blackbirdonline journalSpring 2013 Vol. 12 No. 1
print version

Panel Discussion: Publishing a First Novel
Moderator: Valley Haggard. Panelists: Jin Auh, Jenna Johnson, and Justin Torres
captured November 8, 2012

You need to have Flash Player and Javascript enabled to hear the audio.

Chad Luibl: I thank you all for coming tonight. My name is Chad Luibl and I’m the current First Novelist Fellow. We have a wonderful discussion ahead, and soon you will be introduced to Mr. Torres’s agent and editor, Jin Auh from the Wiley Agency, and Jennifer Johnson from Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt. But first, I would like to just say a few words about a good friend of the English Department at VCU, an integral part of our literary community here in Richmond, our moderator for this evening, Valley Haggard. As some of you may already know, Valley is the founder and director of Richmond Young Writers, a year-round program that introduces young students to the joy of creative writing, and she holds numerous creative nonfiction workshops and retreats for adults. She served as Style Weekly’s book editor from 2004 to 2011, sat on the board of the James River Writers from 2008 to 2011, has written regularly for various publications, and she currently has a monthly column in Belle, Style’s magazine for women. She has lived all over the world, from New York to Italy, but currently lives in the same house she grew up in here in Richmond with her husband and son and many pets. This is her second time moderating for the Cabell First Novelist Award; she did such a wonderful job in 2008 we just had to have her back. So, without further ado, please join me in welcoming to the stage—or here—our moderator for the evening, Valley Haggard, as well as Jin Auh and Jenna Johnson.

Valley Haggard: Thank you very much, Chad—I almost recognized myself in that bio, and I’m really pleased and honored to be here and it was so wonderful, Justin, to hear your words read aloud; that was just a really beautiful, moving experience, thank you. It’s now my pleasure to introduce—first we have Jenna Johnson, here. She is senior editor for Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt Hardcovers and editorial manager for Mariner Paperbacks. She concentrates on literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, especially international, historical, and women’s, memoir and narrative nonfiction with an interest in food, animals, cultural and religious history, and biography. Prior to joining HMH, she spent her childhood in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, came to New York for college at Columbia, and joined the world of workers at a literary agency in advertising and in public relations. A few of her other authors include Tim O’Brien, Maggie O’Farrell, Scarlett Thomas, Steve Earle, Kent Meyers and Young-ha Kim. And now, Justin’s agent, Jin Auh, has worked for the Wiley Agency since 1995. She studied English literature at the University of Virginia and was an intern at Farrar, Straus and Giroux in New York. She has spoken about publishing at numerous universities including Columbia, NYU, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and several others. She serves on the board of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. It might be noted that the Wiley Agency, that has been in business for thirty-one years and is privately owned with offices in New York and London, does not accept unsolicited queries or manuscripts. Jin lives in Brooklyn, New York, and I also thought it was really interesting that our agent and editor both have ties to Virginia—so, welcome back. Although Justin has already been introduced, very beautifully, I would like to open this portion with Benjamin Percy’s take on We the Animals from Esquire Magazine. “Justin Torres is about to be knighted. No hyperbole, no bullshit for the next hot, young thing. Torres’s sentences are gymnastic, leaping and twirling, but never fancy for the sake of fancy, always justified by the ferocity and heartbreak and hunger and slap-happy euphoria of these three boys. It’s a coming of age novel set in upstate New York that rumbles with lyric dynamite. It’s a knock to the head that will leave your mouth agape. Torres is a savage new talent”—and I think those of you who are either familiar with his book or were introduced to it tonight for the first time will agree. I also—I want to make a correction, as well. got it wrong when they voted him the 2011 fourth sexiest man in our country; he should have been the first, so—anyway, we’re—an important part of any author’s career, I believe.

Justin, my first question for you pertains to your writing process; I think we’re all really curious. I would love to know, does this beautiful language just pour out of your fingertips in your first draft when you sit down, or do you endure years or hours and hours of painstaking revision? If you can, tell us a little bit about what writing this book looked like for you.

Justin Torres: Yeah, no, it totally just pours but—better—I got the touch, what can I say? No, no, nah, it takes forever. This book took about six years and it’s this thick. I write really slowly; I write line by line. I’m—I’ve never been one of those writers that produces a ton of drafts; it’s not like this book was, you know, six hundred pages and I boiled it down or something like that. I revise a lot as I’m moving forward. I read out loud a lot, I focus on the language and how it sounds, and if it sounds right to me then I move forward. But I’m very slow and painstaking.

VH: Okay. Well I read that you hold your first drafts very close, that people don’t see them generally until they’re in what you would consider a perfect or polished state. How have you come to trust your intuition so, so strongly?

