Diner Slang and Street Gospel: an interview with JT LeRoy

by Pil and Galia Kollectiv

Pil and Galia Kollectiv are artists and journalists. They write about music and popular culture for a number of Israeli magazines, and exhibit short video animations about sex-crazed robots and evil candy around the world.

It’s easiest to sell JT LeRoy as the victim of a fucked-up life. Practically all of the articles published following the meteoric success of his first novel, Sarah (Bloomsbury, 2000), began with the obvious list of facts: his mother was a junkie prostitute who dressed him in women’s clothing and introduced him as her little sister so as not to intimidate potential partners. He spent long periods of time at his grandfather’s, a devout Christian whose educational methods included whipping and boiling hot water baths. In between he had to sell his body to survive and fund the drugs that allowed him to do so. But in spite of the fact that in the confessional culture that has given us reality TV sensationalism is an invaluable asset, and that the romantic image of the artist as outsider looks like it’s going to stay very rock ‘n’ roll in this century too, these are not the things that make JT LeRoy one of the most important writers working in America today.

The first time we took Harmony Korine’s Gummo from the video store, we stopped watching it about halfway and promptly returned it claiming it was boring trash. The next day we ran back to the video store, this time to tape the film, which we realized had a totally devastating impact on our worldview, one we haven’t entirely recovered from yet. The moral of the story is that even indifference, cynicism and a critical eye, important tools though they are in the hands of the postmodern culture connoisseur, offer no defense against the involuntary revolutions that every once in a while intrude into our VCRs, libraries, or record collections. JT LeRoy’s Sarah certainly represents one of these hidden, stubborn revolutions, because the words contained in this skinny novel, written in heavy West Virginian dialect, stick like superglue to the brain’s cortex and prohibit the world from ever existing without them again. Despite his young age (21!) and a life story so extreme some magazine editor must’ve made it up, LeRoy is first and foremost a writer whose personal experiences in the truck stops of the South form the raw materials of a gothic fantasy as funny as it is dark, drenched in folklore and full of twists and turns. Underneath the autobiographical guise — the story of Cherry Vanilla, a boy prostitute who dreams of stealing the title of "best lot lizard" from his mother, Sarah, and winning her love — lie so many layers of fictional fantasy that it’s impossible to isolate what’s real. From Bolly’s diner, which serves sautéed shallots in a saffron-infused lobster-reduction sauce and pecan soufflé flambé to local truckers and the hustlers that service them, to the protagonist’s walk across the water à la Jesus, LeRoy constructs a narrative in which absurdity is rivaled only by credibility.

Since Sarah, currently being adapted to film by Gus Van Sant, LeRoy has already published another volume of earlier short stories. Shirley Manson from Garbage has written a song about him, and Suzanne Vega is a big fan of his writing. His second book, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (Bloomsbury, 2001), is being translated into Hebrew, so that soon enough there will be no excuse for ignoring him in Israel either. In a telephone conversation from San Francisco, he told us that he was living with a Jewish couple, with whom he is raising a four year old, that he would love to go to Israel, and that he is a friend and fan of Art Spiegelman, the author of Maus. Not exactly the sort of things you would expect to hear from someone who grew up in an overtly anti-Semitic Christian fundamentalist environment.

"Yeah, well, I think that maybe it’s my rebellion. My grandparents were very, racist, anti-Semitic, and I grew up hearing that the Holocaust was a fake. That kind of stuff is real common in West Virginian places, and you believe whatever you’re told when you’re a kid. Then later, a guy I used to trick with turned me on to the Maus books. I mean he was Jewish, and so I read the Maus books, and he showed me Shoa, and some other movies, and I just couldn’t believe it. My grandfather was actually German, and I grew up hearing the language. Maus really profoundly affected me, and I wrote Art Spiegelman. When I first started writing it just seemed like all the writers that took me under their wing and that I was working with were Jewish, and it just seemed like all the people I admired were Jewish. For a while I actually felt like I wanted to become Jewish. I had done a lot of searching for religion, and to an outsider anything can seem idealistic. So I went to a few classes and things like that, but then I started using heroin again, so that kind of got in the way. But I’ve been told that I’m an honorary Jew. I mean the Christian stuff is still very much embedded in me, and I don’t think I can ever try to extricate that.

