotion stage, what’s been the most challenging part? And what’s been the most rewarding thing that you didn’t expect in this process?
BW: I think the actual press cycle is the most challenging thing. It’s a very different muscle from sitting down and working on a project — cause it’s you for the longest time and then maybe your friends, if you show your friends, and at some point, your agent, if you have an agent, and then your editor, but it’s a very contained process.
What’s been an adjustment for me hasn’t been putting the collection out in the world but putting yourself out in the world and talking about it. But I don’t have any complaints — it’s been a really cool process and I’ve gotten to talk to a lot of cool people, such as yourself, and I’ve enjoyed that process.
I think the thing I’ve enjoyed the most so far is meeting booksellers. Just getting to chat with them about Lot, but also about the ways in which they’re able to negotiate this industry, and what brought them to bookselling, and how they’re navigating it currently, and what they’re reading, and what they’re drawn to. Meeting the folks that are actually in the indie bookstores doing the work — pushing narratives out in the world — has been super cool.