Justin Torres’ debut novel, We the Animals, won the 2012 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award and was a finalist for both a 2012 Indies Choice Book Award and an NAACP Image Award. Of his novel, Marilynne Robinson writes: “In language brilliant, poised and pure, We the Animals tells about family love as it is felt when it is frustrated or betrayed or made to stand in the place of too many other needed things, about how precious it becomes in these extremes, about the terrible sense of loss when it fails under duress, and the joy and dread of realizing that there really is no end to it.” A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and the recipient of a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, Torres was most recently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. His work has appeared in numerous magazines, including Tin House, Granta and The New Yorker.
In conjunction with American University’s Visiting Writers Series, Mr. Torres will be reading in Mary Graydon Center Room 4 on October 24th at 7 pm. He spoke to Café Américain over the phone.
CA: This book is a coming of age story in some ways, but it also works to subvert genre expectations. I think about “Never Never-Time,” where you create this very funny situation (three brothers playing Gallagher in the kitchen with tomatoes and a mallet), but the voice is imbued with darkness and terror and there’s this dissonance between the situation and the retrospective voice. Can you talk about the distance of this voice, the balance between these two tones?
JT: It is a retrospective voice, but what I tried to do was make it immediate. I was really interested in what children know and what children don’t know. In this family, there’s a lot going on that’s not being explained to them and they’re making up their own reasons in the moment. Although the voice is retrospective, I tried not to have a lot of reflection or meditation and to focus on the action as much as possible. In that way, hopefully the reader feels limited—they feel aware that there’s terror or a potential for violence, some chaos lurking, but none of that is being explained—so you get the atmosphere in which the children are living.
I think that within every moment in this household there is the potential for joy and exuberance, and also for something terrible or violent or disappointing. I wanted each chapter to have the possibility to head towards a moment of levity or real-life love and connection, or towards a moment of peril. In this process, I tried to reverse the currents in a story—because these children are really open to either.
CA: How did you manage this contradiction, this ability to charge the writing with different potentials?
JT: I paid a lot of attention to the physicality of the world. I paid a lot of attention to the elements that make up voice. Word choice and pacing. I tried to choose words that were themselves charged. I think a lot about verbs, and making them active. I think a lot about Anglo-Saxon words versus Latinate words. Simple, tribal words as much as possible, as opposed to more academic language.
CA: You’ve spoken about your desire for the book to have a mythic quality to the writing—the pairing down of proper nouns, a less specific sense of place—do you think this use of Anglo-Saxon language lends itself to that quality?
JT: I think so, yes. I think the ability to tell things that are felt has a lot to do with a writer’s command of language that’s immediate.
I wanted to write about class, about violence in the family, about desire, about the erotic charge of childhood, and I didn’t want to write about them academically or in a high literary style; I wanted the writing to feel like a punch.
CA: There’s such a rhythmic quality to the writing from the very start of the book, and I think of places where we get breaks in that rhythm. In the end of “Wasn’t No One to Stop This” we get the first fragments of the whole book: “Wasn’t no one to stop this. My brothers. Wasn’t no one.” Can you talk about how you use rhythm to build meaning in the book?
JT: I read out-loud obsessively, and I think the ear catches things that the eye doesn’t see. I’m obsessed with rhythm, I think it’s everything. It’s one of the main ways you can create emotion in your reader. The opening of the book is like a chant, and if you fall under its spell, then I think you’re prepared to follow the book. If that doesn’t work for you, I don’t think you read or enjoy the book. All of that repetition is a way of saying “this is the beat of the book, the charge of the book.”
CA: I want to ask you about the leap between “Niagara” and “The Night I am Made,” both in temporality and age, but also the self-awareness of the voice. Can you talk about that leap?
JT: What happens is an absolute and utter separation from the family, the traumatic and sudden ejection from that communal sense of family and belonging. A lot of readers resist it. It’s a different tone, a different rhythm, different pacing. I wanted that. Because that’s exactly what happens to the narrator—it’s sudden, and from that moment, nothing will ever be the same with him and his family. I could have made it more gradual—I think for a lot of people that transition is more gradual, but for the book I wanted to write—and this comes from my own experience—“coming of age” or whatever was not something I experienced in a smooth, clean arc. It was “dealing with shit, dealing with shit, dealing with shit” and then “boom,” one day everything changes. And that’s the book I wanted to write.
