Subscribe to Granta today

Interview: Justin Torres

|

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. ■

Comments (40)

You need to create an account or log in to comment.

  1. Sinibaldi

    Tue Nov 29 16:02:51 GMT 2011

    El sonido silente.

    El sonido
    candoroso, el
    tierno pasado
    que canta en
    el sol regalando
    una rima.

    Francesco Sinibaldi

    #
  2. Valkea

    Tue Nov 29 19:56:04 GMT 2011

    ¿Desde cuando un puertorriqueño no es blanco?

    #
  3. Usman

    Sat Oct 25 13:20:02 BST 2014

    Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon.
    "https://www.fiverr.com/fawadyk/write-unique-seo-content-up-to-500-words"

    #
  4. johnsmith3755102

    Sat Oct 25 08:11:36 BST 2014

    All the people are already using the radio from the past to the present. There are so many types of radio development.
    <a href="http://titanempirescheats.com/">titan empires hack no survey</a>

    #
  5. alikhan_095

    Thu May 22 18:28:39 BST 2014

    I really enjoy simply reading all of your weblogs. Simply wanted to inform you that you have people like me who appreciate your work. Definitely a great post. Hats off to you! The information that you have provided is very helpful.

    system details
    http://ge.tt/9xpUUxP1/v/0

    #
  6. anabil

    Thu May 08 08:03:24 BST 2014

    Thank you so much for the post you do. I like your post and all you share with us is up to date and quite informative, i would like to bookmark the page so i can come here again to read you, as you have done a wonderful job http://www.gamesflash.cc/games25.html http://www.gamesflash.cc/games6.html http://www.gamesflash.cc/games7.html

    #
  7. alikhan_095

    Sun May 18 00:37:31 BST 2014

    Wow! Such an amazing and helpful post this is. I really really love it. It's so good and so awesome. I am just amazed. I hope that you continue to do your work like this in the future also.

    lingerie
    http://www.lingerietime.com.sg

    #
  8. .

    Tue Oct 07 18:57:41 BST 2014

    Pleasant information, important and exceptional pattern, since write about nutrients together with guidelines and methods, a lot of great information and creativity, equally that I need, thanks to present a really helpful tips in this article. http://vasectomy-cost.tumblr.com/

    #
  9. alikhan_095

    Fri Jul 11 22:26:24 BST 2014

    This post is very simple to read and appreciate without leaving any details out. Great work! You completed certain reliable points there. I did a search on the subject and found nearly all persons will agree with your blog.

    http://www.rebelmouse.com/girlfriendsystemreview/

    #
  10. johnsmith3755102

    Tue Oct 07 18:20:55 BST 2014

    Thank you for your post, I look for such article along time, today i find it finally. this post give me lots of advise it is very useful for me. nice granta i like it.
    <a href="http://yourdeptstore.com">gifts for him</a>

    #
  11. johnsmith3755102

    Sun Oct 12 13:48:28 BST 2014

    So, if you are thinking to create a blog, whether for business or for pleasure, you need to know some tips that could help you get through and make your blog one of the interesting blogs online.
    <a href="http://customstickershop.com/">jdm decals</a>

    #
  12. alikhan_095

    Sun May 25 15:51:36 BST 2014

    Really appreciate this wonderful post that you have provided for us.Great site and a great topic as well i really get amazed to read this. Its really good.

    get her to be your girlfriend
    http://www.rebelmouse.com/getthegirlcodereviews/

    #
  13. 4

    Mon Oct 13 12:36:16 BST 2014

    Pleasant information, important and exceptional pattern, since write about nutrients together with guidelines and methods, a lot of great information and creativity, equally that I need, thanks to present a really helpful tips in this article. http://vasectomycost0.wordpress.com/

    #
  14. johnsmith3755102

    Fri Oct 03 13:30:29 BST 2014

    This is really a amazing post. I couldn't have asked for a much better post than this. I am literally very pleased with this and I just hope that I will keep on getting such amazing posts!
    <a href="http://vaperanks.com/reviews/green-smoke-review/">GreenSmoke reviews</a>

    #
  15. alikhan_095

    Wed Jun 11 05:02:52 BST 2014

    After reading your article I was amazed. I know that you explain it very well. And I hope that other readers will also experience how I feel after reading your article. I feel very grateful that I read this. It is very helpful and very informative and I really learned a lot from it.

    http://www.rebelmouse.com/thetruthaboutcellulitereview/

    #
  16. alikhan_095

    Mon Jun 16 17:18:34 BST 2014

    I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article. I am hoping the same best work from you in the future as well. In fact your creative writing abilities has inspired me to start my own BlogEngine blog now. Really the blogging is spreading its wings rapidly. Your write up is a fine example of it.

    http://www.rebelmouse.com/lindaallenyeastinfectionnomore/

    #
  17. JOHN817726

    Sun Jul 20 22:11:17 BST 2014

    Such a very useful article. Very interesting to read this article.I would like to thank you for the efforts you had made for writing this awesome article.
    http://www.liputan6.com

