Justin Torres, the author behind We the Animals, recently visited the KQED studios to record an episode of The Writers' Block. Get to know him a little better with this Q+A, in which he talks about the benefits of growing up with brothers, the Aztecs, and why he loves San Francisco.
We The Animals may be short, but it packs a mighty punch with its portrayal of the making and breaking of a family. What was the impetus behind the need to tell this story and what was the writing process like for you?
Justin Torres: This short book took years to write. I didn't really comprehend that I was writing a book at first, I just wrote fragments when I had a chance. Jackson Taylor, a wildly inspirational writing teacher in NYC, let me sit in on his classes and he was an enormous encouragement. His emphasis, and the emphasis of the class, was always on the words, the sentences, the rhythms -- and never the product. So my approach to the book was meandering and maybe a little stumbling, but I'm hopeful that such intense attention to language paid off.
You, like your protagonist, grew up with two older brothers. How did that family dynamic influence who you are today?
JT: My brothers buffered me from some pretty cruel treatment the world would have liked to inflict, and at the same time they beat the tar out of me. They taught me about loyalty and love, and they taught me how to take a punch.
What are the top three things you love about San Francisco?
JT: 1. The queers.
2. The bookshops: Modern Times in the Mission, Books Inc. in the Castro, Green Apple, Phoenix, Christopher's in Potrero Hill, are just SOME of my favorites. This city is so literate and supports so many bookshops, it's like nowhere else I've lived.
3. The produce.
What kind of kid were you and what did you want to be when you grew up?
JT: I think I was relatively shy, bookish. I didn't trust adults very easily, but we had this lovely pediatrician who always made me feel very comfortable -- an Indian woman, so beautiful, with a terrific accent. For years, I wanted to be a pediatrician, but really I just wanted to be that exact woman; she captured my imagination.
If you could invite 3 people (dead/alive/fictional) to your dinner party, who would they be and why?
JT: David Wojnorowicz, James Baldwin, Grace Paley for their grit and wisdom.
Who did you look up to as a queer icon, while you were growing up?
JT: I think that was a problem for me, growing up in a small, conservative town in upstate New York -- I didn't have a single role model. I grew up during the height of AIDS paranoia; I don't remember anyone ever expressing tolerant attitudes towards homosexuality. Either they said nothing, or they said pretty awful things. The mainstream representations (Ellen, WIll and Grace) came later, and they wouldn't have been icons anyway. I do remember, in adolescence, reading Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina. I didn't know the first time I read it that she was queer -- but then again, I must have known, on some level, because that book saved me. She continues to be an icon of the first order.
What's the first book that made you fall in love with language?
JT: Tillie Olsen's Tell Me A Riddle.
You're on stage at a karaoke bar. What are you singing?
JT: The Smiths, "This Charming Man."
What's the last album you fell in love with?
JT: My Gay Banjo (eponymous).
If you could live inside one movie, which would it be and why?
JT: My mother took classes at the local community college when I was a toddler, and they had a preschool for the children of students. One day, a sociology or psychology class was going to ask us questions and record our answers on video. I was terrified of the camera and totally freaked out. They asked me how come I didn't want to be on TV and apparently I was afraid of being shrunk and stuck in a box. Anyway, this questions inspires the same kind of claustrophobia; I would never want to live inside a movie.
If you could visit any other time period and place in history, which would it be and what would you do there?
JT: Maybe Tenochtitlan, during the height of the Aztec empire? I'll never forget the first time I read Bernal Diaz's The Conquest of New Spain. It's an eyewitness account of the march of Cortes into the Aztec capital, written by a European in the mid-16th century, so it's obviously problematic, but the account he gives of Tenochtitlan is just unbearably magnificent.
We The Animals just was released, but people already want more. What can we expect from your next book?
JT: Ha! Don't stress me out. Way too soon to talk about such things, I've only just begun.
Look for Justin Torres' episode of The Writers' Block this Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at kqed.org/writersblock. And be sure not to miss each episode as it becomes available by subscribing to The Writers' Block podcast!