A moving (and very funny) conversation between two of the most compelling voices in contemporary American fiction, Bryan Washington and Ocean Vuong.
If you haven’t read their debut novels, Memorial and On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, bump them to the top of your list (we’re adapting both!).
Topics covered include: the purity of poetry, radical okay-ness, the alternate version of Ocean’s life as a straight man, why love wasn't a question in Memorial, the power of saying no, learning to choose yourself, the exoticism of suburbia, the upside of being small, letting another artist expand upon your vision through adaptation, and why being a writer is less a career than a miracle.
Speaker: Hey, and welcome back to The A24 Podcast. If you’re a reader of contemporary fiction, you’re no doubt familiar with the names Bryan Washington and Ocean Vuong. Bryan just published his debut novel Memorial this fall, and Ocean made his own debut last year with On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. We’re thrilled to be adapting Memorial as a limited TV series, and now seems like as good a time as any to announce that we’re also busy working on the film adaptation of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
Both novels are essential winter reading, and this conversation between Bryan and Ocean is a perfect primer.
Ocean Vuong: My name is Ocean Vuong. I'm a writer and poet.
Bryan Washington: My name is Bryan Washington. I'm the author of Memorial and Lot, and I get to talk with Ocean for The A24 Podcast.
Ocean: How are you doing, despite—
Bryan: I feel like that's… [laughs]. Despite the world, despite everything.
Ocean: How was it like releasing a book in a pandemic? I feel like this is something that's an anthropological interest for any writer. And in the literary culture as a whole, perhaps decades from now, perhaps forever, we'll look at this collection of writers who, doing perhaps the most vulnerable thing a writer can do, which is to step out into the world. And for you a debut novel, something that is no small feat in itself, into a pandemic where the rules changed. Obviously it wasn't what you expected, but how has it been so far?
Bryan: I think on my end, I have no cause to complain. And that is solely due to the proficiency of the folks that I work with. For me, it was mostly just a matter of executing the plans that we came up, with or rather the plans that they came up with. So I was really fortunate to get to work with a team that was deeply amenable to our current crises as ever, but also a state of perpetual change. I mean, on your end, I feel like you're very much on the backend of having released your first novel.
Ocean: I really appreciated being out in the world and talking to folks, seeing how the book lands. I like the intellectual engagement with folks, but I wasn't really suited for travel and the grind. I learned that it wasn't for me. And so I think ultimately I was kind of really lucky that it was over by the time the pandemic happened. It was the only silver lining, because I got to rest. I was like, as an introvert, naturally, my batteries were completely zapped. And so the pandemic has been oddly very suited for me at the right time. I really needed to rest and take care of my family.
My mother passed away in November, last November, 2019. And then right after that, European tours were supposed to happen. So I got to grieve. My brother was displaced. He had to live with relatives. So I renovated my basement so he can come live with me. We're 10 years apart, he's 23 years old. And so it was a lot. I went from novelist in the world to kind of a father. I had to take care of finances. It was kind of wild. If I put this in a novel, I would take it out because it felt so contrived. It feels so contrived.
Bryan: Isn't that how... I don't know. I feel like that's so much how things are right now. I don't know, I was talking to my boyfriend yesterday just, like, look up and see what we did during the day or what happened during the year. I was just like, “Really?” It's just like, “That's the year?”
Ocean: If I was in workshop, looking at a novel or something, it’s like, "Let's tone it back. This is not believable." Everything that's going on in the world.
Bryan: Tiny ellipses. Let's just, like, skip.
I do think that one thing that—I'm far from the first person to say this—but this idea of what productivity actually yields is something that I, myself, and I imagine plenty of folks in our cohort and the cohort surrounding ours, is something that we've all had to extrapolate and reckon with in our respective ways. I don't know, I feel like there's a certain way in which American publishing can bear down on this notion of “You're inside, so that time should be utilized to finish books one, two, four, and 10. And if you don't, then it's wasted time.” But that's not true.
Ocean: That's our culture. Yeah.
Bryan: Yeah, that is the culture. I think it's been super exacerbated in some ways, or it was exacerbated at the beginning of quarantine in the States.