JT: I’m not sure that I trust my intuition—it’s just that, like, I’m shy. I do wait until I’ve perfected it as much as I can; it’s not like I think that they’re perfect when I show them to people for the first time, but I know that I’ve taken it as far as I possibly can—there’s nothing better that I could do without some outside influence on it. I think that the reason I do that is because I don’t know what I’m writing about until I get to the final sentence, often? You know? It’s just the way that I work. And so I—it would be really distracting for me to have somebody come in, you know, at an early point and be like, “Your story is about . . . zebras,” and I’d be like, “It is? I didn’t know that.” That said, I was in workshops for, like, four years, and—and I shared my work, but what I got out of workshops and what I think that MFA students can get out of workshops is learning how to critique other people’s work and learning, “If I was writing that story, what would I do?” And that was much more generative for me than—than a lot of what I got back.

VH: Jin, I have a question for you. It’s my understanding that you found Justin rather than the more typical route one imagines for a writer where Justin would have found you or been beating down your door, begging or whatever. That’s as a writer myself; that’s how I imagine (inaudible). So, you mentioned this evening that you found a story of his in Granta Magazine. What stood out that made you then pursue him about his writing or about his story?

Jin Auh: Yeah, I read—it was in the, I think, the Fathers issue of Granta. And it was a story—they had kind of edited together what is now three sections in the book, three chapters, which was—“We Wanted More,” I think, “Heritage” and “The Lake”? So, I think they kind of reordered it, and I just remember it was the language that—you know, I work with both fiction and nonfiction, but, especially with debut writers, I read a lot of first novels. And, I think that when I was reading his story, I must have felt—I mean, I’m saying this, you know, in hindsight—but I think I must have felt an impatience with the fact that I didn’t feel like a lot of people were pushing themselves in the language. And so his story was—it was just sort of a no-brainer, it was kind of a breath of fresh air. And I felt like, even though the material at times, you know, obviously was sort of serious and dark, that there was sort of lightness imbued in it, I think, which is also very important to the—actually, to the novel as a whole, and you could kind of see that in the short version of it. So, I sent him an email, and he didn’t respond—

VH: He didn’t respond?

JA: He didn’t respond; I think I sent another one—he didn’t respond. I had to wait a little bit—

JT: You, you can’t just—you can’t just take the first person to the dance who asks. No, I’m just kidding, I’m just kidding. I wasn’t done; again, I wasn’t done, and I just was scared of being distracted, I think.

VH: How far along were you—you said at one point that you didn’t think of this as a book that would become a manuscript; you were writing for the sake of writing, which I think is a—kind of a really beautiful thing. But at what point did it become a manuscript? When agents were starting to beat down your door demanding that you have one?

JT: Yeah, I mean, I think that that was the thing, is that—I think that when Jin first contacted me, I wasn’t finished until I needed to understand where I was going to end the book, and what the shape of the book was going to be before somebody as important and, like, an agent or literary agency gave me their take on it. So, by the time she contacted me I definitely knew that I was writing a book; I mean I—I was far enough along for that.

VH: So, once you finally responded to Jin in her numerous attempts then to get in touch with you—I’d love to hear a little bit about what happened then. You had a manuscript by the time you responded to her, I assume—and Jin, when you were received this manuscript, what was your reaction at that time?

JA: Well you have to act fast, and I read it overnight. One of the things that did happen was that when he finally responded, we spoke on the phone, and he had a layover—I think you were in Lisbon, or something?

JT: Yeah.

JA: He had a one-day layover in New York; it turned out he was staying with a friend in Brooklyn—and I live in Brooklyn—and I said, “Where are you staying?” And he was staying, like, within ten blocks from my home. So, after my kids were in bed I said ten o’clock, there’s a pub down the street from me, a bar, so like, you know, we met. It was a rainy night. We had a beer, and actually I didn’t know that he was working on a novel, per se; every writer’s sort of different. Sometimes you can start working with someone at the beginning when it’s just a story, based on one story—and who knows, it might be ten years before they have a novel or story collection or something. So I wasn’t sure but I definitely wanted to meet him or talk to him further, based on that story. So yeah, and then he said he had the novel that no one had seen and shared with anyone. That’s when we discussed it and then he e-mailed it to me, I think, the next day.

VH: And you read it overnight. And then how much longer was it before Jenna—it ended up in Jenna, the editor’s hands?

Jenna Johnson: Just a few months.

JT: Yeah, it was really quick. Because I was done, pretty much by then.

JA: Yeah, I mean there was no—sometimes I get involved in a sort of a, more of an editing process, but this was, pretty much ready—there were just the minor things that we were doing. And then I sent it out, we discussed who to send it out to, and then we got a lot of interest. And then it turned out that Justin was coming to New York, or could come to New York, so we ended up doing in-person meetings with several editors, which isn’t always the case. You don’t always have to have in-person meetings. So we arranged it, and Jenna was one of the meetings.

VH: So Jenna, question for you. We the Animals seems to have an atypical novel structure. It seems almost like a series of vignettes that are beautifully woven together rather than with the more solid, concrete beginning, middle, and end, kind of plotted outline novel that you would imagine. What sort of role did you play in structuring or revising the novel once it ended up in your hands? What was your role as editor like?

