We the Animals

We the Animals

by Justin Torres
We the Animals

We the Animals

by Justin Torres

Paperback

(Not eligible for purchase using B&N Audiobooks Subscription credits)
$16.49  $17.99 Save 8% Current price is $16.49, Original price is $17.99. You Save 8%.
  • SHIP THIS ITEM
    Qualifies for Free Shipping
  • PICK UP IN STORE
    Check Availability at Nearby Stores

Related collections and offers


Overview

The critically acclaimed debut from the National Book Award-winning author of Blackouts.

In this award-winning, groundbreaking novel, Justin Torres plunges us into the chaotic heart of one family, the intense bonds of three brothers, and the mythic effects of this fierce love on the people we must become.

“A tremendously gifted writer whose highly personal voice should excite us in much the same way that Raymond Carver’s or Jeffrey Eugenides’s voice did when we first heard it."—The Washington Post

Three brothers tear their way through childhood— smashing tomatoes all over each other, building kites from trash, hiding out when their parents do battle, tiptoeing around the house as their mother sleeps off her graveyard shift. Paps and Ma are from Brooklyn—he’s Puerto Rican, she’s white—and their love is a serious, dangerous thing that makes and unmakes a family many times. Life in this family is fierce and absorbing, full of chaos and heartbreak and the euphoria of belonging completely to one another.

From the intense familial unity felt by a child to the profound alienation he endures as he begins to see the world, this beautiful novel reinvents the coming-of-age story in a way that is sly and punch-in-the-stomach powerful.

"We the Animals is a dark jewel of a book. It’s heartbreaking. It’s beautiful. It resembles no other book I’ve read.”—Michael Cunningham

"A fiery ode to boyhood . . . A welterweight champ of a book."—NPR, Weekend Edition


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547844190
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 09/11/2012
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 72,116
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

About The Author
JUSTIN TORRES's first novel We the Animals, a national bestseller, has been translated into fifteen languages and is now a feature film.  He has published short fiction in The New Yorker, Harper's, Granta, Tin House, The Washington Post, Glimmer Train, Flaunt, and other publications, as well as non-fiction pieces in publications like The Guardian and The Advocate. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is an Assistant Professor of English at UCLA.

Read an Excerpt

WE WANTED MORE

We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.
   When it was cold, we fought over blankets until the cloth tore down the middle. When it was really cold, when our breath came out in frosty clouds, Manny crawled into bed with Joel and me.
   “Body heat,” he said.
   “Body heat,” we agreed.
   We wanted more flesh, more blood, more warmth.
   When we fought, we fought with boots and garage tools, snapping pliers—we grabbed at whatever was nearest and we hurled it through the air; we wanted more broken dishes, more shattered glass. We wanted more crashes.
   And when our Paps came home, we got spankings. Our little round butt cheeks were tore up: red, raw, leather-whipped. We knew there was something on the other side of pain, on the other side of the sting. Prickly heat radiated upward from our thighs and backsides, fire consumed our brains, but we knew that there was something more, someplace our Paps was taking us with all this. We knew, because he was meticulous, because he was precise, because he took his time. He was awakening us; he was leading us somewhere beyond burning and ripping, and you couldn’t get there in a hurry.
   And when our father was gone, we wanted to be fathers. We hunted animals. We drudged through the muck of the crick, chasing down bullfrogs and water snakes. We plucked the baby robins from their nest. We liked to feel the beat of tiny hearts, the struggle of tiny wings. We brought their tiny animal faces close to ours.
   “Who’s your daddy?” we said, then we laughed and tossed them into a shoebox.
   Always more, always hungrily scratching for more. But there were times, quiet moments, when our mother was sleeping, when she hadn’t slept in two days, and any noise, any stair creak, any shut door, any stifled laugh, any voice at all, might wake her, those still, crystal mornings, when we wanted to protect her, this confused goose of a woman, this stumbler, this gusher, with her backaches and headaches and her tired, tired ways, this uprooted Brooklyn creature, this tough talker, always with tears when she told us she loved us, her mixed-up love, her needy love, her warmth, those mornings when sunlight found the cracks in our blinds and laid itself down in crisp strips on our carpet, those quiet mornings when we’d fix ourselves oatmeal and sprawl onto our stomachs with crayons and paper, with glass marbles that we were careful not to rattle, when our mother was sleeping, when the air did not smell like sweat or breath or mold, when the air was still and light, those mornings when silence was our secret game and our gift and our sole accomplishment—we wanted less: less weight, less work, less noise, less father, less muscles and skin and hair. We wanted nothing, just this, just this.