Ocean: It's the foundation of how we value ourselves as Americans, even all the way back to elementary school. We reward participation even if it's nonsensical. If you just blurt something out, you're rewarded. But if you consider the question and you take time to think about it, all of a sudden, if you consider it long enough and are quiet enough in your introspection, you might have a learning disability, without you ever really knowing it. And I think it's this anxiety of output and productivity is instilled in us as tiny children.
Well, we met each other at Winter Institute.
Bryan: Oh, my... Yes, we did.
Ocean: It was a lot. I’d never been to anything like that in my life.
Bryan: It was a lot. It was science fiction.
Ocean: For folks who are not familiar, Winter Institute is a yearly independent bookseller congregation. And they have authors come and meet booksellers. I’d never met booksellers on that scale before. And it was really important to me to see what the ground looks like, because as a poet I would be invited into universities and then I would read at a dusty hall and the books would be sold by some undergraduate working to pay off tuition for the university bookstore. So I never really sensed what communities are reading or what they're like and bookstores are really great for that. But it felt like a parade of dinners, which is like a nightmare for me [laughs]. I don't know how it is for you.
Bryan: Yeah. It's an interesting relationship between the warmth from booksellers and the feeling of privilege of being able to interact with folks that are making their lives out of narrative and that care so deeply, not only about story, about the ways in which the story is passed from person to person. So to have that on one hand, and on the other hand to be negotiating the showmanship, or the showperson, aspect of it.
Ocean: I was literally told to jump on a table.
Bryan: And when you did it, I just gasped. I gasped.
Ocean: Did I tell you I hid in a closet half the night?
Bryan: I don't blame you.
Ocean: That's what I did. There was a closet in the hallway near the bathroom. Every half hour I would go in there and just stand in the dark next to the brooms for 25 minutes just to calm down.
Bryan: It was absolutely incredible, that experience. But I do think simultaneously that it was, for better or worse, it was useful. It proved useful. It was paradigm shifting for me, like you do have a choice in how you present yourself and how you move through the economy of it. I mean, oftentimes I feel like it can seem as though you don't, and that's largely due to the infrastructure of American publishing, particularly for marginalized writers or writers writing from marginalized backgrounds. It seems as though you don't, like there's a certain comp that you have to fit or a certain model that you have to fit. And you'll only be able to market or monetize your project if you're able to align yourself with that model or that comp. But you don't, it's just not true. In a lot of ways the market doesn't know what it wants until it wants.
I mean, something I'm super curious about for On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, was there a period of time where you had to establish what the book was and also who you were in relation to the book, and how you and the book would move in tandem through the world?
Ocean: Absolutely. It was on my mind even before we sold the book. I think I had this sort of poet mythos where it was always a fear of mine that, "Oh, you're going to go to the big houses and they're going to turn you into a commodity." And to some extent, this is true. Poets, we have this sense of purity, that there's no money in poetry so we can control what we have. And when you go to become a novelist, particularly in the big houses, you lose yourself. And so I had that mythos perhaps overly so. I was overly cautious of that, because what happened was that I got to meet folks who were already working with writers like Zadie Smith, Celeste Ng. So these conversations about representation, control, and ethics were already fluent. A lot of people on the team were people of color, queer folks. And so they were well-versed. My editor is a queer woman and that was really helpful. I also had the privilege of meeting a lot of publishers and having conversations.
But I think when we talk about what we said before about controlling the scenario, that's what excites me most about being a writer. And I think that's what you do really well. We go into a system that has been established, often by hegemonic powers. We go into that container, and then we kind of fuck it up. We subvert the expectations. We become slippery, slippery agents within something that was believed to be fixed, like the novel or the American novel. And I'm excited about kind of sneaking in the back door and then working within those confines.
