Devil’s Lake


Interview with Justin Torres

Q: You’ve said elsewhere that you think readers get too caught up in whether or not prose is true. I’ve heard that Tayari Jones says readers always try to catch a fiction writer telling the truth, and catch a memoirist telling a lie. Can you talk more about what your experience has been with that and your new book, We the Animals?

I really like that quote from Tayari. There’s a lot of truth to that. Again, I’m really just not that interested in that distinction. I think they are distinctions for publishers, and it’s a way of marketing books, but a lot of interesting work moves outside of whatever kind of category it’s supposed to be in. The book that I wrote is very short, episodic. Some people say those are prose poems. I don’t think they are, but it’s not a distinction that worries me. Good literature, good writing, is that: it’s good. And it’s good because it is telling the truth in an inventive way. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing nonfiction or fiction or poetry, you’ve got to be telling some kind of truth, and you’ve got to be creative. You’ve got to be telling it beautifully.

Q: In your book, the shift back and forth between “We” and “I” for the nameless narrator is really significant, in terms of signifying the narrator’s distancing from the pack, from his family. I’m curious, did anyone in a workshop ever tell you, no, that’s not working?

I had most of the book written before I got to Iowa [Writer’s Workshop]. Everybody loved the chapters I already had, so the “We” to “I” thing wasn’t something that ever came up that I remember. I think people kind of took it on its own terms.

I think, honestly, that workshop is most useful for writers to critique other work. To see what other people are trying to do, and to figure out how you would tackle that problem. When you’re giving advice in workshop to somebody, you’re really just saying, “This is what I would do,” which is a great kind of experience as a writer. And I think it’s helpful because everybody’s getting together to talk about literature. But I remain unconvinced that a committee is writing the story. I think authors know what they’re doing before they get there, and the feedback is interesting, but I’m not sure that I made a lot of changes. Which doesn’t say that I didn’t benefit from workshop, because I did, but it was more the act of critiquing that was beneficial for me, as well as the conversations that happened outside of workshop. (I worry about saying these things while still in workshop!)

Q: I was really interested in the ways you handled writing about the child—the narrator—whose queerness is signified to the reader in small ways early on that slowly emerge into consciousness. Can you talk more about your process of how you developed that sense of queerness, of difference, in the narrator?

That’s interesting because, for me, the narrator is always queer. And for me, the book is a very queer book in its sensibility, in the way it’s looking at family, at violence in family, at misogyny, at the cultural devaluing of the feminine in general, but also especially in boys and in men. It was very deliberately queer for me. He participates in all the violence, all the machismo, because he has no choice: he has to. But I wanted to show that he had a certain squeamishness, and those were usually the “I” moments, when he was not convinced fully; not wanting to be the boy he’s expected to be.

There are straight people who I meet at readings who would say, “I just couldn’t believe when I got to the end. I was so shocked. I didn’t see it coming.” They read the narrator as über-boy. For me, that’s a bit of a success; it’s kind of gratifying, because on the one hand, it’s so obvious to me that this boy is queer. But on the other hand, I did want the structure of the book to create a shock. The family itself is shocked; there is this certain kind of dramatic all-of-a-sudden. The whole family has to deal with the sexuality of the narrator, so to replicate that for a reader is something that I wanted.

I had somebody come up to me at a signing and say, “I love this book. I was going to share it with my family, and then I got to the end, and I was like, why did you do that?” He was angry. I said, “I hope you still get it for your mom.” And he said, “I would never buy this for my mother.” But he still wanted me to sign his book.

Q: I wanted to talk about the title. Hearing it, I can’t help but think of “We the people” and its attendant hopes for justice, domestic tranquility, and so forth—which seems like such a striking and poignant evocation for this book, in which we see a family strive to be better even as it fails. And to modify it to “animals” suggests something subhuman. Where and how in the process did the title emerge?

One of the things about covers and titles, I realized, is that it’s really a committee thing. A lot of people have to sign off on the cover and the title—there are a lot of cooks in that kitchen. I didn’t really have a working title. I sort of backed into the whole thing; it took me awhile to realize I was writing a novel. So the title was really not until the very end. My agent said, “I’m sending it out tomorrow, what do you want to call the book?” So I came up with a title that I knew was not going to work. It was a terrible title, but that’s what it sold as.

And then, with my editor and my agent and a lot of people, we had to talk about what the themes were, and the animal theme was something that worked throughout the book, and so that title was one on a long list of titles. Initially it was We, the Animals, with a comma. And it turned out my publishing house had just published a book called We, the Drowned, so they rejected it but said they liked it and asked us to take out the comma. So we did. I like the title. I think if I had had it as a working title throughout, I’m not sure that I would have shown as many explicit animal references—I think it hits a little hard—but as far as the animal stuff in general goes, my hope is that by the end of the book, the characters are so fully human, so complicated, that you are like, no. They’re not animals.

Q: I was going to ask you what you’re working on next, but you’ve said elsewhere that you refuse to think long-term. Planning aside, are there new topics and/or themes that you feel drawn toward now? What are your current obsessions? What are you reading lately?

I wrote two stories, one in The New Yorker, the other in Harper’s, which was huge for me because I worried that I was going to be a one-hit wonder. This book got much more attention than I ever expected it to, and I worried that people wouldn’t like anything else I ever wrote. So it was huge for me to have those stories go out into the world and to hear nice things from people about them. And those stories I think are very similar in their content and theme, about a sex worker and early adulthood, so I don’t know—I’m not sure I’ve exhausted that yet. Who knows what will happen with the next book.

I’m reading this amazing book called Sex Variants, published in 1941, and it’s just incredible. There are all of these homosexual case studies and bisexual case studies and a lot of them are hustlers. It’s like a pseudo-science, early kind of psychiatry, early sociology, it’s everything. Somebody undertook this massive study of sex variants, transgender people, transsexuals, I mean kind of in their own weird vocabulary. The most incredible thing is that they have people talking about their own experience. So you get this multiplicity of voices in there: there’s this really offensive scientific stuff, but then there are moments when they’re just transcribing what these people say about their own lives, and it’s just wonderful. Their language is just so beautiful, and it’s kind of that 1930s rough and tumble. It’s a wonderful tour through the sexual deviant world that was completely ignored and had no light shone on it whatsoever. So that’s something that I’m reading. I was working at a bookstore in San Francisco earlier this year, and these people would drop off books, and someone dropped that off, and I was just like, “ahhh!” So that’s my current obsession, sex deviants of the 1930s.

Suddenly people want me to blurb their books, which I think is hilarious, because I’m like, I’m nobody! So I’m reading things that aren’t published yet. And there are books I’m buying but don’t have the time to read. One is The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka. I bought it awhile ago and now it’s finalist for the National Book Award, which just got announced, and I want to read it even more. There’s a book called The Brother’s Lot by Kevin Holohan. I was on a panel with him and I’m eager to read it. I am also reading the works of Denton Welch, a gay writer who died in 1948 at a very young age. Somebody in the audience of one of my readings in Washington, DC, sent me all of his books in the mail. It’s great stuff.

Q: How has your new limelight affected your writing process?

I don’t really know just yet. I’m so busy right now; I’m still on tour for the book. Tomorrow I fly to Salt Lake City and then I fly to Austin. I’m tired. Right now I can’t write—since the book’s been out, I’ve been vastly unable to write. I’m still doing the Stanford [Stegner Fellowship] thing, so I read other people’s work and go to workshop once a week, and I’ve got to blurb people’s books, and do interviews. It’s endless. So I don’t write right now. I don’t know what it will be like when I sit down to write. I’m pretty confident that it’s not going to be that big of a deal. The book got way more attention than I ever thought. I’ve actually gotten job offers. But the fifteen minutes are over. Once I’m settled and not flying all the time, I don’t anticipate anything big.

Q: What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written? What was so bad about it? I think, for other writers, it can be comforting to be reminded that everyone writes duds!

I wrote nothing but crap until I started writing this book. I wasn’t really writing or taking myself seriously until I started writing this book. And so when I would write things, they were so angsty! I wrote that second story line (for We the Animals) that was total crap and will never see the light of day. I write so slowly. It’s not like I have a ton of things on the back burner. What I’ve written has been published, so mostly I don’t have any thing else. I’m really, really slow. I write line by line and sentence by sentence, but it’s not really productive, but if something isn’t working, I’m not writing it. I don’t produce a ton of drafts—I work super super slow so that I don’t have to. If the drafts are being produced, then they’re right. If I write a sentence one day, and the next day the sentence doesn’t work, I just delete it. My utter and complete laziness prevents me from producing more things. I don’t know what to say about that. I’ll think, “Everything I write is crap.” Then I’ll think, “No, it’s not anymore!” This is the way it works.

Q: What has been your family’s response to the book? Have they read it?

Oh, the family question. It’s been good. I mean, initially, I’ve had some conversations with them—my mother—where there were tears, whatever, but she loved it. I don’t think she will ever read another book. She will just read that one over and over. She gives it to people all the time. She’s just so super proud. My brothers object to some things in the book, but they are supportive. We love each other, we’re loyal to each other. I got a text from each of them. We’re not super close. My father I hadn’t heard from until a week ago, which was weird, we don’t talk very often either, but I know that he knew. There was a lot of press about it and he listens to NPR. Finally I talked to him a week ago and he had read it and I think I was more hopeful... but we had a lovely conversation. It was complicated. It’s a complicated thing. But it went better than I ever thought it would.

JUSTIN TORRES was raised in upstate New York. His work has appeared in Granta, Tin House, and Glimmer Train. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he was the recipient of a Rolón Fellowship in Literature from United States Artists and is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford. Among many other things, he has worked as a farmhand, a dog walker, a creative writing teacher, and a bookseller.