The Future of American Fiction: An Interview with Justin Torres

If you haven’t noticed, we spend a lot of time thinking about literature here in the Flavorpill offices, digging through its past, weighing its current state, and imagining its future. Take a look at our bookshelves and you’ll find us reading everything from Nobel Prize winners to age-old classics to paperbacks printed at the bookstore down the street. Call it Chick-Lit, Hysterical Realism, Ethnic-Lit, or Translit — if it’s good fiction, we’ll be talking about it. So this summer, we’re launching The Future of American Fiction: an interview series expanding on that endless conversation about books we love, and yes, the direction of American fiction, from the people who’d know. Every Tuesday from now through August, we’ll bring you a short interview with one of the writers we think is instrumental in defining that direction.

This week, to kick off our series, we spoke with Justin Torres. His upbeat debut novel, We the Animals, centers on a gay, Puerto-Rican boy who grows up in a working-class family in upstate New York as he discovers his ethnic and sexual identity. Google “Justin Torres,” and you’ll find that he has a similar biography. Though Torres admits that his fiction is in part based on his life, his stories are lot more than autobiography, and far stranger, too.

Flavorpill: What do you love or hate about the state of American fiction?

Justin Torres: American fiction is incredibly balkanized, and this is a thing I love. Is there a bit of hostility between the different literary camps? I think so. But it’s good, productive hostility. Passionate. And instead of one truly dominant style, there’s a lot of freedom.

Where do you see American fiction going?

I hope that the days of an assumed literary center and an assumed literary periphery are coming to an end.

I was pulled through your novel We The Animals not by a conventional plot, per se, but by the way you bring familial, ethnic, and sexual tensions uncomfortably close, leaving the reader with the sense that everything about your characters’ world is complicated. How did you arrive at this?

A conventional plot, a conventional coming of age story, just wasn’t interesting for me to write. I found it much more satisfying to write disjointed, episodic, fractured narratives that seem to flash by, but also stack up. Everything is complicated for these characters and their world. I knew it had to be complicated, messy. Nothing drives me crazy like an uncomplicated representation, a stereotype.

Your novel and short stories are all told in the point of view of a queer, male protagonist. Part of why We The Animals is so strange is because your narrator is thrust into the world around him, which is made up of people who don’t see it the way he does. How does the “queer sensibility” of your protagonists enable them to see the world differently than those around them?

For all that growing up queer in a hetero-normative and often homophobic world can suck, it can endow you with some remarkable characteristics. One of those is a questioning, critical attitude toward social and cultural norms. It takes a huge imaginative leap in the absence of any representation of queer lives, and queer happiness, to conceive of a happy life for yourself. But as a queer kid, you grow up with the expectation and indoctrination of heterosexuality, you really “know what its about” and then you give it up when you’re ready. This allows for a unique vantage point that is both inside and outside — the sense of moving through several worlds, and the resulting dislocation. It gives the ability to look at folks and see them in a way they don’t see themselves.

Your recent stories about a young sex worker in New York City at times use sexual description to show the relationship of your characters. How does sex uniquely describe a character, and why were you drawn to this kind of storytelling?

There’s a lot of erotic characterization, I think, because violence and masculinity and passivity all can have erotic charges. Sexual deviance is a huge fascination for me. So is sexual shame, and sexual agency. Sex work is particularly multi-faceted, as it can be about economics as much as sex. It’s complicated; I love complication. I have this amazing book from the 1940s about “sex variants” by which they mean primarily homosexuals and prostitutes. They interview and measure and categorize all these amazing folks, and the theorizing the scientists do is all bunk, but the interviews contained within are priceless. These are my people, my cultural ancestors talking to me across the generations.

What’s the last good book you read?

I reread Diving Into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich.