Justin Torres and I met almost twenty years ago in late-stage Riot Grrrl San Francisco, draped here and there over dirty couches and mattresses on the floors of Castro apartments with a dozen punks trying to make rent. I was a housecleaner and Justin was a sometimes rent boy. Somehow and somewhere, we were both writing. We were just on the other side of the veil between ourselves and “what had happened to us”; we were at the very beginning of composing stories about ourselves, of our own making. When Justin wrote the story that was eventually to become the first chapter of his novel, We the Animals, all us Lost Boys marveled at this incredible golden egg that had dropped out of him. As it happens, that story and the legs and arms and wings it grew brought fellowships and residencies and heavyweight mentors and, finally, a book.
We the Animals is a book like no other. It roils through the underwater blood-currents of a family, bearing unflinching witness to their love and violence. Justin offers us a translation of that family’s survival and destruction, a brief, concentrated passage of their mythology so potent and incisive that it cleanly slices the reader open head to tail.
At a slender 120 pages, the novel was translated into at least a dozen languages in its first printing, and has been wildly celebrated and life-changing not only for those who read it, but also for its author. When the book was adapted into a film, Justin invited me to design the costumes. I’d never worked on a movie before, and neither had he. But I quit my job, and he took the summer off to consult on the film full-time. We sweated and chain-smoked our way through a humid upstate New York summer and watched his stories become forensically re-created by the devoted Jeremiah Zagar, our director. In Utica, we spent all our waking hours piggybacking the actor who played someone resembling Justin’s boyhood self, changing his underpants and shoes, wrestling with his brothers, and crying from exhaustion when reassembling this former life became back-breaking labor, or strayed too far away from, or toward, the real experiences that informed the novel.
As ragamuffin, queer punks raised in poverty, neither of us had ever imagined that we would grow up to be salarymen—I’m a creative director and Justin is a professor—with health insurance and car payments. In the midst of wrestling with these strange new costumes, we both dropped out for a summer to be herded around in passenger vans and negotiate by walkie-talkie about what color pajamas his mother wore in 1985. But there we were! His childhood, and the fictional family he spun from it to build a book, were spilled out onto the lawn of a set house full of fake family photos and C-stands and lights, and someone was spraying fake rain from a garden hose off the roof. Two years after the film wrapped and two months before it opened in theaters, we talked on the phone—Justin from Oxford and me from Los Angeles—about the Magic Eye poster of that experience, and the nearly fictional state of adulthood we now find ourselves in after two decades of friendship.
I. “THE GUY WHO WROTE AMERICAN PSYCHO ISN’T SAYING, WHAT AM I DOING TO WALL STREET EXECUTIVES RIGHT NOW?”
VALENTINE FREEMAN: You get asked relentlessly whether the book is autobiographical. I remember when it first came out, every interview you did and every reading you did, some asshole would just try to nail you down and get you to tell them whether it’s true or not. I remember feeling very defensive of you, because I wanted to respect that you insisted: This is not autobiographical. I made this.
So I think now I’m still wrestling over the Rubik’s Cube of working on the film with you and re-creating the book, and how much you had to tap into the parts of your own experience that were woven into the book in order to build the film. What does it feel like to have spent years reminding people that it is fiction and then to go into the process of consulting on how deep a bruise should be made with makeup and which glasses are on the nightstand, you know? What did that transition feel like?
JUSTIN TORRES: You’ve laid out something really interesting. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms, but I think it’s true. It kind of went in three iterations. One iteration was, what is poetry? What’s actually transforming lived experience into poetic experience? The second would be the experience of having the novel in the world. Then it became about being an author. It became about a story, and people try to factualize something that was fiction. So it was like, I did all of this work to make poetry out of experience, and then all of this work was being done to make it real again, to question me—the book was called semiautobiographical by my publisher. The third iteration was a kind of incarnation that I’d never even dreamed of, which was the visual, making this now poetically visual but with all of these references to my own life.
