Next Tuesday, October 25th, 7p, novelist Justin Torres will join us here at BookPeople to speak about and sign his debut novel which has met with tremendous acclaim from critics and booksellers alike, We the Animals. The chapters in We the Animals read almost like short stories, each one a gripping account, told from the perspective of a young boy, of the lives of three brothers growing up together in a chaotic household with unpredictable parents in upstate New York. Simultaneously capturing a sense of freedom, fear, hope, desperation, and rough-and-tumble boyhood, Torres has written a tough and beautiful story readers will not soon forget.
Recently, BookPeople’s Kester, one of the earliest readers of the novel here, had the opportunity to conduct this Q&A with Torres:
BookPeople: What’s your favorite book you’ve read this year?
Justin Torres: Gah, this changes all the time. Like, daily. I read Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman for the first time several moths ago, and I woke up this morning thinking about just how fantastic the book is; I’m eager to reread.
BP: What’s something a story must have in order to draw you in?
JT: Language is always what draws me into a story. I appreciate language that is crafted, elevated in pitch, unusually beautiful or charmingly dissonant, deliberately muddled or straight-forward and decisive, or shockingly clear, like standing water. I love the wrought psalms and proverbs of the bible as much as I love the playful clarity of Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairytales. (Hmm…those are just the first two examples that popped into my head, but it occurs to me that both are works in translation. So it must be more than the initial jolt of fresh language that gets me, it must also be language that is not only about itself, but about our moral world, language so honest it lends itself to universality.) I can appreciate the ironic, the wry, the too-smart-for-its-own-good, or a kind of detached middle-class alienation, but only if it sings–Lorrie Moore, for example, often wins me over–but what really knocks me dead every time is bold, honest keening. The heartbroken and the pissed, the explicit, those unafraid to get feeling down on the page. I remember reading Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle, when I was still an adolescent, too young really to grasp at all that Olsen was doing, but never had I loved a voice so much, never had I paid such attention to narration–and what hooked me was the yiddish syntax of the English sentences, but also the immediacy and tragedy of death and dying. Grace Paley, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Stuart Dybek, James Baldwin…give me a writer who can arrest me with their careful choice and arrangement of words, and let those words be soulful, let those words describe the soul.
BP: We The Animals is both a painful and poignant coming of age story. Would you agree that a good bildungsroman requires both elements and, if so, why?
JT: I’m not sure you can write poignancy without pain. That would be like painting with white paint on a white canvas. You’ve got to use all the colors to get at the poignant–pain is one of the darkest, and one of the most important.
BP: Do you have a favorite coming of age story?
JT: Heh…well…I’ve never cared for the term coming-of-age. I mean, I realize that I’ve written a book that falls under that umbrella category; I can’t escape the designation. But somehow if a book is recommended to me and then described as coming-of-age, my expectations for the book’s capabilities to tell me something fresh about the world are somehow lowered. When talking about one of my favorite books–Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, which pretty much saved my life the first time I read it–I would never describe it as coming-of-age, even though the book follows a young girl’s painful maturation. The book is about class, and violence in the family, about shame and love, and it’s a book so complicated and big that it defies easy categorization.
BP: You recently said, “fiction frees you to get at emotional truth.” Do you think that explains the move towards “creative non-fiction” of the Dave Eggers/James Frey variety? Could you see yourself writing a memoir of that sort?
JT: No. I didn’t write a memoir. I doubt I ever well. As far as creative non-fiction goes… really? Is that a thing? That sounds like something a politician would come up with. I think non-fiction, as a descriptor of a genre of literature, is a pretty lousy one to begin with. Who wants to define their work by what it is not? All literature is inherently creative. Journalism, reportage, is a tradition that is concerned with objectivity, but literature–essays, memoirs, stories, poems–all are firmly subjective. I never interrogate a poem for its factual accuracy, I allow the “I” of the poem to be the “I” of literature, a created, creative “I”, and I guess I approach memoir the same way, with a similar generosity.
BP: What would you call the “truest” memoir you’ve ever read?
JT: All that I just said in the last question, about how I approach memoirs, now I have to fess up: I hardly ever read them! Ha! I did recently read Ryan Van Meter’s, If You Knew Then What I Know Now, which is more a collection of personal essays than a plotted memoir about a specific event, and is absolutely stunning. And yes, Van Meter knows how to speak the truth.
Join us Tuesday, October 25th, 7p when Justin Torres reads from We the Animals and answers questions in person here at BookPeople.