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 a current project such as HBO’s “Los Espookys” 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.
Gregg Shapiro: 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 an illustrator, collaborating with Julian (Glander), the illustrator.
GS: 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?
JT: I was looking for the book to have a sort of uncanny feeling to it. At first, I thought, “What if it’s 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 instead of fighting that, embracing it.
GS: How did you know that a book was the right shape for I Want to Be a Vase instead of a video representation, an area in which you’ve worked before?
JT: 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 was like that. That felt almost like a kid was opening a coffee-table book that and they were taking away something, rather than being talked down to.
GS: The main character in I Want to Be a Vase is Plunger. It’s Plunger whose want 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?
JT: 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 their jobs, that is one that would be like “I really don’t want to do this.”
GS: 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?
JT: If you’re a vacuum cleaner, as an object, you work in one of the most cut-throat industries that you can. I feel like vacuum cleaners are constantly on the verge of being replaced by a better vacuum cleaner. Efficiency is such a part of being a vacuum cleaner, and a vacuum cleaner is all 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 are doing well and you feel like you’re doing well because you work extremely hard, hearing someone going through an existential crisis can be annoying to people like that. That’s why I felt like a vacuum cleaner was appropriate.
GS: 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 that espoused by the more conservative element in our country, part of the inspiration for the book?
JT: 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/power-of- the-individual kind of storytelling, which most stories for kids are. 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 others and help them to find their own happiness. Because I think that the “you, kid, are special” story is wonderful. But I think that it should have a comma, “and so is everyone else [laughs].” You have your own wishes and hopes and desires, 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 being yourself and finding your true self and expressing who you are and feeling safe 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, it had to learn and grow.
GS: 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?
JT: Oh my God! I suppose it wouldn’t surprise me. It’s very disconcerting because [laughs] a Right-Wing child has every right to be their happiest, truest self as any other child.
GS: But the Right-Wing parents might disagree.
JT: [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 it’s an important question. Vacuum is overworked. Vacuum didn’t realize that vacuum could use some help.
GS: If I Want to Be a Plunger was adapted for TV or a movie, who would you like to hear voicing Plunger?
JT: 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.
GS: 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?
JT: 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/ 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.
GS: Finally, we’re speaking a few days after Kate McKinnon, Pete Davidson, and Aidy Bryant departed SNL. Do you have any thoughts about that that you’d like to share as an Emmy-nominated SNL writer?
JT: 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.