Justin Torres’ stunningly ambitious sophomore outing Blackouts does the tricky work of functioning as more than a novel. The book is an artifact documenting the life and work of queer activist Jan Gay, whose research from the 1930s became the basis of Sex Variants: A Study in Homosexual Patterns—though, for reasons revealed as the story progresses, her name never graces the cover, nor is it attached to the finished work at all. We learn her true story through the fictional narrative of Juan Gay, a gay Puerto Rican man as he lies dying in a space between life and death called the Palace. He shares his story and his connection to Jan with the story’s unnamed narrator, a young queer man of Puerto Rican ancestry who first connected with Juan ten years prior in a mental institution.
Juan’s copy of Sex Variants has been obscured, blacked out, and a new narrative appears on its pages in the form of poems and snippets of residual text that both illuminate and obfuscate the histories of Jan and the inverts, the queer people she dedicated her life to researching.
Blackouts is a work of erasure that serves to illuminate obscured queer histories even as it obliterates itself, dissolving the reader’s understanding of the world which the two men in the Palace make and unmake as they tell each other their stories. The book functions more as an interactive narrative object engaged with living histories rather than anything as inert as a novel. Blackouts is a gorgeously written work of fiction full of poignant intimacies structurally antithetical to what we might understand the novel to be and points to a space where narrative, memory, and history can alloy into something new. I spoke with the author just after Blackouts was announced as a finalist for the National Book Award.
Stephen Patrick Bell (SPB): While I was reading this book, I had so many questions because, in a lot of ways, it challenged what I thought a novel was. It felt very intentional that you were resisting the boundaries around what we think about in terms of fiction. And I just wanted to know, in the broadest sense, where this came from. And why now?
Justin Torres (JT): There are a couple of ways to answer that. One is that I had a lot of luck with my first book, We the Animals, which meant that I talked about it for quite a long time. And at some point, I realized I wanted to have different conversations and do something completely different for my next book. I wanted to stretch myself as a writer to evolve and change, not just write a similar book. That took a lot of time.
I was feeling a little bit like, “Wait, but there’s so much more that can be done in this form.”
Then I started to think about what are the ways that I might do that, and one of them was definitely structural, right? Not just changing voice or changing the kinds of characters I’m writing about, but what can I do that’s kind of radical in terms of structure? So, I read a lot, and I read a lot of contemporary fiction, and I taught a lot of contemporary fiction. And I was beginning to feel slightly tyrannized by a kind of chronological realist story. When they’re good, they’re amazing, but I was feeling a little bit like, “Wait, but there’s so much more that can be done in this form.” So, it was a challenge to myself to get out of that, as well.
SPB: There’s a section where I felt that acutely. It’s towards the end of the book, which I thought was an interesting place to put it. This section gives the narrator a lovely, lush characterization that we didn’t have much access to before. It’s this section where you sort of breathlessly tell us everything about this person backward, in a series of numbered sections from three to zero. It really did feel like okay; this is an author who’s very confidently saying, this is where I’m going to bring this sort of essential backstory. But it made me wonder a lot about Juan while we were doing that because Juan is this character taking in these stories, and it seems we know he’s at the end of his life. And I was wondering, why is Juan so curious, at this time in his life, about someone else? It seems like the main thrust should be about getting everything about him out so that it can continue living on in this other way. And I was wondering why you did that there.
He is also trying to get the narrator to make connections, to think about his own relationship to other generations of queerness. To think about his life in a more literary way.
JT: That’s an astute question. The dynamic between Juan and the narrator is not about this deathbed desire to tell one’s life story. Juan is not that person. The details that the narrator kind of pulls out of Juan about his own backstory and his own background are relatively few compared to what he wants to talk about, which is queer history and ideas and books he’s read. And he sees the narrator as another story. He quite enjoys that they have this long book-length dialogue— he enjoys pulling the story of this young man out of the narrator and constantly turning it back to him and being like, “Well, tell me more about yourself. Tell me more about yourself.” I think it’s a kind of disposition.
Some people on their deathbed would be like, “Let me get it all out. Before I go, let me let me tell you about me,” from this kind of narcissistic place. Juan’s just not that kind of person. Even right up to the end, he’s interested in the stories that people are telling about themselves rather than telling his story. Juan is also trying to get the narrator to make connections, to think about his own relationship to other generations of queerness. To think about his life in a more literary way. Because the narrator is slightly narcissistic – he’s in his 20s. He’s in the presence of death, but he kind of can’t stop thinking about his aliveness.
