What to Read: 'We the Animals' by Justin Torres

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Wild thing, attack!
Photo by Wei Hwu

It’s difficult to find anything negatively written about Justin Torres’ debut fiction novel, We the Animals -- and that’s probably because nothing negative has yet been written. Dorothy Allison called it, “a miracle in concentrated pages,” and Michael Cunningham said it was, “a dark jewel of a book.” So Torres is a literary wunderkind of sorts, but despite the buzzy accolades, the current Stegner fellow and queer scribe is still humbly bewildered by the success of a book by a gay brown author – especially his very own.

We the Animals tells the story of a Puerto Rican father and his Caucasian wife raising a family of sons: the narrator and his two brothers. At the beginning, the boys are joined at the hips -- hungry and eager for life. But as the brothers age, the narrator becomes dislodged from the family unit and struggles to form his own identity and find a new form of emotional stability for himself.

Torres is the first author invited to participate in the Magnet Book Club. (We'll be running a series of interviews with authors appearing at the nonprofit space.) The gay men’s health center in the Castro will host Torres on Jan. 31 at 7:30pm for an intimate, wine-induced discussion of We the Animals. To lead up to that event, we spoke Torres sober.

SFBG You used to work at Modern Times. What role do you think independent bookstores play in an author’s career?

JT Even before Modern Times, I used to work at a bookstore in New York, so I’ve been an avid supporter of indie bookshops for a while. There is nothing like that face-to-face interaction with readers. I don’t think this much word-of-mouth would have been generated through Facebook, or whatever. I’m old-fashioned, but it’s a very tricky industry.

SFBG Jumping off on that, you’re a first time author. What was your biggest misconception about the publishing process?

JT This whole entire experience has been unexpected. This is not a conventional novel, it’s short and not chronological, and so I had no expectations. I never thought I’d get written about in The New York Times, let alone have it be something positive. I never thought I’d be dealing with “buzz.” I hate that word, but that’s what they call it.

SFBG So what were your expectations?

JT I just wanted to write something that I felt was right. Now that I’m starting to work on a second book, it’s actually harder. I read a lot of reviews, so now I have a lot of different voices in my head. But even though I’m contractually obligated to turn something in by a certain deadline, I’d rather break that and have my publishing house get mad at me than turn something I can’t stand by.

SFBG Michael Cunningham, who blurbed We the Animals, once said he doesn’t want to be referred to as a “gay author” but just an author who happens to be gay. How do you feel about those types of labels?

JT I think they’re unnecessary. Yes, there are major gay tropes – coming out, AIDS – or stories with a certain queer sensibility. But now there are more straight authors writing about gay characters. I refer to myself as a “queer author.” It makes sense for me.

SFBG Plus it sounds more literary.

JT Exactly [laughs]. It empowers my writing, and it’s important, but it’s also incidental.

SFBG Major publishing houses have a bad rep of shying away from queer narratives. What’s been your experience with your publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt?

JT
My sexual orientation has never been an issue with my publishing house. They’ve never tried to de-gay me, or whatever.

SFBG
Do you think there is a more embracing shift happening in publishing?

JT Well, I had no idea exactly how few queer pieces have been published in The New Yorker. After I was published, I received so many notes saying it was the first queer story in a decade. I want to say change is happening, but I’m skeptical. You read the best of lists every year and ten out of ten, maybe nine out of ten, are straight white male authors. Publishing still has that East Coast, Ivy League sensibility. Why can’t we broaden that?

SFBG
You’re kind of the living testament against that though.

JT I guess. I didn’t grow up in a literary household. I grew up with this wild hunger for mixes race and queer stories. When I finally got my hands on a copy of Bastard Out of Carolina, it was like oxygen.

SFBG What interested you about showing up to this book club?

JUSTIN TORRES As an author, you mostly get two types of feedback. Your friends get a certain kind of reading and book critics have their take on things. But to meet real people who see it through a true reader’s eyes – that’s a wonderful experience. It’s a shock to see what they focused on while reading it, what caught their attention, what they found parallel in their own lives.

SFBG You were on the list of Salon’s sexiest men of 2011, so what we all really want to know is, are you single?

JT I’m actually engaged. My man proposed right before the book came out. But I want that to be the first line in my bio.

Justin Torres will be Magnet Book Club’s guest of honor on Tuesday, January 31 at 7:30pm. Book club is open to the public and copies of We the Animals are available at Books, Inc. in the Castro for 15% off. Magnet is located at 4122 18th Street (between Castro and Collingwood).