Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Taken In - JT LeRoy Punks Me
It's been over a year since JT LeRoy - teen-hustler-cum-author turned literary icon - was revealed to be a middle-aged woman. I wasn't entirely surprised. I first interviewed LeRoy back in 2001. His voice reminded me immediately of a young FTM (female-to-male) friend. Like, seriously. I wrote several features on LeRoy, the first of which - for defunct national gay magazine Empire - questioned whether he was in fact real or not:
Does JT LeRoy, 20-year-old author behind last year’s bestselling pseudo-autobiographical novel of a holy pubescent whore, Sarah, really exist? Rumors have drifted about suggesting he doesn’t, that he’s a ruse, a pseudonym created by Gus Van Sant, Dennis Cooper, maybe even Michael Stipe, to put forth harrowing tales of an abused, pre-teen, crossdressing, former truck stop prostitute who wears a blessed raccoon penis bone necklace. But the gentle, disarmingly young register on the other end of a call to San Francisco doesn’t sound like that lot, even with the benefit of voice-altering digital technology. Nor does it care to dispel the rumors.
“I really don’t want any rumors to go away!” LeRoy urges, a slight twang of West Virginia to his voice. “I’m just a media construct. There are people who will totally take credit for writing Sarah and all my other work, push comes to shove - if I need to jump out of the airplane I have my parachute because I don’t know how I like all this. Part of me likes [the attention] and part of me doesn’t. It’s kind of frustrating that it can’t just be about the work. That it has to be about all this other stuff too. Me.”
Hence we’ve haven’t really seen a clear photo of LeRoy, or one in which he’s sans disguise. He even took on his own pseudonym when writing, Terminator, when his work started being published in places like nerve.com. LeRoy attributes part of this “love me/ignore me” dichotomy to his prostitute past, when his cute, barely pubescent looks and butt were all people saw and appreciated. Yet now appreciation for his work, his mind, not his face or ass, is tantamount, and once he got a taste of it “I had this limitless, bottomless pit.”
Ultimately, though, LeRoy stuck to his story. This persona he created.
The second time I interviewed him was for a gay regional story that ran in a handful of publications. He was sick, but still sounded very very very FTMish. Which I support, of course. If he identifies as male, I would only depict him as such. I respect gender identities (even if some of the nouveau terms I've heard used, like "trannycockboi," are begging for ridicule/cackles). But LeRoy was punkin' us all.
I'm probably going to do an interview with one of the Hanson boys soon - more on that down the line - so I went back to this second feature since they come up in it. I hae to say, in LeRoy's defense, he was always quick to respond to my inquiries. A real professional when it came to the press. When I was working on a holiday memories feature where I needed anecdotes from gay notables, etc, he was fast to come up with one. Thanks, JT!
In any case, here's the uncut version of that second interview.
Interesting on so many levels.
The Broken Heart Club
By Lawrence Ferber
JT LeRoy is a sick boy… but he’s getting better. His barely pubescent-sounding voice struggling through a slowly bettering case of bronchitis, the 21-year-old best-selling novelist repeatedly sniffles and blows his nose. Yet physical sickness isn’t what people think of when LeRoy’s name comes up. Instead, they think of his much-hashed about, tortured past as an abused, forcibly gender-bent preteen prostitute. It’s a dysfunctional history which leaked into his alternately delightful/fantastical/painful/sordid debut novel, Sarah - a pseudo-biographical tale of a crossdressing 12-year-old lot lizard (read: truck stop prostitute) with a touch of divinity, smattering of deceit, and desperate need to reconcile with his domineering yet distant mother - and its resulting press. And it’s about to come out again in an even more raw wave with his second book’s release, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (Bloomsbury).
Comprised of confessional short stories written as part of seven-day-a-week therapy some years ago, The Heart recounts painful episodes involving belt beatings, baths in bleach, rape by mom’s sexual partners, introduction to lot lizardry, Krazy Glued genitals, and LeRoy’s resulting preoccupation with S&M. But LeRoy assures us he’s come long a-ways since those experiences were committed to type (or in the case of stories “Natoma Street” and “Baby Doll,” previously published), and like his case of bronchitis, he’s slowly healing. In fact, with a cache of friends and mentor/supporters including Dennis Cooper, John Waters, Suzanne Vega, and Gus Van Sant, who’s making Sarah into a feature film, and several other projects on his plate, LeRoy’s on his way to a healthy adulthood indeed. We recently rang up the Southern-born young author, who first appeared in print under a pseudonym, The Terminator, now lives in San Francisco, regularly writes features for The Face, Shout, and New York Press, and sells raccoon penis bones – an item which crops up often and pivotally in Sarah – through his website, www.jtleroy.com. And besides his wincingly painful history we touched on happiness, Hanson and hope.
How proud are you of The Heart is…?
“I don’t know. I wrote it so long ago and I was such a different person that I almost feel it’s hard for me to relate to. There’s so many things as a writer I wouldn’t do now. I read it and I cringe. I didn’t used to understand when people called it ‘raw’ but now I do. But I think it’s also got a real specialness to it. Parts I read and am really impressed I was able to do that. I’m really impressed because I was so fucking checked out. I wrote like a demon, I was so emotionless around it but there was so much emotion in there. It was like puncturing a hole in an overinflated tire. I was writing for therapy reasons, I didn’t have a book deal. I wasn’t really writing to be published. It was stuff I just had to write about.”
How do you see your writing evolving as you flesh out childhood’s painful issues in therapy? Or does the therapy/writing process never end?
“Well, I used to have a session every day and now I’m [down to] three days a week. Sometimes I just stay away altogether. I wrote Sarah after these other stories, and I couldn’t really write the way I do in those stories [anymore]. I feel a lot of my rooms have closed, healed or not, but I wasn’t really feeling much when writing. It was kind of like… mainlining, doing directly into the bloodstream. Then when people read them and got freaked out or say ‘omigod’ I just say ‘what?’ And then when I read these stories to edit them I got cold feet about putting it out and asked if we could edit a bunch of them and take stuff out. I just felt so exposed and my writing has changed. I can’t write like that anymore for better or worse.”
In my opinion Sarah has more complexity to it, both narratively and stylistically.
“Yeah. It’s got a totally different voice. I had stopped the writing for about two years. I got the book deal and kinda freaked out, and I only wrote a couple more things and then I stopped. I did interviews for NY Press and did that kind of writing but I stopped writing those stories. Then, after two years, I felt ready to write and I wrote the story “Meteors.” I knew something had shifted because “Meteors,” of all the stories is the most crafted. Then after that I wrote Sarah. I thought I was just writing another chapter, another short story, but I turned it in and they said ‘you have a book,’ which was a surprise.”
A good surprise.
“Yeah. I knew that voice was different when I started writing. I don’t know where it was coming from or how it happened but it just was different.”
Is the episode in “Baby Doll” where you Krazy Glue your penis back between your legs real?
“Yeah, I did that. But I really don’t want to get into saying… with Sarah there was a lot of what’s real and what’s not. But The Heart was written not to be published, a lot of it. It’s obviously really intense stuff. I guess talking about how true or how honest The Heart is, it really depends on whom I’m talking to. If their purpose is just for sensationalism then it’s like ‘fuck you, it’s fiction, go away.’ But if there’s somebody who has gone through stuff [like I have] then I think it’s really helpful… People who have gone through shit know when they read something if it’s bullshit or not and it doesn’t matter what I say. I don’t want to talk shit about anybody’s work, but there was a book that came out that really pissed me off. It was supposedly by this boy who had AIDS and was beaten and raped by his parents’ friends and still he went to school and was such a good student but of course none of the teachers noticed that all the bones in his body had been broken. Every fucking cliché, like how he befriends the black janitor. Of course he never tricks and of course he’s not gay. Every person I know who’s been abused, in some kind of way, you have such profound damage that’s been done. It was a little too clean and sanitized - it just reeked of fucking bullshit. And he compares himself to Anne Frank! I did some really fucking gross shit and I think if you can be honest and talk about that it creates a space of honesty for other people who have been through stuff. I don’t think the nobility is in surviving horrible things and coming out like a nun. I think it’s being able to talk about it and be honest about it. I beat up queers, you know?”
When was this?
“When I was on the street. I hung out with a bunch of skinheads, I was in love with one of them, and they used me as bait. I’d stand out and wait until a guy would come and then they would attack – and I took part. I took part a couple of times and I really felt that rage of ‘fuck you, you wanted to fuck me!’ That victim wanting to be the aggressor and it really terrified me but at the same time felt really good. I think that’s the kind of shit that’s honest. And people being like ‘I survived all this and I’m like Anne Frank,’ that doesn’t create ANY space for anyone to really relate to. You know why the movie Welcome to the Dollhouse is so wonderful? She’s a victim but she doesn’t turn around and help another kid who’s victimized, too. It’s like ‘stay away from me.’ In school she doesn’t want to be associated with the other losers.”
