An Interview with JT Leroy
by Kevin Sampsell
A couple of weeks ago I received a raccoon penis bone in the mail from JT Leroy. It measured over six inches long and one end was mounted in a silver cap with a tiny hole at the top. I was told to make a necklace out of it. Similar bones play a strange role in JT Leroy's first novel, Sarah. In it, a twelve-year-old boy, who willingly becomes involved with a stable of truck-stop whores, wears such a necklace as a status symbol and sexual good luck charm. The bigger the bone, the more valued you are to the truckers. What's more startling than that, is the fact that JT Leroy is barely of drinking age, and yet tells us every small detail of this dark world as if he's lived there every day of his life.
In fact, he almost has. Born to a young mother in 1980, he was given to foster parents who loved and cared for him during his first four years. When his birth mother turned 18 she was able to win custody with the help of her father, a strict militant-like preacher. From there he split his time between his traveling prostitute mother and her abusive boyfriends and his grandparents in West Virginia, where he sometimes preached on the street as a child.
Leroy's most recent book, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, a collection of linked stories that were actually written when he was sixteen (before he wrote Sarah), chronicles this shocking and brutal childhood up through his teen years. It's being billed as fiction, but is obviously autobiography. In interviews as recently as last year, Leroy even admitted that he sometimes still turned tricks despite his blossoming writing career, which included writing articles for magazines like Spin and NY Press and having Sarah made into a movie by Gus Van Sant.
Leroy is easily accessible to his fans, as his e-mail address is printed in his books and his comprehensive web site (www.jtleroy.com) lets readers know what he's up to. Indeed, after reading his work, I was surprised at how friendly and well-adjusted he seems in his e-mail messages, despite having a reputation for being painfully shy and never being seen at his readings (where other writers read from his work with an exuberant and almost parental pride). Others have described him as a typical 21st century kid, gladly answering e-mails all day long but without social skills in public.
Kevin Sampsell: I've told people that Sarah is the best southern book by a non-southerner that I've read. How important is place in your writing?
JT Leroy: I don't consider myself a southern writer really. I've lived all over the place and the stories take place in different parts of the country. I think a lot of my writing really shows a search for place that is not constantly fleeting. I mean I was with a wonderful family for the first four years. It was a very stable environment and they tried to adopt me. My mom sued to get me back when she turned 18 and she won, being the birth mother. She was young, and it was overwhelming to her, so I would end up in placement and then when they found out about my grandparents I would be sent to live with them in West Virginia. But then I would take off with my mom and we would live all over the country, in a car, in a truck, in hotels. We'd get separated and then I'd go back into placement and then get sent back to my grandparents. And the cycle would repeat, many, many times so I got to live all over.
KS: With both of your books, you are writing from personal experiences. Are you worried about the prospect of having to eventually write more "fictional" work?
JTL: Well, I envy writers who sit down and say "I'm going to write a book about a man and a woman and they do whatever" and then they write it. I can't do that. I have my obsessions. For novels I still have stuff to vomit, so to speak. When I run out, maybe I'll have to tell the love story on the banks of a snowy lake in Minnesota or whatever, but in the meantime, I'm still not done. The Heart is Deceitful is the prequel to Sarah. The book I'm working on now is the next part. Sarah had a lot of fantasy in it, I mean it is not autobiographical. So, I know I can write fiction. I am working with Gus Van Sant on a film for HBO (based on Sarah). I'm writing the screenplay and Diane Keaton is producing. It's really cool because I can stretch and write stories that are not my experience. It is still filtered through me, obviously, so my issues are there.
KS: Tell me more about working with Gus Van Sant.
JTL: It is still unbelievable to me in many ways to have Gus Van Sant making Sarah into a movie. It was a dream of mine to have him make Sarah because he is one of my all time favorite directors. When I hang out with him, it always washes over me, oh my God, this is Gus Van Sant! I don't know if that will ever go away. He has been wonderful and really taken me under his wing, really mentoring me. He asked Patti Sullivan to write the screenplay. She is fucking amazing. The three of us work together very closely. It is tight, the connection, like a family.
KS: So much of the new book is so intense, but there's that great moment of comedy in "Foolishness is Bound in the Heart of a Child" where you innocently sing punk rock songs to your grandfather. Are you comfortable writing humor scenes and do you think you might go in that direction more in the future?
JTL: Yes, that's one thing that reading Mary Karr has taught me, how humor makes the story more powerful. You reach a saturation point with pain and if you have humor, you can take people further with you on your journey. You won't trip their wires. I am currently in collaboration with Todd Kessler (creator of Blue's Clues) and Rebecca Goldstein at No Hands Productions on an independent television series called House Arrest, and an animated children's feature film. It requires a lot of humor. One of the guys working with us is involved with the Rugrats folks.
KS: I've seen interviews where you have defended your mother and say that you love her. Most people reading these books would wonder how you can have any positive feelings about her. Where does this compassion come from?
JTL: Throughout The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, Sarah tries really hard to be a good mother. She is just too young to know what she is doing and is incredibly overwhelmed by her situation and her own issues. Although she acted out many of her own horrors, she did love and care for Jeremiah but her ability to do so was just incredibly scarred.
KS: I'm interested to know if your time spent with your grandparents have lingered with you as far as your religious opinions go? Do you ever see them anymore?
JTL: My family doesn't feel happy about my writing and really doesn't like me to talk about them. I don't give too many specifics. What, when, where, why.
It was very sterile with the grandparents. It was very strict and religious, very literal with the Bible. The only way I really felt love with my grandfather, the only way I really ever got touched was to be punished by him. So when you learn that growing up, have that kind of experience, the idea of getting a beating becomes a way to soothe. I think the Bible is full of that shit. And folks take that very literally and beat their kids because that is what it says to do. I want people to look at that and see how fucking sick it is. My wiring got screwed up and I feel that loss. When folks use the Bible to hurt their kids it enrages me.
KS: Speaking of parental units, I'm also curious about the foster parents that your mom took you from when you were four. Do you have contact with them?
JTL: Probably the best thing that could have happened to me would have been for me to have been adopted and raised by my foster family. However, if I'd
stayed with them I would not have written Sarah or The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. I may not have even been a writer at all but I would probably be happy or happier. I have not had any contact with them. But I dream of trying to find them.
KS: How did your mom or the people around you respond to your sexual awareness when you were so young?
JTL: My mom had a theory that if she met a guy he would feel challenged by a son, but if it was a girl, her sister or daughter, it would be easier. I just found that people were nicer to me when they thought I was a pretty little girl. I liked that power. It's kind of like Pavlov's dog; if you get more attention for wearing a certain item or looking a certain way, you're going to want to do that. It really was never about sexual awareness. I mean there wasn't like a coming of age you know.
KS: You have interviewed people for various magazines yourself. How did you get involved with that?
JTL: Bruce Benderson did a story about me when I was 17 for NY Press. After that article they had me writing for them under (the pen name) Terminator. One thing led to another.
KS: Most of your interview subjects are musicians. Do you have a secret aspiration to be a rock star in your lifetime?
JTL: Yeah! I'd never be on stage doing it though. I was joking with Tom Spanbauer and saying how Amy Tan and Stephen King have the Rock Bottom Remainders which is this rock band of famous writers. I said we should get together with some other writers and call ourselves the Jockstrap Remainders. Music is just something I relate to. It is hugely important to me. When I write I usually hear it as music.