I FIRST LEARNED of Justin Torres’s short and elegant debut novel, We the Animals, in a review right here in LARB written by Rigoberto González. Rigoberto and I became friends a few years after he reviewed my first short-story collection 10 years ago for the El Paso Times. Rigoberto has a tough eye when it comes to analyzing and discussing new books by Latino writers, and he will not give anyone a free pass. If a work is deeply flawed, he’ll say so. If a piece of writing moves him, he’ll let us know and explain why. So when Rigoberto trumpeted this young, daring author named Justin Torres, I took notice.
And then this spring, my literary path crossed Justin’s when our novels were two of 12 books chosen as semifinalists in the 2012 Cabell First Novelist Award which honors an outstanding debut novel published during a calendar year. When I saw We the Animals and other wonderful titles on the list, I knew two things. First, my little novel was not going to win. Second, Justin could be the first Latino to win this prestigious award. When the three finalists were announced a month later and Justin was on it, I knew he’d win…I had no doubt whatsoever.
So, it’s been a year since We the Animals was published. It is now an award-winning novel that garnered raves from prestigious print and online publications. The paperback edition will soon be released. Justin Torres kindly agreed to an online interview while his life goes through yet another major change as he moves to Boston for a one-year fellowship at Harvard.
DANIEL OLIVAS: It’s now been a year since your debut novel, We the Animals, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and the paperback edition comes out this month. Since then, it has received the type of critical acclaim and press coverage all writers dream of including raves from The New York Times, The New Yorker, Esquire, Kirkus Reviews (starred review), Vanity Fair, NPR, to name several. But I wanted to ask you about Rigoberto González’s review of your novel in the Los Angeles Review of Books which ends with this observation:
It’s sad indeed that We the Animals — like most literary works with homosexual content, aside from Greek mythology — will not make most high school reading lists without controversy, if at all. But even if it’s kept off reading lists and library shelves, Torres’s book will undoubtedly find an audience in a number of other communities, including the Latino, LGBT, and both young adult and adult readerships.
What did you think when you first read that observation? Has he been proven right?
JUSTIN TORRES: Rigoberto González is an excellent writer and it was such a treat to find out he’d reviewed the book. I do remember reading the review, but don't remember this line. But then, I don’t read reviews of my own work too closely. I can’t. My eyes are near shut from wincing in anticipation of a vicious take down.
I can say, anecdotally, that quite a few high school teachers have found me on Facebook, or tracked down my email, to let me know that they were indeed teaching the novel. But I’ve also heard from those who say they wish they could teach it, but the adult content is too heavy, or serious, or explicit, etc. Or they teach certain chapters and not others. On the whole, I’d assume González is probably right. Adolescent sexuality is generally considered dangerous material for high schools to address in literature, which makes queer adolescent sexuality near toxic. He’s also right about the book finding an audience through word of mouth in queer and Latino communities, and many undergraduate and graduate college writing classes, and these are all my people, and it makes me damn proud.
DO: We the Animals centers on family life of three brothers and their often bickering parents (Puerto Rican father, white mother) where money, food and hope are in short supply. The youngest brother is struggling and attempting to hide his sexuality even as he sneaks off to public restrooms looking for partners. You’ve said that your novel is loosely autobiographical. How have your family members reacted to it? Have you been surprised by their responses?
JT: Ha! What a question! Are you asking if my parents think I’m a toilet freak? I don't know. We’ve never talked about that part of the book. I do know that my family members have been variously hurt, amused, bemused and delighted. I know they’re proud of me and I know they take issue with certain aspects of the book I’ve written. I have felt humbled and honored by their grace, by both the questions they ask and the questions they don't ask, and surprised by the support they’ve shown. I created a fictional family with major similarities to the family I grew up with, and yet this is a profoundly different, profoundly fictional family. I wanted to say something true about familial love and familial failings, and I felt the best way to reach that truth was fiction. I think, I hope, they get that.
DO: We the Animals just won the 2012 Cabell First Novelist Award which honors an outstanding debut novel published during a calendar year. I am told that you are the first Latino writer to win this prestigious award which will culminate with you being honored in November at a festival held at Virginia Commonwealth University, the sponsor of this award. Since you will be participating in various panel discussions and workshops during the festival, are you doing anything to prepare for it? Do you have any thoughts about being a “first”?
