Justin Torres

Interviewed by David Naimon

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When a new voice arrives on the scene you just know it. Even if at first you don’t know what makes it so. The thrill of discovery begins with the disorientation of the unexpected—the rules unclear, the syntax a cipher, the usual tropes nowhere to orient you. The most elastic of forms—the novel—is tugged at, stretched, twisted and twirled, reshaping itself to the voice of an author who ignores its conventions. Or in the case of Justin Torres, it is compressed, purified, and polished. Coming in at a lean 125 pages, with snap-shot chapters often a mere handful of pages long, Torres’ debut novel, We The Animals, is the product of many years of distillation.

Yet while Torres may appear to have arrived pre-formed and polished himself, impressive pedigree in tow—a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, a graduate of the Iowa writer’s workshop, stories in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Granta—his path to becoming a writer was anything but simple. Growing up in poverty in upstate New York, a gay Puerto Rican in an otherwise white town, he bounced from random job to random job—a dog walker in the West Village, a laundry folder in San Francisco, a farm hand in Virginia, a “shot-boy” in a gay bar in Texas—until a friend invited him to tag along to a writing workshop. There the teacher not only encouraged Torres but allowed him to continue coming for free.

And thankfully he did. Torres has revivified the coming-of-age novel, breathing new life into a well—worn form. Stripping away exposition and back-story, he finds the heat—the love and the savagery—of each well-chosen scene. Scenes of a family where the three boys run wild, the parents are mere children themselves, and the youngest child harbors and struggles with a secret.

I met Justin at the studios of KBOO 90.7 FM in Portland, Oregon in the midst of his twenty city book tour.

 

David Naimon: Let’s start with your style. It’s often described as compressed like a jewel. Is that how you see it? Is We The  Animals something you’ve polished, and honed, and concentrated  over a long period of time?

Justin Torres: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a tiny, slim, little book. But it took me five or six years to write. I’m really attracted to concise and precise language. And I work really, really slowly. I take my time, decisive about each word. So, yeah, it really has been compressed and stripped of any extra words and unnecessary images.

DN: Did you always know it would be a short book full of short, punchy chapters?

JT: When I started writing I didn’t have an idea that I was writing a novel. That wasn’t my conception. I was just…writing (laughs), trying to get to the heat, get to the moment. And so I had these fragments and they were all punchy and short. When I started to think about
“oh, is this going to be a book?” I realized that it would have to be a short book because the repetition of the structure, the episodic nature, wouldn’t sustain itself over 400 pages. It would get redundant. The entire structure of the book needed to mirror the structure of each chapter which comes hard and fast and then is done.

DN: Sometimes your prose has an incantatory quality, like you’re reading a prose poem. Did you aim for that rhythmic, lyrical quality when you were writing?

JT: You know, I did. When I started I didn’t have firm distinctions between poetry, memoir, nonfiction, and fiction. I was just writing. I felt free to make things up. I felt free to be extremely poetic and lyrical and I felt free to borrow from my own life as well. And so it all kind of combined.

And for the first chapter itself, I was waiting for the train on the subway and I didn’t have anything to write [things] down [with] because I’m a bad author like that (laughs). So I had to memorize it. I forced myself because it was coming to me and I was like “argghhh.” So it is particularly incantatory, particularly like a chant. But it worked. So now when I write I try to memorize as much as possible before I sit down to type it out. Because if it’s sticking in my mind, then there must be something right on the level of sound and rhythm.

DN: The parents loom really large in this book yet at the same time the kids aren’t really being parented. Literally the mother is working at night and sleeping during the day when the kids are up. Tell us more about this world the reader is entering.

JT: Ma and Paps are definitely ill-prepared for this endeavor of raising children. They’re teenagers. She’s fourteen, he’s sixteen when they start having children. And they have to work hard to put food
on the table. Especially Paps, he’s a very young man and he’s violently
passionate. And Ma is working night shifts and is a little bit  disoriented and overwhelmed by all she is trying to take care of. So the children grow up with a certain absence for sure. They’re allowed to run wild, maybe a little more than most boys.

DN: Even though there is incredible neglect and a lot of violence in We The Animals, there are also these unexpected moments of great love, tenderness, passion, sensuality and sexuality in the book. But it feels like the brothers have no clue what they’re going to get from one moment to the next. It shows the absence of an  over‐arching parental guidance even though you get the sense the parents really love their kids.

JT: It was important for me to accomplish two things. One was to make sure there were no villains and no victims. To show that although the parents are flawed, terms like “dysfunctional” and “abusive” are not relevant. They’re too simple. I wanted to show that it is actually really complicated. Families like this love each other fiercely even as they are failing each other. Another thing I wanted to get at was the perspective of childhood where you don’t know what is coming next. Kind of widep-eyed and open to it all. And I think the boys in this book are always  looking for love. Sometimes, even when they are getting hit, they can transform it into an act of caring. The father at one point throws the narrator into the lake in order to teach him how to swim. And when he surfaces they are worried about him, and that worry and concern is what is meaningful to him, not that he has been thrown into the lake, but that he knows that his parents want him to survive and thrive.