JJ: I think we re-ordered things a little bit. Not a great deal. I felt very much—I mentioned earlier today, that a number of us read it together and it was short enough that it was a really lovely aspect of the acquisition process that everyone at my company was able to read the whole book because it was so short—it was great. And a lot of people had reactions and it was really interesting to hear all of them; but in the end, talking with Justin when he came around to meet everyone, you really get a sense of—what my goal as an editor is to get a sense of what the author is really trying to accomplish and then just help make that happen even more, even better than it already has. So we worked on re-ordering things a little bit and I think Justin added some material in that maybe was written at the time and a little bit before and sort of working on a couple of things, filling out some moments that maybe weren’t in the manuscript yet.

VH: Gotcha. Okay, wonderful, thank you. Justin, I understand that We the Animals is a work of fiction, with elements of autobiography. Did your writing of the book help you re-imagine your childhood, and do people accuse you of having written a memoir? And how do you respond?

JT: Yeah, there’s a writer that I really admire a lot—Tayari Jones, who I was just talking to you, Patty, about that. And she says that people are always interested in catching memoirs telling a lie and fiction writers telling the truth. And I think that has happened to me a lot, people want to nail down what is true, like which part of this—did this happen to you? Did this happen to you? Did this happen to you? It’s not such an interesting question to me, I think that a lot of writers borrow from their life and they make fiction. But I think because I wrote so close to the bone and because it is drawn from my personal experience in a lot of ways, it’s been a big focus of what people wonder about the book. I’m happy to talk about the intersections as well.

VH: Okay. You attended Iowa and Stanford and you’re currently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard—congratulations. Can you speak to the benefits of getting an MFA?

JT: Yeah. I loved getting an MFA. I was in my late twenties, I was almost thirty, I think, when I went there and I had taken my work as far as I could, I think, and I didn’t know much about being a writer, and agents and editors and all that stuff. I didn’t know anything about that stuff and I got to Iowa and people did know about that. And so I learned that aspect as well, but what I really loved was talking about what’s better, a noun or a verb. We would be in a bar until like three in the morning being like “No! Verbs are what carry the narrative!” And it mattered a lot to us. And that experience, that’s what happens in MFAs and you don’t get that anywhere else. Nobody else has five hours to spend . . . 

VH: You get to nerd out.

JT: Totally. Totally, totally get to geek out.

VH: At what point in your life did you identify yourself as a writer? Is it the kind of thing that you always knew you were a writer or did you discover this kind of as you went? I know you’ve had some really colorful, interesting jobs. Have you always identified as a writer?

JT: I don’t know. I always wrote, and I wrote something that got me in a lot of trouble. A lot of trouble. Like, the most trouble that you can possibly get in. If you haven’t read the book, there’s parallels to what happens in the book, so I don’t want to give it away, because you just have to read the book, it’s phenomenal, just trust me. Run to the bookselling table. I got in a lot of trouble and it shut me down from writing for years. And so I didn’t—by the time I took up writing again, it was a very kind of willful act. And even then, it was “I’m not a writer, I’m secretly doing this.” It wasn’t really until I got to Iowa that I decided, like, this is what I’m doing with my time on this earth. I am a writer; this is what I want to do.

VH: You tackle some big issues. I don’t know if you would set out to tackle them, but they’re laced through your book, issues of class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, domestic violence. Were there any subjects that were taboo that you wouldn’t tackle?

JT: I mean, what’s left? I think that shame has had such a huge impact on my own life, my own experience. Just like identifying as, like, a queer person of color in this world, who grew up working class. It hasn’t been easy and so I think I refuse to let shame define any of my choices, moving forward. So no, I don’t think there’s anything taboo that I won’t talk about.

VH: That’s awesome. I’ve heard it said that shame is actually a really driving factor in a lot of the writing that we’re the most drawn to. Do you think that was the case for you?

JT: Yeah, I would say that. I think that shame and anger—I was really lucky I was in a writing class with Dorothy Allison, who’s a writer that I love and you should check her out, she wrote a book called Bastard Out of Carolina that’s just phenomenal. And she said that anger is like a great motivation to get your butt in the chair, but then you have to transcend that once you’re there and kind of capture the grace and the beauty of the world. I think shame is another; it’s a great place to start. It’s universal and everybody wants to engage with it but they also don’t.

VH: I have a couple of follow-up questions to that. One, was it painful to write? As you’re writing some really intense, vivid scenes, and so I want to know about your emotional process of writing.

JT: It was painful. People always ask me—I said this earlier today—people always ask me if it was therapeutic or cathartic to write this book, and I was like “No! It hurt. It hurt bad.” And it didn’t make me feel better when it was over. I don’t believe in the therapeutic model of writing; I think that if you’re writing for therapy you should probably just be in therapy. I think there’s an artistic value to engaging with things that are painful. I think there’s an artistic value to talking about what hurts us in this world.

