On the Make

Justin Torres and Jenna Johnson

In Conversation

A conversation between Justin Torres and his editor, Jenna Johnson, a week after his new novel Blackouts was announced.


Jenna Johnson: Justin Torres, can you believe it? Here we are again on the brink of publishing your new book. We did this once before and it went pretty OK, yeah? And in the process you transformed from aspiring writer to debut author to professor, and that debut novel has become a contemporary classic. But even so, publishing a book is always a jump into the unknown. 

Blackouts is your new book, your second book, and our recent reveal of the cover online confirmed that many readers have been waiting for it, some impatiently. Twelve years isn’t an unusual amount of time for a writer to spend on one book (you’re in good company—J.R.R. Tolkien, Donna Tartt, Junot Díaz, Marilynne Robinson, our own about-to-be-published Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood), but I know it has felt like a long time to you, and there have been some setbacks and puzzles to solve. I also know that you are painstaking with your sentences and don’t like to move on until you have achieved both art and precision in each line, which takes time. Can you tell us a little bit about this writing process, and even share some of the false starts, reversals, and breakthrough moments you had?

Justin Torres: Ha. I like the way you phrase this. Most people just ask, “What the hell took so long?” You’re right that a lot of the time was spent crafting, figuring out the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of this book. I wasn’t working continuously, but in fits and starts. I tend to write line by line, sentence by sentence, yes, inch along rather than draft large passages at a time—but it’s not like I began with the first sentence of the novel. I write in vignettes, and I have various vignettes I’m working on at one time. The hard work is stitching them together. This time, I did not hide the seams, but quite the opposite. I wanted this to be a seamful book. 

And of course a lot of the reason this second book took me so long was because I was dealing with a certain disorientation in my own life. When We the Animals came out, I was 31. I had never had any money—only mounting debts, no health insurance, etc. And then suddenly, I had options. I used the advance to pay everything off, helped a couple of friends, bought a car. The advance money ran out, but still, things were different. I was an “author” and so I was able to secure speaking gigs and fellowships that paid the rent. Eventually I landed a full-time job at UCLA. All this spun my head around. I was abruptly released from a kind of precarity, a kind of capitalist pressure, I honestly did not think I’d ever get out from under. 

But then the sense of “indebtedness” lingered, or transferred, or cathected onto other concerns. I thought: If I don’t need to worry about money all the time, what do I owe and whom do I owe it to? My debt shifted from economic to artistic, personal, social, political. I had to figure out what was expected of me, and what I expected of myself in this new role: author, professor. I got incredibly lucky with my first book: How might I pay that back? 

And of course another thing distracting me was knowing that whatever I wrote next would be read, would have some reach, which was daunting and disorienting.

Jenna Johnson: One of the innumerable joys of working with you is hearing what you’re reading, not just because the books are interesting but because you’re so passionate about them. This passion always reminds me that you were a bookseller once, while you were becoming a writer. Am I right in remembering that you found the book that inspired Blackouts while you were working at a very special bookstore in San Francisco? 

Justin Torres: Right now I’m reading Bad Girls (Las Malas) by Camila Sosa Villada. A grad student here, himself a terrific writer, Enrique Olivares Pesante, recommended it to me. I’ve literally just started but already I have that feeling like, Oh, I’m going to love you. A magical feeling.

But that wasn’t your question. Yes, Modern Times, a worker-owned, anarchist bookshop. I was not a co-owner, not part of the collective; I was only part-time, and anyway arrived on the scene much too late. When they hired me they were about to move to a cheaper location, after something like forty years. This was a pivotal time in the neighborhood, and Valencia Street, where the store was located, which had been known a punk artist strip within a vibrant Mexican and Central American neighborhood (and the source of the title for Michelle Tea’s seminal novel) was becoming synonymous with the worst excesses hipster gentility and rent inflation. Sometimes at the bookstore, I felt like a hospice worker, minding not just the death of a business, but an era, and an idea. Modern Times.

