An Interview with J. T. LeRoy
Like losing your virginity or the first time a loved one died, you remember the first time you read JT LeRoy.
It was two years ago, the night I finished Sarah, LeRoy's 2000 tale of a boy who becomes a "lot lizard" (truck stop whore) to compete with his mother, assuming her identity in the mouths and arms of tricks. In his quest for a bigger raccoon bone (a signal to others of his prowess as a whore) "Cherry Vanilla" endures rape, beatings, and the ritual shearing of his hair. Abandoned by his mother and forsaken by his pimp, he is alone and desecrated because he had the hubris to want a better life. I sobbed until I threw up.
LeRoy completed the stories in 2001's The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things before Sarah, but he felt Sarah was the more artful book and wanted it released first. Deceitful chronicles his years on the road with his speed-addled mother and her lovers, all of whom beat or rape the young Jeremiah. When he writes, "His long white buck teeth hang out from a smile, like a wolf dog", he is describing Bugs Bunny. LeRoy's assessment of these tales is debatable, though: Deceitful's impact is immediate and unshakable, like a fist to the stomach. The film adaptation, which he co-wrote, will be released in 2004.
LeRoy's reviews are uniformly spectacular, but reporters fixate on his friendships with Madonna and Winona Ryder, his penchant for female attire, and his years as a prostitute. Insightful readers, though, tune out the hype like so much static. They know LeRoy's work is the stuff of cave painters -- ash and blood -- and that he crawls through the same dark, jagged spaces to create.
Bookslut talked to LeRoy on the phone. We discuss the "Venus flytrap" in which he ensnares readers, protecting his child like he couldn't protect himself, his passion for organic dark chocolate, how he wants a mom like Sharon Osbourne, and why asking someone to read your work is "like putting your pussy in someone's face." I'm recovering from the party.
Did you guys have a wrap party for the film ["The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things"]?
Yeah. It was, well, there were a lot of people that I'd invited that I was really looking forward to seeing. But, like, two thousand people showed up for a space that only fits a few hundred. The fire department threatened to shut it down, and people like, Tim Armstrong from Rancid, who's in the movie, and [in-demand songwriter] Linda Perry, all these really great people, they didn't get in. We had to get Chloe Sevigny in -- they didn't want to let her in.
I guess that says something about who was inside, though.
Well, there were some great people. I met Sharon Osbourne and I started to cry. She was nice, but I didn't know how to handle it. She represents to me the mother, the uber-mother. She'll do anything for her kids. She's like a bear that would rip someone's heart out for her kids, and I always wanted a mother like that. And you can't--you have to be born into a situation like that. So when I met her, I'd thought a lot about her, and it doesn't matter what you think about her...
I think she's great.
...she's one of those people, people say she's doing it for her, or whatever, but the ultimate thing is: I think she would kill someone for her children. I relate to that feeling, because I have a child. I feel like, I'm grateful I have that capacity inside me. I think she totally misinterpreted it, because when I saw her, I just burst into tears. I'm standing there, and I just lose it.
I think it's great that you've had the capacity to -- like you said, you are a parent -- to not make the same mistakes that you had to live through. I think it takes a lot of guts and a lot of courage to turn it around. And you're doing it. I was born into a very close family, and it's just dumb luck.
Yeah, I think it's because I had that family, that real family [his foster family], until I was five, so I had that grounding, you know? Because if you look at people who have never had that connection, who've never bonded with a mother, they're just lost. There's no way, you can't get that back. I mean, you can't build a foundation on quicksand. The work I did with my therapist [Dr. Terrence Owens of San Francisco's Child Crisis Center] was knocking down a structure that was built on a very solid foundation.
When is the new book coming out?
Well, as soon as I finish it. That's been a problem. But I'm going to do it like "Harold's End." You know that story that I did for McSweeney's? We're doing it -- it's going to be beautiful. We're doing it on Last Gasp [the renowned publisher and distributor of eclectic books and comics] and I found the illustrator. So, you know Gretchen [Koss, his publicist at Viking Press]?
I've talked to Gretchen on the phone, and she's wonderful.
She's amazing. She's why I'm over at Viking. I have to tell you that whole story. Things happen like that with me, where, it's like you're blown into things, and as long as you stay true to your intention -- it's not looking at it through ego -- but if you're chasing art, the right people get put in your place, and you never know what your gift is, or how things will look. And it's not trying to put your structure on how things will look. It's letting go of that, and letting it be what it's supposed to be, and it's amazing where the gift comes. But it's really like that. It's really fucking like that, because there were times I can remember when I would stare out at the world and think, "I don't feel like I can take this pain anymore. I can't take this incredible pain. Am I supposed to die?" It always felt like, well, I hear a lot of voices, that I talk to, or whatever. And one would say, "No, you're meant to...". [Pauses] It's like in Breaking the Waves, when she talks to God? It's kind of like that, but I don't mean it's talking to God, but I talk to different people, and whatever, you know? And it would always say, "You'll see, it's going to work out." It's not like it said, "You're going to be taken care of." I can't even put it into words, what it would tell me. I'm better when I'm talking to them, and asking, you know? Being in that place of spirituality...