Do you still believe in God, though, after what you’ve been through?

"I still pray, but I believe there’s, like, the kind of twelve-step concept of a higher power. Someone told me in the twelve-step program all you need to know is there’s a higher power, and you’re not it".

Do you think your religious background has contributed to your writing style?

"It’s really funny thinking of myself as having a style. A large part of it comes from when I was living with my grandfather. We had to do a lot of writing, and we read Dickens and Shakespeare and the Bible, and we’d have to write scenes, like take a character from the Bible, and this character from the Bible meets somebody else, whether in the Bible or from Shakespeare, and I would get into trouble for being too creative. But I also felt that it was a way that I could sort of get attention, in another way from being bad. I was really captivated by language. I also really actually liked movies, but I wasn’t allowed to get many movies, so I used to sneak off and watch them when I was street preaching in West Virginia. I’d go to where they were selling TVs, and I’d sit there and just watch movies when I was supposed to be street preaching, and I was just addicted to that".

The street preaching must have influenced your writing too. Would you make it up as you were going or was it some kind of text that you had to recite?

"It was kind of a mixture of both. I was supposed to be pretty straightforward from the Bible, not do real, like, evangelical stuff, but I used to also sneak into the evangelical shows, and I was really hypnotized by them, by that power. I guess it’s like that power to connect with people, the way it just breaks all the barriers. Like I recently saw U2 and it was the same kind of thing; I don’t think it really has to do with religion. I would get into that, and it wasn’t me at that point. But of course it wasn’t the preaching I was supposed to do and I would get into trouble. I was always getting in trouble".

JT LeRoy is not the first American writer to find a dark, magical beauty in the hybrid pagan-Protestant folklore of the South, in the repressed history of the most remote areas of the United States, both geographically and socio-economically. From Poe and Hawthorne to Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, there is a great tradition of American Southern Gothic literature that finds within the provincial conservatism pockets of violence and mysticism, whispers of terrible secrets hiding between the words and behind the stories. In one of JT LeRoy’s short stories, a cruel rape by one of the passing men taken in by Sarah is coded into a nightmare about crows tearing the protagonist’s body into shreds. In Sarah, the penis bones of raccoons become the talismans of select boy-prostitutes, a bar equipped with a stuffed antelope with antler-extensions is turned into a shrine for lot lizards who have lost their magic touch. But the secret of LeRoy’s writing, and the reason it is so relevant today, is that he finds the same chilling beauty in this street gospel as in the lyrics of the Dead Kennedys or the slang of diner waitresses. JT LeRoy’s America is an archeological mound of mythology, Indian witchcraft, the apocalyptic preachings of the puritanical wave that swept the Bible Belt in the late nineteenth century, and the urban legends of street whores, crack hallucinations. This is the other America, the one that didn’t participate in the affluence of the fifties and that the first, rich, successful America so likes to immortalize in Cinderella Hallmark epics.

LeRoy’s books explore the loose stitches that bind two competing narratives of the American reality: the one that glosses over poverty and misery and the other that defies it with its very existence. Like Larry Clark, who in the fifties photographed his petty criminal friends shooting speed, wounded by gunshots, arrested by the police, LeRoy emphasizes the artificial tension between the wretchedness of his subject matter and the imagination that envelops it in an aura of beauty. Clark, who worked at his parents' photography studio and, like them, specialized in wedding photographs, would shoot his friends, with dirty syringes still stuck in their arms, from the most flattering angles, with the eye of an experienced portrait photographer. In the same way, LeRoy weaves his personal story into a wondrous fiction that at times makes reading his horror stories of abuse and sexual identity crisis almost bearable. This sublimation is at work not only for the reader. Writing started out as a kind of therapy for LeRoy, when he was under the care of Dr. Terrence Owens, head of the adolescent unit at Saint Mary’s Hospital. Owens encouraged him to write the stories for a social workers convention so that they could see what it was really like to live on the street, but after seeing the result, he decided to show the stories to a neighbor who worked as an editor. In this way, the stories that were later collected into The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things got their first exposure. Despite the personal context in which they were written, LeRoy insists on defining his work as fiction rather than biographical truth.