NEVER-NEVER TIME

We all three sat at the kitchen table in our raincoats, and Joel smashed tomatoes with a small rubber mallet. We had seen it on TV: a man with an untamed mustache and a mallet slaughtering vegetables, and people in clear plastic ponchos soaking up the mess, having the time of their lives. We aimed to smile like that. We felt the pop and smack of tomato guts exploding; the guts dripped down the walls and landed on our cheeks and foreheads and congealed in our hair. When we ran out of tomatoes, we went into the bathroom and pulled out tubes of our mother’s lotions from under the sink. We took off our raincoats and positioned ourselves so that when the mallet slammed down and forced out the white cream, it would get everywhere, the creases of our shut-tight eyes and the folds of our ears.
   Our mother came into the kitchen, pulling her robe shut and rubbing her eyes, saying, “Man oh man, what time is it?” We told her it was eight-fifteen, and she said fuck, still keeping her eyes closed, just rubbing them harder, and then she said fuck again, louder, and picked up the teakettle and slammed it down on the stove and screamed, “Why aren’t you in school?”
   It was eight-fifteen at night, and besides, it was a Sunday, but no one told Ma that. She worked graveyard shifts at the brewery up the hill from our house, and sometimes she got confused. She would wake randomly, mixed up, mistaking one day for another, one hour for the next, order us to brush our teeth and get into PJs and lie in bed in the middle of the day; or when we came into the kitchen in the morning, half asleep, she’d be pulling a meat loaf out of the oven, saying, “What is wrong with you boys? I been calling and calling for dinner.”
   We had learned not to correct her or try to pull her out of the confusion; it only made things worse. Once, before we’d known better, Joel refused to go to the neighbors and ask for a stick of butter. It was nearly midnight and she was baking a cake for Manny.
   “Ma, you’re crazy,” Joel said. “Everyone’s sleeping, and it’s not even his birthday.”
   She studied the clock for a good while, shook her head quickly back and forth, and then focused on Joel; she bored deep in his eyes as if she was looking past his eyeballs, into the lower part of his brain. Her mascara was all smudged and her hair was stiff and thick, curling black around her face and matted down in the back. She looked like a raccoon caught digging in the trash: surprised, dangerous.
   “I hate my life,” she said.
   That made Joel cry, and Manny punched him hard on the back of the head.
   “Nice one, asswipe,” he hissed. “It was going to be my fucking birthday.”
   After that, we went along with whatever she came up with; we lived in dreamtime. Some nights Ma piled us into the car and drove out to the grocery store, the laundromat, the bank. We stood behind her, giggling, when she pulled at the locked doors, or when she shook the heavy security grating and cursed.
   She gasped now, finally noticing the tomato and lotion streaking down our faces. She opened her eyes wide and then squinted. She called us to her side and gently ran a finger across each of our cheeks, cutting through the grease and sludge. She gasped again.
   “That’s what you looked like when you slid out of me,” she whispered. “Just like that.”
   We all groaned, but she kept on talking about it, about how slimy we were coming out, about how Manny was born with a full head of hair and it shocked her. The first thing she did with each one of us was to count our fingers and toes. “I wanted to make sure they hadn’t left any in there,” she said and sent us into a fit of pretend barfing noises.
   “Do it to me.”
   “What?” we asked.
   “Make me born.”
   “We’re out of tomatoes,” Manny said.
   “Use ketchup.”
   We gave her my raincoat because it was the cleanest, and we warned her no matter what not to open her eyes until we said it was OK. She got down on her knees and rested her chin on the table. Joel raised the mallet above his head, and Manny squared the neck of the ketchup bottle between her eyes.
   “On the count of three,” we said, and we each took a number—my number was last. We all took the deepest, longest breath we could, sucking the air through our teeth. Everyone had his face all clenched up, his hands squeezed into fists. We sucked in a little more air, and our chests swelled. The room felt like a balloon must, when you’re blowing and blowing and blowing, right before it pops.
   “Three!”
   And the mallet swung through the air. Our mother yelped and slid to the floor and stayed there, her eyes wide open and ketchup everywhere, looking like she had been shot in the back of the head.
   “It’s a mom!” we screamed. “Congratulations!” We ran to the cupboards and pulled out the biggest pots and heaviest ladles and clanged them as loud as we could, dancing around our mother’s body, shouting, “Happy Birthday! . . . Happy New Year! . . . It’s zero o’clock! . . . It’s never-never time! . . . It’s the time of your life!”

