by Jonathan Gotsick and Stephanie Wilson Rothfuss
Justin Torres would like to clear up one issue, something he gets asked about at every reading. For the last time, people: he fucking loves semicolons.
Okay, Torres is not usually harangued about punctuation. Most people (outside of grammar nerds like your Hot Metal Bridge editors) want to know: How much of We the Animals—his debut novel about three brothers navigating a familial wilderness of fear, violence and love—is real? He is the narrator, right?
We the Animals has received wide critical acclaim (you can read our glowing review here), cracked the New York Times bestseller list, and been translated into a dozen different languages. And while there’s no literary prize for being a good sport, Torres—who has been a Wallace Stegner and a Radcliffe Fellow, as well as one of “Salon’s Sexiest Men of 2011”—would certainly be deserving of the award. He was jetlagged, fresh off the plane from a literary festival in Bali (yes, Bali!), when we ambushed him with an interview on the drive in from the Pittsburgh Airport. We can attest that he is just as engaging, intelligent, and (to borrow his phrase) emotionally truthful in person as he is on the page.
And, he really does love semicolons.
Hot Metal Bridge: Where did the idea for the chapter headings in We the Animals come from?
Justin Torres: I think I was very conscious of not writing a conventional kind of coming-of-age novel. I wanted to do something poetic and fragmented, so I think that the chapter headings set off each chapter, vignette, or episode. They announce it in a way that marks it as not a traditional novel, and instructs or informs the reader to read these as isolated episodes as much as they’re in connection with each other, versus if they had just been Chapters One, Two, Three, and Four–which suggests that there’s a chronology.
HMB: Some of the chapters were published as short stories, right?
JT: Yes, a few of them were published as stories. Some were published together, like two or three at a time. Others were published on their own as short stories. I think that the nature of them is more like beads on a necklace—they’re each their own thing and when you put them together it makes an object. It makes a novel, but it’s not dependent on the order of the chapters so much, except for at the very end.
HMB: So was the book intended as a novel originally? Was that your project all along?
JT: No. I didn’t sit down one day and think, “I’m going to write a novel.” I just started writing and eventually I had a critical mass of these little episodes, and I said, “What do I want to do with this?” I knew that I wanted to put them together into a book, but I knew that I didn’t want to write a plotted novel. I wanted it to be different, more poetic and loosely structured. So I spent a long time thinking about structure. Structure was probably one of the most difficult things, but because there’s this plural voice—this we, which moves into the singular voice, the I at the end—I think that that was enough movement in lieu of plot. Not that nothing happens in the book—it does—but it’s not plotted in a traditional sense.
HMB: Yeah, the book isn’t plot-driven, but it’s rich with incident, let’s say. The idea of voice being the driver of the novel creates plot in its own way. Is that fair to say?
JT: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of tension and a certain amount of suspense that rises up out of the language. I think that if a writer can really nail language and make it vivid and make it come alive then the reader will align themselves with that because it seems like something true and real. And because these are boys that we’re worrying about, there’s a kind of protective instinct–what happens to these boys or what they have to say itself becomes a source of tension. I hope that the reader just wants to hear the voice of the book, wants to see what happens, is concerned about the boys, versus necessarily needing to figure out what’s going to happen, if that makes sense.
HMB: Yeah, when the boys were smashing the tomatoes with mallets, for example, the mother’s reaction, or non-reaction, seems like cause for concern.
JT: I think that there’s a sense of violence and passion in this household and in this family that’s always mixed with love and beauty, and parsing that out is what keeps you on edge, I hope.
HMB: The boys seem open to whatever happens, so the reader maybe is as well.
JT: I think the boys are always ready for things to be okay. They’re also ready for things to be insane and violent and wild—it’s that vulnerability that is also their openness. They’re open to whatever their parents are going to give them at any moment. They’re ready to be loved; they’re ready to be wild and run around like crazy.
HMB: What changes did you make between the time the book was picked up for publication and the actual publication?
JT: Not too many. I guess I’m a bit shy about showing work. I’ve always been like that, so even in a workshop by the time I’m ready to show something to people it’s probably very close to as far as I can take it. So when the book was finished and then went out there wasn’t a lot on my end that I was willing to tinker with. I met with a bunch of different editors and they all were like, “Oh we love it, we just need another hundred pages to smooth out the end.” And then I met with my editor and we were talking for a while about the book, and I was like, “You want me to add a hundred pages, right?” and when she said “no,” I was like, “You’re a genius, this is going to be perfect. Let’s work together. You’re my editor.” And we did work together. Her main thing was to rearrange a few of the chapters because she thought certain things spoke to each other better if they were right next to each other and that sort of thing. We also worked a little bit on the ending of the book, and she also wanted some more markers of where the book was located.