VH: I’m so curious—what kept you if it was so painful? Can you speak to what kept you coming back to the page rather than abandoning it? And being in an MFA program?

JT: I think that it was a love of language, which is something that you find in MFA programs, is people who just love language. And I think that’s what always keeps me coming back, that’s why I can’t stop writing, because I talk to myself in my head and I like the way the words sound and I want to write them down. And I love putting together nice sentences, and that kind of trumps how difficult it can be sometimes.

VH: So, given some of the subject matter, I’m really curious how the Latino and LGBT communities have responded to your book. Have you felt support?

JT: Yeah, it’s been great. It’s been great. I mean—it’s funny because sometimes I’ll go to readings and it will just be all Latino people that pass the book around for themselves. I went to this reading in Arizona and there were eighty people, I think they were all related, and they were absolutely lovely. It was great. And then I’ll go somewhere and it will be an entirely queer audience. And then I’ll go to a lot of places and it will be mixed. And it’s great. I wrote with those communities in mind. Maybe not. That’s the thing you say afterwards—I wrote because I had to. But I kind of live my life feeling very much a part of those communities, and so for them to respond to the book has just been wonderful.

VH: Jin and Jenna, how has your experience of the feedback from the community—from the publishing world been, regarding Justin’s book? Maybe starting with Jenna.

JJ: We had, like I said earlier, a really quick response in house, which is always a good sign. I think you usually have one or two people who really support you and really like something that you like. But you have to create these coalitions, very much like “Risk.” This book I didn’t have to do any work; it was shamefully easy for me to get people excited. And that proved true throughout. I mean, I think one of the reasons is because, as you can tell, Justin is quite likeable. But also because I think the book itself is so true and so emotional and so immediate, and I think everyone can find something in it within a few pages and it doesn’t take long to figure that out.

VH: I thought, you know, it seems like originally you said there were mixed reactions, maybe you just had a strong reaction, like people loved it, so there was no—

JJ: Everyone who has a reaction, has an editorial reaction. So when I say mixed, I mean everyone had something to say. But everyone loved it, but had different ways to come to it.

VH: How has that experience been for you, Jin?

JA: I think in our agency we work—the whole agency represents Justin and New York and London. So it’s not just “my Justin.” We all stand behind him and in a way we also feel like every other author that we represent also stands behind him. I mean, that’s how we think. And so if we’re just looking for quality work, it was just easy. But I have to mention that when we went to these meetings, what was interesting was it was kind of the—we went to, you know, multiple meetings, there were multiple offers, and you meet, kind of, you go into a room and there’s the initial editor that you talk with and then they have the publisher and then sometimes like a marketing person or publicity person or whatever. Yeah, we came out and as we were discussing, we were just like, “Wow, Jenna! Jenna was great!” and it was not only Jenna’s editorial response and her comments that made sense, but also the publisher in the room and during the meeting, marketing people would come in, sales people would poke their head in and sort of rave about the book. I mean, there was this incredible, I think there’s like, I don’t know, eight people poked their head in at one point during the meeting and it felt very cohesive. We sort of got a sense that it was the whole company. What was nice was, in the end, they made some promises in order for the book to go to them, and I think they came through on all of that, and it was nice; it was a very smart plan. They put together kind of “we’re going to do this, we have ambitions to do this, we’re going to do that,” and it’s really lovely when you find that publisher, that editor, everything kind of falls into place, and, you know . . . 

VH: How often does this happen for you guys with books that you’re representing, where there’s just, everybody’s enthusiastic, there are offers rushing in, everybody loves it, everybody’s on board?

JA: Well you also have to realize that it was during a time, I think, when we sold it, when there was really a dip in fiction acquisitions, and so there was a period when I would call about a debut novel and people would just be like, “It’s going to be really tough. It’s really hard to launch a new writer,” and a lot of houses were kind of like shutting that down a little bit. And so what was really wonderful was kind of the great overall reaction to more than one house and just, again, just responding to the language. I do confess that I did have more than one editor call and say, “Did I get the whole thing?” cause it was twenty-five pages. I didn’t do eighteen font, you know, when I sent it, but I was just like, you know, “Yes, yes, you have the whole novel.”

JJ: I don’t know if it’s a trend or not, but a lot of my submissions have gotten shorter in the past few years.

JA: I think it actually has been a trend.

JJ: And I actually think that some writers—

JA: Because of him.

JJ: I think that this, and not to circumvent your question, but I was talking to someone about this the other day, and I think that this moment in literature is—and this moment in the economy, and this moment in our cultural history—is encouraging people to really crystallize and restrain themselves and really think about what they’re doing, and it pulls you back from those sort of epic, bloated stories and really makes you go into—I had so many novels come in that were seventy-five pages or one hundred and twenty pages that I think people are really pulling themselves back and really hunkering down and figuring out “what’s the most important thing for me to say?”

