At a slim 128 pages, We the Animals by 31-year-old first-time novelist Justin Torres makes an unforgettable impression. It’s a story about a difficult childhood and adolescence, but it’s not without flashes of joy. The narrator, who goes unnamed, is the youngest of three boys. He tells of growing up with a fragile white mother and an unpredictable Puerto Rican father. Writing in visceral yet elegant prose, Torres proves to be an author to watch - - he depicts the violence and messiness of young boyhood with incredible authenticity and takes the novel to unexpected, startling places. Having recently been published in The New Yorker, Torres took a moment before embarking on a national book tour to talk to me about We the Animals and what’s coming next. [Spoiler alert]
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So I know your novel is partially autobiographical, which is something a lot of fiction writers seem to look down upon because it’s seen as being less imaginative, perhaps – what’s uniquely creative about fictionalizing real life?
JUSTIN TORRES: I think you’re absolutely right that it’s something that gets hemmed and hawed about by fiction writers who aren’t doing it or claim to not be doing it, at least. I don’t know why that is! I think it’s really kind of ridiculous. I mean, creative fiction is wholly imaginative, and the book that I wrote – sure, the hard facts mirror my life – but the situations, the events, the scenes are all fiction, they’re all fictionalized. It’s all me trying to make myth out of real people, which I think is profoundly creative. I mean, what’s not creative about the act of putting words down? [Laughs]
It’s a way of getting to the emotional and thematic truth that you wouldn’t necessarily get by doing a blow-by-blow of what actually happened.
Exactly, because life is kind of mundane, so you bring the craft to it, and you get to the emotional truth.
There’s so much in this novel that evokes the loud, raucous, messy nature of young boyhood so authentically. How did you access that stage in life?
I paid a lot of attention to voice and the collective identity of young childhood, the “we” of it all. When you’re still kind of forming your identity, it’s very porous and it blends with that of the people around you. I think if you pay attention to that aspect of childhood and getting lost in the pack and having these moments where you come to the surface as an individual, I think that’s one approach. And really, on a language level, I’m obsessed with repetition and chanting. It was a challenge to get inside a child’s mind again.
Did you read Room by Emma Donaghue?
I did! I read it after I finished writing my book.
Completely different novel, but in a way, what struck me about both of you work is that there’s way of speaking about childhood with beautiful language that’s interesting for adults to read but in a way evokes very early childhood.
Absolutely. What’s interesting about her book and different from my book is that she … that’s immediately embedded in Jack’s perspective. That really is a book that’s being narrated by a child which is fascinating. My book is deep in the consciousness of the moment, but it also is an adult writing about childhood, but the key really is just paying a lot of attention to language.
When you were the age of your narrator, were you very aware of your surroundings and very sensitive to the world around you?
I think so. But it’s weird because I actually have a very blurry memory of my own childhood. That’s why it’s such a creative process for me because I just don’t have a very good memory in general, and I don’t have specific memories of my childhood. I think it’s just all kind of a haze.
I think that might be a plus because the art is in obscuring some of the details.
Totally, and just trying to get to that time and place.
Toward the end of the book, there’s a large time jump from the narrator’s boyhood to adolescence, where his family puts him in a mental institution after finding a diary in which he confesses gay desires. Did that part of the story also mirror your experience?
It does mirror that time, but it’s obviously much more complicated in real life. It’s not as neat a story as what happens in the book.
I’m sure that time was a transformative experience. Did that time in any way cement you as a writer?
Actually, it stopped me from writing for a number of years because I just didn’t want to be held accountable for something that was written down, which is what happened to me. But you know, it definitely was transformative. You’ve got all of these certified experts telling you that you’re crazy and giving you these diagnoses that I don’t think have panned out, you know? Now I’m 31 years old, I wrote a book, I’m at Stanford. [Laughs] I don’t think that with what they were saying about me was true. But there’s also a certain level in which there’s a certain stigma and there’s a lot of shame, especially at the time. I felt really, really betrayed. After I got out of the hospital the first time, I was so damaged by being institutionalized.
How old were you at the time?
I was 17 when I went in and I was 18 when I got out. After the first time that I got out, I tried to kill myself. I was in a coma, hospitalized, and I had to go back and then when I was 18, I found out that they couldn’t hold me anymore against my will, so I left. I got free.
A writing professor once told me that if you’re an artist, you have to be willing to sacrifice everything, including relationships, in order to write honestly. Has there been any fallout with your family because of the book?
