In September’s web exclusive story, “Lockwood ,” a young boy gets a new neighbor, with whom he shares a brief friendship. The story’s brilliance is in how clearly it manifests in the mind, as if happened to you. And in many ways, it has—each of us has experienced a similar convergence of moment, setting, and person that formed something like an enduring star in our memory. What we look for in fiction is to have our stars reflected back to us so that they shine a little brighter. The magic really happens when it is a character with whom you think you have little in common that does the reflecting. We talked to author Bryan Washington about how he pulled it off.
Erin McReynolds: This story goes through you like a flash of memory; sharp sensory details and just enough peripheral vision—like in the overheard conversations of the adults—to frame it up. I want to ask you how you know how much to give and when, but you could start by answering: Do you tend to write and then cut copiously, or do you lay down writing sparingly to begin with?
Bryan Washington: My early drafts are all talk. Pure conversation. Someone has a problem, and they’re trying to figure it out. Or maybe they aren’t interested in solving it, maybe they’ve decided to make it bigger. Insofar as I have a process, most of it’s just slapping all of these exchanges onto the page: the context surrounding them emerges from there. The characters feel a little more real.
If I can cobble together enough of them, I’ll start getting a feel for who might say what. The world starts populating itself. The cuts are a lot easier from there. But it takes pages and pages for me to reach the point where a simple back-and-forth sounds natural—even if it’s only a couple of lines. It’s hardly efficient at all.
EM: Actually, you make it sound totally efficient, but then, talking about writing tends to be easier than writing. Which character’s problem came to you first?
BW: You’re too kind. I’ll remember that the next time I’m banging my head on the desk.
This narrator’s been with me for a minute now, so it’s a little easier to get at what’s bugging him. But believe it or not, Roberto’s mother was who kicked this one off—there’s a conversation between her and the narrator that didn’t make it into the piece. Despite the obvious differences, they’re just two people trying to reconcile their identities with their environment. It makes them similar in all of the ways that matter. And that created enough momentum for more conflict.
EM: The matriarch of Roberto’s transient family next door—with just a couple of sentences you feel a struggle that could have its own novel. She says to the narrator’s mother, “it wasn’t that this country was hard—everything was just so loose.” Can you say more about that experience of looseness as an immigrant experiences it, especially in America?
BW: Well, every immigration is its own odyssey. The whole thing’s an unending journey. You finally get wherever it is that you’re going, hoping that it’s better than wherever you’re coming from, but then all of a sudden you have to deal with actually being there. That’s draining in a pretty expansive way.
On the surface, Roberto’s family is coming from a much harsher situation, but the hurdles they face in Texas are another beast entirely: once you’ve reached this country, after enduring any number of unspeakable events, what prepares you to deal with the voodoo political image that bedevils you? Or neighbors who damn you despite the fact that you’re willing to do the work that they won’t? And all you’re asking for—and asking, not even demanding—is a reasonably decent place to stay? I’m sure Roberto’s mother knew this was the deal going in, but knowing a thing and finally meeting it are disparate experiences.
EM: The story begins by distinguishing the new neighbor family as “full Mexican,” and the narrator’s family as “too dark for the blancos, too strange for the blacks.” At the end, the narrator’s father says, upon learning the family next door has left, that “if you didn’t stay where you belonged, you got yourself evicted.” That’s such a funny paradox—what does he mean? Am I reading it right that the narrator admires Roberto as something of an exotic, even while his father is looking down on them?
BW: Yeah, I think so: isn’t there always something exotic about whatever it is that you’re not?
The narrator’s mixed—two things at once, and neither of them at all. And here comes these people with supposedly concrete identities. I think that certainty, or the illusion of it, is always at least a little bit alluring to the narrator. Seeking it out could the catalyst that initially propels him towards Roberto. But the father’s response could be a reflection of his own experience: he may not be living the high-life himself, but he still struggled to get where he is. He still toiled with his hands. And here come these foreigners who’ve somehow managed to do the same. It’s hardly an admirable position, but it’s one that I understand objectively, and a challenge for me with the father was approaching that vantage point with empathy.
EM: I think it comes across, absolutely. My sense was that he’s worked hard and suffered indignities to get where he is, and he’ll be damned if he’s going to give someone the leg up that he didn’t have. It’s actually a very mid-century-American-dad attitude. In that respect, he’s got more in common with Ward Cleaver than most present-day WASP dads. But that’s what’s great about literature: It annihilates the perceived differences between “us” and “them.” Which is always critical around election season . . .
BW: Oh, man. Absolutely. Invisible borders are the best press a politician can buy.