READ ABOUT FORMER NEW YORK STATE COMMISSIONER OF EDUCATION TOM SOBOL’S NEW MEMOIR
Justin Torres Borrows From His Life, But Creates Fiction (From The Wall Street Journal)
Though his new novel, “We the Animals,” is based on some events from his life, Justin Torres says the book was largely imagined and that the characters are just that – characters.
“I’m very protective of my family,” he told Speakeasy in a recent interview. “My family are very different than the characters in this book. I have a wonderful relationship with my mother, she’s an amazing human. My brothers, they’re not the boys in this book.”
The novel tells the story of the youngest son of a mixed-race couple and his struggles as a son, brother and individual. There are details that seem borrowed from Torres’s own life, such as the setting where the narrator grows up and the family make-up. But vivid scenes such as the chapter, “Heritage,” in which the boys’ father shouts dance moves for them to do to the beat of mambo, at the same time revealing their complicated heritage, are “too poetic” to be real, Torres said.
“We’re all adults now, and I don’t want this to be an invasive experience for them,” he said, reflecting on the book’s publication. “I think people understand I’m writing fiction.”
Torres’s mother, a guidance counselor in San Francisco, is “his biggest fan,” and supportive of his writing. She cried when she read the book, and found that the novel reminded her of the joy and laughter that is mixed in with everything else in her busy life.
Torres’s two brothers live in Oakland and New York, though he is less close with them. (Torres is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.)
“We don’t talk that often,” Torres said of his brothers and his father. “We respect each other deeply and I think we support each other in our thoughts. But our family kind of scattered. We all haven’t quite made our way back to each other fully.”
Justin Torres, the author of We the Animals, is 31, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a Wallace Stegner Fellow, a former dog walker, and a former employee of Manhattan’s much-loved indie bookstore, McNally Jackson. Basically, the man was bred for literary royalty.
In Torres’ novella-length debut, a family of five—Ma, a white woman from Brooklyn, Paps, a Puerto Rican, also from Brooklyn, and their trio of sons—scamper and wrestle through life digging trenches, barking at strangers, playing merciless games, testing one another ruthlessly, while loving each other relentlessly. We the Animals is a herculean-powerful story about a family. It’s a coming-of-age story, it’s a chaotic story, it’s a loving story, and it’s a story that continues to haunt me. If the book were a montage, it would intro frame on skinny, caramel feet dangling from chairs, cut to an aerial shot of mambo dancing in a suburban kitchen, jump to an intimate shower scene, fade to a lonesome pre-adolescent son dancing in a movie theater, flashback to a family in a big-dick truck, zoom in on empty beer bottles, and frame-freeze on the youngest, pack-oriented brother.
It would have been lovely to write an all-praising review for this book, as many others will do, but I would have failed. The problem would have been accuracy. Especially after I enjoyed it so much and have considered it, I’ll admit, way more than I should. Instead I wrote Torres, clumsily. It went something along the lines of: “I continue to read your novel out loud to anybody who will listen—friends, you know who you are—and retell, retell, retell the unforgettable descriptions from the book. Could I, maybe, possibly, interview you?”
I had so many questions. Many of which, truth be told, I did not ask. So, on July 8th, I sat on my gratis IKEA-red couch in my Brooklyn apartment, waiting for him to log on. At 2 pm, sharp, g-chat notified me that “Justin is typing…”
Sara Ortiz: Let’s start with the 2011 BEA Editor’s Buzz Panel, where We the Animals was one of six featured books. How did you learn about the Buzz Panel’s pick?
Justin Torres: I found out from my publicist. The entire house was wildly excited. I’d never heard of the “Buzz Panel” or been to BEA, and I hadn’t known they’d put me up for it—so it was all a bit confusing for a minute. But then they explained they’d fly me out and put me up, and knew it must be a big deal, because everyone was just so excited. I did some internet research and found out that some really great books had been up the prior year, Ben Hale’s, Bruno Littlemore, and Emma Donnaghue’s Room…
SO: Are you affected by other people’s appraisals of your work?
JT: Ha! That’s such a difficult question to answer. To say no might give the impression that I am more confident and self-satisfied than I am. But to say ‘yes,’ would be a lie. I mean, hmm, I try to have thick skin. I try and make sure that I can stand behind every word before those words make it out into the world.
