Bryan Washington has been publishing articles about Houston – in book form, at least – for more than four years with extreme success. His first collection of short stories, that of 2019 Lotearned him a spot on the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 list And a spot on Barack Obama’s annual list of favorite books. His follow-up debut novel Memorial has made essentially every Best of 2020 list imaginable. So naturally the author, who lives in Houston and also spends time in Osaka, Japan every year, returned to the setting for his long-awaited third book. Family meal, a moving portrait of grief and the many ways it can manifest, follows former best friends Cam and TJ, who are unexpectedly reunited after the death of Cam’s friend Kai. Washington follows the twentysomethings as they work together at TJ’s family bakery, dealing with (and avoiding) the fallout from the rifts in their lives and Kai’s ever-present memory. This is what Washington is talking about THR about his return – on the page – to the city he calls home and the countless ways he finds inspiration.
I read that you worked on this novel for a long time, especially compared to your previous books. What was the process for arriving at the correct version of the story?
I wrote a first draft of about 10,000 words that was about queer friendship and the different forms of home care and care that can come with it. Kai was a person in the book that something happened to, but he wasn’t a character or an active presence. I decided to change and have Kai play a more present role, despite having died much earlier in the book’s timeline, and that changed the entire nature of the book.
Why did you decide to make him his own character?
I was really hesitant to let any kind of structural challenge infringe on the characters. I think a lot of writing about marginalized people is a way that their trauma through white supremacy or their socio-economic circumstances can transcend their personal journeys or emotional arcs. But leaving out those challenges felt unfair, and I didn’t know how to integrate something like that until I added Kai.
Since this is your third book and second novel, What would feel most different to you?
There was a certain amount of care during the writing process that necessitated this particular book, given the weight of some of its components. I had to think very carefully about how I would approach certain topics or passages, and I also wanted to think about how I felt in the middle of it.
This is also your third book set in Houston and – especially given the way the city has changed in recent years – I’m wondering if you have a specific purpose in representing the city or if you’re trying to say something about the changes. about?
That is interesting. I don’t know if I have one, but I think there are changes I’ve noticed about Houston since I started publishing in book form. Firstly, the visibility of the city, especially from a media point of view, has certainly increased. I would say that for a long time if you wrote about New York, Los Angeles or Las Vegas, there were certain connotations or associations that readers would have. When someone says Houston, there’s a set of emotions, a set of stories that go with it, whether they’re justified or not.
For Family mealI wanted the center to be Montrose, the city’s codified gay community, a neighborhood that has been very important to me since my late teens. There aren’t many gay places in the city, so Montrose is important in that regard too, but the money coming in has driven people out of the area. It has changed who feels comfortable spending time in the different businesses there. I try to write about that tension and at the same time convey that my characters still find comfort in it.
What does success look like or mean to you? You’ve achieved basically every literary honor there is, but I wonder if there are any milestones mean more to you than others?
I am aware that much of the success of a book on paper is beyond the author’s control. It’s all about the temperature of the room or the world. I like knowing that I was able to achieve what I wanted, from a storytelling perspective. Could I access the honesty I wanted? Have I done the right thing by the people or communities I write about? And this sounds simple, but is this something my friends would enjoy?
Are there things you haven’t accomplished yet, like getting an adaptation past the development stage?, or maybe get the book sold in certain countries, which you’re still hoping for?
I’ve seen iterations and variations of both, and having done so, I have to say that I’m still always overjoyed when the work is translated, as much of my own literary training involved working in translation.
The title of the book, Family mealbrings up references to The bear for me. Have you thought about how many people are drawn to it because the restaurant lexicon is so present in pop culture?
I’ve seen very little of it The bear, but I really enjoyed what I saw. And I wrote a few drafts of the book before I even saw an episode. But even though they’re not related, I think it’s cool that people who work outside of foodservice are using this everyday lexicon. This was actually the only book of mine where I came to the title early, and I immediately thought, oh, that’s it the title.
What do you cook most often?
For myself or friends, if we don’t have dinner plans or get back somewhere late and need something to eat, it’s kimchi fried rice or breakfast tacos. I always seem to have the ingredients for each, and they are so malleable that as long as you have the core ingredients, you are good to go.
I have to say I really enjoyed the piece you wrote about attending the Renaissance Tour in Houston; were you digging into this pop culture coverage, something you were looking for?
I didn’t know until after I went to the first show in Houston that I was going to write about going to the shows. I didn’t pitch a story about going because I didn’t want it to be work. I didn’t intend to make money from that experience. But the show had just ended, and I thought that, even if it was just for myself, it would be nice to have a capsule of this specific time.
Who or what else in the culture inspires you right now?
A book immediately comes to mind called Happy stories, For the most part by Norman Erikson Pasaribu and translated by Tiffany Tsao. It’s a thoughtful collection of largely queer stories that circle around questions of identity. I also listen to a lot of K-Pop and there is a group called NewJeans that I love. They have a record that was released a few months ago that still brings me a lot of happiness. It is essential for me to have music in the background while I write.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.