blackbirdonline journalSpring 2013 Vol. 12 No. 1
print version

A Conversation with Justin Torres
captured November 8, 2012

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Tom De Haven: I want to thank you all. I’d like to introduce Jenna Johnson, from Houghton Mifflin, and Justin Torres, author of We the Animals and the winner of this year’s First Novelist Award. So we’re just going to open this up for a Q&A discussion, conversation—ask anything you’d like. And, we can begin.

Justin Torres: Right, yeah, fire away. I’m happy to be here, thanks for having me. Everybody’s read the book, right? So we can just jump in. Ask a question, and I will answer it—I’m open to anything. So, don’t be shy.

Valley Haggard: The book reads a lot like a collection of short stories. When you started it, did you envision it as a novel, or did you just realize that these stories are really thematically close, and I can make this into something bigger?

JT: Yeah, when I started I didn’t know that I was writing a novel. It wasn’t like I sat down one day and was like “I’m going to write a novel today!” I just started writing out of a desire to express myself, to make art. And at a certain point I had a critical mass of these little fragments, and then I was like, okay, how should I put them together? You know, what’s the best method. I think that, at that point still, just the idea that I was writing a book—it seemed huge. I was like maybe it’s not a book. I never at any point was like “I’m writing a novel”—which is not something I necessarily recommend. You know? It took me like six years to write a book that’s 120 pages. Maybe if I knew what I was doing, it would have went a little quicker. But yeah, that was my backwards, backing-in approach to it. But I did like them as stand-alone, individual moments. I liked that they functioned as flashes of memory, or something like that. So when I was like “I’m writing a book, how am I going to structure this, how am I going to put this together?” I didn’t want to bridge everything. I didn’t want to introduce a plot line that was artificial, just for the sake of stringing it together. I think that there are so many coming-of-age novels out there, and I’d read so many—and a lot of them are great. But there’s definitely a conventional narrative arc, a conventional length of books, and I wanted to do something different. And so I stuck with this fractured structure—which I think mirrors the content. I think the narrator’s idea of his life and his past is kind of fractured. 

Audience: Did you start with the first-person plural point-of-view? Or did that come later?

JT: It came really early. I was actually waiting for the F train—[Jenna and I] were just talking about the F Train; Jenna read my book on the F train. I was waiting for the train, and it was late, and I had started writing—I had a few little things—and I got this “We wanted more”—this chant—in my head. And I liked it. And I really rarely like anything that I come up with. But I liked that. And I was like “What do I do?” because I had written so little of the entire thing. I could choose to embrace that “we” or try to find a way to put it into a first-person, singular voice. And so I chose to think a lot about the idea of collective boyhood, collective voice, collectivism—what do I want to say about that? You know, what could be interesting to bring to that. What I didn’t do was read a lot of other collective [pieces of work]—people always think that I [read other works]—I didn’t at all, I think purposely. I think that I wanted to make sure I was bringing my original approach to it. It was pretty early on and then I thought, instead of the movement—a “plot development”—the movement of the book could be from that “we” to that singular “I” that comes up at the end.

Audience: Do you write poetry?

JT: You know, I don’t write poetry. I wrote poetry when I was younger. And it was so bad; it was so mortifyingly bad. I have a lot of respect for poetry. I read poetry. I think that, for whatever reason, every time that I try to write poetry, it’s just so narrative that it turns into something that’s not quite a poem. But I try to get as close to poetry as possible with my prose. I want it to sing; I want it to work on the level of rhythm. I think that what I love about poetry is that it takes a complex idea about human nature and marries it to a very specific image—and I think that’s something I try to do in my own work as well. I think I have too much respect for poetry to write poetry, you know? I know a lot of really amazing poets, and I love what they do, and it’s like, “That’s yours.” But I think that there’s too much emphasis also on this distinction between poetry and fiction, especially in MFA programs. I think that the program I was in—I was in two, really, Iowa and Stanford—and it was day one, and you arrived, and it was like: “Welcome to the fiction room. Over there’s the poets. Never go into that room. Do not ever talk to them.” So I think that in creating literature, there’s so much that we can talk to each other about, and that we should talk to each other about, and there’s so much to learn—especially fiction writers from poets. I don’t know about the other way around—probably, I don’t know. But as a fiction writer, I can say definitely, there’s so much to learn through poetry. I think it’s a shame that they seem like opposite sides of the room. So I think that I tried to put this book somewhere in a continuum, a little bit closer to poetry.