Table of Contents

We Wanted More 1
Never-Never Time 4
Heritage 8
Seven 12
The Lake 18
Us Proper 24
Lina 30
Other Locusts 33
Talk to Me 39
You Better Come 44
Night Watch 52
Big-Dick Truck 61
Ducks 66
Trench 75
Trash Kites 82
Wasn’t No One to Stop This 86
Niagara 98
The Night I Am Made 103
Zookeeping 125
Acknowledgments 127

What People are Saying About This

Dorothy Allison

"Justin Torres has accomplished an extraordinary thing—put on the page what has seemed impossible to articulate, a degree of passion and terror that many of us know but have hesitated to make this plain. A gift. Some books quicken your pulse. Some slow it. Some burn you inside and send you tearing off to find the author to see who made this thing that can so burn you and quicken you and slow you all at the same time. A miracle in concentrated pages, you are going to read it again and again, and know exactly what I mean." --(Dorothy Allison)

Tayari Jones

"We the Animals marks the debut of an astonishing new voice in American Literature. In an intense coming-of-age story that brings to mind the early work of Jeffrey Eugenides and Sandra Cisneros, Torres' concentrated prose goes down hot like strong liquor. His beautifully flawed characters worked their way into my heart on the very first page and have been there ever since."--(Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow)

Michael Cunningham

"We the Animals is a dark jewel of a book. It’s heartbreaking. It’s beautiful. It resembles no other book I’ve read. We should all be grateful for Justin Torres, a brilliant, ferocious new voice." --(Michael Cunningham )

Paul Harding

"We the Animals snatches the reader by the scruff of the heart, tight as teeth, and shakes back and forth—between the human and the animal, the housed and the feral, love and violence, mercy and wrath—and leaves him in the wilderness, ravished by its beauty. It is an indelible and essential work of art." --(Paul Harding, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Tinkers)

Daniel Alarcon

"We the Animals is a gorgeous, deeply humane book. Every page sings, and every scene startles. I think we'll all be reading Justin Torres for years to come." --( Daniel Alarcon, author of Lost City Radio and War by Candlelight)

Marilynne Robinson

"In language brilliant, poised and pure, We the Animals tells about family love as it is felt when it is frustrated or betrayed or made to stand in the place of too many other needed things, about how precious it becomes in these extremes, about the terrible sense of loss when it fails under duress, and the joy and dread of realizing that there really is no end to it." --(Marilynne Robinson)

From the Publisher

"We the Animals is a dark jewel of a book. It’s heartbreaking. It’s beautiful. It resembles no other book I’ve read. We should all be grateful for Justin Torres, a brilliant, ferocious new voice."
—Michael Cunningham

"Some books quicken your pulse. Some slow it. Some burn you inside and send you tearing off to find the author to see who made this thing that can so burn you and quicken you and slow you all at the same time. A miracle in concentrated pages, you are going to read it again and again, and know exactly what I mean."
—Dorothy Allison

"In language brilliant, poised and pure, We the Animals tells about family love as it is felt when it is frustrated or betrayed or made to stand in the place of too many other needed things, about how precious it becomes in these extremes, about the terrible sense of loss when it fails under duress, and the joy and dread of realizing that there really is no end to it."
—Marilynne Robinson

