With ‘We the Animals,’ Justin Torres Joins this Month’s List of Outstanding Literary Debuts

This month has already seen the release of a handful of highly-anticipated debut novels—Erin Morgenstern’s Harry Potter-killer The Night Circus, Chad Harbach’s long-in-the-making The Art of Fielding—but the most unconventional of the bunch is easily Justin TorresWe the Animals. At a slim 125 pages, Animals traces the story of an unnamed boy coming of age in Brooklyn alongside his two older brothers and mixed parents (his father is Puerto Rican, his mother is white). The book eschews traditional novelistic narrative, instead unfolding like a series of intimate memories vividly recalled to life—memories that feel deeply personal.

Torres, a native of upstate New York and a graduate of the book-making factory that is the Iowa Writers Workshop, spent over five years perfecting We the Animals. (Read Torres’ excellent short story “Reverting to a Wild State,” which appeared in the New Yorker recently.) BlackBook caught up with Torres to talk about how his debut bends the definition of what the modern novel might be, how he got into the Iowa Master’s program without technically having a college degree, and the whiplash he’s felt transitioning from professional vagabond to a full-time writer with a two-book deal.

BlackBook: The boy We the Animals keeps a journal. Was that true for you growing up, too? Were you the kid constantly writing, lost in his own thoughts? Justin Torres: I wrote a lot as a child—stories, mostly. I got into a bit of trouble because I had no distinction between fiction and journaling. I’d allow myself to write real things and write made up things. I’ve always been like that. And when my journal was discovered, it didn’t present itself well to my mother. She didn’t know I was making shit up as well as telling the truth.

BB: Your biography says you’ve worked as a farm hand, dog walker, creative writing teacher, and bookseller. The last two make sense, but how on earth did you end up working on a farm? JT: [Laughs] I spent two summers working on this small organic farm in Virginia. I lived in this little shack with no hot water with a friend of mine. And, you know, it was kind of idyllic. But it was hard work for very little money.

BB: Did you…plow fields? JT: Absolutely. We worked in the fields. We picked vegetables, flowers. Most of it was shit work. Literally—we were shoveling shit. Well, fertilizing, I guess. I was 19 or 20 at the time, I had just dropped out of college and was just wandering, working odd jobs.

BB: So you’re a college dropout? JT: I’ve gone to like five colleges, all told, usually for very short periods of time. When I went to Iowa to get my MFA, I didn’t have my undergraduate degree, so I kind of had to stretch the truth—I said I’d have a degree by the time I showed up. I don’t think the workshop gave a shit, but after a year the university caught on to me and were like, ‘you need to get a college degree.’ So I took some online courses and racked up the credits I needed.

BB: People have been struggling to describe this book—is it a memoir? A novella? What have you been calling it? JT: It’s interesting. For some reason, there’s this real obsession with factuality in fiction. This book is fiction. I made it up. This is a fictionalized family. But it does mirror my own experience and the hard facts of my life—I also have two brothers, and my mother worked in a brewery. But it’s a work of art. Same thing for the novella-novel distinction—it’s a novel, but I think there is a lot of room in the definition of what is a novel. If it were up to me, though, it wouldn’t have a label. It would just be a book. People could pick it up and experience it without those preconceived notions of what is or isn’t a novel. Because there is a conventional novel, and this is certainly not that. BB: Do you think people are becoming more open-minded when it comes to what makes a novel? Paul Harding’s Tinkers was unconventional and ended up with the Pulitzer Prize. Do you think that book helped pave the way for yours? JT: I like that connection. I haven’t heard anyone else say that. That’s a great book. There have been some small books lately that have been coming out and connecting with people. Paul was actually at Iowa when I was there; he was teaching a literature seminar that met at like 4 o’clock. I remember the day he found out about the Pulitzer—he must have found out at like 3 o’clock, and then we all had class. And, since it was Iowa, we all instantly knew he won it. I bought a couple of bottles of champagne and we showed up to class and he was just in shock. He sold it to this tiny publishing house for $1,000 and then it won the Pulitzer. It was great to witness that moment.

BB: The whole book feels deeply personal. Did your childhood provide the vague groundwork for this book, or did you actually draw on specific memories—like that moment when the dad forces the boy to learn to swim by nearly drowning him. JT: No it’s not that specific. For that swimming scene, I wanted to write about the trial-by-fire approach to parenting. But is that something my father would have done? Maybe. [Laughs] But I don’t have that kind of memory. My memory of my childhood is very murky. There are definitely certain moments I remember but I didn’t want to put them in the book because I wanted to protect my family. With this book, I wanted to make a myth out of my experience. It’s funny…people keep saying, ‘This felt so real, surely this must have happened to you.’ But no—all of these incidents are invented.

BB: There’s something condescending in that fact, too, when people insist you must have lived through it. You’re a writer. It’s your job to make these moments feel real. JT: Yes! Exactly. I’m trying not to be defensive about it. I would never say that it’s condescending, but I’m glad you brought it up because I agree with you. [Laughs]

BB: The novel is almost entirely narrated in the ‘we’ perspective but then every so often you shift into the first person to highlight the boy’s feelings of isolation. JT: Absolutely. You have this pack mentality with the brothers, who are all close in age. But then there are these moments in the book where the character realizes he’s a little bit different—he’s queer, but as a child you don’t conceive of yourself that way. But there is this awareness of separation. And then he sinks back into that ‘we’ feeling of being in a family. I didn’t want to write the traditional coming-of-age story where the characters keeps growing, growing, growing and then has this transformative moment where he realizes his identity. That wasn’t my experience. It’s more interesting to me when that sense of belonging is always fluctuating.

BB: It’s sort of the opposite of a coming-of-age novel, actually—because as he grows older, he loses his family and identity. JT: Exactly.

BB: It’s interesting you used the phrase ‘pack mentality.’ Was that what you were driving at with the title, We the Animals? JT: I wanted to set that tone with the title early on. I wanted to display that this family are all animals, and have moments where they treat each other savagely. But I wanted to include all of the elements that make us human, too…the moments of grace, compassion and tenderness. All of those little moments.

BB: The interplay between the three brothers reminded me of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Have you seen that? JT: No, but people keep asking me about it! I’m dying to see it. I was in Alaska when it came out. As soon as I got back I’ve been so busy, but people keep saying this book reminds them of it. I want to see it. But I’ve been a little…distracted lately. [Laughs]

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