And when people say positive things, yes, I am just tickled to death. I love to hear it. I could hear it all day. But it doesn’t affect what I will write the next time. With negative comments maybe it’s different. I don’t mind hearing them, they’re thought provoking, and maybe they make me want to be better next time.
SO: What do you think might make people resistant to your work (your novel, in this case)?
JT: I remember, at Iowa, hearing third-hand someone’s negative appraisal of my work—this from a very confident, straight, white guy. He hadn’t read the entire novel, but a few chapters. He said it was provincial, and that I was afraid of writing about the larger world, the big ideas. He also talked a lot about my being a “minority” and “minority literature”… or so I heard.
SO: What was your response?
JT: If he had actually raised these issues to my face, I would have said something along the lines of…I don’t think we need to travel very far outside our own experience to find “big ideas” at play in the world. I mean, I love a lot of broad, inventive books. But I love small books as well. I’m not threatened by “majority” literature; I’m not threatened by literature that purports to address the big questions, or take a broad view of the world, and I’d be curious as to whether, and why, he felt threatened by what I was doing.
But he didn’t like me, and we had never had a class together, and we never got to have that conversation.
SO: Right. Would you call your book esoteric?
JT: Not at all. What’s more universal than family?
SO: Will you talk a bit about the novel’s length? Did you think it would be longer?
JT: The length is in inverse proportion to the effort. It took me years to write.
SO: Two years? Three? Three and a half?
JT: Five or six! But I should say, that in the beginning, I had no intention, or idea, that I was writing a novel. I wrote for myself mostly, and I was figuring out how to write. And I was working. So I wrote sporadically, when I could find a moment. It wasn’t until I got to Iowa that I had time to just focus and admit I was writing a book, and at that point I had to figure out a structure and rewrite everything. But I always knew that the book would be comprised of very short chapters. And that the book itself would be short.
I write so slowly! Word by word. Sentence by sentence. I don’t produce a lot of drafts…I revise, obsessively, as I’m moving forward. It takes forever.
SO: I strongly identified with the family of five, having been a sibling of three. The characters felt real. How much of the novel is autobiographical?
JT: Three is such a dramatic arrangement, isn’t it?
JT: It’s mathematically impossible not to have drama with three—because it’s just so easy to switch allegiance and out-number or be out-numbered.
So the hard facts mirror my own biography. I have two older brothers, my mother worked in a brewery, my folks are from Brooklyn, but the incidents are all fiction. These are very much characters, and what they do and say to each other are products of my imagination. It’s a difficult thing to describe. People always ask me why I didn’t write memoir, but I think that fiction frees you to get at emotional truth, because you’re not bogged down in fact-checking. Also, I think the characters I invented, who are so different from my real life family members, are more interesting–no, interesting in a different way—than my own kin.
SO: Is your mom white and is your dad Puerto Rican?
JT: My mother is from Italian and Irish descent and my father’s parents were born in Puerto Rico. Yes.
SO: In the chapter titled “Heritage,” while the three brothers are dancing in the kitchen, the father shouts at them: “You ain’t white and you ain’t Puerto Rican. Watch how a purebred dances, watch how we dance in the ghetto.”
It’s clear the kids don’t fit in either category. Did this resonate with you growing up?
JT: I grew up in a very, very white town. A small town in central New York. We certainly stuck out on our block. Our parents were so young, so Brooklyn, and our father was so Puerto Rican, I mean, the only Puerto Rican for probably a thirty-mile radius. So everything in the book resonates with me on a personal level, yes. I think I wrote that scene, because there is a certain lose-lose attitude towards being mixed race. You ain’t this, you ain’t that. And I wanted to express that, but also, that’s a pretty joyous scene as well. I think that there is a bounty to being able to dip into this or that the other category. I’m no longer the class I was growing up, I no longer claim the sexuality I was expected and raised to have, but I feel like I have access to all of it, to so many worlds, at the same time I feel like I don’t belong.
SO: Were you a big reader as a child?
JT: I was a big reader as a child. I possessed an incredible ability to focus on the words in front of me and completely tune out everything happening around me. This skill served me well in many, many situations. The funny thing is, I can’t turn it off. I still just lose myself completely in books, and my poor man will try and try to talk to me, but I just don’t hear him. Sometimes he’ll come over and put his hand or face between me and the book, but mostly he just gives up.
SO: Ha. I love that. (Also, “poor man?”)