When I saw Breaking the Waves, I understood it. I mean, that's what it feels like for me, you know? But for me, it's not this punishing voice. I mean, I've got the really horrible [voices], because I disassociate. I can have, like, I can have people inside me. I can have those really horrible ones, but when I connect, it's with the more spiritual, caretaker parts, who would tell me -- it just always felt that I was meant to do something with this. I feel the worst thing that can happen to someone is when they're being tortured and someone tells them, "Nobody knows you're here. And nobody cares." And that breaks people more than any amount of pain. When people think that somebody out there remembers them, and that their suffering is not in vain... people can endure unbelievable torture. And I just got to the point where I believed, this is not in vain. I would read these accounts -- I remember being really obsessed with the people from Ireland who were taken to Australia. You'd have little, little kids, who'd be sent on this voyage and put into servitude for stealing a loaf of bread, you know? And they were starving, and only a couple of voices survived, because all these people couldn't write. But there were a few, and I just thought, my god, all those voices of people who were silenced throughout history. How many people get to record their voice? The loneliness of suffering is what I've wanted to overcome, [in] the search for family and community.
For me, with writing, I want to create an experience that's like a Venus flytrap. I was reading something about horror filmmakers, about being so obsessed with violence and death, but that as a filmmaker, you have control over it, violence and death. And I think there's a way of sharing an experience that gives you a feeling of control over it. But it's not just that. The twist is, it's not "let me drag you into this hell", because it's not transgressive. It might have been, it started out like that, which might have been my attraction to the early Dennis Cooper work. It's similar to the work I did psychologically, in a place of love and support, where my work can resonate with people who are like these middle-aged women, like this woman [I know] from Norway, who has nothing in common with the experience. There's a universal truth that got touched on, because I think I went into a universal unconscious type place, and wrote about themes that went beyond these stories, their content.
That's one of the things I think is so remarkable about your work, is that there's a purity to it. Given the stories and given all that you've lived through, I think there's a real purity that comes through. So it makes sense -- it ties in with everything you're saying.
It's like I was saying, I want you to be in the Venus flytrap, I want you to be in the experience. I've been reading these really well-written books, but they're linguistic -- not linguistic, they're lingo books -- they're just how we talk. I love books where you pick them up and you know what it smells like. When I walk down the street, I have no idea of the names of the flowers that I pass, but when I'm writing, I love that there's a crispness when I hear the flower is a "loganvillia-oola-boola".
And not just thrown in there, tell me what it looks like. I do that research. I do that work. I was always obsessed with how movies -- I lived a lot in movies, in movie theaters. I spent a lot of time there. It was always painful for me that no matter how encompassing you make the experience in words, it just cannot compete with movies. Movies are so in your face, and I want to get as close to that experience, I want to you to know what the weather feels like, I want you to know what it smells like, what kinds of plants are around you. And that takes a lot of work, but I want you in my Venus flytrap as much possible. Because I want that connection, you know? I want you in my world.
I would get hungry with all the diner scenes in Sarah, where you were describing the food. I would seriously get hungry, so you're doing it well.
There's this thing, it's kind of painful, where people read about me a certain amount and they assume, "Oh, you're loaded". I think if I was a musician, which I am, but if I was in a rock band, or was an actor, and had this kind of level of press, I would be making serious money. Because I write books, and I signed deals when I was a teenager, and I was never offered one of those million dollar advances, or anything even close, anything even remotely close, I'm broke. I could make more money herding cows in Africa. And I write for a lot of alternative magazines, where they pay one hundred dollars here and there. I mean, I don't have money. I really, really don't have money. And the movie deals, these are low budget fucking movies. I mean, dude, my phone got cut off last week. Just because you read about me, doesn't mean that that's translated into hard, cold cash. People don't buy books the way people buy CDs, and people are all up in arms about the Internet-
With music piracy...
...and we have libraries. People lend books. Yeah, we've been dealing with that shit all along. I ain't got no pity for those motherfuckers. [Laughs.] Whenever someone asks me about my books, I tell them, "Go get them at the library-I'm not trying to make money off of you". But if they've got money, I say, "Go buy them".
