Justin Torres has had a lot of jobs. He worked on a farm. He walked dogs. He drove a truck, picking up donations around New England. He even had a stint at Brainwash, folding laundry. Thankfully, along the way he began writing, and his debut novel We the Animals was released in September. This incredible book has received praise from just about everyone, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR.
Torres is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and currently attends Stanford as a Stegner Fellow. He is a brilliant writer and a warm, engaging person, eager to talk about writing. We grabbed a cup of coffee in the Mission, where we chatted about his new book, We the Animals.
Rumpus: When did you start writing this book?
Torres: Five or six years ago. I was living in New York and a friend of mine was taking a writing class, so I took it with her and I ended up in Jackson Taylor’s private group. He let me come for free, and that’s how I started writing the story, and it was there that I started getting feedback, and people told me to take myself seriously. I’d worked at all these terrible jobs, and I was just living, not thinking about what I wanted to do. And Taylor asked me, where do you see yourself in five years? And I said, I have no idea. And then I got serious about it.
Rumpus: The book feels so closely tied to your own past. How come you wrote a novel and not a memoir?
Torres: I think because I backed into writing I didn’t have those distinctions very firmly set in my mind. So poetry, memoir, fiction; it was just writing. I just wanted to get to the heat, and I wasn’t holding myself to any standard. So it wasn’t like: I am writing a novel now. It was more like: what is the most powerful way that I can get this kind of emotional truth across. The book has these poetic tendencies because I read poetry a lot, and the book has a memoir-esque personal experience element that is very heavy, and then it is fiction because I didn’t feel bounded to any rigid category. There were definitely people on the publishing side encouraging me to write memoir, and it just wasn’t something I was interested in. I didn’t want to get caught in that trap of factuality. And I think fiction can say something about the world.
Rumpus: Rigidly categorizing writing seems to stem from writing programs, and the way our culture wants to neatly define things. Now that you’ve been through an MFA program, do you still stick to that idea that writing can be anything?
Torres: When I got to Iowa, the fiction writers were over there, and the poets were over here, and the nonfiction writers were in their own school. They never interacted. They were all in their own worlds. To me, it’s mind-boggling. I’m a part of it because I can’t change it. It’s the same at Stanford; the poetry and the fiction have very little cross-pollination. But in my own life, going forward, I will continue to seek out writers and good writing, and it doesn’t matter to me. The distinction seems so arbitrary to me. With poetry nobody says, is this a memoir poem? Or is this a fiction poem? You say “I” in poems. It’s the poetic I. And I don’t understand why that’s not true in fiction, because it’s all artifice. No matter what you are doing you are using language and imagery to convey something.
Rumpus: Brotherhood is a key part of this book, and right away, with the first person plural, their connection feels so tight. The reader is really drawn into their world. How did brotherhood and family tie into this book for you?
Torres: One of the first sections I wrote was, “We Wanted More.” It’s the first chapter in the book, and it kind of posed this huge problem of this first person plural. But I liked it. I liked it so much I knew it was essential to what I want to talk about. So I thought long and hard about how I wanted to write this. What do I want to say about brotherhood? What do I feel about brotherhood? And siblinghood? And being part of a family? And in my own experience I felt very inside, very a part of my family. We had this pack mentality. We interacted with each other without communicating verbally. We were just there. But I also felt very outside. Obviously, being queer—I didn’t think in those terms as a child—but, I knew I had a different sensibility towards the world. A different kind of curiousness. Just very aware. And there was this kind of machismo in the house, the expectations towards violence. I was a little bit squeamish about that stuff. I participated, but in my own head, I was holding back. And so I wanted to capture that. The shift between “We” and “I” is the most important movement in the book. A lot of the chapters will start out “We” and end “I”. And the progression of the book is towards I, and then this radical “them” and “you” shift at the end. That was why I chose not to name the narrator. I wanted the reader to be focused on when his name is We, and when it is I.
Rumpus: The shift in perspective at the end was such a strong choice. It’s jarring. I remember being surprised by it and feeling like it was a brilliant moment in the book.
Torres: This time jump at the end. This dramatic shift. Like a shift in tone, perspective, everything. It becomes more narrative, and less poetic. I think that’s what happens. In adolescence you start to make narrative about your life. You have the vocabulary to start thinking about your experience differently. In childhood, you just don’t have any of those words. There’s just poetry, and imagination and wonder.
Rumpus: What did you learn about family while you were writing this book? Did your perspective of your own family change as you were working on it?
Torres: I think in my own family, I am the center of my understanding. Everybody in my family, I think of in direct relationship to me, and I really can’t break out of that. One of the reasons why I had to make this fiction was to get the distance. As an author, I had to understand the motives of every person. I had to control their every action, their histories, and make their mythologies, so to that end, what has changed is that I am constantly inventing mythologies for everyone I meet, and even now I’m wondering about you. Piecing together things about you. What kind of person are you? It always expands your compassion when you do that. So my compassion has been expanded through being a writer. And that compassion moved over to my own family. But really, my family is different from the family in the book. We have our own thing and it’s playing out in it’s own cosmic space, and I’m not sure how much this book has affected that, if at all.
Rumpus: This book is largely about memory, or at least reflective of the way memory works. The way it’s fragmented, in short chapters; it’s about how we piece together a life from the memories we have.
Torres: Oh yeah. I have a really foggy memory, a terrible memory. I can’t remember what I did yesterday. And of my childhood, I have a particularly unclear memory. And so it’s funny people think this is so convincing—and the hard facts are my life—but basically it’s all made up. Everything that happens in that book is made up. It’s a retrospective piece, and as much as it seems like it’s being narrated by a child, it’s actually not. It’s about someone looking back and staying within that perspective. I was thinking a lot about memory and about the ways in which children make sense of the world.
Rumpus: The way we look back at our life changes along the way. As a kid you can’t really understand everything. It’s all experience. The world just happens to you. But as you get older you get more perspective.
Torres: And I wanted to strip away the adult perspective, as much as possible. I wanted to get in there. I feel like I have all these pictures. This random assortment of pictures. I never have a camera on hand, and I’m terrible about taking pictures, but I have very distinct memories based on the photos people have given me. And I think the book kind of functions like that. There are certain moments where you have this vivid memory, and who knows what happened in between. It doesn’t matter.
Rumpus: One of the things I love in this book is the meticulousness of sentences. Everything feels so carefully crafted, poetic. When you thought about the style of this book, how did that develop? Did you tinker with it, or did it come immediately?
Torres: It was pretty immediate. I’m a really slow reader and a very slow writer. Very deliberate. I’ve always been attracted to concise and precise language. I also talk out loud. I try to memorize lines before I sit down and write them. There is something about memorization that automatically picks the most effective word. That’s how poetry works, music works, how we remember lyrics and rhyme. It just feels right. So I try to get that tickle of the mind. And I’m just really, really slow. I don’t produce a lot of drafts. I think a lot before I move forward.
Rumpus: What are you working on now? Can you tell us about any future projects?
Torres: I go so slowly forward that I didn’t start writing this book, thinking: I’m going to write a novel. Because the end was so far way, it was too daunting. So I move in tiny steps. I wrote a few other things while I was working on this but they weren’t any good, and I kept coming back to this family. I’ve since had two stories published, one in the New Yorker, one in Harper’s. Which was huge, because I thought I was a one hit wonder. And it was awesome, but they are very similar, topically and thematically. The narrator is similar, the same person in my mind, and so I’m just chipping away. I refuse to think long-term. I’m not a planner. I get overwhelmed by large projects. But I love that little gratification along the way, of something actually being finished. I love that period at the end of the sentence.