JT: (Hehe…I hate the word partner! So I always say, my man).
SO: So, what are you working on now?
JT: I’m working on the next book! It is impossibly slow moving, as I’ve said. But I’ve written a couple of stories in the past year, one is going to be in Harper’s in the fall, and the other in The New Yorker, this summer, which is great, because I was starting to worry this book was a fluke, and no one would be interested in other things I had to write.
Okay, the remaining questions are quick ones: New York or San Francisco?
JT: New York
SO: Twitter or Facebook?
JT: I do have a Facebook though, not a Twitter.
SO: Reading tablet or book?
JT: Book! (But any way folks like to read, is fine with me, as long as they’re reading.)
SO: Computer or longhand?
SO: Jennifer Egan or Jonathan Franzen?
– Justin Torres was raised in upstate New York. His work has appeared in Granta, Tin House, and Glimmer Train. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was the recipient of a Rolón Fellowship in Literature from United States Artists and is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford. Among many other things, he has worked as a farmhand, a dog walker, a creative writing teacher, and a bookseller.
THIS WEEK IN FICTION: JUSTIN TORRES
Everything I write has autobiographical elements. Even minor characters like Freddy, the doorman, or the farmer at the end of the story, began as composites of men I have known. A lot of writers, even writers I respect and admire, look down at this, or at least my admitting it. They ask, why write fiction if you want to write about yourself? But something magical happens as you filter personal experience through imagination and language: the composites become characters, and the scraps of lived experience morph, and what you end up with is wholly transformed. Frida Kahlo referred to herself as the great concealer—you could say she wasn’t painting herself, she was painting a series of masks.
This is a long answer to a short question; yes, I thought I knew everything about the two main characters when I started writing this story, but they turned out to be very different than the men I had in mind.
The first scene in the story (which is the last, chronologically) takes place in a sterile Manhattan high-rise. The last scene (which is actually the first) is in a wild, lush, prelapsarian setting. How explicitly were you trying to mirror in setting what the characters’ moral arc seemed to be? And did you worry about going too far?
It’s funny because I was considering it from the opposite direction—how explicitly do we align our interior lives with the setting around us? I watched a documentary about the naturalist John Muir last night and he was quoted as saying, “Civilization chokes the soul of man.” I’m not sure I agree with that, but I do think that it is easier to conceive of oneself as uncorrupted and good in an Edenic setting. Maybe the soul does breathe a little easier. I think place had a lot to do with these boys being able to come together, and I think place had a lot to with their unraveling, years later.
Many of your stories are quite short, by contemporary standards. Your first novel, “We the Animals” comes out in a little over a month. How jarring was it to write long?
Well, the novel itself is also quite short, by contemporary standards, and it’s comprised of a series of very short chapters. Each chapter, to use your phrasing, is a “snapshot in time” in the life of one family. So I wouldn’t really say I wrote long. I write incredibly slowly, and I am always drawn to concentrated, compressed, emblematic moments. I haven’t yet felt compelled to do otherwise, perhaps one day I will. Right now, I enjoy paring down; I enjoy restraint.
What are the favorite things you’ve been reading and listening to this summer?
I’m spending a month in a very remote area of Alaska. The day after I arrived, I fell on my face, out on the glacier. I spent the last week in bed, recuperating, and I read three books: Louise Erdich’s “Shadow Tag,” Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisted,” and Nella Larsen’s “Passing” (I’m on a kick about authenticity, representation, and autobiographical elements in art and fiction). Maybe it was the minor concussion, or maybe my favorite book is always the latest I’ve read, but each of these books just blew me away.
As for music, I’ve been listening almost exclusively to a band called My Gay Banjo; in the country, the banjo and the acoustic duet thing just feel right.
REVERTING TO A WILD STATE
by Justin TorresAUGUST 1, 2011
I spotted a golden feather on the edge of the concrete platform, waiting for me, while I was waiting for the train. I thought of a joke, about rats devouring an entire golden pigeon—but there was no one around to share the joke with. A bum slept expertly on a too small bench, a woman pulled herself inward and stood far away, watching her toes, and a very young man gave me a very rough look. I picked up the feather, which was on a thin gold chain, but I stayed squatted, close to the edge, leaning my head into the danger zone. I could see all the way to the next station, where the train idled, its headlights like tiger eyes in the tunnel-jungle. I waited there, poised, fascinated, as the train approached and the eyes widened. When I finally stood, the woman and the young man were staring baldly. We were all connected, all relieved that I had not jumped. I dangled my feather for them on its chain, as if to explain myself—all of this in just a blink of a moment—then the train roared its arrival, doors opened, and we stepped into separate cars. It was late, past midnight, and I was headed uptown to clean for a man.
