“We wanted more.” Those are the opening words of We the Animals, the kinetic, probing and fierce debut novel from New York native Justin Torres. Amidst teaching the finer points of writing at Stanford and Harvard, Torres took some time out to speak with me.
I was impressed by the quote on your book from Michael Cunningham. That’s kind of every writer’s dream. How did that come about?
I took a writing class with a teacher who was friends with Michael Cunningham. She thought that we should know each other. So, we’d exchanged a few emails. When the book was ready to be blurbed, I had enough of an introduction that I could send it to him. He liked it and it was a huge deal—he read it quickly and he was really positive right away. That just helped so much with getting other people to read it.
Do you have creative routines that you always commit to as a writer?
When I wrote the book, I was completely broke and I was living in New York. I worked all the time and then I would sit down, which is partly why the book is lyrical and short and compressed. I would write in these little spurts.
Did you get any kind of rejections from other publishing houses?
I was fortunate. I’m a perfectionist, so I wrote obsessively for years before I ever thought about publishing or anything like that. Then I applied to MFA programs, then I went to Iowa and I had even more time to put the book together. So, when I sent some stories out to magazines and Tin House published one of my stories—my first story ever, really—and agents approached me from that. I met with six editors when I was in New York and I got to pick which editor I liked the best. And I love my editor! It was lucky—when I was in Iowa, I was with incredibly talented writers who could write circles around me and whose work is maybe more challenging, but for whatever reason they can’t find a home for their books.
What advice would you give young gay writers who might be frustrated or experiencing the growing pains of this industry?
I think that there’s no rush. I was lucky because I didn’t expect my books to be published. I started writing out of obsession, and I just really wanted to write it. I fell in love with writing. As much as you can, tune out the business of writing and focus on the actual writing. As much as you can, love what you’re doing and what you’re working on. There’s a certain freedom that you need to have where you’re not thinking about your audience and the marketability of your work.
Tell me about what you’re doing professionally.
In the fall, I’m going to Harvard. I’m working on the next book! It’s really slow going. I’m a slow writer. I’m kind of superstitious about talking about it too much. I’ve been teaching a lot. I did this intensive writers’ week at Manhattanville College in Westchester. I’ve been traveling a lot, talking to different universities and writing groups.
What are you reading these days?
I’m reading so much student work. I’m reading poetry, actually, when I have time. Right now I’m reading a book called Aggregate of Disturbances by Michele Glazer.
People say to write what you know or write from experience. Does the book draw on your personal experience?
Yes, I write from experience. That said, the book is fiction. There are similarities with my family: My parents were teenagers when they started having kids; I’ve got two brothers; I’m biracial or bicultural or whatever you want to say—but it is fiction. I don’t know that I agree with “write what you know.” That’s a weird truism. In my case, I enjoy it and I find it really generative. I would never think that it could be done in every case. Photo courtesy of Justin Torres.