"We the Animals snatches the reader by the scruff of the heart, tight as teeth, and shakes back and forth—between the human and the animal, the housed and the feral, love and violence, mercy and wrath—and leaves him in the wilderness, ravished by its beauty. It is an indelible and essential work of art."
—Paul Harding, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Tinkers

"We the Animals marks the debut of an astonishing new voice in American Literature. In an intense coming-of-age story that brings to mind the early work of Jeffrey Eugenides and Sandra Cisneros, Torres's concentrated prose goes down hot like strong liquor. His beautifully flawed characters worked their way into my heart on the very first page and have been there ever since."
—Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow

"We the Animals is a gorgeous, deeply humane book. Every page sings, and every scene startles. I think we'll all be reading Justin Torres for years to come."
—Daniel Alarcon, author of Lost City Radio and War by Candlelight

"A strobe light of a story...I wanted more of Torres's haunting word-torn world..."
New York Times Book Review

"Justin Torres' debut novel is a welterweight champ of a book. It's short but it's also taut, elegant, lean — and it delivers a knockout."
—NPR's Weekend Edition

"A slender but affecting debut novel by Justin Torres...[a] sensitive, carefully wrought autobiographical first novel...The scenes have the jumbled feel of homemade movies spliced together a little haphazardly, echoing the way memory works: moments of fear or excitement sting with bright clarity years later, while the long passages in between dissolve into nothingness. From the patchwork emerges a narrative of emotional maturing and sexual awakening that is in many ways familiar...but is freshened by the ethnicity of the characters and their background, and the blunt economy of Mr. Torres’s writing, lit up by sudden flashes of pained insight."
New York Times

"The communal howl of three young brothers sustains this sprint of a novel, which clocks in at a hundred and twenty-five pages. The boys, who imagine themselves the Musketeers, the Stooges, and the Holy Trinity all at once, are the wisecracking, lamenting chorus who bear witness to their parents’ wild-ride marriage. Ma got pregnant at fourteen—she tells her oldest son she could feel him growing inside her, ‘heart ticking like a bomb'—and now sleeps for days at a time and weeps whenever she tells her children she loves them; Paps, occasionally AWOL, surfaces to deliver meticulous, leisurely spankings. The collage of vignettes is elevated by Torres's twitchy prose, in which the pummel of hard consonants and slant rhymes becomes a kind of incantation: ‘They hunched and they skulked. They jittered. They scratched...They'll flunk. They'll roll one car after another into a ditch.'"
New Yorker

"The best book you'll read this fall...We the Animals, a slim novel—just 144 pages—about three brothers, half white, half Puerto Rican, scrambling their way through a dysfunctional childhood, is the kind of book that makes a career....Torres’s sentences are gymnastic, leaping and twirling, but never fancy for the sake of fancy, always justified by the ferocity and heartbreak and hunger and slap-happy euphoria of these three boys. It’s a coming-of-age novel set in upstate New York that rumbles with lyric dynamite. It’s a knock to the head that will leave your mouth agape. Torres is a savage new talent."
Esquire

"First-time novelist Justin Torres unleashes We the Animals (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a gorgeous, howling coming-of-age novel that will devour your heart."
Vanity Fair

"A novel so honest, poetic, and tough that it makes you reexamine what it means to love and to hurt. Written in the voice of the youngest of three boys, this partly autobiographical tale evokes the cacophony of a messy childhood—flying trash-bag kites, ransacking vegetable gardens, and smashing tomatoes until pulp runs down the kitchen walls. But despite the din the brothers create, the novel belongs to their mother, who alternates between gruff and matter-of-fact—'loving big boys is different from loving little boys—you’ve got to meet tough with tough.' In stark prose, Torres shows us how one family grapples with a dangerous and chaotic love for each other, as well as what it means to become a man."
O, the Oprah Magazine

"The imagistic power of Justin Torres’ debut, We the Animals (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), exists in inverse proportion to its slim 128 pages. Just try shaking off this novel about three upstate New York brothers whose knockabout childhoods with their Puerto Rican "Paps" and white "Ma" are the narrative equivalent of feral kitties being swung overhead in a burlap bag."
Elle magazine

"A kind of heart-stopping surge of emotion and language in this musical tornado of a novel."
—Pam Houston in More magazine