I’ve read a couple of interviews with you where you said one of your aims in becoming a writer was to get people to appreciate you for your mind rather than your ass. I would say that’s happened, but do you get the feeling that both are going on? That people like your mind AND your ass?
“Well, I just stay out of the physical part. I got the book deal when I was 16 or 17 and if it came out back then I wouldn’t have been able to handle it. I would have been all into whatever anyone was offering.”
How much of a sex trade/barter system is there in the business you’re in now? Do people expect to have sex with you?
“They did, yeah. When I was doing press for Sarah I think there were a lot [of people] who would read what my old profession was… well, not ‘profession,’ but things I did to survive. And they would come at me in that way and I really didn’t know how to construct boundaries and I would just feel like ‘OK, this is what you do’ and go into waitress mode. I did one really bad thing with a Canadian reporter for a big paper and allowed him to take pictures and all kinds of crap. We had to threaten him, we told him I was underage and got the negatives back and frightened the shit out of him.”
How explicit were the photos?
“They were explicit. I was just like really kind of out of control almost surely. Freaked out and didn’t know. I think I’m a lot more wary now around the press. I won’t do interviews in person because you go to too much of a vulnerable place, you know? At least I do, to be honest. Someone would get a much better interview with me on the phone than in person. In person they would basically just get yes or no answers. I’d be too nervous about what they’re thinking. I can’t handle that much stimulation…”
What would you say to the people who think YOU’RE the manipulator now?
“Well, who isn’t a manipulator? I’ll cop to being a manipulator, sure. I had the best training – my mother was the number one manipulator in the world, I would hope I’ve learned well. I think my mother would do a much better job, but I’m trying. Yet the thing is, it all comes down to is it any good. I stopped writing because I felt like everything had to rely on my [own life] ‘story.’ I felt they were all excited because I was young and still really fucked-up, on the street and using drugs. And I felt if they want to trot this mess in front of the public and that’s what’s going to sell it, fuck it, fuck you, fuck them, no. I didn’t want it to come out. But I think Sarah’s a really good fucking book. It surprised me. I know that sounds egotistical but so what? It surprised me, I don’t know where it came from or how it happened and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do it again, but I’m really proud of it and I think it has the right to be out there and it doesn’t matter who or what I am. I really wanted to be a writer and felt if my work can’t stand on its own it has no business being out there in the world at all. Someone said to me think of it as your baby and your job is to get it into a good school and have a good life in the world. You don’t want to lock it up in some closet like Sybil. So that’s what I’ve learned to do. To be an advocate for my child.”
Do you think a lot of people raise their eyebrows when they see or hear about you and Gus Van Sant working together and hanging out? Like ‘what’s up with that?’
“Probably. I think there are people who are just looking for scandals… well, not scandals, but all that kind of stuff. I think Gus is one of the most misunderstood people because there’s some truth to what people say but also a lot of not truth. So whenever you have something that’s kind of personally grounded in truth it gets really ugly.”
Does it irk you?
“I think it’s funny. Like the article I wrote about Mike Pitt, his handlers got freaked out about it because it made it seem like he was Gus Van Sant’s bitch! Well no it doesn’t, I say you guys aren’t involved… but he’s like ‘it makes it seem like I’m always hanging out with him like I’m his bitch and those pictures…’ Gus is very, he’s not like the creepy force himself on you kind of guy at all, you know.”
He seems very nice.
“He really is. He’s one of the nicest people in the world.”
Has Gus introduced you to Hanson yet?
“No, but I think he gave Zack my book. It would be great if you could take Taylor about three years ago, he’d make a great Sarah.”
What sort of feedback did you get from your mentors and friends about your books? You have such a great who’s who of thank you’s in the back of Heart. And how did you become friends with all these people?