I interviewed [Augusten Burroughs] two months ago, but we were talking about what you're saying: he calls literary fame, "fourth tier."
Fourth tier, like it's the lowest level. You've got the rock stars, and the movie stars, and the TV stars, and like he said, with literary fame, there's a small audience that knows exactly who you are, and they're rabid, and they're fanatical.
Sarah really surprised people. I mean, my original publisher was Crown, and they were so happy to see me go, because I let go from my original deal. I was, like, seventeen years old? I got signed when I was like, eighteen. My editor quit, she left, and I lost my deal. They were so happy to see me go, that they forgave my advance. It was something like eight thousand, which was chump change for them. My take of it was maybe five or six after taxes. They were just so, like, get that fucking freak out of here.
But you take someone who won't tour, who won't do readings, who won't come to the business meetings, who is a known drug, alcohol, whatever, user, abuser, and generally seems like a freak, and you're going to put this book out? It's like, uh huh. And that's part of why I didn't want to put out The Heart is Deceitful first, I didn't want to, I knew it wasn't... I wrote those things in therapy. I never wrote them with the idea that this was going to be a book. I remember when Dennis Cooper would say to me, like, you know, maybe you can get this published someday, and I would just laugh. It was like you're dancing in your living room, and someone says maybe you can dance ballet in Carnegie Hall. Or even on a stage somewhere. And you're just like, whatever. It wasn't even a purpose, when I would contact writers. When I get these letters from writers, they don't even bother telling me they've read my book. They just say, "Can you pass this to your agent? Can you read this?" They don't realize it's like putting your pussy in someone's face. Or putting your penis in someone's face and saying, "Here, suck me off". You know what I'm mean? I mean, sharing work is a very sacred thing, and asking someone to do that, it's kind of like asking someone to kiss you.
And it's amazing how, I mean, the whole way, how it happened, everything that happened was very organic. I have these writers now ask me, "How did you do it? How do I get people, how do I get stars to read for me blah blah blah?" It all happened very, very organically and innocently, the way a lot of good art happens, you know? And it all happened out of irritation. It's the oyster and the pearl. I mean, do you know the whole story, do you want to hear the whole story?
My shrink, Dr. Terrance Owens, the head of the adolescence unit here at St. Mary's, the one we just did a benefit for... Winona Ryder hosted this one and we raised five thousand for the one in New York. It's really cool to be at that place where you can give back. You know, he felt I had a problem with continuity and he kept asking me to write. He taught at the University of San Francisco, which he still does, and he was teaching these social workers, or people who wanted to be social workers. So he said, why don't you write about the real deal on the street, because he knew I hated social workers because so many of them had fucked me over and they had no idea what they were doing. And he was like, why don't you tell them the real deal, and maybe, in turn, they could help someone. Because, I was like, you know, they don't know what they're doing to these kids out there, and I like the idea of making a difference in someone else's experience. I felt it was too late for me, but maybe something I did could help someone, and I liked that idea of power, of being able to have them listen to me for a minute.
So, I did that. That appealed to me, you know? Because I never had any power with these fuckers, so I was like, wow, I get the power. And something happened when I sat down to write, this higher thing, and it was just like [pauses]. I think most of us in the world don't find what we're meant to do. It's almost as if we're all given a gift of... In indigenous societies, everything was imbued with art. Like, a basket. There have been books written about the basket weaver. If you look at a basket, it was functional, but it told the story. And the one who wove the basket didn't think, "I am an artiste." They were just making a functional basket, but when they wove it, because in their society, every act was imbued with storytelling, with a connection to who they were, and the universe, and spirituality, whatever their spirituality was. And their storytelling--there was storytelling on the basket. So, we turn that into an object of art, you know? But for them, the basket weaver wasn't a fetishized artist, they were just part of the society. And now, you have to fight to be an artist. I'm amazed by how many people come up to me and say, "I don't have a creative bone in my body." I'm just mortified, because to me, that's like saying, "I love to molest small children."
I really feel like in order to be an artist in our society, we have to fight. To me, an artist is like the face of God. It's telling the story of who we are, our connections, the more true we can be. Who we are and where we're going. All right, so this is what happened: I wrote this thing, and it felt like that click. I was so hungry for feedback. I can remember the first time I got feedback that had nothing to do with how I looked or how good I sucked a dick. Whatever, any of that shit. It was just this pure thing. And it relieved something. It relieved this pressure. Kind of like of like when you remove a brain tumor and the blood can flow again? I really, really felt it like that. Because I was using drugs and alcohol, and I wasn't really into them, but it was like a way of relieving some of the pressure, the pain. And this [writing] was much more effective, and right away. And drugs and alcohol got in the way of writing, so I was like, this is a much better drug. I looked at it almost like a substance, like, oh, this is much better. And this whole thing happened where I would write for these classes, I would write these pieces, and I was like, tell me what they said, you know?