"Justin Torres’ debut novel, We the Animals, does a lot more than just get read. In a mere 124 pages, it shouts, beatboxes and flirts; it lulls only to shock awake; it haunts and creeps and surprises. If Torres’ book were an object, it would be a BB gun spray-painted jungle green. If it were a sound, it would be something like Kanye West circa "808s and Heartbreaks" reinterpreting Maurice Ravel’s "Bolero." Torres, a 31-year-old graduate from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a current Wallace Stegner Fellow, writes in a voice that combines urgency, brutality and huggable cuteness that creates a pungent new voice both endearingly frightening and difficult to categorize."
—Forbes.com

"[We the Animals] packs an outsized wallop; it's the skinny kid who surprises you with his intense, frenzied strength and sheer nerve. You pick up the book expecting it to occupy a couple hours of your time and find that its images and tactile prose linger with you days after...what stays with me are the terrible beauty and life force in Torres' primal tale."
Newsday

"That such a young author writes so well in his debut novel seems miraculous. Few books can match the trifecta pulled off in We the Animals: simplicity married to artistry and candor. For this reason, along with others noted here, this book could not be more highly recommended."
New York Journal of Books

"Short sentences. Short chapters. Short book. But wow! What a powerful piece of fiction. Justin Torres’ We the Animals is a tough little novel about three brothers growing up as the neglected, beloved sons of a Puerto Rican father and a white mother who works the graveyard shift in a brewery and sometimes doesn't know what day it is. It's daring and funny and a little scary, and it nails the competitive bond among siblings better than any book in recent memory."
The Oregonian

"Telling the story of three mixedrace brothers growing up in New York state, Justin Torres’ debut novel, We the Animals, is a quick, raw, punchy read....memorable and vivid"
Dallas Morning News

"Here's a first novel that reads like one, not because it's amateurish or unsure of itself—it's neither—but because it's urgent. Urgency in fiction is easily faked—kill off the protagonist's parents in the first sentence, or do away with dependent clauses, or use the second person—but Justin Torres’ We the Animals is actually urgent. Urgent not to tell us anything or to make a particular point, but, like a living thing, to be what it mysteriously needs to be, to fulfill the promises it makes to itself."
San Francisco Chronicle

"Filled with rich detail, tableau-like scenes, and true-to-life little boy adventures, We the Animals is a must-read novel. Torres’ evocative language grips the reader, each scene bringing the boys to life, reminding us of our own childhoods and our struggles to grow into strong men and women."
San Francisco Book Review

"It takes only a single paragraph of Justin Torres’ We the Animals to announce a powerful new voice in literary fiction....This short, sharp shock of a debut novel, based on the author's experiences growing up poor in upstate New York, is like a viscous liquor that both burns and braces."
Arizona Republic

"It’s rare to come across a young writer with a voice whose uniqueness, power and resonance are evident from the very first page, or even the very first paragraph. It does happen every once in a while, though. And it’s happened again, just now, with the publication of We the Animals, a slender, tightly wound debut novel by a remarkable young talent named Justin Torres."
Washington Post

"Justin Torres’s slim volume We the Animals comprises a series of seminal moments from a young boy’s life, which are revealed in brilliant, searing flashes; its relatively few pages contain the arc of an entire childhood...As a debut, We the Animals proves that Torres is not only a novelist of deep empathy, but one with the ability to compress this feeling into prose until only the truest and most essential kernels remain."
Time Out New York

"A slim book can hold volumes. We the Animals, the first novel from Justin Torres, is such a book. Not an ounce of fat on its slight frame, but the story is sinewy. Stong....We the Animals crafts beauty out of despair. From lives so fragmented they threaten to break off into oblivion at any moment, Torres builds a story that is burnished, complete. That takes talent, diligence and more than a little grace."
Houston Chronicle

"We the Animals is a book so meant to break your heart that it should lose its power just on the grounds of being obvious. That it pierces—with an arrow dipped in ache—signals that Justin Torres is a writer to embrace from the start. This is his first novel."
Newark Star Ledger