I guess with the first one, one of the things that I love about poetry is that it forces you to experience narrative at a different pace than you normally would. If you care about poetry, and you want to read a poem and you want to understand it, you have to shift your whole life. You can’t read it in the same way you read a BuzzFeed listicle or whatever. You have to change your brain. You have to slow down. You have to care about different things in that time and that moment. You have to understand what somebody has put in and what they’ve left out and why they’ve done that. You have to believe that there’s a point to it, and you have to believe that you’re capable of understanding what that point is. Even if you’ll never know in a hard, factual way, you’ll know something from the experience of reading a poem. It’s so delightful and rewarding every time you engage with language on that level.
There are things that the writing is just starting to pay attention to—really paying attention to the language that one is using to describe one’s own experience in this world and then getting obsessed with that language. And then [the book] went out into the world, and that was this weird, weird experience that I kind of walked into. I didn’t really think too much about what it would be like. Another interesting thing about our friendship is that we both found success late for rich people but early for people like us.
VF: At all for people like us.
JT: Exactly. So we were from this very particular world, these kind of punk artists who really did not expect their ships to come in. We were doing it because we wanted to, and I think that we both hustled that artistic talent into real-world dollars, and dealing with that is so weird, you know? Like suddenly being a middle-class adult is so fucking weird. Part of what feels so weird, I think, is this sense of critical faculty that I think we both have, just like being a smart kid who is watching the unfairness and inequity of the world play out on the people you love. That’s just the median that you grew up in. Some people have a lot, and other people have nothing, and it’s not based on the courage they have or the emotional resources they have or anything. It’s like, fuck, this world just grinds people up. Feeling all of the rage that the class structure of this country produces, and then being asked to turn that off. Because, like, welcome, you know? The doors are open, so welcome. We love this kind of serious art you’ve produced, but we don’t actually want you to be a serious artist. We love this painful critique. Yes, give me more, but I want it bound between pages, and I want there to be a cover and a beginning, middle, and end, and I want to be able to purchase it and put it down. I don’t want your messy pain. I want to meet the author who wrote this book about this very, very hurt, volatile child, but I do not actually want to be in the presence of that kind of volatility and pain.
VF: Or in the presence of that child.
JT: And that’s infuriating and weird. It’s strange. Then, of course, it’s true: I actually do want stability. I do want opportunities to keep coming. So then there’s this invitation extended. I feel like the invitation is extended to me, and to a lot of writers of color who are coming from working-class backgrounds, et cetera. Marginalized artists in whatever way that they’re marginalized, the invitation is to come in, sit down, behave nicely at the table, be the only one at the table, and make sure the door is closed behind you. It’s hard. It’s actually hard to keep a door open when nobody wants it to be open. It’s hard to be the only person like you at the fucking table. It’s also hard to turn away from a beautifully prepared meal that you could never actually afford. This metaphor is being stretched too far.
VF: No, keep going, keep going.
JT: I could talk about that forever. What really bothers me is the sneaking suspicion that I’ve betrayed people that I have no right to betray. Because I’m representing communities that I have no right to represent, that there’s a kind of zero-sum game. I can think of darker, queerer, more-poor people who got beaten up worse as a kid than I did. There’s always somebody who is more deserving, if that’s what makes you deserving, you know? And they’re not getting the opportunity extended to them. I start to think, Why is it me? What is it about me that’s so palatable? I think that a lot of people who found the book and loved the book are people who I dreamed of finding the book and loving the book. I got a lot of messages from lonely, queer kids, a lot of people who are just like, “Oh my god, my family” and “I relate to this so much.” Or just people who love poetic language. I get a lot of really fucking amazing readers, but then I think it also could be that what I wrote wasn’t challenging enough or difficult enough, that maybe it was too easy to swallow, that it didn’t get stuck in your throat.
VF: Like a truer victory would have been it being so uncomfortable that people reject it.