Audience: I have a question. You don’t normally write much poetry, but you said that you don’t because it comes out so narrative, but then you also said that it distills so much about human experience. Have you considered using it as part of your writing process to kind of find the core of perhaps a new idea? Or something to really branch off, and take a distilled idea and turn it into prose—and vice versa.

JT: That’s interesting. You know, I might actually do something like that, I just don’t call it poetry. I do allow myself in the beginning to not think like I’m writing a story, not think like I’m writing a paragraph. I allow myself to just find the words in my head that I want to put down on the page. I think that there’s a lot going on up there, when you want to write, and I just try to get to the most beautiful thing as quickly as possible. And it doesn’t necessarily make sense all the time. I focus on these sentences, and then I move onto the next sentence—maybe that’s similar to what you’re talking about?

Audience: I was curious because I’m such a new writer, and I heard about this, I didn’t know about your book, I just jumped in here. As a new writer, I have so much trouble trying to get out short stories, and when I’m trying to write poetry, I have so much trouble trying to get out poetry. But when I cross them over, something I struggle to write as a poem will turn out to be a really great short story, and vice versa. You find great images to use in stories and you find out what they mean, by exploring in prose. It’s interesting to figure in failure in poetry, because you come up with narratives.

JT: Yeah, that’s great. Other questions?

Audience: I just wanted to say thanks for coming and congratulations on the award. I read story versions of your chapters in Tin House and Granta a while back, and I noticed they were different, but they were kind of similar tonally, and I was wondering, what challenges you had to overcome, in the beginning, thinking of style and voice. 

JT: I think that my voice is—it’s like your fingerprint or whatever—there just is something that links my work together, no matter if maybe the tone of this piece is necessarily a little bit darker than the tone of another piece because of what they’re about. I think that voice is something, I don’t know, something else. I think every writer defines these terms for themselves as well. I talk a lot about tension, like I’m really into tension, but I’m not really into suspense. But, I also made up what those words mean for myself. And as far as voice goes, I think that for me, it’s the attitude that you bring to the work and to your expression of language, maybe. And so, I didn’t worry about it too much. I allowed myself to marry the tone—of whatever piece—to the content. And so if this was kind of playful, you know, if this is a scene in the kitchen, where they’re smashing tomatoes, and it’s kind of playful, and that was a story that was in Tin House that would turn into a chapter of the book—if you read something later, it does tonally, it registers differently. But, I mean, that's life, too. I don’t know—that’s kind of a non-answer to that question. But I think that it’s not something that I worried about very much at all because I felt like I had voice down. I felt like the voice is consistent—even if those other things kind of range.

VH: What about the order of the chapters, did you play with that a lot, putting it together, was that something you struggled with?

JT: That was actually one of the main things that Jenna and I worked on together was the order, and I think that Jenna had really amazing insights about, you know, I think I had a certain order set in my head, ’cause I had this chronology of when things happened that didn’t matter but I knew it because I’m the writer and I’m the mastermind, so I was just like, “Oh no, that happened after that,” but then Jenna pointed out, like, emotionally these things should happen one after another, which was wonderful. So I think that, you know, the order that I originally had them in, I mean there’s only so many of them so it wasn’t like wildly different, you know, it was pretty similar, but the small changes, I think, worked really well to have a kind of unfolding, I don’t know, tragedy. Something.

VH: Speaking of the order, were there sections of this that were pulled out, while you were writing this?