He lived in the penthouse suite of a building overlooking Central Park. There was a doorman whom I had to tell my name and the name of the man I was there to see. I used a made-up name for myself, Salvatore. The doorman introduced himself as Freddy and gave me a wink. He was a light-skinned black man, likely in his fifties.
“Puerto Rican,” I said, pushing my hands into my back pockets and puffing out my chest.
“Yeah,” Freddy said, grinning. “Course you are.”
On my way to the elevator, Freddy called me back. I stood before him and Freddy made a motion to suggest that I come even closer, as what he had to say was only for me to hear, though we were alone in the lobby.
“You line up all the skinny little brown boys I seen pass through this door, headed exactly where you’re headed”—Freddy leaned toward me—“you line them up and you know what you’d have?”
“What do you think you’d have?”
I let my gaze crawl down to Freddy’s crotch, over his little desk, his crumpled sports-car magazine, then slowly back up to his creased face, his smug, mischievous eyes. I looked at him patiently and deliberately.
“You’d have the army of a Third World country,” Freddy said, and broke into squawks of laughter.
When I got to the apartment, the man instructed me to keep my underwear on. The apartment was open and very modern—sixteen-foot ceilings and one wall somehow made entirely of glass.
I moved along the window-wall, polishing with ammonia and newspaper. I liked my reflection in the nighttime glass, the way my body was almost translucent, its outline and features only hinted at, and the way the city lights and the black-green hole of the Park were contained within, and spilling out of, me. The reflection of my white cotton underwear neared opacity, realness, and the gold chain with the gold feather glimmered. The man passed comment on all the usual parts of my body, but the unusual as well—my calves, the notch at the top of my spine. To comment is not necessarily to compliment, we were both aware.
I did not look at him. I looked at me in the window: half disappeared, slim, and young. If you don’t pretend at vanity, the men feel dissatisfied. Look at my smooth skin, look at my young face, look at my golden feather!
And then something else, conviction, took over; I am a very good pretender. So, more than anything, I want to say this: in that moment I was happy.
“Explain, explain,” Nigel demanded, but he did not want me to explain anything. I had become a monster to him, and he needed me to stay a monster. I kept silent, slowly spinning a sugar packet on the table with the tip of my finger. The waitress gave us a wide berth—Nigel was weeping openly—but I wished she would come and refill my empty cup. I listened to Nigel; I watched him cry; I rummaged around inside myself and tried to find a memory, a hurt, that would enable me to cry as well. I’d been a dick, dicked around, throughout the long near-decade of our relationship, countless men, often, though not always, for money. In penance, I wanted to cry for him now. I rummaged and rummaged, but I was dry.
“Explain!” Nigel demanded. He smacked the table. A grown man, blubbering like he was, and that pink thrift-store oxford with the elbows patched, and his foppish hair—we looked very gay, and a little pathetic. I could perceive us through the eyes of the round family in the neighboring booth; I could hear the thoughts of the single men, eating alone at the counter, their hunched slabs of backs to us; and the waitress, of course—I had her number—was never going to bring that pot of coffee around again. We looked ridiculous, and Nigel looked especially ridiculous. I should have been able to shut off that judgment, that concern for appearances. I should have focussed on Nigel, only Nigel, and felt something.
“Come on,” I said. I slipped twenty dollars out of my pocket and made sure to catch the waitress’s eye as I laid it near the edge of the table—twenty dollars for two cups of coffee and being gay in an all-night working-class diner in South Brooklyn.
“Explain, explain,” Nigel whined.
I stood and lifted his ratty old peacoat from the peg. “Put this on. Wipe your eyes. We’re leaving. Here—napkin. Blow your nose.”
I handed Nigel his scarf, which he had knitted himself, poorly. How proud he was of its garish colors and its holes and dropped stitches, the inelegance of it all. I had watched him from bed, many nights, knitting in the lamplight and playing records with our little fat, deaf cat on his lap, and I had thought him beautiful, soft, cozy; at the same time, there was the dust and the clutter and the cat hair, and always the same records, scratched in the same places, and I would ponder what made him so soft, and what he was so afraid of.