    #
  18. sanaro

    Mon Oct 06 11:08:10 BST 2014

    Pleasant information, important and exceptional pattern, since write about nutrients together with guidelines and methods, a lot of great information and creativity, equally that I need, thanks to present a really helpful tips in this article. http://new-life10.blogspot.com/

    #
  19. alikhan_095

    Mon Sep 29 16:57:05 BST 2014

    I am a new user of this site so here i saw multiple articles and posts posted by this site,I curious more interest in some of them hope you will give more information on this topics in your next articles. Glad to chat your blog, I seem to be forward to more reliable articles and I think we all wish to thank so many good articles, blog to share with us.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WxJ7m2dwncQ

    #
  20. brightfuture

    Sat Oct 25 12:55:04 BST 2014

    Thanks for giving me this information. Keep posting. Ready to escape insomnia’s vicious cir¬cle and reboot your brain for sound sleep.
    <a href="https://www.fiverr.com/fawadyk/drive-unlimited-usa-traffic-for-one-month?funnel=2014102313122558212669740">Daily Traffic </a>

    #
  21. magancalvin

    Fri Jun 27 11:24:09 BST 2014

    Great post! I am actually getting ready to across this information, is very helpful my friend. Also great blog here with all of the valuable information you have. Keep up the good work you are doing here.
    Darren Harris
    http://kkgood.net

    #
  22. Allan

    Sat Oct 11 15:03:42 BST 2014

    Auto Mobile Code
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRPRY1dpACE

    Secret Millionaire Society
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQEC9_t-f5o

    My Cash Bot
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ULaVkwy251w

    Auto Mobile Binary
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WbD2UuM64j4

    Newbie Launch Formula
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jjnjQGm_o0

    223 Average People Made $1857 A Day for 90 Days With This Cash Bot! Can YOU? Watch This Video NOW! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ULaVkwy251w

    #
  23. alikhan_095

    Sat Jun 28 19:59:18 BST 2014

    I feel really happy to have seen your webpage and look forward to so many more entertaining times reading here. Thanks once more for all the details.

    https://www.rebelmouse.com/mikefiorecapturehisheartreview/

    #
  24. alikhan_095

    Mon Jun 30 14:07:15 BST 2014

    You actually make it look so easy with your performance but I find this matter to be actually something which I think I would never comprehend. It seems too complicated and extremely broad for me. I'm looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!

    http://www.rebelmouse.com/pregnancymiraclelisaolson/

    #
  25. johnsmith3755102

    Thu Sep 04 08:11:53 BST 2014

    I have bookmarked your website because this site contains valuable information in it. I am really happy with articles quality and presentation. Thanks a lot for keeping great stuff. I am very much thankful for this site.
    http://SEO-Conference.com

    #
  26. alikhan_095

    Sat Sep 06 12:45:36 BST 2014

    It is perfect time to make some plans for the future and it is time to be happy. I've read this post and if I could I desire to suggest you some interesting things or suggestions. Perhaps you could write next articles referring to this article. I want to read more things about it!

    https://www.rebelmouse.com/winningtheone/

    #
  27. johnsmith3755102

    Thu Oct 02 12:47:58 BST 2014

    We are really grateful for your blog post. You will find a lot of approaches after visiting your post. Great work.
    <a href="http://topcheapinsurance.com/cheap-home-insurance.html">cheap homeowners insurance companies</a>

    #
  28. alikhan_095

    Wed Oct 01 07:44:43 BST 2014

    I feel really happy to have seen your webpage and look forward to so many more entertaining times reading here. Thanks once more for all the details.

    http://www.bandg-service.com

    #
  29. dzeko

    Wed Oct 15 19:51:41 BST 2014

    Check the post http://www.rental-sewamobilbandung.com Sewa Mobil DimasRentcar , and don't forget please read valuable article http://arisnbw.blogspot.com/2014/06/dimasrentcar.html Sewa Mobil DimasRentcar , and don't forget please read valuable article http://yetax.edublogs.org/2014/08/21/dimasrentcar/ Rental Mobil DimasRentcar and best article http://ekadana.com/freeblog/irfanka/2014/06/23/sewa-mobil-dimasrentcar/ Sewa Mobil DimasRentcar http://www.rental-sewamobilbandung.com and article http://popcensus.nso.go.th/board/data/0255.html https://sourced.ecdf.ed.ac.uk/projects/see/xfemm/ticket/54549 Rental Mobil DimasRentcar and best post http://anmounthed.freefronthost.com/sewa-mobil-dimasrentcar.html Rental Mobil DimasRentcar and valuable post http://anmounthed.freefronthost.com/tempat-rental-mobil-innova-di-yogja.html Rental Mobil DimasRentcar . Please, Love it!

    #
  30. johnsmith3755102

    Sun Oct 26 12:49:24 GMT 2014

    Fantastic blog post. The post affects a lot of urgent challenges of our society. We can not be uninvolved to these challenges. This post gives good ideas and concepts. Very informative and practical…
    <a href="http://refinanciamento.com.br">Refinanciamento casas</a>

    #
  31. johnnycash

    Wed Oct 29 23:46:04 GMT 2014

    Source Phoenix
    https://www.facebook.com/sourcephoenixreviewed
    Source Phoenix Review

    #