JT: No, no. No, right? And there weren’t really any that I wrote—I mean, when I was at Iowa, I did have this crisis where I came to Iowa, I didn’t know a lot of writers before I got there and I wasn’t like, “Oh I want to be an author, I’m going to publish a novel.” It just wasn’t the way that I was thinking about things and so when I got there everybody there was like, “I’m an author,” and like, “This is a novel,” and everybody was just like, “That’s not a novel, that’s not a novel, you don’t have a novel. You need to like have . . . ” And so I had this moment where I was like, “I need to write 280 pages,” you know what I mean, “and there have to be very explicit connections between the pieces.” So I did write this other narrative thread that wove through the pieces, and it’s terrible and horrible and it will never see the light of day, and it was purely a moment of weakness where I just didn’t believe what I was doing. But other than that I didn’t really write too much. I think that, you know, there is with the kind of episodic nature of the book, there is a danger of monotony, and I mean no matter how interesting I think each one is, because there’s no suspense, there’s lots of tension but there’s no suspense—I think that you just can’t do that forever, you know, that will start to take away from the power of each other if there’s too many of them. So I think I knew that it had to be a short book. And I wanted it to be a short book—I wanted it to just kind of like happen to you.

VH: At what point in writing the book did you write the last chapter?

JT: Well the last chapter is so poetic, it’s so abstract, that it was the penultimate chapter I wrote at the end, you know, like actually did write it after everything was finished. But that chapter, I don’t know when I wrote that, I feel like that was one of those moments that I was just talking about with him, I was writing thematically, I was writing based upon the words and the sentences, and I honestly, I honestly don’t remember at what exact moment I wrote that. I remember that there was a picture that I looked at of this woman, and she like had some peacock feathers and like pearls or something, and I was riffing off of that image in the picture, you know. And then, obviously, when the book was all put together I had to go back and rewrite that entirely so that it was the end, you know what I mean, so it had to make sense with everything that had come before it.

VH: Was it deliberate that the mother drops away at the end? Because we were talking about that in class, how she starts out so prominent at the beginning of the book and then its really the dad at the end of the book, the father.

JT: Yeah, I think that the mother’s influence is massive in the beginning of the book because she is, I wanted to show her kind of nurturing a certain sensibility, a certain softness in the child. I wanted to show, also I just think that a young boy’s fixation on his mother is stronger in the earlier years, and as you become, as you are expected to become a man, expected to become macho, and in this narrative machismo is like a big element in the home and he is expected to take on this violent, you know, masculine role, and so the pressures of that become much heavier on him and become a real source of tension as well, and so in the beginning I just think that’s the natural progression for this narrator from mother to father, you know what I mean, like the issues and concerns of the mother, the allegiance with her place in the household sets the tone for the beginning of the book, and then I think that the father causes a lot of crisis within, internally, within the narrator later on in the book.

Audience: Ah, there was quite a few moments in the book that feel, like, heightened. I can imagine the tomato scene but when they are spraying their mother with ketchup and later on when they are, like, beating on their parents and stuff. These moments that are very emotional, and they feel a little heightened. Did you imagine those as the character actually living through them or did you imagine that as like the heightened memories of an older person looking back on his childhood?

JT: The book is definitely narrated retrospectively. As much as, I feel like fifty percent of the people who read the book will be like, “This is narrated by a child,” and it’s not. I think that it feels that way because it is very immediate, you know, I wanted it to be immediate, there’s not a lot of introspection, you know, but it is narrated from, it is an adult looking back and describing childhood, and so I wanted it to be heightened, I wanted it to be, also I wanted it to be mythic, I wanted it to be larger than life. I didn’t want to be in this gritty realism, moment by moment, I wanted it to kind of, the focus is so incredibly on these children. Like they never go to school, you know, this isn’t an accurate snapshot of life. It is making mythic these tiny moments and so that was very, very intentional for sure.

TDH: Can I ask Jenna a question? I was wondering about editing this book, especially we were talking about the structure and the story cycle structure of it and not having a plot, etc. What difficulties did you have with that or how did you approach it?