SPB: That’s something I felt throughout this book. And it made me wonder a lot about why it was important to give the narrator, who is living in a space adjacent to our present, any history at all when the most interesting— and most sort of tactile and palpable— characters are Juan and Jan. It easily could have been either of their stories. Still, somehow, you framed it in this other person who is rather difficult. He’s often intangible, even to himself, and it seems like there are a lot of missed opportunities between him and the people around him. So, I was curious why you chose to center this story around this person. It seems like the hardest way to write what’s already a difficult book is to show it through the lens of this person who’s not well-prepared to receive the whole story. He’s almost learning how to take in all this information and being forced to process it much faster than a lot of us would be able to.
In a lot of ways, the book is about learning how to read and learning how to read people and read situations and read yourself.
JT: Yes, yes. That kind of experience was what I was exactly trying to replicate. In a lot of ways, the book is about learning how to read and learning how to read people and read situations and read yourself. And also, it’s about a certain curiosity being sparked in somebody who is perhaps not curious enough. I think that, in my own life, there was a time when I became less interested in myself and started to be more like, “Where are the ancestors?” I felt like I’d dealt with all the stigma and shame in my own life, and it was like, “Where did all this shit come from?” I started getting interested in history in a bigger way.
…my desire is to provoke a curiosity in the reader
Something similar is happening with the narrator, but he’s still very much in his late 20s. He’s still very much at the beginning of this journey. And so, it would be artificial to have him just sit down and be like, “Okay, I’m gonna take in all of this information.” He’s lost; he’s looking for something, some kind of connection. And sometimes those connections aren’t there. So, the book is about what happens when we look backwards—the frustrations of that. And so, I think that there’s something frustrating about the text. Like, it’s called Blackouts. There are all these omissions, gaps, and erasures, and my desire is to provoke a curiosity in the reader, just as Juan wants to provoke this curiosity in the narrator.
SPB: I did feel myself having that frustrating experience. I had the sense that I was grabbing fistfuls of sand or water or something that wasn’t really there, but I could build it into something if I had enough time or perspective. But it felt like all this history was already lost, and what little scraps we can find are hardly satisfying. They’re there. And they’re exciting. But the book captures the feeling that there’s not enough history to make the present make sense.
There’s something kind of hyper-visible about certain historical figures. And they’re also invisible at the same time. How do you engage with that? And that’s what I was thinking a lot about.
JT: Yeah. That’s exactly right. And staying in that place of uncertainty and ambiguity is difficult, but if you are trying to engage with especially things like studies of deviance, what’s this overlay of pathology is clear. What’s very clear is that somebody like Jan Gay has been erased from history: it’s unclear who the person underneath is It’s very hard. You can search forever. But for Jan Gay, you’ll find stuff, but you won’t find her. Because she was very much effaced from this study, and also in other ways. There’s something kind of hyper-visible about certain historical figures. And they’re also invisible at the same time. How do you engage with that? And that’s what I was thinking a lot about.
SPB: You mentioned this sense of frustration about it. And I have to say, if you had gone in another direction with this, and if the narrator did “get it” at the end, and there was this perfect picture, I would probably throw the book out the window. I would have been so frustrated that it didn’t feel real. Blackouts, however, feels like a real experience.
JT: Thanks, yeah. I mean, I worry! You always worry about frustrating readers. One of the wise things my editor said is, “A lot of people aren’t going to get it.” Or, it’s not going to be their thing, but those people who get it will really get it. That was- that was her line all along. She was encouraging me to be experimental. I knew I wanted it to be a challenge and a puzzle. But there are moments when I was like, “Maybe I should just fill in all the gaps. Maybe I should tell it in order like maybe I should just…” and she was supportive in keeping me true to my original vision of the book. It’s so wonderful to hear you say that it would have been a mistake to make it too concrete and certain.
SPB:Even the way the book opens tells you you’re in for something unusual. It starts with an image that I didn’t realize had a note in the back. Which makes me wonder, how did you want readers to engage with the endnotes? Did you expect people to be flipping back and forth? And are the endnotes the author’s voice or the narrator’s? Or is it supposed to be ambiguous?