VH: So do you think this will be an ongoing trend, a successful trend, who knows?

JJ: I don’t know.

VH: No, no way to tell. Okay.

JJ: We’ll see what Justin writes next.

VH: Well, the end of the book takes a very sudden turn from the rest of the narrative. How has the reaction to that been, and did you all have anything to say about that? Is that how you wrote it, Justin? Was it agreed that things would be going along and kind of take a big turn?

JT: It’s definitely how I wrote it. It’s definitely—it’s intentional; you’re not missing anything. But I think that like Jin said, a lot of the editors that I met with wanted me to fill it out and make it more conventional. And one of the reasons why Jin is such a genius is that she did not want me to do that. And I think that it needed to be a short book—I wanted the reader to experience the kind of like abrupt lurch at the end, I wanted it to come like a punch in the gut, I wanted the structure of the book to mirror what happens to the narrator. I wasn’t sure whether that would be something that would kind of damn it to a wider audience, like whether that would just shut things and people would be like, “This isn’t a novel!” You know, which happened a little bit, but not as much as I thought it would.

VH: Obviously it’s not hurting your book. I mean, here you are, and it’s got a positive enough reaction and we won’t give it away for those of you who haven’t read it so—

JT: Stunning.

VH: You have to go buy it and read it all the way through which—you know, it’s a wonderfully fast read. Although, you’ll want to reread it, so that will take a little bit more time. I’m curious, what, and if, you’re working on anything currently and if it has a similar tone or voice or structure, if it’s radically different or what you’re working on now?

JT: Yeah, I have another book that is due . . . I’m surrounded by like the enforcers of my contract. Totally, we’re every day, for like hours, I don’t even sleep, I don’t sleep. Yeah, no, I’m working on the next book, it is, you know—I was saying this earlier, but I’ve read every review that I could get my hands on, every internet comment on Amazon . . . Christian Mom does not like the book. It’s hard to turn off all of those voices, and I’m waiting for kind of this roller coaster which, I mean, being here is lovely, but it doesn’t make for quiet time and good writing. Yeah, so I’m waiting for this to kind of slow down, and then I’m going to work so hard.

VH: Is it kind of intimidating to start a second novel after getting such wonderful acclaim for your first novel?

JT: Yeah, it really is, yeah. I said this earlier, but The New York Times wrote about the way that I use semicolons, and they don’t approve, and you never forget that. Ever. Every single time you write a semicolon, and there’s lots of things like that that I’ve read, so.

JA: Why did you read all your comments?

JT: I know, you told me not to. I couldn’t help—I mean, come on, they were writing about me! My book! That I wrote! I wish I had better self-control.

JA: You didn’t disguise yourself and go on the comments and respond?

JT: No.

JA: Please tell me you didn’t.

JT: No, I didn’t. I’ve never responded, even when somebody called me “Justin Snore-res.” I did not respond.

VH: I heard that you thought that English teachers wouldn’t be teaching your book because of some of the controversial nature of it, but then some are, and I happen to know one in this room who is teaching her student—

JH: Yay! Exciting!

VH: Have you heard from students—

JT: Yeah.

VH: You’ve gotten an outpouring of you know, young people?

JT: Yeah, I have. I’ve gone to a few schools and talked to kids. I love talking to students because their questions are always the best. You know what I mean, they’re just like—

VH: We’ll give them time to ask some—

JT: Yeah, it’s great, it’s great, they’re just like, “Why didn’t you give up? If it’s hard, why didn’t you just stop?” And I’m like, “uhh . . . ” How do you answer that? I don’t know! But it really makes you think like “why didn’t I just give up?” It’s been wonderful. I think that when I was an adolescent, I read books that were maybe a little bit racy or maybe talked about things that are considered taboo or dealt with sexuality or something like that, and they were so important to me because the majority of books that I read were about people that I could not relate to, people who led kind of privileged, safe lives. And so to know that it’s reaching students and adolescents—it’s wonderful.

VH: Well like Shannon quoted Toni Morrison saying, “Write the book you want to read”—

JT: Yeah, yeah.

VH: Maybe it seems like this would have been a wonderful book for you to have had when you were a young person; it would sort of have been a gift. It’s pretty cool.

VH: Do you have any advice for, there might be a few MFA students in this room, there might be a couple people working on their own first novel, do you have any pearls of wisdom?

JT: I was asked this earlier and I stumbled for like twenty minutes; I was like, “blrrurrrrhrlllhhhhrrrr . . . ” For some reason I just really avoid giving advice. I think I can say that in my—in the path for this book, my own, you know, what I’ve done here, I tried to stick as much as possible to my vision and I tried to—I want it to be short, I knew that maybe market forces aren’t used to a book this kind of an unconventional length, things like that. I tried to just not, tried to block that out and do what I thought needed to be done kind of artistically with the book. I guess that’s advice.