Jenna Johnson: We didn’t do a lot. I mean, I think we did two rounds, maybe? Um, and I was just thinking actually when you were telling the story about the last chapter that when Justin sent me back the book after the first round of edits he took out the last chapter, and I freaked out, and I was like, “That’s my favorite part!” One of the things for me that was the most exciting about this book, aside from reading it myself and seeing everyone else really respond to it, was, within my company I went into a meeting with ten people who read, who decide what we are going to publish, and every one of them responded to it in a different way. And so the conversation, and because it was so short they had all read the whole thing, which usually does not happen, so I have to usually tell people what happens and what character changes how, and justify things that they don’t know what’s going on. So there was a lot of sort of input into people saying, “Well it should be longer,” or somebody else saying, “I want to know the mother better,” and that kind of thing, and I really had to, after that whole thing was over and we had to get down to work I had to sort of read it again by myself and really, you know, I think of my job as being an author’s first and most devoted and also hardest reader, so I’m trying to be both an advocate for you as a reader and thinking about what you’re going to understand and how you’re going to respond to it and also protect what this person is trying to do. So that was probably my hardest, the hardest part of my job with this particular book was just keeping all of that noise outside and making sure that we were doing what you wanted to do. And also I work with a lot of debut authors and sometimes people—Justin does not have this problem—but sometimes debut authors will try to please you too much and they’ll read into what you’re saying, and you really have to help them be strong against you, you know, and make sure people are not.

JT: Well that’s what happened with the ending, actually, that’s why I took out that final thing.

JJ: Because you misunderstood me.

JT: ’Cause I misunderstood, yeah, I was like “Ah, she hates me, ah.”

JJ: No, I mean we really just worked on, we worked on the order, we added a couple of chapters, but most of it was stuff he’d already written, it just wasn’t in the book.

JT: That I hadn’t put in yet, yeah.

VH: So why the unnamed narrator?

JT: I think that, I was writing close to the bone, right? I mean this is like, I have two brothers, my parents were teenagers and were having kids, my brother is Puerto Rican, you know like, so I was working already with this very close-to-the-bone structure but I wanted distanc. I didn’t want to write a memoir, I wanted to write fiction, I wanted to create and craft and invent this family that was different from my own. And I think that in the beginning not naming the narrator, like in the very beginning not naming the narrator, was just a way for me to feel like I didn’t have to decide, you know what I mean? Like I didn’t have to make a decision about my proximity to the narrator because the narrator was just kind of this “we”, you know? I think that, as the book went on, I realized that the narrator has a name, like sometimes his name is “We” and sometimes his name is “I” and that those moments when he’s “We” and when he’s “I” is what the book is about in a certain way, like inclusion in the family and exclusion relating to this family, feeling like he belongs, feeling a part of the family, and then feeling like he’s outside the family, et cetera. And so, I think that stylistically I really liked him not having a name; I thought that it informed what the book was about as well. I think that it allows the reader to step in immediately. I think that the first time you encounter a name of the main character, all of your associations with that name—boom! They just pop up and like you name your character Charity, and it’s like oh fuck, I knew a Charity and she was awful, like she broke my heart or whatever. So I think that hopefully allows for a kind of universal quality to, it’s a boy, a brother, a son, you know, very generic, which I tried to do throughout the book a lot, to open it up and not have any proper nouns, you know, there’s no McDonald’s in the book. Jenna actually made me nail down where it was geographically, like I just wanted it to be “a place.” But it was a little bit too confusing, I think. But yeah, I tried to strip away references to the time, like it’s the ‘80s but it doesn’t matter that it’s the ‘80s. I didn’t want to write about the ’80s. I didn’t want to write about upstate New York. I didn’t want to write about one boy, a specific boy. I wanted to write about, you know, open it up as much as I could.

VH: But surely you had specific characters and a specific setting in your head, but you just chose to keep it universal for the reader? Or did your characters not have identities to you?

JT: Yeah, I mean I think that I did, I think that they do have identities, but I really did try and make, I mean I wanted Ma to be representative of a certain idea, of femininity, of motherhood, not a very “idealized” idea, but like a certain idea, like I wanted Pops to be representational. I think that I wanted to do something a little bit different. Again, I think this had to do a lot with distancing from my own family and reducing to some essential qualities. But, yeah, I mean in my head I knew exactly where they were, because to not would just be too confusing. And in my head the world is much more specific than it is on the page, but I tried to make it, on the page, as general as possible, within reason. Like there are books that are much more general for sure; you could go much further in that direction.

VH: Were there moments where you just wanted to give up?