DN: You have a story that just came out in the New Yorker, “Reverting To A Wild State,” that I just loved. I noticed that there’s a similar tension, a different emphasis but a similar tension between domesticity and unfettered freedom. Obviously the title
of your book suggests that, We The Animals. The kids seem to
thrive in this sense of freedom but also seem angry that they aren’t being domesticated, parented. What is your fascination about this tension?

JT: That’s a really, really great question. The title of that New Yorker story, “Reverting To A Wild State,” is just the dictionary definition of feral. And I think, to a certain extent, it’s applicable to the book as well. Without a certain amount of guidance and structure you do start to revert to an instinctual way of being. I think that’s fascinating because there is something so beautiful about the free-­fall of freedom. There’s something that’s so magical and wondrous about living unfettered by strict moral, ethical and cultural codes. So, yeah, I’m fascinated by that tension between that careful, caring, domesticated love and a kind of absolute freedom.

DN: You make an interesting choice as an author that reinforces that feeling. That’s the use of the first-person plural. You are always using “we” which gives the effect that the brothers almost have one mind, creating the sense of a pack, a group of animals that are thinking together.

JT: Absolutely. The first chapter is one of the first chapters that came to me and I had this “we,” and I was like, “what do you do with that? How do you incorporate that into a book? Do I want to write first-person plural forever?” So, I thought a lot about that. And one of the reasons the narrator goes unnamed is because I wanted the focus to be on when is his name “we” and when is his name “I.” When is he feeling included and part of this pack mentality, when is he able to understand and communicate with his brothers, and really feel like one of them, and then when is he feeling separate and outside the family. And a lot of that has to do with his queer sensibility. Obviously it isn’t articulated as such in the book because a child doesn’t think like that. But that certain squeamishness towards the violence and machismo in the family is what’s separating him.

DN: Throughout We The Animals we don’t see anyone significant other than the parents and the children. It’s almost like a hermetic bubble. It lends to that sense of concentration, a sense of everything being intensified because there is no outside world. Is that something you consciously set out to create or something that happened by accident on the page?

JT: No, I was definitely very conscious of it. I wanted to get a claustrophobic sense to heighten the sense of tragedy. I was thinking that this family, which is very similar to my own family in certain ways, is very different than my family because I was making myth out of it. The characters are almost simplified. As much as they are complex, their essential forms are what’s shown. And like myth, the rest of the world is just out there on the fringes but these characters and the way that they are essential is all that matters, and they are trapped in their dynamic. Kind of like in mythology, Zeus is always Zeus. When he enters the scene you know that he’s not going to be complicated and be like “should I do this? Or do that?” He’s decisive. He throws a thunderbolt. He steals your wife. That’s what he does. In that way, Paps is always Paps. Ma is always Ma. I wanted to strip away the proper nouns. There is not an exact geographic location. It’s just hinted at. I wanted to strip away as much of that, and make it as universal as possible.

DN: I usually don’t ask fiction writers “is this autobiographical?” But you invite the question, both with the way you write this, and in interviews that I’ve read. It seems like it is the material that you use and I’m curious how that process works for you and what’s the
impetus behind it.

JT: I didn’t go into it with this strong classification, fiction here, non-fiction there. The book is wholly fiction. And my family, which I’m very protective of, are very different than the people in the book. But, at the same time, I feel free to borrow from my personal experience. I don’t feel like it is something that needs to be hidden or that one should be ashamed of. Just because you are borrowing from it doesn’t mean that it’s you. People wonder if I feel exposed, if I feel like I’m exposing people, and I’m like, I just don’t’ see the difference between anybody who sits down and creates art. It is artifice. It’s using language and imagery to make something beautiful and express a message. And no matter how much you try to stick to the facts you are still crafting something. So there’s no point in me burying that family dynamic.

DN: But isn’t that the paradox, that in creating artifice, creating a lie essentially, sometimes you get at a deeper truth? You mention in an interview that your brothers said “oh yeah, I remember that incident from the book,” but that incident that they remembered didn’t actually happen in real life. So I’m guessing that something about that fictional incident tapped into a truth that they were relating to.

JT: I think so. I think you can get at an emotional truth in fiction because you are simplifying. Because you are organizing all the material to point in this one direction, you can get there. And you can fool people. A lot of people assume that everything in the book happened. And it’s not true at all. I don’t want to disappoint people who read it that way but it’s made up. Memory is so so slippery and I have a murky memory of my own childhood. I really can’t remember much. I have a pretty terrible memory in general. So I wanted to look at the way memory works in the book. There are certain moments that bubble up and rise to the surface.

