Houston's Bryan Washington on his debut story collection, LOT: STORIES, "Bayou Diaries," sacred spaces, and the global lingua franca

Lot is the confession of a neighborhood, channeled through a literary prodigy. Bryan Washington doesn’t render a world, he actually captures one, grabs it out of reality, and holds it up for you to see it sparkle. Unflinching, romantic while refusing to romanticize, this is the debut of a prodigious talent.” 
—Mat Johnson, author of Loving Day and Pym

 

Lone Star Literary Life: Mr. Washington, your first book, Lot: Stories, will be published by Riverhead Books in March. Please tell us about your collection.

 

Bryan Washington: Most of the stories follow black and brown queer folks living their lives around Houston. So, you could call it a collection of ghost stories about the city, or you could call it a collection of failed love stories, or you could call it a menagerie of very particular crisis points taking place across Harris County.

 

LSLL: Mat Johnson calls Lot “the confession of a neighborhood.” What about these stories is unique to Houston and what is universal?

 

BW: Mat’s a really thoughtful guy. The thing that ties Houston narratives together is the fact that there’s no “singular Houston narrative,” or “a Houston story,” or whatever. There’s the sprawl, and the diversity, but everyone’s experience here is very particular, and the characters in Lot are no exception. So, what we need are more stories set in Houston: the more we get, the clearer a picture of the city we’ll end up with.

 

LSLL: Lot is garnering praise all over the place—Entertainment Weekly, Buzzfeed, The Millions, Barnes & Noble, the Huffington Post, Lit Hub, the ABA folks, The Rumpus—is that as nerve-wracking as it is wonderful, or is it wholly blissful?

 

BW: All of the praise should be going to Riverhead’s marketing and publicity teams and also my agent—they’re who pushed the book out into the world, marketing it in a way that was appealing to readers, booksellers, and myself. That sort of cohesion isn’t always a given.

 

But, for me, I don’t have enough distance yet. I’ve been working on other things as all of this buzz has been floating around, so they’ve provided a pretty nice buffer. And in a lot of ways, the reader’s conception of Lot, or the iteration of the book that’s getting recognition, is almost entirely divorced from mine: once you’ve written the thing and worked with your editor and put it out there, it really doesn’t belong to you anymore. It’s got its own life.

 

LSLL: You’ve written for the New York Times, New Yorker, Paris Review, Tin House, and Bon Appétit, among other outlets, and you write a regular column about Houston, called “Bayou Diaries,” for Catapult. How did that arrangement begin, and how do you decide what to share about your hometown?

 

BW: My editor over there, Nicole Chung, is amazing. Like, the best. I asked her if she’d be interested in a column about some of my experiences in Houston, and she was game for it, so we worked to make it what it is from there. Actually, writing the essays was an interesting challenge because I’m maybe not so keen with writing about myself, specifically. But working with someone I trusted as much as Nicole—someone with her thoughtfulness and generosity and perceptiveness—made the experience just so much easier.

 

LSLL: You’ve written about the Montrose neighborhood, Hurricane Harvey, the Houston Rodeo, and the Rothko Chapel, among many other subjects. One of the columns is about finding sacred spaces, beyond the usual suspects in Houston, in which you write about finding “holiness in the noodle bar.” What is sacred to you?

 

BW: Communal spaces and places where you can find comfort mean a lot to me, whatever that looks like to you. For me, personally, that’s restaurants and friends’ living rooms and coffee bars and taquerías. There’s a warmth that can arise from familiarity and those spaces mean a lot to me.

 

LSLL: Writing about the Montrose neighborhood, you say it’s “unofficially codified as the nexus of queer life” in Houston and “the neighborhood that gave us everything.” What is everything?

 

BW: In the context of that essay, “everything” was just that: a new language, a new way of thinking, a multiplicity of vantage points for looking at the world. All of it.

 

LSLL: There were a lot of headlines in 2017 naming Houston the most diverse city in the country (though Jersey City disputes this). You wrote a piece for Bon Appétit called “My Ideal Eating Day in Houston,” which included waffles, tacos, and bánh mì. How did the idea for this piece come to you? Is there any better way for disparate individuals to come together and appreciate each other than sharing a meal?

 

BW: The piece was actually assigned by the Bon Appétit folks! I just thought it was cool to have the chance to write about some of my usual haunts. And I don’t know if there’s a better way to bring folks together (although I’m inclined to say that there isn’t), but food and sex cross all borders—they’re a global lingua franca.

 

LSLL: Let’s talk process for a bit. A couple of years ago you told Austin’s American Short Fiction that your early drafts are “all talk,” “pure conversation.” Do you still write this way, and how did that technique begin for you? If you don’t begin with conversation now, why not and what has changed?

 

BW: Nah, that’s still the case. I’m mostly preoccupied with the quiet (or quiet-ish) moments in personal relationships and the creases between transition periods. And a way of capturing those on the page, for me, is through dialogue. I think it began from watching too many movies and being really entranced with their ability to conjure a sort of verisimilitude.

 

LSLL: Short stories are my favorite literary form. Why did you decide that your first book would be a short-story collection, and is that also your favorite form? Which short-story writers do you admire and why?

 

BW: Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Victor Lodato, Xuan Juliana Wang, Jamel Brinkley, Yukiko Motoya, Osama Alomar, Amelia Gray, ZZ Packer, Sandra Cisneros, Alejandro Zambra, Ha Jin, and Patricia Engel are doing work that I admire deeply. They’re able to capture the grandiose and the intimate and the in-between so deftly, building whole worlds to contain them. Haruki Murakami’s probably the short-story writer I turn to most though.

 

And I really love poetry! Tracy K. Smith, Paul Asta, Morgan Parker, and J. Estanislao Lopez are deeply inspiring.

 

LSLL: Please tell us what you’re working on now and what’s next for you.

 

BW: I just finished a novel! It’s called Memorial. You might see it sooner than later.

 

Bryan Washington has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, BuzzFeed, Vulture, The Paris Review, Tin House, One Story, Bon Appétit, MUNCHIES, American Short Fiction, GQ, FADER, The Awl, and Catapult. His first short story collection, Lot: Stories, will be published by Riverhead Books on March 19, 2019. He lives in Houston.