JT: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean. Yeah. There were moments when it was out and I wanted to take it back. I mean I think that it’s difficult. People often ask me if it was cathartic or therapeutic or anything like that and it’s like, “No.” Not at all, it hurts. I think that writing—if you’re gonna try and tell some kind of emotional truth, if you’re going to try and be honest to yourself about the way the world works for you, it’s scary, it’s shameful, so it’s hard. I think that just sitting down and confronting your vast inner world and trying to make sense of it is horrifying. I mean I’d much rather be doing anything else. But yeah, there were so many times when I wanted to give up and I think I did give up also. There were definitely times when I was not actively writing. I say it took me six years but it wasn’t like I treated it like a job and every day I caught up. At certain times I was just like, “Forget it, I’m not doing this.” And that was good, because it allowed me to just come back to it, fresher.

VH: So how do you kind of push yourself through that? You’re writing about things so close to you that it’s not even enjoyable to write about, how do you pull yourself through that, you know, where’s the kind of draw for you to press into that?

JT: I love language. I mean, writing is incredibly joyful for me, so it’s a paradox. At a certain point, you get to a moment where you have to write about something because, to be honest, to write about anything else would be a lie. So you reach that moment and that’s really painful, but everything leading up to that is generally really great. I like words, I like the way words sound, I like creating language and images and all that stuff, so that’s great and then you reach those moments and you’re like, “Fuck, I don’t want to do it.” And then you find a way to return to it and push past it I guess. But I don’t want to make it seem like I always hate writing. Sometimes it’s really great. I don’t think that anybody would write if it was always painful.

Audience: It was just interesting because people say that, well this idea of art, you press into the pain to produce some kind of creative art. You press into the pain. Being so new to all the writing things, I’m interested in, how do you keep yourself from backing down—how do you know you’re backing down from the full weight of this kind of shame and pain that you’re trying to press into? How do you identify when you’re selling out?

JT: I think that, I don’t know, that’s a really difficult question, but you know. If you read something that’s false, you know that it’s false. If you write something that’s false, you know that it’s false. I know that I can be very clever and it can be really funny, like in my life, if I want to deflect, if somebody’s getting too personal, I can just make a joke, do a little dance. And I think that the same exact thing happens in your writing. You can be too clever. But I know what I’m doing; I know what I’m deflecting. I know, on the page, if I’m being really honest. And I come back to it, after a month or something, and I read it and I’m just like, “Oh . . . I was lying.” I don’t necessarily know at first, but eventually it becomes obvious to me.

VH: So time distance is really—Do you feel like because this book is so full of pain for you, do you feel like that’s kind of why it might have taken you six years?

JT: I think the world is full of pain for me. Yeah, I think that I’m a slow writer because what is interesting to me about the world is how much we all try to love each other and how much we fail each other and I think that I will always be a slow writer because I want to break people’s hearts, you know, that’s what I want to do. And you can’t churn that stuff out. I think that whatever I was writing about, like I’ll never write satire—I read satire, satire’s really great, there’s a place for it, there’s a time for it—I just don’t do it, because it’s not the way that I experience the world, it’s not what I feel like I can contribute or want to write about.

Audience: I got one more question—So, I find it interesting that you, obviously you’ve discovered a writing process that’s different from anything that you’ve, seems to be, different from anything you’ve done before and yet you say you wouldn’t recommend doing it again, or you wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, or you sounded like you may not do it again, but do you feel like, I guess this kind of honest chord that you’ve struck so consistently in this book, do you feel like not really knowing how these loose strings kind of pull together helped you to write about such an emotional pain?

JT: Yeah, well I think that everybody in an MFA program, or first time writers in general, are lucky, like when I wrote I had no expectation that anybody would publish the book or that anybody would read the book and that is absolute, utter freedom because I just did whatever the hell I wanted to do, because I put it together in the only way I knew how, without any audience expected, or anything like that, and so, that is great. I never get to be that person again. I’m here, like I won an award, and everybody’s being nice to me, asking me interesting questions, forcing me to articulate the way that I work and make stuff up on the fly. And I think that I never get to be an unpublished writer, I never get the freedom of an absolute vacuum. Like, “writing into the void” is so lovely in a way, because now, I’m pretty sure that at least some people are going to read my next book, and I know what the New York Times said about the way I use semicolons, which was not favorable. And every time I use a semicolon, I hear the New York Times being like, “You shouldn’t do that!” And so that’s just something I have to adjust to, and I’m still learning how to do that.