I was told I might have the job for two months, or six, but absent a miracle, the store and my position there would soon no longer exist. I did not think anarchists believed in miracles, only political will, but I came to learn that anarchism is a kind of faith, a bottomless optimism in the human potential for mutual respect. I took the job to be around books, but also to be around those people, who were all queer and, somehow, believers—by which I mean they held these anarchic values I felt I shared, but knew too little about—and to be radically honest, I’d always struggled (and still struggle) to put into practice. They pointed me toward some foundational writings on anarchism: Lucy Parsons, Emma Goldman, Ursula Le Guin, Philip Levine.

I didn’t even work there that long! But one of the reasons the place felt so important, and transformative, is that one day someone dropped off several enormous boxes of books. (The store sold both new and secondhand titles). As I made my way  through the boxes, I realized I was unpacking a personal library, and the books were extraordinary. I felt tender toward the soul who amassed this collection—clearly someone very bent, and very old. Many of the authors were already familiar to me: Gide, Genet, Radclyffe Hall, Nella Larson, Tennessee Williams, Havelock Ellis, Faderman, Wilde, Adrienne Rich, Richard Bruce Nugent, the Marquis de Sade, classics of the literature of perversion, mostly pre-Stonewall. Many titles were unfamiliar: pulp titles, quite a bit of vintage erotica, Phil Andros, gay smut and lesbian smut in equal measure. Of course I wondered whether the owner of this library had died, but I also had this vision of the person being removed, shipped off to a facility, queer and senile, without family, relegated to the care of the state. Probably I arrived at this terrible fantasy because of the way the boxes were packed, which felt both orderly and aggressively uncaring, and anonymous—not the way we dispose of a loved one’s possessions. 

And then, yes, among the books was a medical study conducted in the 1930s, entitled Sex Variants: A Study in Homosexual Patterns. I’d never seen anything like it. A shock. Endlessly fascinating. I fell into this archive of voices from the queer past. And I knew right away I’d write a book about the book, but I had no idea how to do it. 

Jenna Johnson: And this was even before you had begun writing We the Animals? 

Justin Torres: No, I wrote We the Animals when I was in New York, working at McNally Jackson (then McNally Robinson). Then I went to grad school in Iowa, and then I was awarded a Stegner fellowship, so I moved to San Francisco, but I had to get a job because the fellowship money wouldn’t start for several months. A liminal time—that strange and unnerving interval when I had finished the book, but hadn’t yet sold it. I had a fancy agent, fancy fellowship, and I remember feeling like I was on the cusp of something, but impossible to know exactly what, and that maybe I’d slide back down the hill.

Jenna Johnson: The term “blackouts” has several meanings in your novel. I loved the way your jacket designer Na Kim talked about the book as engaging with “the idea of shadows still existing in the dark.” Can you tell us about how the title came to you, and when?

Justin Torres: I love that too. She is very smart. She came up with a great list of the ways in which the title responds to the narrative—blacking out as in approaching death or nothingness; redaction and erasure; pulling tight the curtains against the light. (And what a cover she designed; I love it). Anyway, yes, in the book, one of the most important uses of the word refers to the blackouts the narrator suffers—not drug or alcohol induced, but lost time, total absences, where he travels somewhere interior. 

I’ve long been worried about my own memory, which is unusually, terrifically bad. When I had the opportunity to speak with a specialist, I told him I’d had a few concussions . . . and was once in a coma. I did a lot of drugs in my youth. I wondered about brain damage. But he talked to me about childhood, about the mind being like a video camera, and said that sometimes when things are very intense, you stop recording, as a kind of defense. If this happens too often, you might over-train the brain, so that all kinds of stimuli might provoke these gaps in memory and what was once a coping mechanism becomes a kind of impediment. I asked if there was a way to retrain the brain, to keep recording, to keep the finger on the trigger.

But what were we talking about?

The other major sense of the term is the blacking out of text. Many images in the novel are pages from the Sex Variants text, blacked out.

