Art Talk with Justin Torres
It’s rare that an NEA grantee doubles as one of Salon.com’s sexiest men alive. But for anyone who has read Justin Torres’s debut novel We the Animals, it’s clear that this is a rare writer indeed. Published in 2011, We the Animals is the story of how a pack of three young brothers navigate a world filled with paternal violence, maternal suffering, and ethnic otherness—their mixed-race background is painfully conspicuous in their white, working-class town in upstate New York. A fierce yet poetic account of childhood and its inevitable end, We the Animals garnered an NAACP Image Award nomination, the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, and was a finalist for a Publishing Triangle Award. Other work by the 2014 NEA Literature Fellow has also appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, and Harper’s, and Torres is currently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. We recently caught up with the author by e-mail to pick his brain about inspiration, autobiography, and his “stumbling” path toward creative expression.
NEA: What's your ten-word bio?
JUSTIN TORRES: Justin Torres is author of the novel We the Animals.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement with the arts?
TORRES: I remember a grade school art teacher drawing a random squiggle on my sheet of paper and instructing me to finish the drawing. I loved this assignment; I loved the sense of limitation and possibility; I loved imagining my way out of this problem; I loved that since the squiggle was made in thick marker, and my drawing was crayon, the original mark was clearly visible in the final product, like a scar.
NEA: What was your journey to becoming a writer?
TORRES: Can I just be honest about something? I've never been on a journey of becoming. I am suspicious of narratives that employ the "journey of becoming" rhetoric. Perhaps some people live their lives with the intentionality and purpose of a medieval knight; not I. I don't journey. I stumble passionately. Often, I stumble passionately toward art and creative expression, often I stumble passionately toward heartbreak and messiness. In my late twenties I stumbled into a creative writing group led by a brilliant and supportive teacher. He challenged me to put writing at the center of my life and I've done my best to heed his advice. I still find writing incredibly difficult. I still keep stumbling in wrong directions.
NEA: One of the distinctive features of We the Animals is the choice to tell the story primarily from the POV of "we." What led you to that choice? Was that your intention from the start, or did it develop over successive drafts? What did you gain from that that wouldn't have worked with first-person singular or another POV? In what ways did that choice limit you, if any?
TORRES: I think the first personal plural hints at childhood's blurred boundaries between self and siblings, self and family. The "we" is primary yes, but not total, and the more the narrator feels isolated or alienated from his family, the more he employs the pronoun "I." I made the choice early on to write from the "we" and there are obvious logistical and grammatical challenges, but I found the limitations of the point of view incredibly productive. I think I always find limitation encourages creativity.
NEA: We're working on an NEA Arts magazine issue on inspiration. How do you define "inspiration" and what's its role in your work?
TORRES: I'm in London at the moment, and yesterday I went to an excellent exhibit of Daumier's paintings and drawings. He was an exquisite caricaturist, and I've been thinking ever since about the exaggeration, phrenology, essentialism, about facial structures as landscapes, about stance and symbolism. I've been walking around and seeing Daumier's Laundress carrying her load and stooping to hold her daughter's hand in the poses and gestures of folks on the street. For dinner we went to a very crowded restaurant and I was overwhelmed by the variety of facial structure—I wanted to translate each face into a Daumier caricature. The exhibit had reminded me—inspired me—to look at and interpret the world of faces around me, to kind of locate and celebrate each face's exaggerated features. I don't know if any of this translates into direct literary inspiration but I'm hoping it will.
NEA: What inspires you? Do you think it's possible to create an atmosphere of or environment for inspiration? How?
TORRES: I think my main sources of inspiration are the artistic visions of others. That, and pain. I also enjoy eavesdropping. These things, pain and conversation, are everywhere around us, as are books and art. An atmosphere of inspiration is something I take for granted, it's an atmosphere of discipline and focus I struggle to build.
NEA: While We the Animals is not autobiographical, it does have elements of autobiography in it. What's the relationship between art and autobiography in your work? In the arts in general?
TORRES: I find it generative to create fiction from personal experience, to write close to the bone. But I write fiction. All day, all night, it's fiction, and I don't understand the obsession in parsing out what is and isn't autobiographical. Right now I'm reading My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec, which is a novel in which a novelist goes on a walk. The nameless narrator is somehow completely anonymous and completely personal, which is to say, the narrator is inhabitable, we're invited to explore his interior world even as he moves through and describes the exterior world. I don't care how much of the book is autobiographical; I've never cared when it comes to literature. I find the book to be a delightful imaginative invitation: assured, personal, fictional, and deep. I'd like for my writing to work like that.
NEA: Can you talk at all about the project you're working on now? Or at least about how your fellowship from the NEA will support that project?
TORRES: The NEA grant will allow me to work less on making money and work more on my second book. At certain point it is helpful to be completely immersed in the book. With the first book I had supportive programs—the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford—which allowed me to step off the world. It is such a luxury to ignore all other of life's demands and just lose myself in the creation of a book. For a crucial chunk of time, the NEA will afford me that luxury.
NEA: At the NEA, we say "art works" meaning works of art, the way art works on us as human beings and to acknowledge that artists are workers. What does the phrase "art works" mean to you?
TORRES: Well, I like the meanings you put forward quite a lot. I would add that art plays, art hurts, art truths, and art lies.