And I think that's what I saw in Memorial is a book that, on its surface, seems like it should portray the traditional tropes of identity intersections. And yet it constantly insists on its own interests to put the center, the mundane day-by-day center, of community and cooking, sustaining the body, working with transnational relationships and grief and mothers and fathers and children. And it centers it. All stories essentially have those elements, but Memorial centers what folks encounter every day, folks of color encounter every day, which is how to sustain the body and to find small scraps of joy within the mundane. That's what I said when I wrote that it just made me happy, that the 21st century novel can be okay. I often talk about this notion of what I think is radical okayness, which is where I hope queer narratives can move forward towards, which is not hyperbolic triumph or travesty, but a radical new realization of being okay. And I think Memorial really achieves that. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Bryan: It was important to me for Memorial not to be prescriptive. It was important to me not to write a love story featuring two queer folks from marginalized backgrounds, where their journey or their various efforts and lack thereof could be seen as a guide or a model, that wasn't important to me. What really felt like the challenge of it, and ultimately the sort of book that I wanted to read, was a novel in which the characters were approaching one another from a position of love, from a position of affection, and the how of it, or I suppose the story of it, became how they cross that gap. It wasn't really interesting to me the question of whether Ben, who's one half of the primary couple of the novel, or Mike, who's the other half of the primary couple of the novel, whether they loved one another, whether they had affection for one another. I wanted to start a novel, or write a love story in which that wasn't the question. The answer to that was yes.
But the question that felt interesting to me was how these two young cis men, who perhaps don't have the language for that love, who perhaps don't have models for that love, who are constantly trying to figure out how to be and what is the good thing and what is the bad thing and perhaps what happens when the bad thing is the good thing for a particular character or the good thing isn't very good at all.
Ocean: Wow, that's brilliant.
Bryan: The question of how to just be okay navigating that.
Ocean: That's brilliant. Yeah.
Bryan: It doesn't feel as though there's an answer.
Ocean: Wow. First of all, I love what you said about how love and affection for your characters was a given, that the novel is not even interested in proving that. That's so powerful to me because it's one of the reasons why I titled my book On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, that collective “we” is everyone I talk about—the black and brown folks in Hartford, the poor white farmers, the immigrant mothers, and Little Dog himself— that I did not want the book to be an attempt to prove that. I wanted to say that as a statement out the gate, that it is not a question that we are beautiful. The question is what do we do with it? And does beauty matter despite our histories? I think that's something I'm always interested in forever.
And I think one of the themes that I'm obsessed over is alterity. And I think that's how I found or wanted to find a form that did not require conflict or orchestrated conflict in order to realize a story or characters. Because I felt that it was such a privilege to demand that a story is only worthy of interest when we orchestrate conflict, because I think growing up poor, growing up in various marginalized environments and positions, life is conflict. You did not have to orchestrate it. Context is conflict. So I was more interested in seeing how individual conflicted contexts interact when they're next to each other through proximity, like a chemical reaction. I wanted to just see how folks become. And I think that's the great interest for me as a writer. But I think I sought that because I was queer. Queerness in a way saved my life, because—I always joke, I say, if I wasn't queer, I would probably be at a casino with seven children drinking Heineken.
Bryan: That's a very different Ocean.
Ocean: Yelling at my Vietnamese wife. Because this is the world that I was brought forth. And this is the world that a lot of my cousins end up in. Often we see queerness as a deprivation, but when I look at my life, I saw that queerness demanded an alternative innovation from me, I had to make alternative routes. It made me curious, it made me ask this is not enough for me because there's nothing here for me.
Ocean: Can you talk a little bit about that yourself? I joke, I say, I would be at Mohegan Sun right now in complete debt like all of the Vietnamese fathers that I grew up with.
Bryan: This question of possibility… There's a one-to-one correlation between the expansiveness of what I view as being possible and my queerness. I think that being someone growing up in a place, being different, not finding models for how to be, there are only a handful of choices, I feel like, as a young person, for me, to adapt to the ways to be that are surrounding me. Like trying to fit a square peg into a triangular hole, oval hole, hexagonal hole, to opt out of it entirely, or to give myself permission to create a space for myself and to give myself permission to say that it's okay to do the things that I would like to do, to do the things that I'm trying to do. Which sounds like such a simple thing and yet I feel like one of the most difficult things that a person can do within a family unit, within a community or a geographic point in which the way you are is not the way to, quote unquote “be,” is to choose yourself and to choose that possibility.