"Torres has spilled onto the scene, big beating heart in hand. The book is short because it must've been absolutely exhausting to write. But that doesn't matter because you'll read it three times. But most of all, We the Animals will enrapture the literary world, as it should, because of its lyricism. It feels like reading James Agee by lightning strike."
Arkansas Times

"We the Animals conveys the raw honesty of a child trying to figure everything out: hunger, love, loneliness, injustice, sex, the weather, desire, poverty, vulnerability, brutality, abandonment, loyalty, brokenness, yearning, fear, and, maybe, hope. Each chapter is a tiny, carefully crafted vignette, a story both elegant and raw, vibrant and incomplete. Rarely has a writer developed the child's-eye view with such intimate vulnerability and emphatic restraint."
—Bookslut.com

"Justin Torres’ first novel, We the Animals (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 144 pages), carries all the balm and hazard of strong waves at high tide. Told through the eyes of the youngest of three brothers, the novel evokes the experience of youth and the struggles of a poor family from Brooklyn living in upstate New York. Through his enveloping and fast-paced prose, Torres bestows his story with a rare generosity and honesty, portraying the family’s jagged love—with all its cruelty, beauty, tenderness, and loyalty—and chronicling the events leading to the family’s calamitous fragmentation."
ZYZZYVA: The Last Word: West Coast Writers and Artists

"Three brothers and a dueling husband and wife are bound by poverty and love in this debut novel from Stegner Fellow Torres...The short tales that make up this novel are intriguing and beautifully written"
Publishers Weekly

"An exquisitely crafted debut novel—subtle, shimmering and emotionally devastating...the narrative voice is a marvel of control—one that reflects the perceptions and limitations of a 7-year-old in language that suggests someone older is channeling his younger perspective. In short chapters that stand alone yet ultimately achieve momentum, the narrator comes to terms with his brothers, his family and his sexuality, separating the "I" from the "we" and suffering the consequences. Ultimately, the novel has a redemptive resonance—for the narrator, for the rest of the fictional family and for the reader as well. Upon finishing, readers might be tempted to start again, not wanting to let it go."
—STARRED Kirkus

"Fiercely gorgeous...In a style that reaches the level of poetry, We the Animals is a hymn for what is lost; for what we leave behind and what never leaves us. Belying brevity, Torres has crafted a beast of a book, stretching its paws and flexing its tail, a creature that is simultaneously elegant and ferocious."
Publishers Lunch

"Justin Torres's first-rate prose will leave you gut-socked and breathless, with a lump in your throat...the writing is exquisite, making the painful trip so worthwhile...A touching, frightening story of three boys who grow up amid neglect, poverty, violence and occasional moments of pure, radiant love."
Shelf Awareness Pro

 