“Really wonderful [feedback]. I really iced getting attention. I just thought getting attention from my body was where it’s at. And any other kind of attention… you know, if your body is really starving for protein and all you’re eating is pasta and then somebody shoves a chicken down your face all a sudden you’ll devour it and realize ‘god, I was really hungry for that!’ It was kind of like that. I hadn’t quite realized how hungry I was for that kind of attention and once I got a taste of it I had this limitless, bottomless pit. My therapist had a next door neighbor who was an editor and he worked with me, and he had studied with Sharon Olds. She was the only poet I could really read, that somebody had turned me onto, a trick actually. And he said ‘you can write to her.’ And to me it was like someone saying ‘you can write to Mick Jagger’ or something. Yeah, right. But he called her and told her about me and we’ve been corresponding since then, when I was 14. And she was really wonderful and it opened this world, this sliding door in the wall opened, that these people who write books, you could actually write to them. To me, authors were like rock stars! Someone who could create a world shouldn’t be able to even walk down the street without being mobbed. And the idea you could actually write to them and they’ll write you back or talk to you or whatever was insane! But I still had the drive. I had read Try by Dennis Cooper and it was the first book I really read that so completely resonated with me. The other book I read that was like that was Tom Spambauer’s book The Man Who Fell In Love With the Moon. It’s amazing, but Try was too much like my life, my emotions and everything. So I wanted to interview him for a magazine – Maximum Rock and Roll - so I had some friends ask if I could and they said yeah. I went to the library and found out how you interview somebody, how you contact them… So I called and he said fax a request and I did that and later than night I spoke with him and we really connected. I was 15 and eventually I talked about how I was writing. It took a while but eventually he got me to read him some of what I was writing and then I started writing for him. It was perfect because my therapist class had ended. And Dennis said to me that maybe one day he could get this published and I was like yeah, whatever! It was like telling someone in a wheelchair one day you can run a marathon. And that early work, it’s such a copy of his style. That’s what’s so embarrassing to me now.”
But your stuff isn’t as sexually explicit as Dennis’. Nor are there as many gruesome murders!
“We each have our own separate demons to exorcise.”
How have you reconciled your sex and love life? The last story in Heart, “Natoma Street,” involves you mixing memories of childhood abuse with being tied up and cut by a hustler.
“Just being asexual now. I think if you have sex at an early age sex it just… it doesn’t have the specialness or anything. It’s never been a choice, or something that has a sacredness or specialness. Having sex for me is the same as putting on a handcreme, like ‘sure, whatever.’ And I tend to use that to take care of somebody, if I feel they wanted it it’s like no big deal. So it’s been trying to pay attention to what I want and if I want it. And I really don’t. I don’t understand regular sex. I do S&M, violent sex, and that’s the only kind of sex that gives me pleasure, so to speak. When someone beats the shit out of me. It kind of soothes me, it calms me, that’s how I felt loved. Very often it was the only touch I got from my grandfather and from my mom and I’d do things to provoke it. But I’ve been trying to wean myself from that kind of stuff because I know that I can eventually get myself killed pretty easily.”
How out of control does this get?
“I get pretty out of control. Like when I’m watching a movie and they’re showing a love scene and how they’re enjoying it I’m like ‘well, when’s he going to hit her?’ I just don’t get it. And I feel really sad about that because it’s like being colorblind. There’s certain colors you just don’t see. I’ve spoken to Dorothy Allison a lot about it because she’s out as a lesbian into S&M and she’s very honest about how the S&M comes from her background. If I could do it and not have it be self-destructive I would, but it just isn’t like that for me.”
Have you come close to death because of it?
“Yeah. Oh yeah. Not like getting cut up but just very self destructive.”
Have you met anyone you wanted to get involved with but they just couldn’t deal with that aspect?
“Well, the person I’m involved with now, we don’t do anything like that because he’s not into that, it’s not his thing, and that’s probably for the best.”
So you’ve got a boyfriend.
“Yeah. I love him a lot. It’s more like we’re a family than anything.”
What sort of public recognition have you experienced so far?
“Like getting recognized on the streets? It’s happened a few times where someone will ask me ‘are you JT Leroy?’ and I’ll completely deny it. I don’t really want that kind of stuff. But in a way I think it’s a good thing. I get a lot of e-mails from people who have gender issues or abuse issues. Susanne Vega and Dorothy Allison told me it took years to respond to the people who wrote to them after “Luka” and Bastard Out of Carolina came out. People sharing their stories and pain, telling you how they were inspired. I get so much mail from people and people making me things. I really appreciate it and that’s the stuff that makes it worth it. There’s a Terminator e-group, there’s like 90-something people in it and it keeps growing. They’re really great people, there’s lots of lurkers, but it’s people I feel like a family with.”