But I also think, at least in my case, the first time that I chose myself in that regard, to think of myself as a queer person that is open to the possibilities of the many different ways to be, them not being better or worse than one another, all of them operating simultaneously in tandem. Once I gave myself permission to accept that and to posit that as being true within my immediate and peripheral contexts, everything changed for me. What a choice to have to make, particularly when you and your immediate surroundings don't have a litany of folks privy to that choice, for one thing, perhaps don't have the privilege of being in a situation in which you can make that choice. Half my family is Jamaican, the other half my family's from the deep South, and within my immediate family, within my extended family, I'm the only out queer person. So there wasn't really a model.
Those initial steps that you take, you can feel like a pariah, you can feel deeply ostracized for the fact of being yourself. But that shift for me, seeing that many things can just be true simultaneously, that my queerness wasn't an impediment, it opened me up to the world outside of the world that I couldn't even have imagined. I did not even know what I didn't know. That felt and feels like such a gift.
Ocean: Yeah. It teaches us to be skeptical of whatever container that people say is available to us, because those rooms or those containers were never safe. And so we naturally became skeptical, and we always have, I don't know about you, but maybe there's something about queerness that teaches me even now—everything I do, I have plan B and plan C before I do plan A.
Bryan: Yeah, yeah. I was talking to another friend who is also queer at the beginning of this pandemic and he was like, “I've been training for this” [laughs]. Being a queer person in the world is having plans, C, B, E, F and G just, like, on go. Just different ways of finding solace, different ways of finding pleasure. I don't know, I wouldn't trade it for anything.
Ocean: Yeah. For me it was learning the value and the power of “no.” Growing up as an immigrant, no was like a deathly word. We were taught to never say no, any crack of a door that opens for you, say yes, and bow profusely in gratitude for any yes you get. It took me a long time to learn how to say no to things that were not right for me in order to say yes to myself and the things that were right for me. And I think that as a concept, to use no rather than avoid it, and I think as a larger American culture, we're really terrified of no. We're terrified of even saying honestly how we feel. “How are you doing?” “Great, great, great, great.” And we get nervous when we say, “You know, I'm not okay, I'm not doing well,” or “I don't want to do that, no thank you.”
I go back to Melville's Bartleby, and that's kind of been like my growing up. And there’s all these conjectures that Melville might have been gay as well. But I'm curious that that character was like, “I prefer not to.” He spends his whole life just saying, “I'd rather not.” And it's a funny catchphrase, but I think my maturity, as now a 32-year-old queer person growing up with very little role models was to sharpen and perfect my way of saying, “I'd rather not.” And I think I do this conceptually in my work, on the line to line basis, but also on the larger schematics of a narrative arc, where a lot of it has been done by folks before me, often white men. And I think I'm interested in going into that space and saying which part of it I want to say no to, and which part of it I want to add to my repertoire.
Bryan: It is a powerful thing to utilize no, to utilize choice, to make a decision, to dwell in a space, in lieu of what in the larger visage of American contemporary literary fiction or American contemporary narrative could be viewed as progress. The ways in which no could be stepping out of the forward flow of things, the way in which that can be viewed as a negative. To see you do that, it's something that made me really reevaluate and really think through what I was interested in narratively. What kind of story would I like to tell? What kind of moments would I like to dwell in? As opposed to the sort of story that I think one could sell, or as opposed to the sort of moment that one might think could be excerpted and placed in the New Yorker. What are the concerns that you have that you are invested in, and what happens when those concerns are perhaps outside of the arc of what can be viewed as literary progress? Or arc of what could be viewed as being that capital I important text.
Bryan: I was really fortunate to see works like yours, to see works from other queer folks in our cohort, to see the ways in which one could make a home out of your personal loves and your personal preoccupations. You're being interested in that thing by way of you're finding value in it, I think it has value.
Ocean: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. And I think this is something I remind my students all the time and I say, “Let none of your choices be arbitrary.” That is the great privilege of being an artist. The root of the word poet is “maker.” So question every choice before anyone else does, and give yourself multiple answers to it so that it's not arbitrary. And I think the word that I come back to is “conviction,” because you don't have to portray that in your personhood, it's a silent thing, and it's an often invisible thing until it's enacted in the thing that you're making. What is your conviction? What are your reasons for making these decisions, so that it's not about being quote unquote “famous” or getting this or that? Let your work not be a means to something else. It might end up that way. As you and I both learned, a lot of nice things happen when you make something that people feel are valuable. But if you set out for that, you've lost yourself.