Audience: Now that you’ve successfully launched your first novel, I’m just wondering what the path forward is for you, what you see yourself doing next, working on another novel or work on some more short stories?

JT: Well, my editor is sitting right next to me, so I’ll tell you, I’m hard at work on the next book which will be delivered on deadline, not a moment late. I am going to write another book, for sure, I want to write another book. I wanted to be a painter, and I was a terrible painter. I think that there are lots of things that I want to do and ways that I want to express myself and I don’t think that I will ever find success in them like I’ve found in writing, and so therefore if I want to feed myself, I will continue to write. But I’m open to other things happening in my life as well; I want to have kids, my man and I are adopting and I think that’s gonna be its own project in itself. What I don’t want to do is just feel—I’m trying to push off the pressure of the second book because the reception has just been so overwhelming, just way more than I expected, and I don’t know. I want to write another book and therefore I want to pretend that I don’t care about it. Does that make sense? It’s like this crazy acrobatics that I’m doing, being like, “Maybe I’ll just have kids and paint,” and be like, “I’m not writing another book!” To try and recreate that first book vibe, I don’t know if it’ll work.

VH: It’s funny that you said you didn’t realize you were writing a book when you first started. How did you know when you were done? How did it feel finished, when you said, “Now I’m done, I’ve written a book!”

JT: I think to be perfectly honest, it had to be done. I was just done. I started to hate children, like writing about children. I was just like, “God, adults are amazing, I want to write about adults.” And the more that that kind of welled up inside me, the more I was just like, wow, I’d really exhausted this material.

Audience: I don’t mean for this to sound disparaging for the rest of the book, but my favorite part is the title, We the Animals, it’s just very powerful and I think at my last count it had like six meanings, but at what point did you finalize that? And were there other titles that you were almost mistakenly using?

JT: Jenna could totally blackmail me because the book had the worst title ever.

JJ: Oh my God I forgot about that!

JT: I’m glad you forgot!

VH: Can you tell us what it was?

JT: No. It’s so embarrassing; it’ll ruin everything for you. It will go with me to the grave. It’s just . . . I don’t know what I was thinking.

JJ: You had a rationale for it.

JT: I had a rationale.

JJ: A really good one. Strong, I’ll say it was strong.

JT: Yeah. But it made sense to me and like one percent of the population. Everybody else—

JJ: It made sense, it wasn’t disconnected from the book.

JT: Yeah, it was similar thematically to this title. Very similar thematically to this title. Just maybe the image that came to your mind was completely different. And horrifying. Did I add enough mystery to this yet? Anyway. But yeah, the title was tough, that was something that we—I mean, God, how many e-mails back and forth? I had to come up with a list of like twenty titles or something.

JJ: Well, you didn’t have to. One thing that people probably don’t realize is that authors don’t entirely get to title their own books. So, that’s part of the reason that it took so long, and also by the time we were finished working on this and we were ready for the title, there were a lot of people who were invested in it and really wanted it to get to as many of you as possible. So you have all those voices again, coming in with their various reasons for things. And we did try to keep them out of it as much as possible, and I think we did, and I think that’s part of the reason that you had so many of these options.

JT: Titles and covers, you really . . . I mean you can come up with the most brilliant title for your book, like I would be surprised if that was the title that got on there in the end. It’s just you don’t have a lot of say. There’s a lot of input from . . . Jenna.

JJ: Unless it comes in, if it’s the right title from the beginning, in some books it never comes up.

JT: Oh really?

VH: What about the Plato quote then? Did that come after the title?

JT: That came . . . you know, I was just reading Plato at home, as I do. No, I was actively looking at things that philosophers and artists and people had said about boyhood and brotherhood. I was going through, and I came across that, and it just really resonated. Yeah, we never talked about the epigraph.

JJ: Yeah we did. It wasn’t in the first chapter.

JT: It wasn’t in the first chapter; it was later, it was much later.

JJ: But we did look at it when we were coming up with titles.