If someone could rewind the clock and make it so you were never taken away from your first set of foster parents, they could be a wonderful couple and whisk you away forever, would you want that to happen? Knowing you then wouldn’t be so fueled and probably not a writer?
“(pause) Yeah, I probably would. I don’t know if the world is a better place from my books being in it or that someone else wouldn’t have written them anyway. I’m not a happy person, and I find it hard to be out there in the world. And it’s like I keep waiting for this stuff to fix me. I hear some really great feedback, I got an incredible blurb from Tom Waits and he’s going to be interviewing me for a really big magazine and I’m so excited and honored, but at the same time I wanted it to fix me, and it doesn’t. None of this stuff ever fixes me. It just doesn’t heal. And I still do really suicidal shit and really horrible… I’m struggling to stop ding self-destructive things. Being inside my head is not a pretty place and it’s really fucking miserable and I must say I have moments when I feel happiness but it’s not that much. So yeah, I think if I was a really happy kid and had normal parents I think I would probably be straight, and not into S&M. I don’t mean any of that is better, I don’t mean to qualify it. It’s just in another parallel universe I’d be interested to meet who I would have been.”
Do you really think you would have been straight?
“Yeah, I do. And I don’t think I’d have the gender confusion stuff I have. I think that some people are born gay, they have the gay gene or chemical, whatever it is. Even in animals a certain section are gay. But I don’t think I’m one of those people who had that chemical. I had only sex with men at an early, early age. And the men I had sex with were not gay men. I’d say they were 99.9 percent in their heads straight men who were just into little kids. Whatever the fuck. It’s really horrible that in this country that Middle America makes gays these horrible rapists then the truth is it’s the straights, it’s their husbands and fucking ministers and preachers that are the real… I think that adults should not have sex with children PERIOD. Because I think a child, no matter how sexual they are or can seem, really doesn’t understand the full ramifications. And usually they’re like that because they’ve never had a choice, they just think that’s how you go get attention. Like in [the story] ‘Baby Doll,’ when [the boy] is seducing the stepfather, he’s mimicking something but doesn’t really understand what it means as an adult to have sex. I wanted to show that. He’s looking for is something that’s idealized closeness but he’s getting the brutal act of sex like rape, someone relieving themselves. I think that it’s up to the adult to say no. If I hadn’t had therapy I would just be this damaged person getting older and older and older but with a mind and emotions that don’t really age. And that’s what’s really scary to me. I always thought once you hit a certain age all this wisdom opens itself to you and what I realized is it’s not true. You kind of stay frozen, and unless you really do work – that cliché of 13 year old man – that’s what you are. If I hadn’t had that therapy I’d be an abuser or something.”
So what other projects are in the pipleline nowadays?
“I’ve started a sequel to Sarah loosely based on Oliver Twist and I’m having fun with that. I’ve been writing screenplays, like I’m working on a movie for HBO. I’m really excited about that. I don’t think I can really say what it’s about but it’s Diane Keaton producing and Gus Van Sant directing. I’ve also written an animated kids movie musical if you can believe it with my roommate. You know the creators of Blues Clues, that TV show? They were really big fans of my book and contacted me. They wanted to actually make Sarah but Gus had beaten them for it. So I started working on a TV series with them, an independent project we’re going to sell to a studio or network or something.”
The thing you’re working on for HBO, does it deviate in theme from what you’ve done so far?
“In a way yeah and in a way not. It’s different for me in the sense it’s not my life, my story. But it relates to kids and fucked up shit.”
And has anyone from your past resurfaced since you’ve become an acclaimed writer?
“Yeah! I’ve run into old tricks. I wrote a story [for The Face] about running into a cop [who thought I was still a prostitute]. There actually was a pimp who got out of jail and I didn’t leave my house for a month – it took him that long to get arrested again - because he was threatening me and assumed I was his property or whatever. It’s bizarre when you change and other people don’t. The guy who was my first editor, my therapist’s friend, I recently sent him a gift to thank him and he asked me where I got it, who paid for it. He put me through all this and I got really pissed! I hadn’t spoken to him in a while and I’m like ‘I don’t do that anymore’ and ‘you didn’t even ask me, you just assumed.’ But in a way I really value people who knew me because they hold a part of my past. It feels like a snake skin and I’m so completely and utterly different in so many ways and they hold that person which is just important to me, who and where I was. At the same time I’m angry because I’m not that person. I guess I want it both ways.”