You're such a valuable thing. Being a person, being a mind is so valuable, so interesting, because a mind, I think, is as idiosyncratic as your thumbprint. And so when you start a project by saying, “Well, how do I make a thing so I can get XYZ,” you've already put yourself out the door. You let something else take over you, and we've lost you. And that's how I think of it. I tell my students, don't let us lose you before you start writing. Again, I think queerness taught me that because I looked around my communities, and I grew up in Hartford, a black and brown community, as Vietnamese immigrants. I understood very quickly that we were not privileged in the social fabric. We had the worst services, the worst grocery stores. And I immediately had to ask why, and then how do I find a way out of this? And it was through making my choices deliberate and with conviction and so that nothing is wasted, nothing is lost, towards cheapening the vision of the work. So the best education that I got as a writer happened way before I ever stepped into any writing workshop.
Bryan: It reminds me of a question that has come up a few times for Memorial on my end, this rumination of whether the world as it's depicted in the novel and the iterations of home that are depicted in the novel are truly fictional, if they exist outside of the world, or if they're of the world. Which is endlessly fascinating to me, because growing up and spending the majority of my time in a city like Houston where so many different communities, so many different folks are moving in tandem with one another—the Latinx community, the black community, the Asian and Asian American community— where out of necessity folks have found a way to make a life with one another, to have a character like Mike, a queer, Asian American, cis guy who makes a home in Houston's Third Ward, one of the country's oldest historically black neighborhoods, and to think of himself as being in a symbiotic relationship with that home, and for the neighborhood's residents to view him as product of it and to view him as having a relationship with it—if I were to see that person out in the world, I wouldn't think twice about it. Because that is the iteration of the world that I've experienced. To see those people, to see that relationship in real time in Houston, it would be deeply commonplace to me.
Ocean: Yeah. Yeah.
Bryan: And there's a way in which talking about the book, on the back end of it, there's a pressure there to view those communities, to view that world as being fantastical.
Ocean: Yeah. Yeah. But I think a lot of that has to do with the power structures in publishing. Because when I entered it, even as a poet, I realized that a lot of publishing—it's hard to make money as an agent, and so you have to have a lot of privilege. You have to be able to not have to urgently take care of refugee mothers. You have to be okay with not making a lot of money for a long time to build your client list. And so what happens through the years is these become like legacy careers. It's not an accident that it's predominantly run by white women. And in that sense, working class narratives or intersectional narratives are seen as rare, but it's only rare to the industry. It's actually more commonplace. And I taste tongue in cheek when a journalist asks me, “Oh, you have such an interesting life.” I say, actually, if you look at the history of our species, geopolitical rupture is incredibly commonplace. I would argue that living in a suburban home is quite exotic. That's a very rare thing.
Bryan: A life free of strife.
Ocean: And very new. Only about in the fifties, did the suburban sprawl with the Levittowns occur. So this is actually a very young development in our culture. But publishing has not curated that. Particularly, we look at what was valued in the seventies and eighties with the suburban novel à la Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, all these stories about suburban strife through the confessional unveiling of the American ideal. And then from there we go into the campus novel. There's so many novels about old professors, male professors having affairs.
And so we forget, because that's what's published. We forget that, oh, there are stories like Memorial that had been lived for decades before we arrived. Stories like On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous that have been enacted by human bodies for decades, even centuries. Alterity is also not just making something new, but looking in forgotten places.
Bryan: You've had two texts that have had a significant amount of back-end exposure. And as you move toward new projects, do you find yourself concerned with the themes and the space and the ground that you've covered as you move toward new space and new ground?
Ocean: Yeah. I joke to myself and I said, I've somehow miraculously wrote two books that have been well-received, and so I feel like the next one just has to suck, statistically.
Bryan: Same. I'm ready for it. I'm so ready for it.
Ocean: Statistically, it can't hold up. So part of me is preparing to go through the process of making something that will suck. But maybe that's also healthy to help me not go—
Bryan: I think it’ll be lovely.
Ocean: —go crazy about it.
Bryan: I think you’ll be quite alright.