JT: Yeah. I think I wanted an epigraph, much later. It took a lot of searching for—It wasn’t like “What does Plato have to say?”

VH: When you were writing it, did you have an idea, even as you were writing different parts, that it would always be sort of focused on adolescence? Or did that just sort of, you sort of ended up with it, you know? Because I think the adolescent angle is so powerful because there’s an immediacy to things that might happen to them. I just wondered if that was something that you sort of realized halfway through, that, “Okay, this is the ‘we’ I’m always going to be talking about?”

JT: Yeah, I think that I did want to write—I think I wanted to write actually about adolescence first and I kept writing about childhood. Because I couldn’t write about adolescence, like it was just too loaded or something. And then I like the challenging stuff. But I always knew that it would get to adolescence, because one of the main things that I wanted to talk about were like the big things, like race and class and sexuality, like those, the way that they inform all the characters in the book and the way that they’ve informed my life, and all that stuff was just like, I wanted it all in there. So, I think that writing about adolescent sexuality was something that I felt compelled to tackle, for sure.

VH: That’s a rare thing to see someone write about—not starting at 14—you know? I think I’ve read a lot more things where it’s like going right into the teenage years and forgetting all of the things before that and I think for me, it made it so much more powerful in terms of caring about the characters—sort of having that deep sort of—you know, you want to protect them, in a way, more than I feel with other characters in books.

JT: Yeah, totally, totally. And I like I said, there’s so many coming-of-age novels, there are so many coming-out novels—and that was another genre that most of the time start right around you know, puberty, or something like that, or the first sexual encounter or whatever—or something like that. And I didn’t want to do that either, you know. I wanted to write about . . . And I think that there’s a really interesting—if you grow up in a kind of violent household, I think that you can come to eroticize violence. And I think that that was something I wanted—and I’m still interested in writing about actually—but I wanted to show that even at this young age that there’s a certain—I’m not saying violence should be sexy—but I think that it can happen. If you’re queer, if you have a sexuality or sensibility even, that’s “other” or “different”—there’s all these gender roles—and kind of the extreme machismo being played out in front of you, that you can eroticize that.

VH: It’s almost like that scene, too, towards the end, where they’re standing on the loading dock, and the narrator’s talking about his brothers—and that’s when he’s sort of separating, I guess. But he’s describing them in this really loving way, even though he’s kind of dismissive of what they’re doing. And I feel like you capture that really well and that kind of beauty of it, it’s great.

JT: But I think that this narrator is absolutely inside, and understands, and is included in that brotherhood—but, also understands the ways in which he’s outside and excluded.

TDH: One of the things I find really interesting about the book, and I guess it’s because I’m really interested in structure—maybe a little too much sometimes—well it seems really risky what you did. You go one kind of way all the way through, then very late, you start the changes. And I wondered—you said you knew you were going to go with adolescents—but I wondered when you discovered that structure, and where you decided to kind of break in so late, and change the voice. I mean there seem to be some things . . . this kind of a summary feeling for the first three-quarters of the book, and then the winter . . . the change in the voice. But to come so late—you know? That’s kind of a risky thing. And I think some readers that I have talked to about the book say “Oh, that was just so abrupt.” So I wondered when you came to that—did the structure develop as you were going along?

JT: Yeah, I knew I wanted it to come as a punch in the gut. I wanted . . . suddenly, everything to change. Because I wanted the reader to experience structurally what the narrator experiences in the plot of the book—you know, I wanted to just be like, “What? What’s happening?” You know? “Everything’s changing”—absolute final ejection from the family. But yeah, a lot of people do not like it at all. That is the one thing, I’ll go to a reading, and somebody will come up to me and [say] “I loved [this book] . . . I was going to buy this book for my mother . . . I was going to get it for my grandma for Christmas . . . I just loved the beginning. And what did you do?! Why did you do that?!” Like, they’re angry, you know! And I had an instructor at Iowa who read the whole manuscript and she was like, “Look, this book is PG for the majority, and you could get this book in schools. You just need to be aware that all of a sudden, it’s suddenly R. And if you stand behind that choice, then fine, but you’re really limiting, you know, marketability.” Stuff like that—and I was like, “Nobody’s going to read it.” It didn’t occur to me. But yeah, there were lots of different angles, I think, about the fact that that was happening. And I wanted it . . . I wanted it to be different. And that’s one of the ways that I wanted it to be different. I wanted it to have this—jump. It just seemed really important to me that there’s this kind of episodic, you know what I mean, childhood passages, that are just kind of timeless and floating. And all of a sudden, the real world just barges in: puberty barges in, sexuality barges in. Everything happens all at once. Yeah, I don’t know. [Jenna and I] talked a lot about it. And I met with other “non-Jenna” editors before the book was sold . . . 

