Bryan Washington says one of the reasons he wrote his award-winning story collection “Lot” was that his native city, Houston, especially its more hardscrabble side, was so underrepresented in literature. Houston is also the backdrop of the young author’s much-lauded debut novel, “Memorial,” which he has described as a “gay slacker dramady.” Among his many awards, Washington was named a National Book Award 5 Under 35 honoree in 2019. The author is a writer-in-residence at Rice University. “Memorial” is out in paperback Oct. 26.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
WASHINGTON: The story collection “Shoko’s Smile” by Choi Eunyoung, the memoir “High-Risk Homosexual” by Edgar Gomez, and the novel “Assembly” by Natasha Brown, which is kind of blowing my mind structurally. Also Sang Young Park’s “Love in the Big City,” which is one of my favorite books I have read in some time. That is a novel where I started taking breaks because I wanted to spend more time in that author’s world.
BOOKS: Do you always read this many books at once?
WASHINGTON: Yeah. I’m in the middle of a few longer term projects and what is generally helpful for me is to have a few things I am reading simultaneously in case there is a mood that I want to spend time with. I wasn’t like the biggest reader until I got to undergrad.
BOOKS: Was there a book or author that turned on the reading switch for you?
WASHINGTON: There were two. One was Tracy K. Smith’s poetry collection “Life on Mars,” which made my ears just kind of pop. The other was Haruki Murakami’s “Sputnik Sweetheart.” I read that and then wanted to read everything else he wrote. If not for those authors I might not be on my current trajectory.
BOOKS: How did a non-reader end up with a major in English?
WASHINGTON: It was deeply happenstance. I worked a lot in undergrad, and in order to keep my job I needed to move a class from the time I was supposed to work. I signed up for an intro to creative nonfiction course because it was available at the right time and that seemed interesting enough.
BOOKS: Do you have favorite classic authors?
WASHINGTON: Toni Morrison, for sure; James Baldwin, for sure. If I’m thinking of a queer classic author, Alexander Chee. Also reading Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler was very helpful.
BOOKS: Did you read at all when you were growing up?
WASHINGTON: Other than what I had to read for school, not really. I read cookbooks, but even that was in a limited capacity. I quite liked Edna Lewis’s “The Taste of Country Cooking.” Even if I couldn’t cook a recipe, I liked just reading about the tradition and the seasonality of a dish. I was big fan of Patti LaBelle’s “LaBelle Cuisine.” Every recipe was accompanied by a story or anecdote about how she came to it. That showed me what could be accomplished emotionally with writing.
BOOKS: How would you describe yourself as a reader now?
WASHINGTON: I read a lot of translated fiction, works by Alejandro Zambra, Yoko Ogawa, Natsuo Kirino, Yu Miri, and Hiromi Kawakami. She has a story collection coming out, “People From My Neighborhood,” that is just great. I also read YA. Like a lot of folks, reading became difficult last year because of the pandemic. YA got me out of it. I had started Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe,” and tabled it but went back to it last year. Now I always have at least one YA book on my stack. Jason Reynolds and Samantha Irby were also central to getting me back to reading.
BOOKS: Have you gotten used to reading in the pandemic?
WASHINGTON: I’ve gotten as good at that as I’m going to. There’s the same dread and uncertainty but reading has been really helpful. It’s been a source of pleasure when various pleasures may not be safe or hard to come by. I’ve been grateful for that.