AN INTERVIEW WITH JUSTIN TORRES
The Goddard College BFA Program was thrilled to host Justin Torres as our Spring 2014 Visiting Writer. Torres is the author of the national best-selling novel We the Animals. We are big fans. His award-winning fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Granta, Tin House, Glimmer Train, Flaunt, and many other publications. He has also published nonfiction in venues including The Guardian and The Advocate. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Torres was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He currently teaches at Columbia University, Lesley University’s Low Residency MFA Program, and The Writers’ Foundry MFA Program at St. Joseph’s College. He lives in Brooklyn.
During his April 2014 visit to Goddard, Justin Torres read from his work, gave generously of his time, and generally enchanted Goddard’s students, staff, and faculty. After reading from his book, Torres gave one of the most engaging question-and-answers any of us had ever had the privilege of hearing. The following morning he offered a fiction-writing workshop and even granted an early-morning interview with Duende staff members Cerridwen Aker, Erric Emerson, Jørn Earl Otte, and Cameron Price. The interview that appears here is an amalgam of our formal student interview with Justin Torres and the fascinating Q & A after his reading.
Cerridwen Aker: Were there particular authors you tried to emulate or who influenced you over the course of writing We the Animals?
JT: Emulate? I would say no. But influences, for sure. Dorothy Allison was a major influence on what I think about the potential of the novel. ... I wanted to go to the dark places and she went there with such honesty and such grace. She opened my eyes to the potential and showed me characters I hadn’t seen before. James Baldwin is someone that I write nothing like, but who influences me enormously. On the craft side, I have people like Grace Paley, Stuart Dybek, who write very concise, condensed, precise prose. ... I like the themes and content of their books as well, but I really studied how they got a major narrative arc into five pages.
Erric Emerson: After your reading last night, you said that when you were initially writing We the Animals, you were still in the process of learning how to write. Could you describe what that means? Anything you can recommend to someone who is still learning their craft, starting a novel or working on a novel?
JT: My friend said once, and I think it’s so true, “Writing a novel is like training for a marathon, and the only way to train for a marathon is to run a marathon, and you only know you can do it once you’ve done it.”
But what was I learning? You have to figure out why you’re writing. I started writing out of anger; I started writing as a vendetta. I was angry that there weren’t more stories with experiences like mine. I was angry at my family. I started writing in a score-settling way. So I had to move beyond that, learn how to write in a bigger, more empathetic way. On a craft level, you just improve when you try to do something. I read a lot of poetry. I learned a lot from poetry, how the abstract can be handled through the concrete. If I want to write about something abstract and write about it through abstract language that doesn’t always work. . . I was learning how to take myself seriously, to stop dicking around. If I’m going to claim this identity as a writer, I’d better fucking write. If this is what I’m going to do with my time on this earth, then I better take it seriously and stop being such a butterfly.
Audience Q & A: Most of the characters are of you all as kids, and then there’s a huge jump in age. Can you explain that choice?
JT: The book is very episodic. First it’s about these boys and they’re just boys. Then in the final quarter of the book it jumps forward in time. I made that jump into adolescence because I read a lot of coming-of-age novels, a lot of good ones, a lot of bad ones, and I wanted to do something different with the form. There is something about the form that implies a linear narrative: you come into yourself, you realize who you are, and then you go out into the world. It was not like that for me at all. Shit just kept happening to me and then I was an adult. I wanted the reader to feel that propulsion, that rejection from family, from the narrative. I wanted it to function like a punch in the gut, because at that point in the story everything changes for the narrator; it comes out of nowhere. I wanted the reader to feel that as well.
Audience Q & A: Can you talk about writing from a child’s point of view? It seems it would be very difficult.
JT: Yes it is really difficult. It is so difficult that I didn’t do it. I cheated. It actually is retrospective narration, but I kept it immediate. I focused on not having a lot of reflection. Technically it is past tense. Technically this book is being narrated by an adult. It feels like a child’s point of view because it stays really focused in these immediate moments.
Obviously, a lot of this book is similar to my own life: my parents were teenagers when they had us; my father’s Puerto Rican; my mother’s white. The hard facts of the book are the hard facts of my life. But it’s fiction. It’s a novel. But I thought about what I wanted to say about being a child as part of this family. There was an openness to being loved at any moment, and I try to keep that as a point of tension in the narrative so that you [the reader], like the child, don’t always know what’s coming, and I try not to explain too much.
Audience Q & A: To follow up on that, I wonder if you could give us your stance on treading the line between writing fiction or creative nonfiction.
JT: I don’t have a stance, and that was such a problem. When I started writing, I read a lot of poetry; I read a lot of nonfiction and fiction that was good. I just wanted to write good prose. I didn’t pay that much attention. I didn’t think about those distinctions between genres, which was great for writing. But when you publish a book, genre becomes very, very important. I got a lot of pressure to call it memoir. ... But I was too protective of my family to write memoir. So I don’t have a firm stance. I love fiction; I feel writing fiction allowed me to get to an emotional truth. I would’ve felt mired down in facts and factuality if I’d tried to write nonfiction. ... But I wish I’d had a stance. That would be my advice: have a stance, really define that for yourself before you go out there because it gets tricky.
Audience Q & A: So not really knowing what’s fact and what’s fiction, but assuming there is some fact woven in there, what was it like to be so bravely honest about facts of life that were particularly vulnerable, especially your sexuality?
JT: Is it brave? It’s also selfish to be as honest as I’ve been. The family I grew up with was dealing with a lot of shit; there was a sense that the world was out to get us. You didn’t air the family laundry, it was the cardinal rule. If we couldn’t rely on each other, who could we rely on? But I did that. It was also an act of betrayal. I don’t know how brave that is; it’s the ethical conundrum I’m in. ... I have to believe that the artistic value of the book rescues some of the hurt I’ve caused.
As far as sexuality goes, I nearly died of shame. I was in a self-inflicted coma. Shame nearly killed me. I was seventeen and when I got out of the mental hospital, I decided I wasn’t going to be ashamed of things anymore. That doesn’t seem super brave to me, just a way of staying alive.
Audience Q & A: Since each of the chapters can stand alone, how did you choose the progression? I feel the model could still work even with different chapters in different places.
JT: I didn’t think too much about it when I was putting the book together. I was really broke and living in New York, and I wrote when I had a moment. I had all these condensed, distilled bits. I hadn’t read many novels that stayed as essentialized, as episodic, as this book does. It took me a really long time to believe that the theme was enough, that the notes that are hit and returned to provided enough glue to pull you through the book. It was ordered differently; when I met with my editor this was the main thing we worked on. ... Everything in the book was shuffled a little bit, except the beginning and the end.
Cameron Price: Some of your subject material — at least the subject material I have read, We the Animals, and the story in The New Yorker — has gay themes and relationships in it. Are you ever concerned that your work will be pigeonholed as “gay literature,” rather than just a good story or good literature?
JT: I don’t worry about it. It does happen, but it’s not something I worry about. I think queer identity and queer sensibilities are all part of my obsessions. Race, class, sexuality: these are things I want to engage with and write about. So I don’t worry about it at all.
There are a lot of great gay writers: that’s what they are doing, and they are good at it. They are writing to a very specific audience, and that’s not what I’m doing.
Jørn Earl Otte: Your writing also has a very broad appeal. It’s about a specific type of family, but it seems that anyone can tap into that family experience. Can you talk about what you think gives the book a broader audience?
JT: I did not have a lot of specific locators in time, space, or geography, to make it as timeless as possible. I thought about the characters a lot as mythological, essential beings. You can talk about abstract topics through very specific characters.
Audience Q & A: We never really know the timeframe of the book, but is it set around the early 90s, late 80s?
JT: I tried to not put any proper nouns in there, no McDonald’s or anything. There is reference to a VCR which I think dates it pretty specifically. I avoided it to the point where my editor made me put more in. ... I wanted it to be as universal as possible and as mythic as possible. I wanted Pops to be representative of masculinity and Mom of femininity. It’s about childhood and boyhood and everything that is timeless about that. There are many good books that where and when they are set is very important, but that’s not the kind of book I wanted to write.
Cameron Price: You mentioned that you needed to write this book, but you didn’t know if anyone would read it. Obviously a lot of people are reading it now, which is great. So the book is probably more successful than you thought it would be. What has it felt like to suddenly go from working hard, humbly trying your best to wake up every day and it sucks, to not only having the book published, but having a lot of people reading and talking about it? Is it scary?
JT: It isn’t scary; it is destabilizing. I didn’t know what it meant. I was very distrustful of what was happening and why it was happening. A lot of people feel entitled and feel frustration that the world does not recognize their genius. When something good happens to them they move into it so easily, so effortlessly. Oftentimes they become more graceful and lovely human beings. I’m not one of those people. I’m suspicious and skeptical when people treat me like I’m entitled to good things. ...
When I see the book and it’s in fifteen languages, I think, “There something going on: about demographics, about marketing, about buzz. This is fraudulent; this is hype; this doesn’t have to do with the work.” And to a certain extent, I think that’s true. I am a young, half Puerto Rican, gay man. I check a lot of boxes; I get invited to be on a lot of panels. I’m aware of that. But I can’t stay in that place because it’s destabilizing. I’ve been catapulted into the middle class, and it’s fucking weird. The middle class is weird; things work differently. I’m getting used to that, but I haven’t figured it out, and it’s stopped me from writing quite a bit.