HMB: Geographically? In time?
JT: Yeah, because I wanted the book to have absolutely no sense in that way. I wanted it to exist in a kind of timeless anywhere. I looked at a lot of mythology and fairy tales, and in those it doesn’t matter where the action takes place—it takes place in the woods, you know what I mean? The Greek myths don’t need to be in Greece; they’re about essential unchanging characteristics of people and nature and the gods and the interplays, and in We the Animals I wanted the focus to be on the family in that way. That’s why there aren’t a lot of peripheral characters in the book. I didn’t want it to be about the eighties. I didn’t want it to be about upstate New York. But she convinced me to put a line or two or three that announces those details, because she thought otherwise it was too distracting for the reader to try to figure it out.
HMB: There’s a line of dialogue in one of the early chapters where the boys are imitating their father, and they say, “Who’s your daddy?” Was that kind of like a time marker?
JT: Yeah, there are certain things that you can’t avoid. There’s “who’s your daddy,” there’s a VCR in there, which I felt was so specific and I wanted to not have it, but I couldn’t figure out a way to have the scene that I wanted to have without it.
HMB: There’s a Gallagher reference…
JT: But it doesn’t say Gallagher, and that was the thing: I tried to get rid of all proper nouns. I don’t think there are any proper nouns in that way. There’s no McDonalds, that sort of thing.
HMB: The reception to the book has been pretty amazing. What’s the impact been like?
JT: I have such whiplash. I am so far from where I was when I started writing this book. When I started writing the book I was completely broke and just doing whatever to get by, which is very different from my life now. I had dropped out of college, I was sort of wandering the earth trying to keep myself fed, and now I’ve got this great gig at Harvard, I just got back from Bali… I think that maybe I’m too easy on myself, but I’m allowing myself to enjoy this time. Am I getting a lot of writing done? No, not at all. Do I wish I was getting more writing done? Yes, of course. But I’m very aware that this is my fifteen minutes and I might as well enjoy it. Obscurity is always there for you, right? I’m not worried about this going on forever, but while it’s happening it’s kinda great, you know? I complain a lot because I’m a complainer—oh I have to get on another plane—but it’s great.
HMB: Are you satisfied with the book?
JT: I think that the nature of all artistic disciplines—writing, painting, whatever—and all artists, is that you’re always aware of the idealized version of what you set out to do, and then you’re confronted with the reality of what you can do. I actually wanted to be a painter for a long time, but the space between what I knew I wanted to do, the beautiful art that I wanted to make, and my capabilities was such a vast space that I had to give up painting. With writing, and through constant revision, I can often get to something that is satisfying although maybe not what I set out to do. There are flaws in the book that I see, but I know that when I put the book out into the world it was actually the best that I was capable of at that time, and I feel comfortable about that. So I stand behind it, but some years have passed since I finished writing it, and I think that as that distance grows you always start thinking about what you would do differently, or what you’re going to do differently in the future.
HMB: Much of the language and the writing in the book is extremely poetic. Do you write poetry?
JT: I don’t write poetry. I think I respect poetry too much to try and write it. I do read poetry. I admit it’s been a big influence on me. Poetry takes a complex truth about human nature and marries it to a very specific image. Not all poetry but the poetry I like, narrative poetry, does that very well, and does it in a very condensed and precise way.
HMB: Are there poets that you recommend?
JT: I’m not insanely well-versed in poetry, so it’s not like super-obscure people or anything. I like Rita Dove a lot. She’s amazing. I really like Anne Sexton, I really like C.K. Williams. There’s a part of the end of We the Animals that’s based on an Emily Dickinson poem. The kind of stuff you would come across in big anthologies of modern American poetry.
HMB: Some readers have observed that you use a lot of semi-colons in your work. Is this a poetry thing? Is it even accurate?
JT: When the book came out one of the very first reviews I got was in the New York Times and I was so excited. It was in the daily paper, before the Sunday Times review. It was written by Charles Isherwood, who usually reviews for the theatre, and he made fun of my use of semi-colons, and it was funny because in the early days my friends would always be teasing me about semi-colons, but I fucking love semi-colons and I completely stand behind my use of them. It was generally a positive review, but there was this little bit of ribbing about how much I love semi-colons. But I pay a lot of attention to sentences, and semi-colons are kind of amazing. They hug the clause, you know, and then they introduce the next clause…I just think they’re beautiful looking. I totally geek out on punctuation in general.