"I published Sarah as fiction, it’s not under autobiography. I can’t even remember which parts really happened, but focusing on the writing certainly helps me get through the day. I don’t think I’ll ever write like that again, like The Heart Is Deceitful. I mean there are a lot of mistakes in there and it had to go through like three or four edits ‘cos I couldn’t do it anymore. So it was like, ‘You know what, fuck it, just put it out.’ There’s too much stuff in there that I don’t want in it . . .

"You know, I quit writing after I first got my book deal, because I felt like maybe they were just signing me because of my story, and I didn’t want any part of that, but in the end I just worked with other writers and decided to try and get better. People like to be tourists in other worlds, they’re interested in the underbelly, and I don’t mind if that’s what attracts them initially. But I think that the danger is there’s a lot of crap coming out that has no kind of beauty to it, and I don’t like being lumped in with that, because I work hard on my writing. I can write stuff that’s just fast, but isn’t beautiful, but I try to write stuff that moves me. It’s so rare for me to find a story that interests me, where I care about the characters and there’s something on every page, or every other page, that makes me go, ‘Wow! I like the way that was said.’ I read all the time, and I try to learn from other people. Mary Gaitskill gave me Nabokov and Flannery O’Connor to read, and she said, ‘Look at how they do this’".

Apart from Mary Gaitskill, another writer who influenced him was Dennis Cooper. He received a copy of his novel Try from one of his tricks and immediately found himself identifying with the book’s protagonist, Ziggy, a sensitive boy who is sexually and physically abused by the gay couple that raises him. In the course of his work writing for Spin magazine (under the pseudonym Terminator), he got to interview Cooper, who has since become a mentor and close friend and has even based two characters on him. LeRoy admits he still finds it hard to read some parts of Cooper's violent, transgressive fiction: "I love Dennis Cooper, all of his writing, but after bits like when the kid gets killed in the windmill in Frisk, I called him up and I was almost just crying. He tried to reassure me, ‘Just keep reading, you’ll see, it’s fantasy.’ But, you know, here I’m reading [how] this character Dennis is doing these things, and that’s like my experiences — I mean I have been in situations where I thought that was it, I’m gonna get killed, you know, where I was with guys who found out I wasn’t a girl — and it was very hard, it was really upsetting for me to read that. I’m also in Dennis’ next book, but I die right away in just a few pages."

Does it bother you that, like Dennis Cooper’s work, your books are often classified under "gay interest" in stores around the world?

"It pisses me off. I don’t think it should be in the gay section. But that’s the thing about Sarah — it’s very, kind of, subjective what you say it’s about. There’s not actually that much sex in my book, which is really funny, people kind of get this idea. I got an email from this guy who was really pissed off there wasn’t any because the New York Times said Sarah was wonderfully dirty and there’s no sex!"

What does link LeRoy’s work to books like Try is the demanding emotional dependency of their protagonists. Like Ziggy, LeRoy’s narrator desperately seeks substitutes for the parental love that he lacks. A journalist who interviewed LeRoy pointed out that sometimes it seems like the soft, seductive voice he uses to talk about his books is no more than a technique he picked up in his previous trade, but although there is nothing like prostitution to prepare you for intimate relations with the media, in conversation it gives the impression less of manipulation and more of an attempt to find that love in his readers: "I used to think if I read enough articles about me it would fix me or it would make it better or take it away. It doesn’t, you know. In a way it makes it worse."

Still, from your website and the way you correspond with your readers via email, it would seem that it is important for you to have a strong connection with your readership, perhaps more so than other writers.

"The thing is I have a hard time doing it in person, I make myself available through email, because I think that’s all anybody really wants, to be acknowledged, and that’s important to me — it’s getting really hard at this point, but I get so many different responses. The problem is they feel very warm to me after they read my work, and they wanna, like, hug me or touch me, and I have a hard time with that. Like when I met my editor originally from New York Press, I warned him before, and I said, 'Just please don’t touch me,' but he went to try to hug me, and I flinched. I know it sounds stupid, but people get mad; they think you’re snotty, and they don’t understand that sometimes I just get overwhelmed".

Is that also why you barely appear in photographs or have your face obscured in most of them?