Ocean: I think I learned that our themes and whatever we obsess over are not exhaustible because of us. I think it's very presumptuous to be a maker and say, “I can exhaust these things, I can have a final word on it that wraps it up.” A book or a project or a film, even, it feels like an arbitrary ending that the front cover and the back cover cannot possibly contain. They are not ultimate containers of the things that we wonder about. And so I think I'm interested in testing form. In other words, what else can I say about these obsessions in a different form?
And I don't know what that will take, but that's always my quest. And when I find a form and I pursue it and it doesn't surprise me anymore, I think that's when I'll stop writing. I personally don't see writing as a career. To me, it feels like seemingly singular acts. I'm a teacher for sure, that's a career for me, because I do know one thing is that I have enough knowledge doing this to be useful to students who come into a program for two or three years, and then leave. The fourth year, I might be redundant. But as long as they keep leaving.
Bryan: I feel the exact same.
Ocean: As long as they keep leaving, I can be fresh. I can do that forever. But writing, it seems like such a miracle, it truly does, to just dream of something, get all the tiny sentences right, get the clauses, the verbs, the punctuation, get the imagery and the metaphors right, it seems so miraculous that I can't actually imagine doing it forever. So I'll do it until the wonder fades, and then I'll be just an old teacher rocking in my chair.
Bryan: I feel the exact same. For me, it's the question of it, following those questions and creating more questions, and when questions no longer preoccupy me or one rumination or another feels as though I can move on from it, then I'll do something else.
Ocean: Yeah. Before we go, I wanted to make sure I asked about the adaptation.
Bryan: Yes. I will also ask—A24, please cut this if we shouldn’t say this—
Ocean: We can drop it. We can drop the news.
Bryan: I will also ask you about your adaptation—On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous.
Ocean: Yeah. I actually requested, they wanted to announce it like they usually do, but I actually requested that they didn't when—because the book wasn't out yet. I didn't want readers to feel like they were behind. I didn't want them to feel like there was this anxiety that they were behind the curve, where a film deal—it was done before the book came out. But I just asked, I said, "Can we just keep it—let the book live on its own?" And so, yeah, I'm really happy that A24's doing it.
But you're writing the adaptation. I'm interested in the choice between a TV show and a feature film. What's it like for you? What are your plans? Are you excited? Are you nervous? But particularly form. I'm always interested, what was it about the TV form, and is it a miniseries as opposed to a running series? What made that decision come to fruition?
Bryan: The plan is for it to be a limited series. The plan is for it to be in the vicinity of 10 episodes. We are well into the process of writing, as far as creating the architecture of the series and an architecture that is of the book, but one that is autonomous, simultaneously. And what's been a joy for me is having this world that I get to spend a little bit more time in, and seeing which corners within that road, which creases within it, can be lingered upon from a different angle, what needs to be altered to fit this form.
The notion of it being a series was, I suppose, my primary impulse, because my film agent and I, we talked about it, like, what would this look like as a film? What would it look like as a series? And I spent much of January through May or so reading the scripts of films that I’ve so adored, reading the scripts of episodes from series that I so enjoyed, and the length that you can be allowed within a limited series, the lack of an obligation to speed through a narrative is one that I was and am deeply attracted to.
I was really fortunate. The auction process itself took place over the course of a handful of months. We had between 10 and 15 different entities that were really interested. And I feel like so many of those folks could have made a good show, but what I felt with A24, with the Rudin team is that we were so closely aligned in creating a show that we ourselves would want to watch. And that is such a palpable feeling, that there's very little for me, it feels, to be nervous about. At least on my end, it feels like the challenge of it isn't actually doing the thing, to work with a team that gives you the space, that says, "We are all on tandem, working within our roles to create a beautiful thing." To know that from the outset, and to feel that their and our conception of what constitutes beauty can be so vast within this particular world, of this particular story.
The challenge of it is to actually do the thing. I think that's partly why I was insistent that I be able to write it. And it just feels like a massive gift to get to spend time in that world a little bit longer. But where I feel like this is significantly different from the process of writing the novel is that I may be writing it, but it is a deeply collaborative effort, and the collaboration of it with folks that are so like-minded, as far as what we're working toward only feels like a boon within that process.