JT: Yeah, I mean, it’s definitely supposed to be ambiguous. They technically are the narrator’s voice— I’m fine with that being known. But the experience should feel very ambiguous. You should be questioning as you’re reading, like, “Is this the author? is it the narrator?” With my first book, there was an absolute collapse between my personal life and the characters’. I didn’t realize that all I would be doing would be talking about the ways in which my family was similar to the family of that book. This time, I knew that that would come up quite a lot. And so I had a lot of fun with the blurriness and made it part of the book. So yes, I didn’t want the endnotes to be footnotes. I didn’t want you to be constantly flipping back and forth. I wanted you just to experience it, go through it, and then read the notes at the end. Then, if you want to read the book again – which for me is the highest compliment – then you would have this completely other experience because you would then be kind of more grounded in the images and the sources of those images. Reading it straight through is what I hoped for.
SPB: I found in the book a sequence in which the narrator lays out the three-part structure of the conversation these two men are having in the Palace. I used it as a sort of guide stone after it establishes that we’re looking at the story of how the narrator finds Juan in the Palace, the story of the sex variants study itself, and finally, Juan’s own story, which Juan seems almost reluctant to share. I related to it so much and was so confounded by this writerly urge to tell a story without being perceived. I wonder quite a lot about Juan and why he shared his story the way he did.
JT: At the end of the book, there is the postface where the narrator is like, whether or not Juan existed, I would have had to make him up. Like Voltaire says of God. In a way, Juan is both an embodied character on the page and kind of like Socrates or some religious figure. He’s the epitome of wisdom. Juan’s role—in the book and the narrator’s life—is to provoke him toward a broader, wider understanding, but the narrator is not there yet.
There’s something ghostly about their presence in one another’s lives.
And so, you’re just not going to get Juan: the way the book is written, the narrator is piecing together something that happened and realizing all these gaps. I think that Juan came from a kind of amalgamation of people, real-life mentors that I’ve had, people who were just so wise and patient with me while I was still very much on my bullshit. And they were just willing to give me as much news of the wider world as I was able to take in. Juan and the narrator meet in the mental hospital, and if you’ve ever been institutionalized, you would know that time just moves differently there. Intimacy functions differently there, and they form this incredibly intimate bond very quickly because the days stretch forever. And everything is claustrophobic and weighty and meaningful at the same time. When they meet again, it’s in this place called the Palace, which is a liminal place between life and death. The narrator steps off the world and into this room with Juan and enters this conversation. There’s something ghostly about their presence in one another’s lives. And so, if it feels like there’s something ephemeral or something as if Juan is kind of constantly slipping through your fingers or that, you know, he’s coming in and out of focus, it’s because there’s this ghostliness that’s bonding the entire book and their exchange together.
SPB: I wanted to know if you could speak to how similar or how different or how much improvement you’ve seen from the beginning of the sex variants study to now. When we think about rainbow washing pride discourse, or “No kink at Pride,” it feels like a lot of the debates that we’re having now are the same things that Jan would have experienced while trying to publish her work.
JT: What’s interesting about the 30s, you know, at the time this study is happening, is that there’s this kind of fascination with taxonomies. And it’s connected to both Freudian thinking and eugenicist thinking. There’s this real interest in: how can we classify people? How can we classify, and everything’s kind of up for grabs. The classifications they come up with are homosexual cases, bisexual cases, and narcissistic cases. That’s the three ways that they break it down at that time! And it’s funny to us now, but all systems have a kind of taxonomy and classification, I think, that can become absurd or start to seem absurd, even though to people living in them, they seem like absolute truth. Identity is so weird in this way.
And the words we choose to describe our behavior – there’s something fascinating about this potential where queerness feels wide open in this moment in history because so much is undefined.
So what I like about the 30s is that when you read the first-person testimonies of these people, the ways in which they experienced queer culture often map so similarly to how I experienced queer culture: like coming out into the world, first sexual experiences, the different power dynamics, different ways that people relate to gender, etc. But the ways that they articulated that and identified within that are so unlike the way we do. And the words we choose to describe our behavior – there’s something fascinating about this potential where queerness feels wide open in this moment in history because so much is undefined.
But then I think we’re in a moment where there’s a real interest in other forms of thinking about queerness, as well. I’m really impressed by the generation that’s coming up.