Jenna Johnson: Like the kind of marking out we’d see from a censor, or in the poetic form of erasure? These two impulses seem to exist simultaneously in your book, through those Sex Variants excerpts. Can you tell us more about this book within your book and what your aim was in using its pages? 

Justin Torres: Sex Variants is this medical survey in which queer people were interviewed and “measured” and selectively presented, pathologized, anonymized, photographed nude with blurred out faces, etc. etc. I think that one impulse when looking at this kind of archive, especially perhaps for a fiction writer, is to imagine your way into these lives which have been obscured or reduced. And at first that’s what I think I wanted to do, give voice, or, perhaps, do justice? I don’t know. That all sounds cheesy, but . . . recuperate is maybe the word. Fill in the gaps. Round out the lives. Why did these people volunteer to subject themselves to this intrusive, reductive gaze? But then, I realized that “filling in the gaps” was a mistake. I did not have access to the people; I had text. Could the text be queered? Could the text be made to do and say something else entirely? Maybe, sometimes, blacking out text is a liberatory act, a rebellion? I don’t know. I don’t know. But it was a premise I began to work from. In the book I have an epigraph from Heather Love where she talks about how sometimes “these two contradictory urges . . . to document and to disappear, are fused.”

Jenna Johnson: There are other books inside Blackouts, including a children’s book that inspires one of my favorite passages—a tale about animals at happy hour—and a medical text, from which you use passages about so-called “Puerto Rican Syndrome” or “ataques de nervios.” How did this book come into your life? How did you go about bringing the “syndrome” into the book?

Justin Torres: A UCLA colleague in Gender Studies, Josh Guzman, recommended Patricia Gherovicci’s book on Puerto Rican Syndrome to me—I don’t remember the context, honestly. We were out drinking. He could have been teasingly diagnosing me or we could have been having a serious conversation about psychoanalysis. Probably it was both. It’s a fascinating book, in which Gherovicci, who is a Lacanian, ties the diagnosis to colonialism, and talks about her work with Puerto Rican patients. I’d never heard of a “culturally bound syndrome.” I felt I needed to read the source text in full for myself—where the hell did this ridiculous diagnosis come from? I’m a terrible, untrained researcher, but was able to use her citations to eventually locate the article which I think might be the first reference: a group of army doctors in the 1950s noticing strange behaviors in Puerto Rican soldiers, described as pseudo-seizures, self-harm, and blacking out. The 1950s is of course a pivotal decade in the fraught colonial relationship with the archipelago. So much is going on, and amid the massive waves of migration, abetted by air travel, and increased Puerto Rican visibility, comes a certain panic in the continental US about the Puerto Rican presence. That “hysteria” (and I’m intentionally using the loaded Freudian term) is then projected onto Puerto Ricans themselves. The stigma is codified in various ways, and medically and scientifically “validated.” This cycle echoed the medicalized stigma of queers in 1930s and 40s in the wake of the “pansy craze.” And the detail about the soldiers blacking out, along with the description of the seizures . . .  well, both were things  the narrator and the man he’s talking to, Juan, deal with in one way or another.

Jenna Johnson: You also wrote about the mental health system in We the Animals. Some might argue that the book ends with the nameless narrator speaking from a mental health ward—

Justin Torres: Jenna! For years I have been obfuscating about the end! Many read the “zoo” at the end as the mental hospital, sure, but many people have many different interpretations. (FWIW, I love them all). I can’t tell you how many classes I’ve visited where they debate the end and ask me to clarify, but I left it poetic, metaphorical, for a reason: to move away from fixedness, to allow readers to make meaning for themselves. But ha! Fine! Let’s say it’s a mental hospital. Go on . . .

Jenna Johnson: Well again in Blackouts we have a nameless narrator and he, too, has spent time in a psychiatric hospital. He also has similar parentage. Some readers might see these connections as a gesture that this could be the grown-up version of that character. What do you make of that possibility? And what was your intention as you wrote in these details? 