“Explain. I need you to explain, you asshole.”
“Get up. Come on. Enough. I’ll walk you home.”
There was such a wind, such an icy wind wriggling into every buttonhole, and I had no hat. I was glad for the wind; everyone walked face down, the crowns of their heads fully forward, hands tucked into armpits. No one looked at anyone else, or had to be looked at. But I let that wind push and bite into my face, and I looked at the men—even then, I looked at all the men.
Our shabby little apartment was now his. He did not want to let me up, but I told him it was too cold to try to explain anything out on the sidewalk.
“Is that a joke? Is this a trick?” Nigel asked. “Trickster, trickster. Am I a trick?”
He pushed the key into first one lock, then the next. He trembled. I did not want to have sex with him, but I knew that he needed me to want to.
Inside, the cat pushed against our legs.
“She missed you,” Nigel said. I thought to pick her up, but I was wearing a long black wool coat and our cat was very white. I took Nigel’s hand and led him toward the bedroom.
“No,” he said. “Not anywhere it ever was. Here.” He opened up the bathroom door and pulled the light bulb’s chain. “On the floor.”
I needed only to glance at the hexagons of white tile to feel a deep, hard coldness in my bones, yet I stripped, dutiful, diligent, and laid my bare back against the floor, and waited. Nigel came back with a condom; we had never used one, not once.
“Where the hell did you get that?”
“No, seriously, did you buy that? Already? Already you bought that?”
“Put it on.”
I did. We proceeded. Underneath me, the floor grew somehow colder and harder. As we gathered speed, Nigel put his hands on my shoulders and lifted me, I thought, for a kiss—we had not yet kissed—but instead he slammed my shoulders back down, and my skull met the floor in a blinding, white-noise kind of way. It took a few moments to realize that I was curled on my side, cradling my head, eyes closed. I opened my eyes; Nigel was standing in the bedroom doorway, watching me. He looked unwell—shell-shocked, naked, clutching our cat to his chest. He looked very, very unwell.
“I’m O.K.,” I said.
He sneered, huffed a crazy laugh, and kicked the door shut.
I locked the doors to the bookstore and cut the music but left the lights on—the whole store suddenly hugely silent, the shelves picked over, in need of straightening. I turned the chairs upside down on the café tables and left the empty register drawer hanging open to discourage the curious from putting a brick through the window. In the back, I counted out the till. Once, I stole a hundred dollars in ones and fives, and how flushed Nigel was when I kept pulling bills out of my pockets, how exasperated. How many jobs had I been fired from, or walked out on, over the years, how many long stretches of joblessness? I felt free. Always I’d felt free; Nigel had never been fired, never quit abruptly. He worked slavishly for social-justice organizations, kept us in food, and cat food, and secondhand records. People steal, I told him. People lie, people cheat. Except that he didn’t steal, lie, or cheat.
I was in the back, counting out the till, and the phone rang. I thought it was him, I was expecting him, any minute, he was the one supposed to come and meet me after work, but it was Nigel calling, from just outside.
“Poke your head out,” he said. “You’ll see me.”
“Take a break from counting—sheesh—poke your head out, let me see you.”
“I’ll lose my place. Anyway, go home, I told you I had plans.”
“Plans? Go home?”
“I told you—Caroline. And she just wants me, not us. You know how she gets—she’ll want to get drunk and unload, and you have to work in the morning. And anyway she just wants me, not us. It’s not personal, she just feels superior to me, thinks I’m more fucked up than she is, so she can tell me—”
“There’s a man,” Nigel said, “on a bicycle.”
And I just shut up.
“There’s a man, looking in the window. He’s sitting on a bicycle, looking in the window. And I want you to tell me the truth. Is he waiting for you?”
“Unbelievable,” Nigel whispered. And he whispered something else, some other word. Or it was the wind. Then he said, “He looks like a really nice guy. You unbelievable asshole.”
He was not a nice guy, but he knew how to look like one.
We stayed on the phone. I stayed in the back. Nigel walked toward the train. The man on the bicycle waited. I pleaded and apologized and pretended I did not want to break up as much as I really did want to break up. All the while, I felt such anger; I was so tired of apologizing. Nigel was always finding discarded plants and taking them home to regenerate. Everywhere in our apartment were plants, thriving. This, too, infuriated me—and when Nigel instructed me not to come home that night, when he told me to come by the next day, while he was at work, and remove all my shit and never come home again, I thought of those plants, of a space in the world without them.