I’m honestly not willing to sacrifice everything. I think that that’s one approach, but I have a fundamental respect for the dignity of my family as individuals. They are not the people in this book, and I’m protective of them. My mother gets it – she’s amazing. I’m not super-close with my brothers, and I rarely, rarely speak to my father. I know that one of my brothers has read it, and I know that he pretty much liked it. He might have taken issue with one or two things, but when I see him, we get along fine. They just think that I’m on my path, and I’m doing what’s right.
I thought the most touching part of the book was when the father washes the narrator in the bath, after he’s been institutionalized.
I’m glad because you definitely want the end to resonate with people. Ending it the way that I did with the big time jump and all of that it’s a real jolt. Not everybody approves of that decision [laughs]. I was really angry when I started writing, and I had these great mentors who told me that you have to write about the moments of grace, you have to write about the moments of beauty and tenderness. You can’t just have this vitriol in there – you have to balance it all out because it’s true, it’s absolutely true that this family loves each other even if they mistreat each other from time to time. The love is there and it has to come through.
I imagine writing out of anger is a recipe for disaster.
Yeah, totally! It is an absolute disaster. I mean, you can start there – if it gets you in the chair, that’s great, as long as you go back and make sure it’s been completely balanced out by all the other complex emotions.
From reading your work, you strike me as someone who worries about the placement of every single word. There’s a melding of poetry and prose, in a way. How painstaking are you about the words?
So painstaking. I’m the slowest, slowest writer in the world. I really do go word by word, sentence by sentence, line by line. I produce a ton of drafts. Jackson was a big influence on my early writing development, and he’s a poet as well as a prose writer, and he really drummed home how simple it is to take a sentence and make it more beautiful just by rearranging the words and being really precise in your word choice and I learned that lesson hard. I learned it so well that I can’t stop now. [Laughs] Sometimes I wish I could just let myself go and produce just material, but I really am just painstakingly slow.
So you’re not someone who writes and writes and then edits. You pause before you even touch the keyboard.
Absolutely. I do a lot of chanting in my head. I think that’s why there’s a lot of repetition in my writing because repetition is easy to remember. [Laughs] I do a lot of chanting, I walk around a lot and then I’ll finally come up with a sentence and write it down. After that, its like, “Now where do I go from here?” It’s ridiculously laborious, really.
I’ve noticed among literary writers recently that there’s a trend toward writing short novels, not so much the big epics – do you plan to keep things brief in the future?
It’s interesting. I think that my publishing house would love if the next book was a big 300-page romp. I don’t know that I’ll ever do that. I know what I’m good at. I’m interested in challenging myself, and I do want to write a little bit longer, but I’m also really interested in compression. I haven’t gotten enough of it yet, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I wrote more short books.
What are you reading right now?
At this moment, I’m reading Tayari Jones’ new novel called Silver Sparrow. I’m also reading a friend of mine’s novel that hasn’t been published yet. I read wildly all over the place, so I’ve been reading a lot of Grace Paley. I’ve been reading a lot of stories.
Who are some currently unpublished writers who we should be looking out for?
Iona Mathis is a writer who is about to explode. She just wrote a novel about that’s about middle class blacks in the generation after the generation that came up from the south. It spans a large period of time, but it’s about 12 children in one family, and each child gets his/her own story, so it’s a novel in stories. It’s a big book, and she’s going to explode – it is so, so so good. A couple people from Stanford have books coming out: Catherine Chung is another writer that I think people should look out for. She’s a Korean author whose novel is called Forgotten Country. It’s going to be out with Riverhead next year.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on the next book …
Yeah … I don’t know. I think so. I don’t want to call it anything. It’s the next book, and I want to be as free with myself to like be as inventive and do whatever I want because if I think about the structure too much early on, then I’ll feel trapped. I wrote 2 stories since finishing the book in the last year at Stanford, and one of them was in The New Yorker. And the other one is going to be in Harper’s in October. That was hugely, hugely important to me because you worry about being this one hit wonder, you know – because I wrote a novel loosely based on my childhood, is anybody ever going to want to read anything else I have to say? I’m excited to be writing about adults.
Is the amazing reaction you’ve been getting surprising?
Shocking! It’s absolutely shocking. I’m loving it, but it stresses me out. It makes me anxious just having to be “on” a lot. But it’s so wonderful, people have been so kind and this is way, way more than I’ve ever dreamed of. Just getting the book published, I was like, “Yay!” And now … I’m aware that I’m having a moment.