We lived through this era of queer liberation, and suddenly everybody was just talking about getting married and being in the military, and I was just like, “What? When did this become the goal?” It just seemed like it was overnight. It was decided that these were the touchstones, the things that everybody could agree on that we should be fighting the most for. It always seemed very odd to me that it wasn’t something more radical. But then I think we’re in a moment where there’s a real interest in other forms of thinking about queerness, as well. I’m really impressed by the generation that’s coming up. I mean, there’s a certain segment of it that gets obsessed with these taxonomies, which is less interesting to me. But I think there’s another segment that is very interested in connecting queerness to a certain kind of political stance, which is less mainstream.
SPB: In your notes, you mentioned Michael Waters. And I was just wondering what that connection felt like for you when you found someone else on the trail for these lost figures like Jan Gay.
JT: Yeah, that was such a shock. I had been writing this book for years at that point. And one day— I must have Googled Jan Gay a thousand times, but I would always try new approaches, you know—one day I did it again, and suddenly there’s an article in Harper’s Bazaar of all places. I think that’s a lot down to Kaitlyn Greenidge, an editor there who I love. But anyway, there’s an article in Harper’s Bazaar about her. I’m not a professional scholar, researcher, or historian in any way; I’m very much a fiction writer. So, he was able to find things that I just don’t have. Anyway, I contacted him, and he very, very graciously shared his research with me. I was delighted to find out that he wasn’t writing an entire book about Jan Gay, but yeah, it felt fascinating. I guess it also felt like it made sense.
I think that there was a movement away from the connection between early sexology studies of deviance to the idea of homosexual acts as a social disease and queer liberation. But actually, they’re very intimately connected. There’s this movement towards a generic idea of pride and history that’s just about recuperating heroic visions and stories. And the work of Jan Gay – in many ways, she’s a hero to me. In many ways, she’s an activist. She did this groundbreaking research. She’s also a product of her time. There are things about her that maybe conflict with what we think of as the most progressive ideas about gender and sexuality, etc.
SPB: But I do think that it’s interesting that a lot of these people who are associated with the first instances of free love or any sort of queer liberation were also very cozy with eugenics and some ugly elements of the Freudian era.
JT: Yes. That’s exactly right. And also, Jan is such a fascinating figure, right? Because also her father was this amazing, amazing anarchist gynecologist who abandoned her, and she met again later in life. And he was the lover of Emma Goldman, who was one of the first people to talk about free love for homosexuals.
Jan is in this moment in time that’s steeped in eugenics, right? And also, some people who consider themselves progressive believe in ideas of eugenics. She’s touching this kind of radical past, that kind of turn-of-the-century radical past. And then, as she gets older, Andy Warhol moves in with her. She starts to touch what we consider the postwar contemporary art world. And she’s fascinating in thinking about how much of our lives touch other lives.
SPB:Moving from research, tell me what it was like editing this book. Because it’s very contained. And it’s very controlled. And it’s very intentional in how it pulls the reader through different formats and times. How did you know when it was done?
I mean, [Jenna, my editor] is on every page.
JT: Yeah, no, I mean, it was a lot of work. I worked closely with my editor. She was the same editor for my first book, We the Animals, and so we’ve known each other coming up on 15 years at this point. We’re very good friends. Jenna Johnson has a lot of patience, a lot of wisdom, and she was good at describing to me what I was doing because I would be showing her pages along the way. And she was helpful because I get lost. Jenna had some great structural ideas about where things should go. I had certain images or entire sections that were in different places, and she would suggest moving them. I mean, she is on every page. It was a very, very close dynamic between the two of us. And, yeah, it took a long time. It was not a fast and easy editing process by any means.
On the sentence level, I am a very slow writer and very deliberate and very careful. In the little one-to-two-page sections the book mostly comes in, I feel like that was a lot of the work that I do. I’m good at vignettes in small moments and then pulling out and seeing the larger picture and thinking about how much can I not say. How big can I make these gaps? Because that was my ambition, to do something different.
The main thing, I think, is that she also just gave me a lot of permission.
And that was where Jenna was so, so hugely instrumental. She was like, “This is actually what you’ve said so far. This is what’s missing. We need to talk about how much and how much of what’s missing; we need to find a way to get in here.” The main thing, I think, is that she also just gave me a lot of permission. I feel very fortunate that she’s interested in me as a writer in a bigger way than just this book or the next book. That feels kind of old school and rare. It’s nice. She’s the best. She’s the best.
