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Interview: Justin Torres

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Photo by Graham Plumb.

We The Animals by Justin Torres is a stunning debut novel narrated by the youngest son of a Puerto Rican father and white mother from Brooklyn raising their three young sons in upstate New York. At 128 pages, the book is a treasure chest of unforgettable images and haunting, tender moments. The brothers wrestle, laugh and cry as they try to make sense of their world, urging the reader to do the same. Justin spoke to Jennifer de Leon, a freelance writer and editor, about the line between autobiography and fiction in his work and casting a spell with language.

JD: We The Animals is your first novel. You have said the book is autobiographical and yet Paps isn’t your father and Ma isn’t your mother. Manny and Joel aren’t your brothers. You commit to the belief that ‘something magical happens as you filter personal experience through imagination and language.’ Can you elaborate?

When I started writing I was blissfully ignorant of the obsession with the distinction between fiction and memoir; I honestly, naively, did not realize that this would be the issue I am asked to address more than any other. I felt absolutely free to borrow from personal experience and I felt free to make shit up. I still feel that freedom. Though now when I write from personal experience I do so with a certain obstinate intentionality. I read Baldwin, and Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, was another huge influence. The stories of Grace Paley, Leonard Michaels, Junot Diaz, Raymond Carver, William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle – so much of the work I was drawn to was clearly reflective of the author’s own lived experience. Not that I ever spent much time researching author’s biographies (we’re talking pre-Wikipedia), what I mean by ‘clearly reflective’ is simply an attitude, an authorial stance, an emotional resonance, an emotional truth, that right away signaled to me, as reader, that the story arose in one way or another from lived experience. These folks were writing close to the bone. I didn’t have to look up the details of the author’s life and compare and contrast, nor did I feel any desire to do so. I sensed what was at stake, I appreciated it, and I felt inspired.

But the inspiration did not come simply from borrowing from experience; anyone can do that, and everyone probably does that, to one extent or another. The inspiration came from that aspect you reference in the second part of your question, filtering the personal through imagination and language. Tell Me a Riddle, the first time I could write about men on Mars or about a childhood similar to my own, but my goal would be the same: get the words right, cast a spell. I read that, I tell you, I was left breathless. Olsen just nails the voice, the rhythm, the tone and cadence. I wanted to nail the rhythm of my experience, the rhythm of family, the joyous, tribal language of brotherhood, the cadence of wonder and fear. I love voice; a deeply imagined and inventive voice does more for me than a fantastic plot or vivid setting. For me, the magic of fiction lies in the words chosen and the structure of the sentences. I could write about men on Mars or about a childhood similar to my own, but my goal would be the same: get the words right, cast a spell.

In one particularly horrific scene, Paps attempts to teach the narrator to swim by letting him go in the middle of the lake one night. You skip the violence, initially, and only come back to that moment at the very end of the story when the narrator is safe in his bed. The way in which you slow down time – rather than speed up or skip altogether – reminds me of Isaac Babel’s story, ‘My First Goose,’ in which a young soldier named Liutov brutally kills an old peasant woman’s goose. The moment is heartbreaking, poetic, and as Charles Baxter would refer to it, still. Can you discuss your impulse to play with stillness in your prose?

You’re exactly right that I wanted the moment of him underwater and flailing to be slowed down, still, and that’s why I moved it to the end of the story. I think when readers encounter violence, the suspense and concern for the characters motivates them to read quickly – but if you remove some of the suspense, you can shift the focus from ‘what’ happened, to ‘how’ it happened, how it felt. Violence and stillness are often at odds, I think, in fiction. I’ve read books that move from one violent encounter to the next without pauses, and I find them terribly numbing. I’ve also read books that feel like endless beautiful meditations without any threat of violence, and those books are often so still as to be lifeless. Babel is a great example of a writer who gets it all in there – the grace and poetry and beauty alongside the gruesome.

In ‘Never Never Time’ the three brothers are seated at the kitchen table in their raincoats, smashing tomatoes and lotions with a small rubber mallet. Their mother walks in and notices the tomato and lotion streaking down their faces. You write: ‘She called us to her side and gently ran a finger across each of our cheeks, cutting through the grease and sludge. “That’s what you looked like when you slid out of me,” she whispered.’ I audibly gasped when I read this passage the first time. It is visceral. It is crude. I felt yanked into the kitchen, into the family dynamic where birth and death are looming everywhere. Is mine a reaction you are interested in provoking in the reader?

I could have written, ‘You appeared similarly when, after giving birth, I first held you.’ But it wouldn’t have had the same urgency as, Violence and stillness are often at odds, I think, in fiction. ‘That’s what you look like when you slid out of me.’ Polite conversation is almost never immediate. Luckily, the language I grew up hearing was frank, sometimes raw, and always colourfully immediate. The phrasing in your question is a perfect example, you describe being ‘yanked into that kitchen.’ So the best, most immediate answer to your question is yes, that’s exactly what I’m after; I want to yank everyone into that kitchen.

Yours is a book about family. You have said that in this family, everyone is deeply in love with everyone else. At the same time, they fail each other, they hurt each other. How does this idea relate to the overall dynamic you strive for in your fiction?

Well, that’s what we do, right? We love and we fail and we hurt and we love some more. You know, in my own life, when I would talk to people about my childhood, when I would try and describe my home, I would always try and describe everything, the humour and the pain and the passion; I could go on for an hour. Often, people would listen with well-intentioned interest, and then start giving me back this pop-psychology language, saying I had a dysfunctional family. What a simple, tidy adjective: dysfunctional. I kind of hate that word. I wanted to write a book about a family so complicated, so in love, and so flawed, that folks would resist easy categories. Of course, plenty of the reviews for the book use ‘dysfunctional’ in the first sentence, and I can’t stop that, but some reviewers, some interviewers, some readers at readings, talk about how difficult it is to classify this family. Some folks have come up to me and told me the book made them reconsider hardened resentments they were carrying around toward their own families – and I’ll tell you, I love those moments.

Are we done reading about this family?

I’m interested in writing about adults right now. Beyond that, there is no plan. ■

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