HMB: There are large gaps in time and point of view at the end of the book. Was it always written that way or had you included more moments of adolescence and then taken them out?
JT: No, it was always written that way, and it is a bit of a shock. It’s the aspect of the book that I get the most negative or critical feedback on. A lot of people just really don’t like it, because if you read a lot of novels, especially coming-of-age novels, they just don’t do that. They don’t jump ahead in time like that. It’s kind of unexpected, but I wanted it to function as a punch in the gut. I wanted the feeling of this narrator being ejected from the family to be as shocking as it was to the narrator himself. I wanted to do something different with structure, and I wanted the style and the structure to mimic and inform the content, so that—that space—is what the book’s about.
HMB: Yeah, it’s jarring, but the whole situation would be jarring for the character.
JT: Exactly, and it’s saying something about how one day everything ends, one day everything goes to shit. It’s not everybody’s experience that you have the slow process of individuation and you come into your identity. It’s a lot of people’s experience, it’s been written about a lot, but for some people, shit happens and then one day everything’s different. I think that was the kind of book I wanted to write.
HMB: That would be the point when you’d meet a lot of resistance in a workshop, most likely.
JT: I never workshopped the novel like that, so that didn’t happen to me in workshop, but it definitely happened to me when I sent it out to all those editors. My editor understood why I wanted it to function the way it functions, though. I really wanted it to be a small book.
HMB: Are there other works of fiction about youth or growing up that you really admire? Did you reference them while writing the book?
JT: Dorothy Allison wrote a book called Bastard Out of Carolina, and when I read that book as a teenager it was just a huge, monumental book for me. I felt like I really understood the way in which this family loved and hurt and failed each other, and needed each other, and I felt like I hadn’t read anything like that before so it was a really big deal. That said, it’s a completely different book than mine. She’s an amazing writer and it’s beautifully written, but it’s more of a traditional coming-of-age plotted book. When I was writing We the Animals I didn’t really think too much about books on childhood. I know that I’ve read a lot of them, but when I was looking for things to study and model and imitate it was more like things that were working with the short form, things that were working with episodic links: Stuart Dybek, all of his writing but The Coast of Chicago in particular. Grace Paley is another author who returns to the same characters quite a bit and writes really condensed and precise things. So I was writing about childhood but I think that sometimes you don’t want to look at anything that’s too close to what you’re doing. It’s easier to look at things that are maybe stylistically or structurally similar to what you’re doing but the content is different.
HMB: You mentioned Bastard Out of Carolina. There’s a working-class element to the family in We the Animals. Was that on your mind? Did class specifically inform the book?
JT: Yeah. I have an agenda in my own life. I’m a political person. I am somebody who thinks a lot about race and class and gender and sexuality and the ways in which we fail each other in society and what needs to change, and so if anything, the task that I had, one of the things that I really had to work on was to not be too didactic or pedantic, not to make the book into some kind of screed or rant, to make sure that it was fully human and not too symbolic. I think that the personal is political, as somebody who grew up working class, mixed race, queer. And all of that has informed the way I see the world, and I think I’ll always write books from that vantage point.
HMB: Can fiction be written from memory?
JT: I think all writers do that to one degree or another. I may do it to a degree that stands out to some people.
HMB: You get asked about this a lot…
JT: I get asked about this all the time. In a certain sense it’s a compliment because everything in We the Animals is made up. The hard facts of the book are extremely similar to my own life—I have two brothers, my parents had similar kinds of dynamics—but everything that happens in the book, the incidents, are made up. People are shocked and upset when they find out it’s made up. They think it’s a memoir.
HMB: They want to believe it’s real.
JT: Yeah, I think that from certain readers it’s a huge compliment when they say, “I can tell that this is real.” But I wish that there weren’t all these shitty memoirs out there that caused all this scandal, so there’s this obsession, this focus on catching memoirs telling a lie and fiction writers telling the truth, and there’s all this confusion about what’s what, and really whenever anybody sits down and tries to create a work of art that’s beautiful and poetic, what they are doing is using the tools of exaggeration and omission and word order and word choice and everything, and it’s all manicured and man-made. Nothing is just a photograph, so in that way it doesn’t matter. Is it beautiful? Does it feel true? Does it feel emotionally true? What turns me off more than anything is when something feels like a lie not because I don’t believe that it happened in the real world, but because I don’t believe that it’s emotionally true. There’s a certain kind of honesty that I look for and seek out in all writing, and it has nothing to do with what actually happens in the real world.