SPB: Can you speak a little about “getting lost”? And how did Jenna bring you back?
JT: Honestly, when the book was done, I called her and, and was just like, “We have to pull it. I have to. It’s not there.” She was just like, “No.” She was like, “Let’s talk about it. I still have faith in this book, even if it sounds like you’re having a lapse of faith. I still do.” Jenna reminded me of the reasons why I made every choice. Everything that I brought up, she’d be like, “No, because remember, we talked about that. And this is why this is why this is.”
I think part of the freakout was just the exposure, like, “I don’t want them to see me naked.”
I think part of that freakout was just this: having the book in the world and being on the other side. Like, so far, it’s gone wonderful. Much better than I’d anticipated. But I wasn’t eager to. I don’t particularly enjoy the public part of that. Part of the freakout was just the exposure, like, “I don’t want them to see me naked.”
SPB: When you had that freakout, was it your editor that you went to first? Who else is in your network of support around your writing?
JT: My editor is huge. My agent is great. I love her to death. I’m like, really, really fortunate in friends. One of my best friends in the whole world, a writer, Angela Flournoy, lives here in LA; we talk every day, multiple times a day. We’ve been so close since we met at Iowa over a decade ago. So, I have writer friends here in LA. I’m just really, really lucky. My boyfriend is a genius, like an actual genius. He’s read all the books. He’s an English professor. So, I feel like I have infinite people who are kind of smarter than I am, or, you know, like, think about the world in different ways that helped to steer me along the way.
SPB:You have a shyness about you. Even when we talk online, I’m always afraid that I’m going to scare you. I often find myself saying, “I should say something, but I just don’t know if Justin’s ready to hear me say nice things.”
JT: It’s true. It’s not my favorite. I am quite shy. I mean, I ham it up when I’m on tour and when I have to. But, in reality, I go back to my hotel room, and I’m just like, “What did I say?” It’s not the most fun thing. For me, I don’t know. Do you enjoy it?
SPB: No, I hate being visible. I’m a writer. I don’t want to talk to anyone. But so much labor beyond writing that historically wasn’t a writer’s responsibility is on us, and I don’t know what to do about it other than jump in and say, “I’m game.”
JT: I feel so lucky that my first book came out before there was really social media. And it was around 2011. There was social media, I guess, but it wasn’t like the levels at which we live and breathe now, right? It was like this thing that existed, but people engaged with it a little bit. And now it is the mediation of our world. And I feel really lucky that my first book didn’t come out into that because I don’t know how I would have fared. I don’t. I’m on Instagram. And that’s it. That’s it.
But it’s dangerous, though, right? Because certain things just get replicated very quickly, like certain books and certain ideas, and you start to think like everybody’s reading the same books and thinking the same way. And they’re not at all. But it feels like that. And that’s something that I find frustrating.
SPB: One last thing about the postface. As I was reading Blackouts, I knew this interview was coming. I finished the book and had a whole set of feelings and a whole set of questions, and then I read the postface. It was just two or three pages, but it changed the book quite a bit for me, and I thought, “If I didn’t read that, if I had skipped it, I would have had a whole different set of questions, and they’d probably be really annoying to Justin.”
That’s the exact experience I want. Where you where you read that, and you’re just like, “Oh. Oh? Oh! I kind of wish I had known this beforehand. But you couldn’t have known it beforehand. It needed to come at the end.”
JT: Yeah, totally. It’s called a sort of postface. I stole that from Toni Cade Bambara. Her book, Gorilla, My Love begins with a sort of preface. And I just love what she does there as far as setting up the book and how you should read it and the relationship between the author and the material, but I just think she’s brilliant. That’s the exact experience I want. Where you where you read that, and you’re just like, “Oh. Oh? Oh! I kind of wish I had known this beforehand. But you couldn’t have known it beforehand. It needed to come at the end.” I don’t know. It’s a strange book!
SPB: It’s strange, and I love it. I love strange things. I didn’t say that, did I? Did I say that I really enjoyed this book?
JT: You didn’t, but it’s okay!
If you liked this: Check out Stephen Patrick Bell’s interview with Dior Stephens here!