VH: I think that’s wonderful advice and I think that’s going to be—it sounds like harder for you the second time around because you’ve absorbed so much of the reaction but to put all of that out completely, and I’ve also heard it’s important not to write towards the trend like vampires or zombies because by the time you get your book finished—

JT: Unless you want to be rich!

VH: —to go for your passion and not what the market, what you think the market wants. I’m curious about the title. Did you come up with the title? Was that a group decision? 

JT: It was. It was. I think that the three of us . . . I mean, I had an original title which was horrible.

JA: You want to say it?

JT: No! We’re not saying it! We’re not ever saying it out loud. It was really bad. You guys would lose all respect. You’d be like, “What?” You’d just get up and walk out. The title needed to change, and I came up with a list of titles and everybody had input on it. Jin had lots of input. Jenna had lots of input.

JA: We sent around these lists. Remember your UK editor? She had a suggestion.

JT: I remember that it was going to be We Animals, and she was like, “In the UK that would mean tiny little wee animals.” She was like, you can’t do that, you know.

VH: Jin and Jenna, you know, we’re in a—I guess the book industry is rapidly changing these days, or, you know it’s been in the midst of a big change. Do you have advice for writers who are I’m imagining many in this room, for what you’re looking for or what you’re not looking for? Is it so subjective that it’s hard to even answer that question? But what would you each individually say to writers in this room?

JJ: I’m always discovering what I would say to that question, by virtue of what I end up choosing. I think readers—I respond to books very personally and subjectively. But that said, I have a list of a certain number of books I do every year and I’m looking for certain kinds of books to fill that list. For me, the language is primary and the feeling that something important and new is happening is primary. That is not true for many editors, but that is true for me. And I think that’s true for where I work and one of the reasons that I’m really happy to be there, is that that’s not just something that they’re suffering that I do, it’s something that they want me to do.

VH: Wonderful, perfect.

JA: I think I read somewhere, I forget what website, but they were quoting Ian McEwan giving advice—he was asked what advice he would give to starting-out writers and his advice was “Be successful.” So, in short. Lately now I feel like for beginning writers or for someone first showing their work, I would just say make sure that your work has authority, that you can stand behind it, because I find sometimes that people spend—just because you spend a large amount of time on a piece of work, doesn’t mean that that’s the right work for you. It’s kind of this weird disassociation that starts happening and you can kind of sense it as a reader. Like you read it and then you’re just like, well what does this actually mean to you, and then they can’t say. So it’s become this thing outside of themselves and you just want that connection. It doesn’t mean an autobiographical connection, it just means an intimate connection. It just means that this is the work that you were meant to write. Sometimes it’s about authority behind what you’re writing but also timing is huge. I feel like sometimes you read someone and you just kind of know where they’re going, but you don’t know if they’ll get there. And then sometimes you’ll just check in with them later and they’ve become this other writer. And sometimes people just don’t give themselves the time. You don’t have to be twenty-two and have your first novel. I met an MFA student recently, he was sixty-two in his first year. He had had a long career in the navy; I thought that was great. He waited. He wrote twelve books that he never showed anyone; they were in the drawer. But every book is his first novel again. Because he said for forty years he’s just been teaching himself. I thought, “That’s persistence.” I mean how incredible. I just think that you have to be—if you want other people to engage with your work, the least you can do is actually engage in your own work. And sometimes I feel like it’s this thing, that it’s your thing, so make sure it’s your thing.

VH: Great, that was a beautiful answer, thank you. Backing up just a bit—Justin, while you were writing, did you have any fear of reactions from—were you afraid of the reactions you might get? Were you afraid of hurting anyone who might be associated with the book?

JT: Yeah, my family, for sure. It wasn’t like I was afraid that it might happen, I knew what I was doing was going to hurt them and I had to wrestle with that a lot. I had to convince myself that it was worth—that it has value for people. I’m not sure that I’m fully convinced to this day. I did it. But was I worried about that? For sure.

VH: Have there been consequences for you?

JT: My family has been so gracious. Not at first, but over time. Their reaction is still evolving. People are like “How did your family react?” And the fact of the matter is that they’re continually reacting. The more successful I get, the easier it is. Like calling them home from Harvard and being like “so . . . still hate me?” It makes it easier. I think that they’ve come around to being like, oh if the response is so big then maybe it has value.

VH: Gotcha, well I really applaud you for going forward anyway. I can imagine just the terror, because you do write close to the bone and it’s very raw and it’s so beautiful, and I do have a feeling that it’s helpful to people, like younger versions of you and otherwise, me and many, many people who have read it have gotten something really beautiful and deeply moving from it. I hope you have a sense of how you’re helping people by having written this book, even if it came at some cost.

JT: Thank you.