JT: Yeah, which would have been no victory at all. But it does make me feel like, Am I a pet monkey, you know? I think that that’s just whatever. It’s just shit that certain writers are going to deal with, and for other writers, it’s never going to occur to them. It’s just never going to occur to them. And a lot of those writers are straight white dudes, just rich white people in general. It’s not going to occur to them that it could be anything but their merit that brings success, or that their work is a kind of service to white people. No white person writes a book, and they’re like, What will the white community think of this? Is this the representation the white community needs right now? Nobody fucking thinks that. Like, the guy who wrote American Psycho isn’t saying, What am I doing to Wall Street executives right now?
II. “BROKENHEARTEDNESS INSTEAD OF FUCK-YOU-NESS”
VF: It feels really cliché to say, “I write to survive,” but legitimately we all still crank out the piece-of-shit, angsty thirteen-year-old poems that come out of a moment where we had literally nothing else we could do in that moment. For me, there are two very different kinds of writing—the craft and intention and bared teeth of something I hope is strong and effective and intelligent, and then this Lisa Frank journal shit I still fucking write, where I look at it a week later and I don’t even want to acknowledge the person that wrote this. In writing out of a bottom place, I am just very wrapped up in my shit. I don’t know what else to do. I think it’s extraordinary that you wrestled with your own story about yourself and your pain, and you knew that it was going to get on people whether you wanted it to or not, and you made it into this enormous gift for people. That is a real form of power. That’s part of why people are so drawn to your book and drawn to your mind, whether you’re writing a book or not, because you found a way to do that in a not-cheesy way.
JT: I kind of want to push back against that a little, though. I think that you’re right about that experience, but maybe it’s not mine, though. I rarely talk about trying to kill myself. Maybe with my friends I do. Maybe I’ve talked to you about it ad nauseam, but in the general public I try—actually, I talk about everything; I’m a fucking open book—but I generally try not to talk about it. People are just so stupid in their reactions. It’s easy for me to talk about it now because I know you. I think that my suicide attempt did come out of this betrayal. I think that I felt betrayed. I don’t want to put too much shit on my family. In my mother’s head, she absolutely put me in the mental hospital to save me. That was what she was thinking 100 percent. It still makes me angry every time I have to say that sentence, because I so fundamentally disagree that you would do that to a child. But I do know—and at thirty-eight years old I can say, in a way that I couldn’t at twenty-eight years old, and I definitely couldn’t at eighteen years old—I can say that I get it. I get that mistake. But it felt like a huge betrayal, and I was incredibly angry. I think that part of that attempt was an act of revenge. I think that’s true, and it was definitely one of hopelessness, like a real loss of faith in the world.
But another thing that was going on was a kind of terrifying numbness. A lot of the way that I experience the world is actually [by] getting quite numb to experience. Harming oneself in whatever way sometimes is about provoking. It’s actually to feel something. It’s actually this really desperate hope that you might feel. People say that you write to survive. I don’t know that that’s true for me. A lot of what I was doing was getting myself really fucking sad, like putting on fucking Cat Power and getting real sad, and then writing some shit to make myself sadder. You know? It was just a way of trying to feel something. I guess it does save you in this way because it’s a substitute [for] cutting yourself in order to feel something.
VF: Trying to summon some actual response from yourself in the face of the information of what you have been through, what you are feeling. It feels weird to quote you to yourself, because you’re my friend, but in another interview you said, “I wrote to break my own heart.” Like what happens when you look at your life through brokenheartedness instead of fuck-you-ness, which you have to summon in order to survive, and it is from a place of some kind of power or survival that you could sit down and say, I’m going to shatter the defenses around this and try and look at it through mythology or a story of some kind that leaves space for the heartbreak.