CA: The speaker in the first two-thirds of the book doesn’t know something is going to happen, but feels it. This seems like a very difficult line to toe.
JT: I think that has a lot to do with queer sensibility. There’s an innate and unnamable source of terror and separation—there’s an understanding of one’s self and one’s difference, but it can’t be put into words because there’s no vocabulary for it. There’s no model for it, but there’s an awareness. There’s something very different about you, but you have no way of articulating it. In that sense, I think, it was easy for me to write the first two thirds of the book. You don’t know it, but it’s a queer book from the first sentence. Queerness informs everything about the way the narrator experiences family, brotherhood, masculinity, motherhood and fatherhood, and violence.
It’s not a book about sex. It has to do with queerness in a bigger sense, in a sort of utterness, and a way to view the world. Shame is a major thematic element of the book. It kind of spreads over the book in many ways.
CA: That makes me wonder about “The Night I Am Made.” This character, by this point, has a growing sexual awareness. The important moment in this story isn’t necessarily the night of the sexual encounter, it is the moment of the family break. Why, then, include the sex as well?
JT: It’s a very condensed, slim book, full of metaphors and symbols. The things that happen in the book are not things that happen. People often think that everything in this book happened to me. They think that all the time. But this book is actually full of very crafted moments. So the decision to structure that night—and the end of the book as a whole—the way it is has to do with getting it all in there in a metaphoric and symbolic way.
CA: In an interview you gave on Flavorwire you were quoted as saying “[fiction and memoir] is all manicured and man-made. Nothing is just a photograph, so in that way it doesn’t matter. Is it beautiful? Does it feel true? Does it feel emotionally true?”
What do you think of our current cultural obsession with memoirs being true and fiction coming from real life—where do you think that comes from?
JT: It’s an obsession. If I had written a memoir, everyone would have tried to catch me telling lies. I knew that. But I didn’t realize that in writing a novel, people would be trying to catch me telling the truth. It didn’t occur to me that people would ask that. We’re obsessed with reality TV, which is about the fakest thing there is. There’s a real hunger for that “disguise of reality.” It’s very strange.
I think it has to do with pop psychology and psychoanalysis. There has to be a traumatic source to everything, and if people think “if I can expose that, or expunge it, then I will live life free and happy.” So you get these tell-all memoirs and people looking for catharsis. But it’s all the same shit—it’s all writing’s ever been—it provides people with ways of feeling empathy, or thinking differently about their own experiences, or even getting the thrill of seeing blood and guts, or whatever they need. Suddenly, they want it to be real.
I think it’s insane. I just enjoy good writing and good literature regardless of its factual source.
CA: Can you talk about truth and beauty in writing? How do you experience that feeling?
JT: I mean—I don’t know. Can you put words to that? It’s one of those things. The experience of the sublime is so hard to put into words. It’s like what that Supreme Court Justice [Potter Steward] said about pornography: “I’ll know it when I see it.” How can you articulate the sublime? I don’t know. But I know it exists, and I know it moves in writing, and I know that when I feel it, it feels true, and beautiful, and necessary, and alive.
CA: How does it feel to go through all these changes, to have the success of the book, and to be able to call yourself a writer?
JT: It’s interesting—to say that the writing life is a lot of successes and failures—it’s a lot of failures and a few successes. It was a lot of failures. I got used to failing. I wasn’t worried. My life was a mess. I wasn’t thinking of myself as a failed writer; I was a failure in so many ways. So I felt a lot of freedom around writing. I felt like it was an essential thing for me to do for my spirit, or my soul, but I didn’t know if I would ever succeed with it. So what happened with the book was a shock to me. I’m an author now.
But when I sit down to write, I still fail. I still fail as hard as I ever did. I think for a moment I thought it would be easy—but nope, that’s not the way it works. I have no more faith in myself than I did before. And I also can’t fool myself, either—I know when the writing’s shitty.
An American University MFA in Creative Writing Candidate ’14, Will Byrne is a contributing writer for Café Américain.