Justin Torres: This actually ties back to your first question, about setbacks. When I first started on my second book, I thought: should I try to write a novel similar to the first? A continuation? I knew the second book, like the first, would be fiction, but I write a lot from personal experience—for better or worse, that’s the kind of fiction writer I am. And so it seemed natural to extend the kind of realist (or realist-adjacent?) writing I had done about childhood to young adulthood. To emulate style and voice. Another question I am often asked: What happens to the narrator from We the Animals after the book, in his later teens and twenties? I’d usually answer that nothing happens—he exists on the page and in your mind, and not in real life. But the answer I kept back was that in my own mind, he does what I did: he works and wanders and has a lot of sex for pleasure, and for money, and for other reasons altogether. 

So I wrote about work, and about sex work in particular, in pieces I thought of as my “whore stories” and gathered them into a manuscript. Only some of those pieces live on in Blackouts, because they were published as stories or essays and were therefore retrievable, but everything else vanished when I took a long train ride and left my laptop in the seatback. This was before “the cloud” or, at least, before I’d heard of the cloud; I watched the only saved version of an entire manuscript speed away into a tunnel, into the dark. That was . . .  difficult . . . but once I decided I didn’t have the heart to recreate what had been lost, I felt liberated. I realized I’d held onto a notion that I owed fidelity to the voice and style of my first book, and that fidelity was a mistake. I wanted, needed, to evolve. Yet evolution takes time; so I read, and aged, and learned, and experimented, and read and read. And you kept extending my deadline for the second book, until we gently just stopped talking about deadlines. You knew I wanted to write something different and allowed me the space to get there. I still thought, maybe I’ll fail, but I didn’t want to fail just because I was imitating what had come before. 

Jenna Johnson: I love that you talked about evolving and I can say that when I first started reading this book, then telling people about it, that was a word that immediately came up. But then I also started to think of it as a kind of maturation process—this character is older, the book is more layered, you are older (I am too?). So even though the new book is quite different from the first, there’s still a feeling of continuity here, a connection.

Justin Torres: Absolutely. I am fine with people thinking of this as a sequel to the last. Or like, connected through the multiverse or whatever. There’s a fine tradition of writers using first person narrators who continue across books, personas who seem like alter-egos, or somehow relate to the authors themselves. Grace Paley’s character Faith, for example.

Jenna Johnson: OK, I’m going to let you go, but before then just one more question. It’s about to be AWP next week and writers from all over will be coming together to celebrate the joy of the work but also track down tips and wisdom. Today you gave me some excellent advice: Don’t do double work. I may make that my mantra for 2023. Meanwhile, how do you ensure you have time to write? What are some of the threats to your creative time and space that are most challenging for you and how do you guard against them?

Justin Torres: Tillie Olsen says: “The habits of a lifetime when everything else had to come before writing are not easily broken. Habits of years—response to others, distractibility, responsibility for daily matters—stay with you . . .  What should take weeks, takes me months to write; what should take months, takes years.” I feel that weight of habit, of distractibility, and find it hard to embrace the idea that I can sit down and write, can turn down paying gigs; other forms of labor take priority and writing can still feel like indulgence. So it’s no coincidence that COVID is the time when I finished this book. It’s no coincidence at all. I finished this book because the world stopped. I never shook the old habit of short-term thinking. I’m still on the make. So maybe the advice in this is to know your habits and to seize the opportunities to escape them when they arrive. 

Jenna Johnson: On the make! I love that phrase for many reasons, but especially as an ending to our conversation. It’s like a special conjugation—you were in the habit of being on the make, and then you made something (which was also, sometimes, about characters on the make), and then—the book!—it is, even as we talk, being made. And it will make something new when it comes into the world, too. It is all a kind of miracle, isn’t it?  


Justin Torres is the author of We the Animals, which won the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, was translated into fifteen languages, and was adapted into a feature film. He was named a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35,” a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and a Cullman Center Fellow at the New York Public Library. His short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Granta, Tin House, and The Washington Post. He lives in Los Angeles and teaches at UCLA.

Jenna Johnson is editor in chief at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.