An Interview with Justin Torres

by Claire Jimenez and Laura Birdsall

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.

On Thursday, November 7th, Justin Torres came to read in the Gertrude and Harold S. Vanderbilt Visiting Writer series. He sat down with NR staff Claire Jimenez and Laura Birdsall.

LB: I wanted to talk about the nature of autobiographical fiction. I am wondering if once you’ve written the story, does the story begin to narrate your past? Psychologically, do you ever find that you’ve taken this narrative that you have written–that is maybe more concise and has more of an arc–and begun to replace the actual narrative?

Torres: That’s a good question. I think that I’m pretty good at separating what I do on a craft level and what is true to me on a lived experience level, which is to say the emotional truth that I’m writing about. I was trying to communicate in the book the emotional truth, as I’ve experienced it. I’m writing about love and chaos and family, and I’m writing about masculinity. When I’m writing about whatever thematic elements, I’m being honest, and so I don’t need to make that distinction. As far as what happens, I’m very aware that’s all fiction.

CJ: I saw a TED talk where you were talking about how writing the stories was not cathartic, how it was more painful because there was trauma involved. And I’m really interested in how trauma shapes narrative, like when it interrupts it and what it does structurally or to the voice and so, I wondered if any of that came into play?

Torres: Yeah, I guess the book is really fractured, and I think a lot of trauma narratives are told in a way that is not a very kind of linear straightforward causality. But maybe you get a lot of fractured segments, and you’re piecing it together because trauma wants to be tiptoed up to. It wants to be approached from different angles. You don’t want to stare at it head on. Also, I think that the idea of a central trauma is one that I’m very resistant to, a sort of explanatory trauma. I think that what happens to us in life is much more terrifying, all of these small disappointments and major failings, these moments of shame and fear, they add up. They add up to a sense of the traumatic. But very rarely is there a central explanatory event from which that narrative can move forward or move towards. So, I didn’t want to do that. Also, I feel a big part of the reason why I wrote this book is because I hate those clean narratives, those narratives about dysfunctional families. The idea that you would call this family abusive really angers me. I think it cheapens it. I mean there’s real abuse in it…

CJ: But it’s more complicated.

Torres: It’s much more complicated and much more nuanced.

LB: Well, it’s like power is fluid even within groups that are permanent units. I think that was what was really interesting to me about your novel. I mean the shifting power.

Torres: Yeah

LB: I feel like a thing that comes up in the MFA context a lot is like character’s motivations, you know, “What’s their motivation?” But it seems like – especially writing this very personal type of story – I almost think of it as an opportunity to figure out what my narrator’s motivations were. Like why did this person do these things? Because the process of writing is figuring that out. Do you find anything similar to that, you know going back retrospectively and trying to figure out motivations by writing, rather than having them going into it?

Torres: Well, again, I am careful about conflating the motivations of the real people in my life (which will always, always remain enigmatic to me. It’s just impossible for it to be otherwise. Like we don’t really get to get into somebody else’s head etc.) with the motivations of my character who I’ve invented whole cloth and who’s every motivation goes back to me. So, I found that in writing characters, in writing a father who wants to protect his children and who’s struggling and fighting the world and who also punches his kids in the face, in writing that person, I had to do a lot of empathic work. I had to do a lot of work in understanding motivations of a person like that in the world. I had to make them up in my head. And I found that to really kind of broaden me in this really nice way. It’s something I really enjoy about writing, but never do I extend that to my lived experience. It just doesn’t work that way. I think if I thought that, I would be headed down a really dangerous road. And actually, when I was talking to my father about this book, he said: “I could write a story, I could write a book.” And I was like, “You should. That would be amazing.” But it would be completely different. Narrative is a form of power, and if you’re good at it, it’s a really intense power and I’m aware of that. I’m also aware that to think that just because I can spin good narratives that I can also pin or nail somebody in real life down… No, that would be humorous. Does that make sense?

LB: Yeah.

CJ: I was interested in how you talked about how rhythm played such an important role in your writing. Where were you learning that from? Was it music? Was it other writers?

Torres: Yeah, it was music. I think it was poetry. I think it was other writers who pay attention to that in their own work. It’s just always the shit I want to read. One of my favorite stories is: “Tell me a Riddle” by Tillie Olsen. I’m always reading that. I’m always going back to it. And whenever I pick it up, I just can’t put it down because it’s so inviting. There’s such joy in the syntax. It’s kind of written in this Yiddish syntax. It’s really lovely to read and deep. So much of the meaning comes from the repetition of the words and the images and the syncopation. I love that stuff. I want to read that stuff all the time.