VH: Well, I’d like to take this time to open up to questions from the audience, and if you could keep your question general, so it will pertain to many people in this room, and not necessarily the one particular issue you’re having with semicolons in your novel—that would be wonderful, but I’d love to get some questions.

Audience: It sounds, well, I haven’t read it, but I’m going to, it sounds so close to almost narrative poetry, so beautiful in the language—

JT: Thank you.

Audience: Have you ever considered marketing it as a poetry book?

JT: I’m sorry, I’m like “ha ha ha ha.” Evil cackling. I can’t believe I just did that. You know, I was thinking earlier, I have so much respect for poetry, I read a lot of poetry, it is a beautiful art form, and I don’t write poetry, so I, it didn’t . . . I think I have too much respect for poetry to call myself a poet, but it definitely was interested in narrowing the gap. The reason I kind of cackled is because, I mean . . . 

Audience: There’s no money in poetry?

JT: There’s no money in poetry. So just the words of like “market yourself,” you know, the dissonance between market yourself as a poet . . . I think poets are, I mean, they’re purists, they’re so brave, and they’re so . . . if you are engaging in that, it’s purely for the love of language, and when I was at Iowa, I loved the poets, and one of my biggest regrets was that they separated us so much. I thought that there should have been way more cross-over, there’s so much to learn between the two.

VH: Yeah, and I read that you were like, “Oh they want to call it a novel? Sure, we’ll call it a novel,” as far as what to call it, because you wrote and that’s what it was, the genre wasn’t as important to you.

JT: Yeah, I was like “Do we have to call it a novel?”

VH: What would you have called it, if not a novel?

JT: I didn’t want to call it anything. I just wanted to call it a book.

JA: Yeah, the book.

VH: I love that idea, the book. But maybe Jin and Jenna can answer that—it has to be called something. It has to be defined.

JJ: Well, technically, on a very, very boring, boring level, we have to put something in our database that goes out to Amazon that tells people like “what are you buying,” and we spent a lot of time talking about whether or not we could call it a novel, and I have defended that decision on the internets. And I have to say that for me it is a novel. For me it’s a novel because it has the breadth and depth and expansiveness and challenge of a novel, and that when I read it I felt enlarged, and that’s not necessarily not true of short stories, but that it had, unlike short story collections or even linked collections of short stories, it had a momentum to it, and it had a sense of growth, and that there were a lot of things about it that made it feel as large as a novel, and maybe we just don’t have the right word. I mean, we published Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, in 1990 at Houghton, and it’s called “fiction.” Like that’s just what it’s called, and we could have done that with this . . . we didn’t really come up with that idea at the time, but for me I didn’t offer it as an option because to me this felt right, and if it had felt really wrong to you, you would have said, right?

JT: Yeah. I mean, I think that the category is worth expanding. Why not, you know?

VH: Great question, thank you. Back here.

Audience: Yes, earlier you spoke about certain promises that were made by the publisher that made you go with them, and I was just wondering if you could share what those were.

JJ: I don’t remember.

JA: Jenna’s backing away now!

JJ: No, I really don’t remember.

JA: Yeah, you said it would be a lead fiction title for the fall list, which it was. I think that you said you would tour him—

JJ: Yeah, we did.

JA: Book tour. Book tours are very rare these days, and you’ve done both hardcover and paperback tour. That it would be both review driven and that there would be a big early push for blurbs as well as kind of getting it to all of the various prize people.

JT: There’s also an island in the Caribbean named after me.

JA: That too!

VH: Okay, right here.

Audience: So, the first chapter does a good job of introducing the three brothers, and some of the more important themes. Did you know when you were writing that was the first chapter, did you have other ideas in store?

JT: I knew when I wrote it that it would be the first chapter. It wasn’t the first thing that I wrote, but it was close to the beginning, and I knew as soon as I finished the last period, I was like, “Well, this is the beginning of the book,” and then I had to think a lot about what I was going to do with this collective first-person “we” voice, because that’s hard to sustain for an entire book, and what did I want to say about it that was kind of fresh and new, and how could I make it an important, integral part of the book itself, so . . . But yeah, I definitely felt like, “yeah I like this.” And I’m really hard on myself, I rarely like something, do you know what I mean, when I write, and I was like “I like this,” and I thought it introduced the themes well, and it’s kind of like a chant more than a chapter.

Audience: Did you know it was going to be “we” when you started?

VH: Did everybody hear the question? It was about the use of the “we” versus “I” in the first chapter.

JT: Well, I didn’t. This—like I said, this was something that I wrote very early on. I had a few things, and there was lots of “we” in them, because it was about brothers close in age, and it was more of a haphazard “we.” And then this was completely “we”. Then, from there on, I was always very consciously like, “is it going to be an ‘I’ or is it going to be a ‘we’ in this sentence?” and I made sure that that was kind of the arc of the book: moving from the “we” to the “I.”

JJ: Great question. Any more questions?

Audience: This is for Justin. (Inaudible) different routines for writing. What’s the typical day for you . . . like a writing day?