Interviews

A CONVERSATION WITH JUSTIN TORRES, AUTHOR OF WE THE ANIMALS
When did you start writing, and how did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I wrote as a kid, stories and poems, and on and off as a teenager. I read all the time. But I didn't think "a writer" was an option available to me. Like, how did writers get paid? That didn't make sense to me. I never met "a writer" in my life. I met janitors, cops, people who worked in factories and in stores, waitresses, people who took care of other folks children, housecleaners, carpenters, teachers. I knew who paid them. I understood that kind of work.
I started writing seriously in my mid-twenties. And I got pretty lucky, pretty quick. I took a writing class with a friend, the professor was supportive, and he introduced me to another teacher, who took me under his wing and encouraged me to think seriously about my future. In five years, he asked me, where do you see yourself? And I honestly had no idea. I was hanging out, working jobs I hated and quitting, I had dropped out of a bunch of colleges, and I wasn't thinking about taking myself seriously. But talking to that teacher, and talking to other people in the class, I found out there were residencies and colonies and fellowships and all manner of things you could apply for, and I just started applying and sending stories out to be published, and like I said, I got lucky.
What kind of a student were you in high school? What books did you like to read?
I was a shy, perfect student until about the age of fourteen. School was an escape from home; good grades came easily to me. I loved to read. I loved to learn. I even loved math. But around fourteen, I developed a very bad attitude. I started using drugs, dyed my hair three different colors (it was the 90's), skipped school when I felt like it. I had been in honors classes and the honors kids were my friends, but I would go to their houses and just get so angry at how perfect and large and cozy their homes were, about the money they had; I would literally open their fridges and just feel rage at how delicious and expensive the food they ate was. So I gravitated to kids who were not in the honors classes with me, kids who had known grief and hard-knocks in their home lives, or poverty, a mom or dad in jail, whatever. We were punks, and we helped each other escape, we supported each other as best we could.
I slid away from school for a few years, but in the eleventh grade I had this amazing English teacher, and she challenged and encouraged me. I wanted to make her proud. She told me I could get a scholarship to college; that I belonged in college. Belonged. That is a powerful word, because I had no idea where I belonged, or who I belonged with. I started taking all my subjects seriously, and pretty quickly pulled my grades up from the gutter. I was lucky that this same teacher taught honors twelfth grade English and she fought to have me put back in all honors classes. When, in my senior year, my parents put me in the mental hospital, she came and visited me. She brought me philosophy books: Sartre, Nietzsche, Camus, and explained to me about existentialism (though it was years before I fully understood what the books or that philosophy was about). Novels: On The Road, by Jack Kerouac; Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neal Hurston; The Counterfeiters, by Andre Gide; Poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsburg; Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston, and quite a few books by Toni Morrison, who will always be one my favorites. Not all of these books I understood then either, or rather, many of these books I feel differently about now. But I was in a desperate place and I clung to them. Once she brought some of my friends and held a class in the conference room of the mental hospital. I can never describe how much that meant to me. Literature saves lives—teachers of literature save lives, and she saved mine.
How much of the story is true?
The stories, all the details, are made up. I make a lot of things up, though people always seem to believe that everything is true. I think this is because the family these characters are based on is my own family, a very real family. So I understand these characters so well, and I can put them in any situation and describe how they would react in a convincing manner. Its true that my mother would get pretty frustrated and confused, she worked a lot of nights, she worked hard, and its true that my father beat us, its true that we danced a lot in our house, and that we loved each other in complicated, messy ways, but the details, the story, is my creation.
My parents were in the ninth grade when my mother got pregnant with my oldest brother. They dropped out of high school, moved to a small town and had two more boys before my mother was old enough to legally drink. They raised us on their own, without any financial support from their own parents. So yeah, we were pretty poor. But my parents worked hard, got their GEDs, and even started taking college classes through the mail (this was before the internet existed). I remember them with all these papers spread out on the kitchen table, books and pencils, and they'd be taking tests and writing essays, and we'd be playing at their feet. My father had a lot of trouble finding work in those days, for a number of reasons, among them a bad temper and dark skin in a town full of white people. My mother worked as a cashier at the supermarket, and then later she got a job at a brewery. Both of them often worked through the night. And we were just as wild as boys can be.
But by the time we were in high school both of my parents had attained degrees and solid jobs. My father was a cop and my mother worked as a guidance counselor. They made a lot of mistakes—a lot—but they taught us about perseverance.
What does your family think about your writing?
My brothers think some things I made up actually happened. They're all, I remember that, and I'm like, No, you don't, it didn't happen. My mother loves everything I do. She cries, a lot, when she reads my work. She calls me up crying, which can be hard, but my mother's a crier, so I don't worry too much. I have never shown my father anything. We don't talk or see each other very often, and the last time I saw him he hadn't read anything, but that didn't stop him from being pissed. We got into a huge fight. The book came out in September, and I still haven't heard a peep. So we'll see?.we'll see?
Who have you discovered lately?
I recently returned to home after a few weeks on book tour and found three books by Denton Welch waiting for me in my mailbox. The books were sent by this very handsome couple that I met when I gave a reading in DC—a happy surprise. I'd never heard of Welch, but In Youth is Pleasure is simply and deeply good; sensitive and slight and profound. I'm eager to read the rest of his work. Welch has been championed by folks like Auden and Burroughs, and for good reason. Raised in England, Welch died in 1948, at the too-young age of thirty-three. He left behind three novels. I plan to read them all, and his journals. I really can't recommend him highly enough.

From the B&N Reads Blog

Customer Reviews