“It’s over,” Nigel said. “You’re free.”
Nigel and I took jobs as farmhands on a tiny two-acre farm in Virginia—a sloppy, rocky field nestled in the folds of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We drove down non-stop, taking turns behind the wheel. The car was Nigel’s, some old thing he’d scrimped for. We’d slowly chug up one side of a mountain, then slide down the other, recklessly, not braking for as long as possible, hollering at our luck, at our newfound right to do as we damn well pleased and to do it together. We were nineteen years old, both of us, and we’d found each other.
At our first truck stop, I stole a pair of driving glasses that had yellow-tinted lenses and large black plastic frames. They made the whole world seem as if I were swimming through honey. Nigel started on some sensible nonsense about the serious consequences I was gambling with. He speculated about the jails around those parts, the conditions, the prejudice and hostilities of others, but I slipped the glasses on him while he was driving, I kissed him on the neck, I said, “Look.”
And he said, “Wow, it’s beautiful.”
We arrived at night, on the heels of a rainstorm that had sucked away half of the dirt road that led to the farmer’s driveway. We kept sinking into little craters filled with water that splashed up onto the windshield, as if we were driving through a car wash. It took three passes before we found the turnoff, an unmarked path of red dirt, two parallel paths, really, tire tracks, with grass growing in the middle. Leaves and brambles closed in from both sides and scraped against the windows. Three miles on this path, with no light beyond the scope of our high beams, no moonlight, no starlight, just trees and a blackness so heavy that we both stopped talking and stretched our necks until our foreheads were almost touching the windshield, trying to make sense of the tarry vastness around us.
“We just slipped off the edge of the world,” Nigel said.
The headlights caught a flash of sparkling eyes, some tiny faceless beast. Inside the car, the green light of the dashboard reflected off the soft white underside of Nigel’s chin. It looked as if the light were radiating from inside him, as if he had swallowed a fistful of emeralds.
“What are you so afraid of?” I asked.
Nigel took his eyes from the drive for just a second to look at me. “Oh, come on. You love to pretend you’re so fearless.”
The farmer appeared on the edge of the path, shielding his eyes, a shotgun in his hands. Nigel stopped the car and cranked down his window.
“You’ll have to leave the car here,” the farmer said. He made no excuse for the gun. “You brought a flashlight?”
He led us to a small shack, a tilting shingled structure with four walls and a wood-burning stove. It was perched on the slope of a minor mountain, about a third of the way up, with thick slabs of rock stuck under the front side, a new rock every year, to keep the house from tumbling forward into the fields of wild raspberries. He explained this to us with wide sweeps of the flashlight.
We had met the farmer that spring, when he had opened up his land to the swarms of protesters descending on the capital for a week of anger and messy celebration. We’d missed an entire day of protests, because we were so taken with the seedlings and the greenhouse and the mountain and the old hippie back-to-the-lander who told us charming, paranoid stories and invited us to work for him in the summer, when he could use the extra hands. Now, in the darkness, on the side of the mountain, the man seemed ornery and off.
“She’s wobbly,” the farmer said. “She’s aiming to pitch, but she’ll make it through the summer.”
“You’re sure about that,” Nigel said, too timid to curve the statement into a question. I was breathless from the hike and the weight of our belongings, trying to keep my panting quiet.
“No stars,” the farmer replied. “The storm. Usually there’s stars. Good night.”
I can’t open the door to that shack, can’t describe the night we spent, the way we spent it, or that first wet morning; I can’t get to all the blooming, opening, buds, flowers, fruit; I can’t tell about the hives, the honey, the chicks that arrived in the mail, the summer lightning, our browning skin, the view from the mountaintop, the tumble down the mountainside, the words I had never known—zinnia, rototiller, the word for calling the pigs to come and eat our slop—the skin of the pigs, the skin of my man, how he became my man, the promise and the pretending, the retelling of entire plots of movies in the absence of electricity; nor can I get to the dirty white feral kitten, that scraggly runt of the barn litter, and the farmer’s snicker that Nigel’d done a thing as senseless as adopt her, ruined her by feeding her. I can’t open the door to that shack.
