I met Justin Torres for lunch in the restaurant Villandry on Great Portland Street to talk about his debut novel, We The Animals. This compelling story of three brothers growing up and growing apart is told in a series of snapshots. With each chapter the narrator, the youngest of the brothers, becomes more aware of himself and what his story means. The result is wildly chaotic, deeply emotional, and an absolute triumph.
Over a bottle of Corbières, Justin and I had a relaxed conversation about what his intentions were when he started to write the book, and how he started out as a writer. There was a sense of wonder in everything he said, and although his words were clear and direct there was a sense of discovery and excitement in them.
What were your intentions, what did you want to get across when you started the write We The Animals?
I would talk about my family to people, and I’d hear this pop-psychology language, like “You’ve got this dysfunctional family,” and it drove me crazy because I was just talking about where I was from, my town, my family, and the people I love. When I started out my intentions were to complicate the easy representations out there of families like my own, and I wanted to write a character like myself into literature.
The style of the book is unique. Did that come out of the story, or did you try different styles, different ways of telling the story before you hit on the right one?
I think that structure is content. And the way you present the material says something about the material. The fragmented, impressionistic, episodic style came out of the need to be immediate, to have the immediacy of memory. The book is retrospective but it washes over you, you’re in the past but in the current moment. I wanted to capture that.
Did that happen as you put it together?
There is a fancy, theoretical answer I can give you, but I arrived at that after the real thing, which was the fact that I was working and had very little time. I randomly took this writing class in New York and all we had to do was show up with two pages, with the goal of moving everyone forward. So I’d show up with my two pages, and the best way to get people moving in two pages is to get right in there, to have something happen, to define a moment. I had fragments to make into a book and that’s when I had to make decisions about the structure. It was a mixture of intention and the pressures of life.
How did you end up on the writers’ workshop?
I was living in New York, and a friend of mine took a writing class, and I thought I would too. And from there it moved forward very quickly. It wasn’t a formal class, and while I was there I met other writers who said I should take myself seriously, which I wasn’t doing. I was ‘working on the fringes of society’, as I like to say, and the teacher said, “you’re not going to be cute forever, what are you going to do?” It was what I needed to hear.
People kept talking about this programme in Iowa, and I thought, “why the fuck would I want to go to Iowa? I’m in New York, and it seems like a very literary place.” When I got to Iowa I had a lot of the book done. It was two years. They gave me twice as much money as I’d ever made, which was still below the poverty level, but still twice as much as I’d been existing on.
Before you did the course was writing something you’d considered doing?
I wanted to be a painter when I was young. I think I’m a failed painter. I wrote a lot, and read a lot, and I’ve always read widely. I backed into writing. It wasn’t until I got to Iowa that I dedicated myself to it. It’s not like I came out of the womb saying I wanted to write the great novel.
Who do you like reading?
I can start right now in the moment. To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, by Herve Guibert, who was a friend of Michel Foucault. My French editor gave it to me because it’s episodic, and fragmentary. It’s this peek into Foucault’s sexual life that he kept hidden. I’m loving it.
When I’m writing I love to read Grace Paley. I’ll re-read Tillie Olsen. Stuart Dybek. Dorothy Ellison, James Baldwin.
When I first read the book, I was really struck by the chapter in which the narrator turns seven, and the mother tells him that now he’s seven he’s going to leave her, just like the other boys did. It’s the process of resisting what she says will happen that makes it happen. It seemed to me that what you were you saying throughout was that the trajectory of our lives as we grow up is a process of resisting the inevitable and in that process making it happen. Was that an aim when you started to write the story, or was that an understanding you discovered along the way?
That moment in particular, I wanted to capture something that is a paradox, that when people really show their vulnerability you have this immediate push-back, and that moment when the mother does not want him to become a little man something sparks inside of him. I think it’s inevitable. And this forges your identity.
His journey from being a member of a pack to an individual was a loss of identity, and that struck me as unusual in Western thinking, which is more often than not about the value of becoming an individual, whereas you’re almost saying that to become an individual is to lose a sense of identity. I don’t know if I have a question about that. It’s another thing that struck me about the narrative.
The coming of age narrative is typically about this slow process of deciding who you are, then you proceed forward and march into your individual identity. I didn’t have that experience, I didn’t want to write about it. I wanted to write against that. I knew that it would be seen as a coming of age story when it got out there. I think there is a huge loss for certain people, for queer people especially, that coming into your own is not a net gain. Oftentimes you have to give something up, that communal identity, that family identity that is so powerful.
You talk about the mutt life of the boys, and that the white kids in contrast have a legacy. Do you think gay life is like the mutt life because you don’t have the structure or the legacy?
I really do. Being mixed race there are a lot of parallels. You’re from two cultures but you can’t really claim either one. I think it’s changing now, though.
The narrator really becomes an individual when his sexuality comes into play. Was that something you thought of exploring in the brothers’ lives or was that something you wanted the narrator alone to communicate?
I wanted the end of the book to be a punch in the gut. It was important to me that it be unexpected and out of nowhere, and that the sexuality of the narrator be a major part of what happens but not everything, not the entire reason they fall apart. It’s always difficult to talk about the end of the book because you don’t want to say too much. It was important to me that all of a sudden everything comes to a head in drastic ways. What was mutable, what the narrator was keeping down, his sensitivity, his queer sensibility, suddenly comes immutable, absolute, and the family has to deal with it.
Is the coda to the book that everyone is trying to stand up, and that they’re looking for the people who will let them stand up?
It’s an incomplete process. The title of the book, and the end, we the animals, it’s an absolute statement I want the narrator to resist, to say the boys are human they’re not animals, but at the end we’re all animals, the process of being upright is incomplete, it’s an ambition, it’s a wish.