DN: Do you have any sense of fiction having an advantage in this regard over memoir?

JT: I think this is one of those distinctions that seem silly to me. I wish that we could call things “literature.” I wish that we could call books books. That it didn’t have to say “a novel” on the cover, or “a memoir,” or whatever. Because really it’s an advantage that fiction has over memoir, but also memoir really seems like fiction to me. It’s invented. There’s just no way to get around that essential fact. There’s reporting and journalism on the one hand that is really aiming for a certain kind of objectivity, although of course it never gets there. But with memoir, it’s so far in the subjective, that, I don’t know, it’s fiction! (laughs)

DN: So, when you read We The Animals, you feel like you are in the voice of these three brothers but at times you feel like you are really in the voice of the youngest brother who seems more tentative, less savage, more questioning, and more fragile. Is that the character you most see yourself in? Was that your entry point into the story?

JT: I definitely wanted the narrator to be queer. But as much as I used my own personal experience I don’t see myself in the book. I borrow a lot to invent this character but then the character is just that. But I definitely wanted him to be more tentative, soft, slightly more effeminate, and to be separate from the family. Then as he moves into adolescence he gets a questioning, skeptical, even negative view of his family which I think is a fault on his part. In the end of the book there’s a lot of betrayal but I wanted it to be obvious that everyone was culpable. It wasn’t just a family treating one child badly. He was judging them, he was pulling away from them as well.

DN: There’s definitely a way in which this book is really a book about boys and men. As we said earlier the mother is literally asleep through much of the book. Tell us more about that.

JT: I have a lot of opinions about manhood, gender, about gender roles, and they are in this book. There is something beautiful and vibrant and bold about the machismo in this book. But then there is also something slightly misogynist as well, that as a child, while I  didn’t have these terms, did kind of frighten me. And I think the narrator of this book has a similar reaction. Eventually that hatred of the feminine, especially when you have a queer person in your life, can become especially explosive. But I wanted to flip that and throw it on its head and show that the brothers and the father in this book are still able to act with a certain amount of grace and tenderness and kindness, that it is really complicated.

DN: You did a segment on NPR’s “You Must Read This,” about Dreamboy. Did that book influence the writing of We The Animals at all?

JT: I read Dreamboy after I wrote We The Animals. I read Jim Grimsley’s Winter Birds awhile ago and his writing style, his attitude and approach towards the world and towards writing is definitely influential. So I didn’t get to Dreamboy until after this book. I wish I had.

DN: Are there any other writers you look to for inspiration?

JT: [For] inspiration on a bold level, there are people like Dorothy Allison, and James Baldwin, who as active people in the world, as speakers and as writers are incredible. But stylistically for this
book I looked to people like Grace Paley, Stuart Dybek, Tillie Olsen, people who were writing concise and precise little snapshots, episodic moments, doing stuff with structure and language that is similar to what I’m trying to achieve.

DN: The lack of exposition and back story in We The Animals brings out that snapshot quality. It ‘s all in scene. We jump into the scene and jump out of the scene every couple pages.

JT: I wanted it to be as immediate as possible. Back story and exposition are tricks of the adult mind. That’s what we do as adults to make narrative of our experience. I don’t think children are making that similar narrative. We learn to make connections between motivations and actions as we age. But those connections are much more wondrous and odd to children. Your life is so much more immediate and in the moment. I wanted to try to mimic that.

It’s tricky because at the end of the book there is a time jump and it moves into adolescence. And that section of the book reads differently. There is more narrative. There is more exposition
because now he is making up a story about his family, he’s judging them. He’s bringing the adult mind to bear. Some people resist that jump at the end but I think it was the right move.

DN: So, Justin, are you working on anything right now?

JT: I’m working on the next book. The story in the New Yorker will probably be the basis, and there was another one in Harper’s recently. I’m working on some others and they will hopefully congeal themselves into a novel similar to this one.

DN: Similar in the sense that it will be vignettes strung together like a string of pearls?

JT: I don’t know yet. I’m definitely obsessed with structure. I’m not a conventional novelist at all. It won’t be 400 pages capturing the American experience, a forward moving chronology that’s perfectly clear. I’m not going to do that but I don’t know yet what it will be.


 

About the Interviewer: David Naimon is a writer, physician, acupuncturist, and radio host of the literary program Between the Covers in Portland, Oregon.  A 2009 Tin House Summer Writers Workshop fellow,  his fiction and nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Missouri Review, StoryQuarterly, and ZYZZYVA, among others.  In 2012, he received the Oregon Regional Arts and Culture Council project grant for a novel he is co-authoring with author Ben Parzybok.