"Well, not anymore than any rock star really — Bono wears sunglasses. . . . But the main thing is what I write about is very personal, and it’s not like I’m writing about my best friend the hamster. You know, I’m writing about pretty intense stuff, and I really don’t want people coming up to me on the street knowing that stuff about me. But also, sometimes I like to go out dressed as a girl, and sometimes I like to dress as a boy. I’ve been beaten up before. You know that film Boys Don’t Cry came out just as Sarah was coming out, and I was warned not to see it. I waited till it was on video and I could be home and deal with it, and it still took me many days to get through the movie. I haven’t even been able to get through the whole documentary about Tina Brandon ..."

In spite of the sharp turn his life has taken, LeRoy does not see his past as in any way resolved. He continues to write about the experiences of street kids, even if not directly about his own life story. When he talks about his mother, who has since passed away, he stutters. "I think a lot of kids on the street never had a solid foundation to go back to, and think that permanently there’s a way you can never reach them. I grew up in a very loving foster home until the age of four. I did have that experience of bonding and love to build on. Somehow it was preserved, I mean my brain just kind of separated it and left it, put it in a little plastic bubble and sealed it away. I don’t know why somebody becomes one way and someone else becomes another way. Say you have ten dogs, or five dogs, and you beat the dogs and you kick them. A couple of dogs are gonna get really vicious, and they’re just gonna be, like, vicious killer dogs, and then maybe one or two of them are just gonna be like kinda just crazy, just bonkers, and one of them will be a little crazy but also kind of always looking for affection, and really loyal to the person that beats them."

Do you feel on the whole that you’ve been extraordinarily unfortunate or incredibly fortunate?

"What’s amazing is no matter what happens, you’re always in the present. I think that’s why people commit suicide, because it seems like it’s never going to end. That’s the reason I started working with my therapist. I wanted to commit suicide, but the religious teaching I had is that you go to hell if you kill yourself. What I really wanted was somebody to convince me that there was no such thing as hell and that I could kill myself. My life right now is good — I have a bed, I have a family. But I’m constantly expecting the other shoe to drop, like something good happens, I’m waiting for the bad to follow. And I still have to do work, I still have issues with my mother . . . "

Did she get to respond to your book?

"She’s not around anymore, but I think if she was she probably would’ve tried to kill me, I mean literally. My grandfather’s also passed away. My grandmother hasn’t. She was addicted to Valium-type things, went into rehab, and got into a kind of Christian twelve-step type program. At first I was really excited, because I thought, well, there’s communication, I could talk to her, but it didn’t last very long; she was very selective in what she would talk to me about. I got to find out who my father was, but I was kind of better off not knowing in a way. He didn’t really want to have anything to do with me. The funny thing is that I found out he’s a writer. He’s a well-known theological writer, well-known in certain circles, I guess. My mother, when she was high she’d let me think that my grandfather was my father, but that didn’t make sense to me because of my experience; there was nothing about my grandfather that was sexual. I knew she had something over him, but I could never figure out what it was. Anyway, it was a relief to know, because I did always have that question in my mind".

Do you ever feel that you tell too much in interviews?

"Yeah, I do, actually, I do. I read them and I go, "My God, did I say that? I don’t remember saying that." I guess it’s because in a way I was raised since I was fourteen to now with my therapist, and whenever I turn to an interview it’s kind of like going into that mode of exploration. It also depends on who I’m talking to. I have had to develop a heightened sense of people. It’s kind of like if someone’s blind, they have very good hearing".

At present, JT LeRoy is working on a CD. He listens to Madonna, Weezer, and the Strokes and feels that there is something more immediate about music compared to literature: "People sit down to read it and you wait for them to respond and they’re like, ‘Oh, I liked it.’ Fuck, you know, give me something more than that. I just tore my hair out for five months! With music, you can feel it right away. That’s what I hate about writing. It’s perfect for my personality, but I guess there’s this rock star inside of me bursting to come out." Right now he’s still excited when he talks about meeting Shirley Manson or working with Madonna’s stylist on a photo-shoot (he was photographed as Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver). He knows he will always be the "former street prostitute," that celebrity will only bind him to that, but he has certainly been fortunate in one thing — his talent doesn’t seem to have anything to do with it.

January 30, 2002

This interview was also published in 42 degrees (on the web at www.42maalot.com).