JT: The list of finalists and semi-finalists for the VCU Cabell Award included just magnificent writing. I never expected to win, and man it felt great when I did. I have done nothing to prepare, as of yet, but in general I’m pretty terrible at prepared remarks. I much prefer spontaneity and interacting with audience questions. Also, I’m more frank, and crass, and honest, if I’m not given time to prepare. As far as being a “first” goes, I always hope that whatever success the book has makes it easier for other writers, and other books, that may be marginalized from the literary center to find publishers and audiences.
DO: You’ve attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and you were a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. How did participation in two prestigious writing programs shape We the Animals? How did your fellow students react to your writing?
JT: Iowa and Stanford are very different programs, but they share utter devotion to the written word — the faculty, the students, the administrators, everyone cares deeply about literature, and the primary goal of both programs is nothing more than to support and nurture young writers. This is incredible. One could argue forever about the workshop model, and people love to talk about whether or not to get an MFA, and whether MFAs are ruining literature, but I know that in my case I was 28 and desperately broke. They paid me to write. Enough said. And this is not to mention the mentorship, the fellowship, the drunken, sincere, conversations about similes and structure, the melding of tastes and the necessity to constantly articulate and defend my own literary tastes and choices.
DO: How long did it take you to write We the Animals? How did you place your manuscript? Did the process surprise you?
JT: The book took five or six years to write, I say five or six because I never sat down and thought, I’m going to write a book. I started slowly. I actually finished right before arriving at Stanford, and was lucky enough to have published some stories by then, and through those stories, my agent found me. So I handed the manuscript off, she sent it out to editors, I met with a bunch, and clicked with Jenna Johnson, my editor. I dread talking about this side because it was easy for me, I had choices all along the way, and that is just not how it usually works. There are so many brilliant, successful authors who suffered through years of rejection. Rejection is the norm.
DO: Did you work closely with an editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt? How did that experience compare with the workshop setting?
JT: Jenna is phenomenal, and we’ve become very close. She had key insights, but the book was short and tightly written, there was no major overhaul or anything like that. I was the same in workshop, by the time I handed something in, likely it was going to be as polished and near finished as I could manage. I’ve never been one to let people near my early drafts, not editors or classmates.
DO: I found heartbreaking your narrator’s plight of being deeply in the closet to his family. When did you come out to your family? How did that experience influence or inspire you as a writer?
JT: That’s a long, rather tragic story. My “coming out” was different than the narrator’s, but similar enough that to go into specifics would be too much of a spoiler, I think.
DO: You’re now in a position to share knowledge with budding writers. What advice would you offer a young person who has the drive and passion to write fiction?
JT: You know, I hate giving advice. And the young person you’re describing who “has the drive and passion to write fiction” needs no advice. Go for it. What I think you mean is, do I have any advice on how to get published? All I can say is that I had no expectations when I started writing, I wrote out of passion, or obsession. I wrote to break my own heart. I did not write to get published, I’d never heard of Iowa or the Stegner Fellowship. I didn’t know such things as literary agents existed. I took a writing class, and I loved the teacher and the other writers, loved reading my words aloud. I read a lot and I wrote more. I tried to break other hearts besides my own. I had fun with the work, and sometimes it felt like torture. I tried to be honest. I tried to write with beauty.
DO: You’ve had many jobs on your road to becoming a published writer including working as a farmhand, a dog-walker, a creative writing teacher, and a bookseller. Are you still doing odd jobs, or do you now have the luxury of being a fulltime writer?
JT: Right now I am a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard. They give me an office and stipend and the only expectation is that I spend the year writing. It is the oddest, most gloriously luxurious “job” I have ever had. After this year, I'll have to get a real job.
DO: Are you working on a new novel?
JT: Yes. Slowly.
DO: All right, for my last question, I want to note that Salon named you one of the sexiest men of 2011, noting in part: “The intense, soulful gaze on his author photo, one that had literati across Brooklyn dreaming of meeting those empathetic eyes, earned Torres a second MFA — as our Most Foxy Author of 2011.” Will this honor be noted in the paperback edition of We the Animals?
JT: I don’t think it’s on the paperback but thank you for bringing this up! I try to work this into most conversations, but it can be awkward. Like someone will ask, “Do you want anything from the fridge?” And I'll respond, “I was voted fourth most sexiest man of 2011, after Thom Yorke.” See what I mean? Awkward.