No, we’re on the slope of a minor mountain, in the dark, wondering what in hell we’ve signed ourselves up for, and how’s it all going to play. ♦
Great Goodness in a Mean World
Justin Torres talks with Chapter 16 about his critically acclaimed debut novel—and about what it feels like to go home again
Critical reaction to We the Animals has been rhapsodic. O, the Oprah magazine, called it “so honest, poetic and tough that it makes you reexamine what it means to love and to hurt.” Kirkus, in a starred review, called the book “subtle, shimmering, and emotionally devastating.” “We should all be grateful for Justin Torres, a brilliant, ferocious new voice,” Michael Cunningham wrote for the book’s back cover, where he joined Dorothy Allison, Marilynne Robinson, Paul Harding, and Tayari Jones in a veritable orgy of blurbing. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Joseph Salvatore called it “a strobe light of a story, its flash set on slow, producing before our eyes lurid and poetic snapshots.” The review ends by acknowledging Salvatore’s own desire for more of Torres’s “haunting, word-torn world.” It’s an extraordinary admission because We the Animals is tough going for every single one of its 125 pages.
“We wanted more,” Torres’s protagonist—the youngest of three brothers, sons of a Puerto Rican father and a white mother—announces in the novel’s first sentence. “More,” it seems, is everything: more flesh, more blood, more noise, more passionate violence, more fighting, more love. Here is Torres describing a parental beating: “We knew that there was something more, someplace our Paps was taking us with all this. We knew, because he was meticulous, because he was precise, because he took his time. He was awakening us; he was leading us somewhere beyond burning and ripping, and you couldn’t get there in a hurry.”
Despite the slimness of the book, Torres, too, takes his meticulous time. As the novel’s narrator suffers the inevitable anguished transformation from “we” to “I,” he is battered, bruised, and, in an absolutely heartbreaking scene at the end, ultimately beatified. As Torres baptizes his creations in blood and tears and sweat, the reader is anointed as well.
In advance of his appearance at the Southern Festival of Books, Torres recently answered questions from Chapter 16 via email:
Chapter 16: We the Animals has made a stunning debut: reviewers are clearly attempting to outdo each other in praising it. The book took years to write—was it the prospect of this kind of critical reaction that kept you going?
Torres: Not at all. It’s not modesty when I say I never expected this kind of reaction—I just simply, truly did not expect all this. I’ve worked in bookstores and I knew that the majority of debut novels come and go quietly; my expectations were realistic, which is to say, low.
What did keep me going was constant feedback from other writers and readers, friends and mentors. I was lucky in that, early on, folks whose talent and perspective I admire insisted that I was producing work of value, and that I should keep writing. These people include giants like Dorothy Allison and Marilynne Robinson, but also supportive, brilliant friends.
Chapter 16: You’ve said that the narrative scaffolding comes from your upbringing, but that the characters and plot are wholly fictive. Still, it’s difficult for a reader not to identify you as the youngest brother in the novel—there are simply too many similarities to ignore. Is it easier to make things up about your family than to make them up about yourself? You’ve taken precautions to protect your family from exposure; have you taken precautions against self-exposure when writing about your own personality (provided that you actually are writing about yourself)?
Torres: Ha! I understand the heart of this question, and I think it’s a valid question, but the way the question is phrased has me all turned around. For clarity, I am not making things up about my family. I have made up a family, similar, yes, to my own, but wholly and fundamentally not my family. I also disagree that it’s difficult for a reader not to identify me as the youngest brother in the novel, as you say. Out on the book tour, I’ve met many readers who have no problem reading the novel as fiction. They just look at these characters as they would any other characters. There are readers whose interest begins and ends with the book, and who don’t care to know too much about my personal life. I think that’s great.
On the other hand, I certainly realize that many readers are interested in the intersections of my own life with the world of the novel. I get some variation of this question at every reading and in most interviews. These questions are fine with me, too, and I’m happy to talk about my personal experience, the similarities and the differences with the characters in the book. But whenever anyone tries to insist that the type of fiction I am writing is somehow not fiction because I also draw from personal experience, whenever someone tries to suggest that I am writing about my own personality, or myself, as you have here, I have to firmly and adamantly disagree with the phrasing.