CJ: Yeah, like Grace Paley.

Torres: Yeah, she’s another one. She’s absolutely another one. Also, I have these crazy lyrics to songs stuck in my head. And I have this stupid recall. I have the worst memory. I’m like a goldfish, really. I have a terrible memory, but I have crazy recalls for like jingles, for like things from my childhood, for something I’ve heard on a radio maybe three times, in the back of a cab. Like there’s something about words set to music that are playing with rhyme or rhythm that just really stick in my head, and I find it really infectious. And I think that that’s good. I want to do that. I want to write something that someone wants to read aloud. I think that’s the highest compliment, is when people say they wanted to read my book aloud, or that they did read my book aloud. I think that’s beautiful.

CJ: That makes sense. That’s how they teach kids how to read, through rhyme and stuff like that.

Torres: Absolutely. My grandfather who stopped going to school when he was 12 or 13 to work can to this day recite all of this poetry, because when he was going to school that is exactly how they taught him to read. They forced memorization of poetry. But now he has all of this poetry that he still recites all the time. And I love it… There was a time when a lot of working class people knew a lot of poetry, and I guess that’s hip hop lyrics now. That would be the parallel.

LB: How much of your education was formal, and how much were you self-taught?

Torres: Well, I graduated from high school. I had a really amazing high school English teacher and when I was in the hospital she came and brought me books. And I owe her a huge debt of gratitude. My intellectual curiosity was really fed by her and really encouraged by her and kind of protected as well from how much instability there was in my life. Bringing somebody like Nietzsche to a mental hospital, it’s an act of such faith in that person, such faith in what literature can do. I get teary just thinking about it. And then I went to college, and I did not do well. I was just restless. I was doing drugs, and I was feeling myself, smelling myself. I dropped out of maybe five or six colleges. I kept on going back and dropping out again. I took a lot of classes in philosophy and history and things like that. I was never an English major. I didn’t have a standard education at all. Sometimes I feel those gaps and holes. My man went to Oxford and got his PhD in English from Princeton, like he is the canon. And I’m like: I don’t know that shit. I mean, I’ve read a lot of different things, because I love to read. I’ve also had a lot of creative writing education, because I went to Iowa and San Francisco. So, that’s like four years. And now I teach.

CJ: What’s the most important thing you want to teach your students?

Torres: I want them to take risks. I want them to engage with their own obsessions and terrors and shames and passions. I worry that often times I will read something that is so safe. I want them to live fuller lives. And I want there to be dignity in there, too. It’s not like I just want to read some awful heartbreaking soul wrenching misery, constantly, but like it’s painful to be alive. It hurts. And I want it [their stories] to engage with that in a way that feels risky and then also have kind of the grace and beauty and fullness of being alive. I don’t know if you can teach that. I think you can encourage that. And I think my approach to teaching is much more to kind of get them a little unsettled, a little bit hungry and a little bit bolder, than it is to teach them how to write. I don’t know if I can do that.

CJ: I read somewhere that you were thinking about an Emily Dickinson poem when you wrote We The Animals? Which one was it and how and why?

Torres: It’s the end of the book, the penultimate chapter. It’s the scene where the narrator has come at the family. He’s been shamed, and he’s tried to shame them back. There’s been this intense trauma, this moment. Then there’s this kind of peace, and there’s this kind of stillness. They start treating each other very tenderly. Even though good stuff isn’t on the horizon, they’re being sort of gentle. The brothers go out. They’re shoveling the snow, and they’re being good. The father’s bathing the son gently, and the mother’s folding the clothes. And everybody falls into these roles, being behaved and their best selves. The first line of the (Dickinson) poem is: “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” It’s this idea that I loved. I was like: yes, that is exactly true. This formal feeling settles in, and suddenly, you get your manners back. Suddenly, you’re just aware of yourself and others. I wanted to write exactly about that. And the imagery that Dickinson uses is winter imagery in that poem. So, in that way, I was directly engaging with that. And I often pick up a poem and if it really hits me, I’ll be like, why does this seem so true and what is the imagery they’re using to convey it? And then I try to use it, too.