And so changes are made, and so a conversation or a timeline has shifted. A character is seen in one place in the novel, they're seen in another place onscreen. And it doesn't feel like a challenge, it doesn't feel like a conflict because we're working toward this larger goal of creating something that we ourselves collectively would enjoy. And it feels like a really lovely thing to get to spend time in that space while simultaneously having my own space within a novel or within another project where I can be a bit more tyrannical as far as saying, like, "This is the sort of thing that I'd like to do, or this is the sort of moment that I would like to dwell on for five, six, seven pages." Whereas in this television space, it's how can we all work together to posit an iteration of this world, of these characters, of their concerns, of their relationships in such a way that someone can sit down, view it without having spent half of a half of a second on the novel, and be immersed and see a world within that particular world. I mean, A24, they do that with so many of their projects, that it just feels like a really big gift to get to work with them. To what extent will you be involved with the visual iteration, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous?
Ocean: Likewise, I felt like when I was talking to Scott and Eli, it was like talking to writers and readers first. When it comes to literature, they really held their ground in their field of knowledge. And I loved the work they'd done, and they read well. They're good readers. And I think that's very important that they've embodied the book at its core. So I was really impressed, and I felt safe, which is very important for writers when we think about "Hollywood" quote unquote. But it didn't feel like that mythos was present. It was about an earnest attempt to make an interpretation that expanded and enriched the book, but stood as a separate entity.
Ocean: Almost like an ekphrastic poem, when we look at a piece of art and we write a poem out of it. That concept was very familiar to me as a poet. And I think I love the idea of having someone else kind of render it, in a way, because my job is done. And so I'm deeply involved as a consultant. And I work with the wonderful director, Bing Liu, who's writing it.
Bryan: Oh, wow, yeah.
Ocean: And I mean, Bing is a genius in himself. That was the beauty of it, which is like, "Okay, I wrote the book, but what if five of us wrote the book? What would that look like?" That sort of invitation to play. To play and to bring Bing's larger, expansive political gaze behind the camera was really exciting to me. So it's really great also because we just talk almost every three, four weeks, we just talk about our lives and our theories on narrative art and our politics. And it's been really incredible. I love that aspect of it, but I also really love learning a new form.
I think before I wrote a novel, I wrote probably 200 pages of short stories to practice, many of which I'll never publish. It was just like a laboratory. And I felt comfortable coming into a novel with being in like a training ground with these stories. I really have curiosities, ambitions to write scripts later on, but right now I'm studying them. I'm learning. And it's been really rewarding to see how adaptations transform literary moments into the flesh and articulation of a self. And how acting—you also surrender so much agency. A word can actually be very flat in a script, but the actor's articulation of it transforms something that you would kind of blow by into a profound centerfold on the screen. And so that play between control and restraint and release is something I'm really interested in. So one day I'll work my way towards it, but I always want to know it all. Not all, but I want to know a lot about it before I jump in.
And so, it's been really nice to kind of snoop, almost be like a trespasser, a straggler into this world and pay attention. I think of Joan Didion often in my writing, and she says the reason why she became such a great observer was that she was so small that she could go into an elevator and no one would see her. She saw the way everything worked. And I feel like that's kind of how I like to live in a new space, is just observe.
But it's so exciting. It's so brilliant. You'll have to tell me how things go as you go about it. But I have no doubt that it's going to be incredibly gorgeous, and it's a perfect novel to be rendered in film, but also in a series. It's very episodic and I can feel it building up towards these huge gestures, and the texture of Houston as well. I'm really, really happy that it happened, and it couldn't happen with a better group of people.
Bryan: It really couldn't. I feel so fortunate to get to work with them and to see the project through. And that's not solely because we're on their podcast. It's not bullshit.
Bryan: They do such great work.
Ocean: And it's going to be good merch.
Bryan: Yeah, yeah, the sweaters, the hats. Honestly, like that's the reason.
Ocean: You know the merch's going to be fire.
Bryan: It's going to be fucking crazy.
Ocean: I feel blessed to find kinship in what you're doing, and I'm really happy that we're kind of like babies in this world of literature making. And I'm really excited to have a friend and a brother that I can continue to grow old and write with, and kind of wink at each other from across various rooms, digitally or otherwise, as we continue to make work.