Chapter 16: Your hardscrabble childhood is quite at odds with the literary world you now occupy: you’re a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, you’ve published in The New Yorker, and you’re presently a Stegner fellow at Stanford. Do you worry, for the sake of your next novel, that it might be difficult to retain the texture of your childhood world as you become more ensconced in literaria?
Torres: No, I can’t say I’ve ever worried about that. I’m not quite sure I know who is and isn’t included in literaria (though I love the word), but I do know that the folks I’ve studied with, the folks I’ve sought out, have been powerful writers from all walks of life: queers from the South, Asians from the midwest, black folks from hardscrabble childhoods, and, sure, WASPs as well.
I don’t romanticize being broke. I love having a dishwasher. What I do worry about is everyone who is still struggling. I worry that queer folks, brown folks, folks from working class and poverty class backgrounds, often don’t see a pace for themselves in literaria (literaria!). I know I didn’t. I’m hopeful that doors are opening, and I’m more than willing to hold them open if I ever get the chance.
Chapter 16: Your short story “Reverting to a Wild State,” published last month in The New Yorker, describes a relationship gone stale. The story takes place in a depleted present and lingers over the sad and bitter dregs of a love affair whose richness and vividness only become real in the devastating penultimate paragraph. “I can’t open the door to that shack,” the narrator says, refusing to remember what he cannot help but remember, and suddenly the whole story—unlike We the Animals—becomes a vivid and anguished howl for what was lost. It’s an incredibly sad story, whereas We the Animals never seems precisely sad. To me, there’s an optimism just under the skin of the novel. Do you agree?
Torres: I agree! One of the reasons I wrote this book was because I tired of a certain negative, pessimistic, adult vocabulary used to describe and understand families and childhoods outside of a perceived norm. I found that I would talk about my own childhood and people would give me back words like ‘dysfunctional’ or ‘disadvantaged’ and I would want to pull out my hair. Children, thank goodness, do not know such words or such conceptions. In the absence of this reductive adult vocabulary, children make sense of their world using magic and wonder. That a violent household, a chaotic household, can be one of profound love and care does not seem to me to be a contradiction. Children are not surprised to find joy and grace and beauty existing side by side with want and failure and betrayal—and the boys of this book, they are prepared always, to be lifted up and loved. There is optimism, yes, just under their skin.
Chapter 16: Before the book was published, you said you knew your father would read the book when it came out, but you had no idea how he would react. Any idea yet of his response? How is the rest of your family responding—not just to the book itself, but to its massive success?
Torres: Not a peep from my father. Still curious to find out if he’s read it, and if so, his reaction. My mother is hugely supportive and follows every tiny mention of the book in every magazine, newspaper, and blog post. She is, rightfully, proud, and I’m grateful for the many sacrifices she has made. My brothers are loyal and supportive each in their own way. We don’t communicate daily, or weekly, or anything like that, but we’re each out in the world, rooting for the others.
Chapter 16: Your eleventh-grade English teacher urged you to go to college, fought to have you placed in honors English classes, and visited you when you were in a mental hospital your senior year. Where is she now, and are you still in touch? She must be absolutely over the moon.
Torres: She is delighted, yes. After the book came out she had me come back to the area where I grew up and speak to her students. I talked to two assemblies of high-school kids. Man, it was something to be at the podium and looking out at all these young faces, and the very familiar (surprisingly unaged) face of Mrs. Iodice, my English teacher, and to really mark for a moment just how much time had passed and just how much distance I had traveled in order to return home. The debt I owe her is immense and unpayable. We are very close, and the book has only brought us closer, I think.
The next day I gave a reading in my home town, a very small town, and so many folks came out: my first-grade teacher, my third-grade teacher, my fifth- and ninth-grade teachers, almost all my former neighbors from the block, classmates, one of the women who worked in the cafeteria, parents of friends, and on and on. I spoke for about an hour, and then I signed books for two hours straight. All these faces, these giant adults from my childhood, many of whom I never thought I’d see again—they all lined up and spoke of their feelings of pride for me and the man I’ve become. They talked about how they’ve changed, and how I’ve changed. There were queer folks I had never met who somehow found out about me and came to share their difficult stories, there were folks I had not known to be queer who confessed to me, some were out now, some were not. All these faces! One after another, they wished me success and they blessed me. Afterwards I went for a burger with some friends and I just burst into tears. I had a plane to catch in an hour and I cried all the way to the airport and all through the flight. There’s just so much damn goodness in the world.