JJ: The dark times.

JT: The dark times. And they were all like, “We love it! You just have to write another 120 pages to fill up that time jump!” And I was like, “No—no, that’s not the book I wrote!” And I feel like Jenna understood what I wanted to do with that.

JJ: It was my favorite part. I mean I think that so much of what I responded to in this book is the mirroring of the structure and the reality of the way we experience our lives, and the way that we remember our lives. And Justin and I joke all the time because we both have terrible memories. And I think that maybe, having us both here, you guys could ask us about the book, and we would remember the whole thing, but if you just had one of us, we wouldn’t remember the whole thing.

JT: Yeah . . . yeah.

JJ: And that, I responded to really strongly with—the fact that, when I look back on my life, I don’t remember a continuous narrative, at all. I don’t think I’m the only one. And that moment [in the novel] is surprising to you, as it happens. And I love it when people hate that part because I’m like, “You don’t get it.”

JT: Yeah, totally!

Audience: I’d like to ask just a very general question, because most of the people in this room are writers, or in their MFA programs or in Patty’s workshop. And from Iowa, to writing you first novel, now to writing your second novel—what are some rules, maybe, you know, words of advice to give to writers—aspiring writers?  

JT: It’s so hard, because I feel very conflicted about giving advice. I mean, I feel like there are no rules, right? I mean the best thing about hearing a rule, whenever I heard a rule, I was like, “I’m going to do something different!” That’s always my attitude. Everyone’s like, “You can’t write in second person,” I’m like, “You, you, you . . . ” So I don’t know. Advice is . . . it’s weird to be in a position where people ask me for advice because I definitely stumbled along. And six years ago, when I was completely broke, I would be getting unsolicited advice all the time about what I should do with my life, and I didn’t take any of it. And so I think that, if I can say anything, it’s just that I was like fortunately stubborn, I think? There was a certain moment when I was like, “Oh! People are going to read this.” And I could make certain changes and make it, maybe, more pleasing to certain market forces, or whatever. But I didn’t do that. It seems to me—I’m trying to word this so I’m not actually giving advice, but secretly giving advice—it seems to me that sticking by my vision served me really well. And doing something that was not conventional, it seemed like the right thing for me, has paid off. So maybe there’s advice hidden somewhere in there.

JJ: You’re not unilaterally stubborn.

JT: I’m not unilaterally stubborn.

JJ: You know when you should listen. Not to me even, but to your friends.

JT: I like how you’re like, “Do not tell authors to be stubborn!”

JJ: No, I say it because there are authors who are, and to their detriment. Like that would be bad advice if you were to saying to be unilaterally stubborn.

JT: That’s true, I’m not unilaterally stubborn. Yeah, I definitely don’t think that I am—how can I put it? I’m open to the fact that people are smarter than me, or that people can see things about my work that I can’t see—you know, I’m willing to be edited. I’m stubborn more about just like if somebody is like, “Do this and you’ll sell more copies”—if they’re not saying “Do this because I think the book will be a lot stronger and it’s the right thing for the characters” or whatever. If they’re like, “Do this and write a memoir!” You know, something like that? And you’re like, “No, I’m writing a novel.” I had an agent very early on—I changed agents—and this is being recorded, isn’t it? Segueing . . . Any other questions? But you know, I did get some advice to put a rape or a murder in the book . . . 

VH: Just because?

JT: Because that sells. Yeah, because those books become best sellers. Which is just like, “What?” But yeah, don’t be stupidly stubborn. Don’t shoot off your foot—or whatever that expression is.

TDH: Alright then.

JT: Well thank you, guys.  end

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