JT: “Writing to break my own heart”—I feel like I heard somebody else say that, and it felt really true to me, so then I started saying it. I can’t remember who it should be attributed to. But I think that you just unlocked something for me, when you talked about writing from a place of brokenheartedness rather than fuck-you-ness, which is exactly right. When we were kids together, one of the things was just, Fuck the man. We were angry. We were critical. It was a really, really great way to not be brokenhearted, to not be broken-down and sit in brokenheartedness about how fucking shitty the world was. It was like, No, I’m pissed. I’m actually pissed. There’s so much injustice going on. I’m pissed that we live in this misogynist classist, racist fucking society. We were angry, and that’s how we bonded, and that’s like anger and humor, the traumedy. We lived in a traumedy.
VF: Your new TV genre!
JT: Our favorite genre. But I think that you’re right. I think that I needed to find another way to be, because it was never going to serve me. It was never going to serve me in writing, just like it doesn’t serve anybody to be in that mode all the time.
VF: It’s a real shackle. Nikki Giovanni said—I’m totally probably going to botch this—but she said that writers don’t create from their experiences. They create from empathy. So eschewing information and choosing receptivity instead. It’s very difficult to change your position toward an abuser—whether that’s sort of understood politically or intellectually, or if it’s someone who directly abused you—to receive information from them out of empathy. For you to decide to make that shift as a writer was a metamorphosis.
III. “POETRY IS ON THE HIGHEST PEDESTAL. FICTION IS JUST BELOW THAT… AND THEN TV IS ON THE BOTTOM.”
VF: You said that the book was sort of a translation, and I like that, because translation is a subjective and ultimately unreliable fiction based on what one person’s brain did with an entire text. But the making of the movie was so interesting because it just further complicated this game of Operator: This is my experience, but it isn’t my life. It’s actually a novel, and now we’re making a movie. Maybe the further you push it, the closer it gets to the kind of “truth” that only fiction and artifice can accomplish. I feel like there’s probably some muscle in there that appeals to you as a translator in that way, this material you could wrestle with again in the form of television. I wonder if there’s something unexpectedly appealing about costumes and production design and just making it physical again and what that feels like.
JT: I think that was a real surprise for me, being on set. From my end, it was quite amazing because I would just say to Jeremiah, “I think that it would look like this, and somehow you should feel this when you walk into the room, when you see the room.” The kind of thing that in fiction you do all alone. I need to describe this room. I want people to feel this way. I want the dialogue to do all these different things, and here, in the world of making TV or film, you just say that, and then people just go out and get the shit to make it happen. It’s amazing. “It needs to be this kind of eerie green light, and when she says, ‘Go away,’ it just needs to kind of pierce you.” Then [when] you have an actor doing it, like, fifteen different ways, and then lighting people rigging up this amazing shit, and then somebody from costumes finds the exact thing they’d be wearing, it’s like, This is great. I think that’s been surprisingly seductive to me. It was fascinating to watch my book come alive and be interpreted again. There’s so many things I’ve seen that I think would actually be really interesting to be seen and heard, felt in the audiovisual realm, rather than written on a page. I don’t think that one supplants the other. I think that fiction is—I don’t know—poetry is on the highest pedestal. Fiction is just below that, and then, like, everything else. And then TV is on the bottom.
VF: And then advertising, where I make a paycheck, is below all of that. The troll deep, deep down in the subbasement. The joy of reading fiction is the world that miraculously forms in your mind. There’s an entire landscape. There are houses with very specific handles on the sink that the person turns. When I’m reading, my mind is building this information, and it’s such a joy. It’s so satisfying. Making movies and TV, you’re essentially precluding that people would imagine their own version of this place or this character. There’s something there that returns to poetry because it’s so visually specific. You connect with a poem because it was brilliantly written, and it’s so hyper-specific, it’s so particular, and there’s something inside that high, high concentration of this sliver of truth that’s keenly relatable. I don’t know. I think it’s that paradox that makes poetry so important when it’s done well, which is, like, .001 percent of the time. But those pieces of poetry do bear a similarity to films that change your life. It’s just so incredibly particular and idiosyncratic to a set of characters who already have all of their laundry folded up in their drawers, and they live at this specific address. Then behind the camera there’s twenty-nine people setting up the lighting, just as you said, to achieve this one glint.