Jørn Earl Otte: You talked last night about how young gay kids ask why the book isn’t happy. But there are still lots of places in the country — and I come from one of them — where it is difficult, if not impossible, to come out as openly gay. What would you say to a young person who doesn’t feel like they can come out and be who they really are because of where they live?
JT: It’s really hard. One glorious thing is the Internet, but not everybody has the Internet, and you can’t exactly go to the public library and be like, “Hey, I’m gay! Who’s out there?” I encourage people, especially queer people, to use the Internet responsibly as much as possible, because you can escape your horrible, conservative, backwards town and it isn’t silent. Sometimes I think, “God, if I’d had the Internet when I was young!” I could’ve gotten into a lot of trouble, but I think it just would’ve changed things to see how much positivity is out there. There’s that “It Gets Better” campaign; I’m not sure that it actually gets better in that way. Rather, being older, you are less vulnerable. And that is a wonderful thing. It does get easier to deal with the disappointment and cruelty of the world.
It’s the responsibility of the perpetrators to change the way they act, and the responsibility of all of us to make the world better for coming generations, and to hold on. I get asked for advice a lot. When I was younger I would have loved for someone to tell me: it’s extremely hard and it sucks, and you should be angry, and it’s going to continue to be difficult for some time, and then you get older.
There’s an interesting thing about being an author. . . I was so shy, and then I had this book come out and I had to learn to be a ham. You have to be a stand-up comedian and a motivational speaker. It is so different than the skills it takes to actually write a novel, which are privacy, a deep depression, being on your own, spending time in your own head.
Cerridwen Aker: So you’re teaching now. Have the students influenced how you think about your writing practice, or do you view your practice differently after teaching?
JT: To be perfectly honest, I think that teaching is hard and that it is something that one should do only when one really wants to get outside of oneself— why am I talking like Yoda right now? I think I should do it when I really want to step outside of myself, when I really want to engage with students in the act of teaching and help them learn something. But if I’m there because of other circumstances, like to pay my rent, I start getting resentful. I feel like I owe them a lot, and I don’t want to give them anything, and that’s bad. It’s a real danger with teaching creative writing especially, because you’re engaging with so much. I really push my students to engage, I really go there with them, and then I’m responsible. It’s exhausting. I’ve had some really good teachers in my life. It’s one of the strangest things that writers are teachers. What percentage of writers are good teachers? What percentage of teachers are good writers? They’re different professions, and they require different skills. Not all writers are good teachers, and I don’t know that I am.
Audience Q & A: In your writing, what are you working on now?
JT: Oh, now I’m going to have a panic attack. I’m working on a book. I write from personal experience so luckily my twenties were horrendous, just so awful. So that will also be a great book. Now that I’m in my mid-thirties I feel like I’ve got the distance to write about that time. When I wrote [We the Animals] I didn’t expect anyone to read it. People read it. The New York Times reviewed it, and they made fun of how I use semicolons. It was a very nice review, but they were very cynical. Now, every time I use semicolons I think, “Oh no, The New York Times isn’t going to like this.”
I’ve met different people — the Filipino community, the queer community, working-class folks — that love the book for different reasons and also feel that I represent them. They want me to do this, this, and this. With all those different voices, it’s very difficult for me to write with the freedom that I wrote the first book. I’m just figuring out how to quiet it down, so I haven’t been writing as much as I would like. I am writing about a character that’s similar to myself, that is a sex worker in New York. It’s going to be another cheerful, delightful book, full of laughs.
Audience Q & A: How long did it take you to write the book, and can you talk a little bit about your writing practice?
JT: Six years. And look at how short it is! That’s like a page a month; it’s terrifying. A lot of that was just figuring out how to write. A lot of that was work and being busy and messing up my life. Once I was fully committed and transitioned to being serious about being a writer — instead of just being a mess — it still took me a long time.
I’m a really, really slow writer. To even call my process “a practice” is so generous. When I’m in it I can sit down and write for twelve hours. It’s there and I’m doing it and I believe in it. The next day I’ll read it and hate it, and I’ll hate myself and go into a shame spiral for two weeks. I’m trying to become more disciplined. I know a lot of writers; the ones who are disciplined and write every day have something to show for it. So if you write, I would say, be as disciplined as you can. I haven’t quite figured it out yet. I invent fake deadlines for myself, and then I teach myself how to bake bread instead and don’t write. Write every day, that’s the answer. Write every day, and it won’t take you six years.