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Justin Torres at Powell’s

October 12, 2011

Applaud Loudly

You want to know what a stand-up guy Justin Torres is?  He’s a debut author in the middle of his first book tour scheduled to read from We the Animals at Powell’s. Torres gets up to the podium, and instead of reading, he announces that a friend will read a few of her poems first. The audience seems confused and a little troubled; they came for the talk-of-the-town author whose name is being ballyhooed in all the major media, after all. But then the poet, a lovely young woman named Valentine Freeman, begins reading.  And her poems are good – really good. When she takes her seat, we clap.  Actually, we applaud loudly because her poems were beautiful and because Justin just did a remarkably generous thing.
After reading from his book, Torres told a funny story to break the awkward silence that an author sometimes gets when he asks for questions and the audience just sits and stares. (I’ll keep the story to myself in case you have a chance to see Torres on tour.)
The first question was a Q & A standard, but one which I always find interesting: how does he write, what is his process? Torres said, “ When I started writing, I was working a bunch of odd jobs and didn’t have a lot of time to sit down and write. I would be thinking all the time in my head about the characters and about sentences and the sounds of words. That’s really what I geek out about the most.”
He described the first section of the book as incantatory (my new favorite word) because it was almost entirely done before he sat down to write.  “I still do that a lot, even though now I have the scholarship at Stanford. It’s embarrassing how much time I have to write. Now, I’m in this weird position where I could just sit for eight hours and write if I wanted to but I’m just not that kind of person. So, I wander around my house, I dance, I bake bread but I think all the time and I still try and memorize. I think that if I can memorize a sentence, then I must be doing something right on the level of sound and rhythm. That’s how memorization works.  That’s what sticks in our head and is catchy. Then I write.  I write really slowly, line by line.  I don’t produce a lot of drafts. I haven’t met anybody who does it like I do. It seems like it’s not very efficient. I’m really, really slow.” Then he held up his book of 128 pages as proof and said, “This took six years.”
When questioned about how closely his book of fiction mirrored his own life, Torres replied, “The hard facts mirror my life, but We the Animals is fiction. The characters are different from my own family but there’s a lot of personal experience in the book, for sure. I’m talking about emotional truth and I’m using all the tools of fiction to get to that.”
Someone wanted to know if he planned on writing any more books based on his life and Torres said, “Yes, I still feel free to write from personal experience and I will continue to do that.  I think everybody does it; we only have our experience to work on. We only have what’s in our minds. I always bring up Frida Kahlo. She’s not documenting herself – it’s fantasy. It’s representation. It’s myth-making.”
A question regarding who he read while he was writing the book brought this response, “I looked a lot to poetry, and to writers who were doing very precise and concise concentrated things like Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley, and Stuart Dybeck. In general, it’s James Baldwin and Dorothy Allison who were writers I read in my adolescence, and that I have a ridiculous amount of love for. They’re my gods.”
Torres talked about his experience at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and dismissed the idea that it’s a book factory. He said, “People think that there’s this standard and everybody’s producing the same thing like we’re being brainwashed. But, there’s not a lot of public funding for the arts in this country, so if somebody’s going to pay you to spend two years of your life writing and talking about literature, it’s an absolute no-brainer to me. I would have never been in a position where I could have paid for that experience, so it makes absolute sense to me. When I got to Iowa, I didn’t have a firm sense of myself as a writer. I knew that I was writing obsessively and that I was moving towards having a book, but when I got to Iowa it was like all of a sudden I had to be really conversant in literature. I had to race to catch up to what was expected of me. That was a wonderful experience. It was at Iowa where I really committed to the fact that I wanted to be a writer. I’m so grateful to Iowa for that.”
Torres ended by saying, “My life has been transformed. I’ve been propelled to another class; I’m at Stanford now and I’m not pushing a trash can. I grew up in a completely different class than I’m living in now.”

My interview with Torres will be posted at the Portland Book Review soon.

Poet Valentine Freeman has been published in the Portland Review, Livermore Street and Weekday from Publication Studios.  She also has a chapbook included in Marvin Bell’s New Poets Series with Lost Horse Books.  For information, contact:

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