JT: He’s asking me what a typical writing day—like what my writing routine is. When I started writing, I was working a lot of really shitty jobs, and I was totally broke living in New York, and so I would kind of write in my head and try to memorize as much as I could. And then I would get home and write it down. And I found that to be really good, as far as the way that things sounded—because if I could remember them on a language level then usually they were doing something right. But when—later on, when I was in MFAs and fellowships or whatever, and suddenly I had all of this time to write. And I just couldn’t. I couldn’t sit down and just write for eight hours—it’s just not the way I am. So I started like baking bread and, like, finding other random things to do. And I still, I try to engage my hands and myself in the world and daydream and talk to myself in my head, and do as much as possible before I sit down to write, because I still find a blank page just the most daunting thing in the world and as much momentum that I have before sitting down—where like I know where I’m going to start, I know what the next word’s going to be—then the more that I’ll get done. So, I try to avoid the computer.

VH: Do you write by hand in a notebook, or do you write at the computer?

JT: I don’t write by hand. I—when people ask me that I feel like such an imposter. I don’t write by hand. I should. All real writers write by hand—

VH: You should write the way that makes award-winning books.

JT: With like a quill pen or something, like on a tiny little desk, though, I know.

VH: I think whatever you’re doing is working. Who are some of your favorite authors, Justin?

JT: I mean there’s so many. I tend to like Dorothy Allison a lot. I think that on the level of the kind of themes she’s engaging with, I think she’s amazing. James Baldwin similarly. I don’t think I’m anything like either of those writers, but they were my heroes when I was an adolescent, and continue to be my heroes to this day. I think that when I was writing the book, I looked at people like Stuart Dybek and Grace Paley, and Tilly Olsen, and people who had written incredibly condensed, precise, concise books, and structured them, and that were writing from personal experience. And I studied how they achieved what they achieved.

VH: Any other questions? We have time for maybe one more. (Repeats inaudible audience question) Is your book deal lucrative? How lucrative is a book?

JA: I think that what’s kind of hard to understand in the beginning is that when you get paid, it’s an advance against royalties. And so, it’s incremental. So it also depends on how fast you write. Sometimes you sell something and it’s a finished book, but the publisher will divide it into like when you sign—so you get it in quarters. I remember a different writer who was writing nonfiction. He was calculating in his head, sort of almost per hour, how long it would take him and whatever, and he goes “I’m making less than minimum wage on this contract.” I was like, “You can’t think that way!” You can’t! Because you—it just will drive you crazy.

VH: You have to do it for the love.

JJ: Some writers think that way and they should because they would make more money doing something else, and that’s driving them. Nonfiction in particular, I think for journalists—if you can sell a piece to a particular magazine for a lot more money, then you should probably. You have to be doing it because you want to do it. No one should go into writing for the money. That’s a terrible, terrible idea. No one should go into publishing for the money.

JT: Don’t do it for the money.

JA: Yes. We all have no money. We’re happy to be here though.

VH: Join the club.

JJ: It’s for the glory.

VH: Maybe one last question? I thought I saw one more hand. The question is if Justin has traveled and if he would consider traveling to inspire more writing.

JT: Yeah, you know I have traveled; I’ve been to very wealthy countries, and I’ve been to more impoverished countries as well. I think that every experience that I have informs my writing for sure. I’m not the kind of writer who’s interested in writing literature about places that I don’t live. You know, I don’t want to write a book about a country that is not my own. That’s just me—that’s just the kind of writer I am. It’s not like I have anything against those books. I think that a lot of the writers that I was with in MFA programs were writing books set in Russia or in Africa—and they’d never been there. They were just using their imaginative powers to do that and I think that fiction is a big umbrella and it allows for that. But I don’t think that I am—that’s just not me. Does it inform me, traveling? Yeah. Do I want to be well-traveled? Absolutely. Yeah, sure.

VH: Okay so maybe we could end on this note. There’s the saying “write what you know”. And I have started to hear a lot also of the saying “write what you don’t know.” Do you feel like your writing kind of combines those elements in fiction?

JT: I mean, I never understood that “write what you know” expression because it’s like, what else can you do? Like you know what I mean? It seems kind of mindboggling to me. I don’t like those maxims—I don’t like prescriptive “show don’t tell.” What does that even mean, you know? I think that write from the heart, or write to break your heart, or write to break other people’s hearts, or write something that’s important, or write what hurts—like stuff like that I can get behind.

VH: And you did. You did.

JT: Thank you.

VH: Well, that concludes our evening. And before we applaud, I want to say that books will be for sale in the lobby and Justin will available to sign them, so please buy books and get Justin’s signature—and honor students here for credit should go to the book signing table. And I want to say, you have been a fabulous panel. I learned so much and I really loved having the opportunity to be up here with you all, and thank you very much to the VCU First Novelist Award.  end

return to top