And I wasn't getting the feedback, like, he doesn't behave appropriately, and this and that. I was getting these guys' respect, and it was magic. These words were coming out of me, everything I had recorded, because it always felt like I was recording, like I could hit the playback button and there it was. I was an obsessive reader as it was, and it was like, things would store in me, and I would hit playback and I would hand write this stuff. Of course, I'd wait for the last minute, and I never knew where I was gonna be, and I got a trick to buy me a fax machine. I had to get it in by Monday morning, and I had to rewrite it so it was legible, and they wouldn't let me into the hospital, so I would have to fax it to him before the class, so there was this bathroom. You could pull back this thing, and there was a jack in the wall. Everyone used to fix in this bathroom, but I'd go in there and hook up my fax machine.
And they'd bang on the door and say, "We know you're fixing." And I'm like, "No, I'm faxing." So, that was really funny, and I'd fax stuff. Anyway, I'd say to Terry, Dr. Owens, give me some critical feedback, I want to get better, I want to get better. Because I knew there was a difference between my writing and Tobias Wolf you know? And he said, "Well, I can't do that. That's not my role." But he had an upstairs neighbor who was an editor. His name is Eric Walinski. Eric Walinski, he just made a film, and now he works with Dave Eggers at Valencia Street [826 Valencia Street, the Bay Area children's writing center Eggers founded in 2002].
So, Eric Walinski was the first person to give me critical feedback. At first, he gave me a letter, and then we started talking. He would really gently guide me, and I was so hungry for it. And then, we would talk about books. And Lewis Nordan, who wrote Music of the Swamp, which a masterpiece of a book, a masterpiece of a book, we'd talk. The guy is the sweetest, most amazing guy. Older man, recovered alcoholic, and the book is a beautiful fucking work of art.
I had this one trick who would turn me onto books. I hated poetry, but there was this one poet, and the trick would say, read this, read this. And he gave me this book by Sharon Olds. And I hated poetry, but I read "The Golden Cell" and it was the first time I understood a parent's love. I just never understood that connection, and I think it reawakened what was inside me from when I was a child. It almost makes me cry, every time I talk about it. Or maybe it was "The Dead and the Living" I can't remember which one. And I was talking about it with Eric, and Eric, and again, it was just one of those circles, where it just happened like that, he had studied with her. She was his teacher at NYU, and they had become friends. He told me, "I talked to Sharon, and she wants you to write her and tell her all of what you told me." And I told him, "Go fuck yourself."
And he was like, no, she's for real. So, I did. I wrote to her and she wrote me back. We've had this correspondence ever since then. She read for me, she was one of the readers at this one reading. She read the Sex Pistols part, "I am a Annie-Christ, I am a Annie-kiss" [from the story, "Foolishness is Bound in the Heart of a Child", in "The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things"]. When I heard it out loud, I just couldn't stop sobbing. Because it's like, here it is. It opened this door. It's like you can write to God, and God will write you back. It opened this world to me, and I was like, "Holy shit". It's like when you first discover your body, and you start masturbating and it's like, "Holy shit! I can do this? I can make this feeling?"
I went to the library, because I was really obsessed with this book, Try, by Dennis Cooper. So I asked the librarian, "How do I contact him? How do I write to a writer?" I had the Eric Walinski connection, but I didn't know anybody else. And he said, here's a book, and showed me a book of agents. So, I called, we had all of these stolen calling card numbers. Everyone has them on the street, you know?
So, I called, and I spoke to his agent. And she said, well, fax a request. And I had a fax machine, so I made up a story-that I had a fanzine--and it was so obvious. It was just like the kid in the book. [Try's protagonist, Ziggy, who writes the fanzine, "I Apologize."] I wanted to interview him [Cooper]. And I had Timothy--what was his name, who wrote Maximum Rock N Roll? [Tim Yo.] This was before he died, and I had a friend who was friends with him. And I said, "Ask him if I can interview Dennis Cooper." And they didn't know who Dennis Cooper was at the time. This was almost ten years ago, and I was like, ask him if I can write something for him, and they were like, well, we don't know, whatever, sure. These were the guys from "Maximum Rock N Roll". So, I said I had my own fanzine, just like the kid in the book. And I had a phone number where I was staying that night, and they were like, yeah, call him [Cooper], call him. And I did, and he screens all his calls, but he picked up, and we had this connection. And eventually, I don't know, how it happened, but I started reading [more] and I told him, "Yeah, I'm writing" and down the line, because I was really shy about this stuff, down the line, I started reading it to him.