“The Way You Tell the Story”: Justin Torres on Writing
Interview Series, the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress
Justin Torres’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Glimmer Train and other publications. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a recipient of the Rolón United States Artist Fellowship in Literature and the Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. He has worked as a farmhand, a dog-walker, a creative writing teacher and a bookseller. His debut novel We the Animals is a semiautobiographical story of three brothers, and was released in 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Photo by Gregory Crowley.
Interview conducted over e-mail by Kelly Yuzawa.
I heard you read at the National Book Festival last September. It was a warm afternoon and the audience was looking a little sleepy, but when you started reading the first chapter of We the Animals, it was as if the tent had caught fire. Do you always get that response to your work?
You know, that reading in DC stands out among the very many readings I’ve done in the past two years, and you're right, something about that tent felt alive. I remember the Mall being rather dusty, and hot. I stood on that podium watching people walk past the tent, feeling a bit distracted myself and feeling the audience's distraction. I felt daunted, but as I began to read I could feel folks leaning in, and I could see others, passing by, stop to listen. I've never been to a revival, but I have been to many carnivals, and it wasn't hard to imagine myself preaching, or barking; I put as much emotion as I could into that reading. When it was finished, the tent was full, the crowd had grown, and I had the most amazing feeling—which sometimes, but not always happens at readings—that I had won them over, that they were aiming, beaming, their goodwill in my direction. I hope this doesn’t sound too boastful, but it is a rare experience, and one I feel very lucky to have had.
When did you know you were going to be a writer, and when did you start committing to it seriously? Was there someone in your life who helped you recognize your talent?
I’ve long had a desire to write, but no real desire to be a writer. I feel lucky about that, actually; wanting to be a successful author can be torturous, as it is largely out of your control, but most everyone can write, and anyone can enjoy language. In my case, I was much too intimidated, and broke, to consider owning such a heady identity as “writer,” but I loved language and playing with words and stories. I owe an immense debt to a teacher of mine, Jackson Taylor, himself a brilliant writer, who not only recognized talent in my work but also recognized that I was living a life without writing at its center. He encouraged, insisted, that I move writing to the center of my life, and slowly I did. I applied for conferences and residencies, but it wasn't until I arrived at the MFA program at Iowa and had those two years to concern myself with nothing but writing, that I truly committed to the idea that yes, I was a writer, that this was how I would spend my time on this earth.
Do you imagine a reader when you write?
When I began to write We the Animals, I wrote for myself, I truly did not think about publication or a readership, and in that way I felt free, utterly free to write how I wanted about what I wanted. Of course, the book took years to finish, and by the time I was close to the end, I had had some success placing stories, and I had a sense that the book would be published, but still I had very low expectations; I wrote to break my own heart, really. I figured people like me might read and enjoy it, and I defined “people like me” very narrowly.
Now, everything is different. I’ve been all over the country, and to other countries, meeting readers. The book has been translated into something like fourteen languages. I have a sense of who is reading my book, and it is, thankfully, broader than I had imagined. As a queer, Latino author, I find I’ve had tremendous support among those communities, but also folks from working class backgrounds; and then simply folks with complicated, troublesome families; folks who have felt outside; and then, even broader, folks with siblings, who once really felt a part of siblinghood, part of a pack. You see what I am getting at: my very notion of “people like me” has just exploded, in the most reassuring way.
We the Animals dives right in to the complexity and messiness of a young, struggling family from the youngest son's perspective. Do you think you’ll write again from this perspective?
The book isn't written from a child's perspective per se, it is a retrospective narration, but the focus is so absolutely on the impression of childhood, the memory of childhood, that it feels almost as if it is being narrated by a child. And no, I have no desire to write about children any time soon. I think I’ve exhausted that urge, scratched that itch raw. I am excited to write about adults.
I like the way you play with time in your work. You had a story in The New Yorker, “Reverting to a Wild State,” that depicts the end of a long-term relationship. The story begins with the ugly ending of the relationship and ends with its idyllic beginning. How did that story unfold?
The way you tell the story is the story, don’t you think? That story was about nostalgia, and so it seemed to make sense to move backward toward the idealized past. The very end of the story is the exact moment when the world, and the relationship, is exploding with potential and wonder. I don't know of any other short stories about relationships written with this structure (although I am sure they exist), but I do know that in real life when someone gives me a story about their failed relationship—at a bar, or with a new lover, say—usually the story unfolds backward. They'll start with the breakup, “he left me for someone else,” and move through the past, “but even before that there were troubles,” and end up at the beginning, “I loved him because my father had died, and he made me laugh.”
Of course some people start with the breakup and stay with the breakup, the entire story is the breakup, and it’s a bitter, nasty story; those people should probably not be dated.
You’ve had tremendous success with your first novel. Do you feel hindered by the weight of expectation for your next book?
I do. Honestly, I don’t know what more to say about that. I haven’t yet figured out how to get back to that place of feeling free. I trust I will. Wish me luck?