Justin Torres' dark "We the Animals" wows book world

NEW YORK Mon Sep 19, 2011 6:21pm EDT

Author Justin Torres is shown in this publicity photo released to Reuters September 19, 2011. Though Torres has been writing for years - currently as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford -- his debut novel ''We the Animals'' just went on sale the first of this month. REUTERS/Simon Koy/Handout

Author Justin Torres is shown in this publicity photo released to Reuters September 19, 2011. Though Torres has been writing for years - currently as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford -- his debut novel ''We the Animals'' just went on sale the first of this month.

Credit: Reuters/Simon Koy/Handout

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - When author Justin Torres was writing "We the Animals", he had no idea he was writing his first novel nor, as could be expected, that he would become the publishing industry's latest sensation.

Though Torres has been writing for years -- currently as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford -- it is only since his debut novel went on sale in September that he has begun to taste the fruits of a novelist's success.

Reviews for the book that, in part, is based on his own life have been positive. He has been praised by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham, and "We the Animals" sits at No. 26 on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list.

It may seem easy, now to see why the book is successful, but it wasn't always that way. In fact like many authors, Torres had only parts of stories on paper before recognizing he had something bigger.

"I realized that I had all of these fragments and pieces, and was like 'Oh, I guess it's a book," he told Reuters. "It slowly dawned on me that that was what I was doing."

"We the Animals" tells the story of three boys growing up from the perspective of the youngest. The short chapters are patches of information and anecdotes detailing their adventures, which are influenced by the turbulent marriage between their white mother and Puerto Rican father, their poverty, and eventually, by the narrator's sexual orientation.

The narrator and the town where the story take place both remain nameless throughout the book, a deliberate decision Torres made so that the boundaries between readers and characters would seem more permeable.

He doesn't shy away from difficult themes, and that fact is not lost on reviewers who frequently describe the book as "dark" in addition to finding it "brilliant" and "powerful."

Cunningham called it "a dark jewel of a book" that is "heartbreaking" and "beautiful, and Esquire magazine wrote that it is "the best book you'll read this fall".

ANIMAL IMAGERY, HUMAN LIFE

Torres said the title "We the Animals" is also meant to reflect the book's tone, and is based on the story's frequent use of animal imagery to help show transformation.

"It's a little wild, it's a little out of control, but by the end of the book I wanted people to realize that these characters are fully human," he said.

Throughout the story, the characters navigate experiences involving domestic violence, early parenthood, mental institutions, closeted homosexuality and the day-to-day consequences of poverty.

Though Torres admits he doesn't shy away from exploring the darker side of life, he wanted his story to reflect the complexity of humans. He said he realized this after some of his mentors said his stories would be more interesting if they captured the full spectrum of human emotion.

"They told me, 'You need to go back in where there are possibilities for people to behave in ways that are beautiful, even if it's an ugly circumstance,'" he said.

Torres calls "We the Animals" "semi-autobiographical" because like the narrator, he grew up the youngest of three biracial brothers born to working-class teenaged parents. Although the book ends with the narrator still in his teens, it incorporates hints about Torres' forced stay at a state-run mental institution and some of the difficulties he and his brothers encountered in later years.

Despite mixed opinions in the literary world about authors whose fiction is largely based on their own lives, Torres feels that mixing personal elements into his work is natural.

"Your consciousness is informed by your experience," he said. "It's just how the mind works."

He recognizes that his life and story may be individual, but he believes that everyone can identify with the themes of developing one's identity amid family love and struggle.

"What I think is interesting as a reader is to find yourself and your experience in an experience that is very different than your own," he said. "You always learn something new when you're forced to reconcile who you are with who the character is."

(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)

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