Gay writer and actor Julio Torres seems to be everywhere these days. In movies, effortlessly drawing focus as he did in Nikole Beckwith’s 2021 comedy Together Together (co-starring trans actor Patti Harrison). On TV, Torres’ comedy writing for SNL earned him an Emmy nomination, while HBO’s Los Espookys, a current project, continues to gain him a growing following.
Now, when you walk into your favorite bookseller (independent, preferably) you will find Torres on the bookshelf with his colorful new picture book I Want to Be a Vase (Atheneum, 2022), featuring illustrations by Julian Glander. Julio was gracious enough to answer a few questions for OutSmart in advance of the book’s publication.
Gregg Shapiro: Julio, congratulations on the publication of your first picture book, I Want to Be a Vase. How long did it take to complete the project from its inception?
Julio Torres: Thank you! It took about a year. What took the longest was shaping it and the marinating of the idea. Once it was clear what it was going to be, it was a fairly quick and easy process. When I say it was a year, that also includes finding and working with Julian Glander, the illustrator.
I’m glad you mentioned Julian. What made him the perfect choice to provide the images and illustrations for I Want to Be a Vase?
I was looking for the book to have a sort of uncanny feeling to it. At first, I thought [about] photographs—what if we take interesting photographs from telling angles of everyday objects? I was resistant to the idea of traditional children’s illustrations because, as beautiful as so many of them are, it didn’t feel like they were right for the story. Then we found Julian, who really split the difference between an illustrator and a photographer. When you look at the plunger, you should see a plunger, not so much a beautiful drawing of a plunger. Because it’s in the mundane that the humor and the story really comes alive. I like that his work looks like pictures of a dollhouse, or something. Also, I wanted it to feel like the kinds of images that kids are attracted to now, which are not tender watercolors. They’re computerized images. I thought of embracing that instead of fighting it.
How did you know I Want to Be a Vase was the right shape for a book instead of a video representation—an area in which you’ve worked before?
I wanted the book itself to be a beautiful object. I grew up as a kid who loved coffee-table books. Taking in the images on every page and enjoying them. I was excited to create an artifact that felt almost like a kid was opening a coffee-table book and they were taking away something, rather than being talked down to.
The main character in I Want to Be a Vase is Plunger, whose wish is expressed in the title of the book. Is there particular significance to the character being a plunger as opposed to, say, a measuring tape or an ice cube tray?
I think that a plunger felt right because no one is happy using a plunger. When someone is using a plunger, they wish that they weren’t! [Laughs] Thinking about objects and their purpose or the job [they do], that is one that would be like, “I really don’t want to do this.”
Plunger’s most vocal opponent is a vacuum cleaner who spends most of the book trying to put the kibosh on Plunger’s wish to change. Why did you choose a vacuum cleaner to be the naysayer?
If you’re a vacuum cleaner, as an object, you work in one of the most cut-throat industries there is. I feel like vacuum cleaners are constantly on the verge of being replaced by a better vacuum cleaner. A vacuum cleaner is all about efficiency—you’re only as good as the job you do as a vacuum cleaner. Every advertisement is like, “This one’s better. This one’s lighter. This one’s faster.” It’s a very competitive world. To me, someone whose whole identity is tied to succeeding in their industry and maximum efficiency is very quick to judge those who are not happy where they are. If you feel like you’re doing well because you work extremely hard, hearing someone going through an existential crisis can be annoying.
The vacuum cleaner has a turning point when they say, “I was worried something bad would happen if you got to be whatever you wanted.” Was this line of thinking, reminiscent of what conservatives in our country would say, part of the inspiration for the book?
Yeah, absolutely. I was interested in doing a few things with this story. I think that the entry point to the story is your more traditional hero’s journey or a power-of- the-individual kind of storytelling, which most stories for kids are. It’s predicated on this notion that you, the reader, are special and different and you will succeed against all odds. I think that way of storytelling is so intertwined with the American dream and the idea that you, the individual, will work hard and you will succeed. But then I wanted to take it a step further and be like, “What about the other people around you? They have their own hopes and dreams.” I would love to motivate kids to search for their own happiness and, along that journey, motivate and help others find their own happiness. I think that the “You, kid, are special” story is wonderful, but I think that it should have a comma: “You are special, and so is everyone else!” [Laughs] You have your own wishes and hopes and desires, but those around you have their own wishes and hopes and desires that are just as valuable as yours.
The vacuum cleaner is an important voice because, in your search to find your true self and express who you are (and feeling safe in doing so), there will be naysayers along the way, and these naysayers are every bit as complex as everyone else. Rather than making a book that was punishing to the antagonist, I wanted one that was inclusive and asks the questions, “You’re saying no, but why? What’s beneath that?” Which is why I felt like the vacuum cleaner didn’t have to be defeated, but it had to learn and grow.
Unfortunately, book-banning is becoming increasingly popular as a weapon used by the far right. Are you at all concerned that I Want to Be a Plunger has the potential to be banned?
Oh my God! I suppose it wouldn’t surprise me. It’s very disconcerting, because [laughs] a right-wing child has as much right to be their happiest, truest self as any other child.
But the right-wing parents might disagree.
[Laughs] Right, because the kids are not the ones buying the books. I think that there is this hysteria around the idea that entertainment and media want to destroy or permanently change a world that is otherwise good and perfect. Just like the vacuum cleaner, I think that if they step back and realize that just because it works for you doesn’t mean it works for everyone. Also, does it work for you? [Laughs] I think that’s an important question. Vacuum is overworked. Vacuum didn’t realize that vacuum could use some help.
If I Want to Be a Plunger was adapted for TV or a movie, who would you like to hear voicing Plunger?
That’s a very interesting question. I never thought about that. Maybe someone who, when you hear the voice, you hear “plumber.” Something a little gruff, so that the character has to overcome that other part of the expectation. “You don’t sound elegant and refined like a vase, so you couldn’t possibly be a vase.” John Goodman, or something?
Speaking of movies, I loved your scene-stealing performance as Jules in Together Together. Do you have any upcoming film roles you’d like to mention?
Thank you! I wrote and directed a movie that I am editing now. God knows when that will come out. Other than the new season of the HBO show Los Espookys, that’s what’s on the horizon film-wise. We had to stop Los Espookys in 2020 like everyone else because we shoot in Chile. In addition to COVID, there were all these international restrictions around it that became an immigration and bureaucratic nightmare that our fantastic producers had to navigate. There were so many false starts to the second season, but we finally finished it earlier this year and we’re editing it now.
Finally, we’re speaking a few days after Kate McKinnon, Pete Davidson, and Aidy Bryant departed SNL. Would you like to share any thoughts about that as an Emmy-nominated SNL writer?
I was there. I went to see the show. It was really beautiful. I got to work with all of them. Kate, in particular, was a very early champion of my work. I always felt so welcome and appreciated by all of them. I’m very happy for them.
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