Eleven years ago, JT LeRoy was a teenager living on the streets of the San Francisco Bay Area, turning tricks and suffering from dissociative episodes. Today, he is a critically acclaimed author whose first two books, the novel Sarah (Bloomsbury, 2000) and the collection of short stories The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (Bloomsbury, 2001), have been translated into more than a dozen languages—most recently, Turkish. His novella, Harold’s End, illustrated by renowned painter Cherry Hood, with an introduction by Dave Eggers, was recently published by Last Gasp, an independent press in San Francisco.
The speed with which LeRoy has ascended from his personal lows (he was abused and then abandoned by his charismatic mother, Sarah) to his professional heights (the film adaptation of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, which he cowrote, debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May) has left him in a unique position: He has attracted famous admirers—Lou Reed and Bono among them—and thousands of fans, but he can relate to few of them.
LeRoy was born in 1980, and though he has written for much of his life—as a child, he encoded his writing journal so his mother couldn’t read it—he fell into publishing accidentally. In 1993, the psychiatrist whom he credits with saving his life, Dr. Terrence Owens at St. Mary's Medical Center in San Francisco, asked LeRoy and other adolescents in the McAuley Adolescent Inpatient Psychiatric Program to write as a form of therapy in order to expunge the horror they had endured. Owens realized that LeRoy's writing—stark, brutal, truthful, illuminating—stood apart. He spoke to a friend in the publishing community, who helped him obtain an agent for LeRoy. Still using his street moniker “Terminator,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to his diminutive stature, LeRoy was first interviewed by the New York Times when he was seventeen.
While reporters often fixate on LeRoy’s friendships with Courtney Love and Billy Corgan and his penchant for wearing blond female wigs and oversized sunglasses, the more substantive story line is LeRoy's literary excellence; his book reviews are uniformly spectacular. And his subject matter stands alone. Sarah chronicles the adventures of a boy who becomes a “lot lizard” (a truck stop hustler) to compete with his mother. The stories in The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things explore a young boy’s life on the road with a speed-addled mother and her lovers, all of whom beat or rape him. Although Harold’s End was just published, LeRoy is already at work on a new novel, to be published sometime next year.
Poets & Writers Magazine asked LeRoy about the forthcoming novel and whether it will be a departure from his earlier, dark writing and explore new themes.
JT LeRoy: God, no. Who wants new themes? [Laughs.] I think writers have their essence, like cooks. I've noticed that people who cook, all of their food has a distinctive flavor, even if they use different spices. And it's like that with a writer. They have their essence of the things that are important.
P&W: You can get a sense that this author wrote this work or that person wrote that work. There's that flavoring. I think there's no such thing as pure fiction, because often the truest thing we write is fiction. No matter what, the writer is in there. You can say it’s science fiction, you can say it's paranormal, but it's the writer who's in there one way or another. I don't care how many characters are in the story itself—they don't exist without the essence of the writer.
JT: I also think there's no such thing as autobiographical writing either. I remember reading about this experiment: They took third-year law students and they had them do a mock trial. In the middle of the mock trial, the experiment conductors staged a hold up, but nobody knew it was staged and the kids were terrorized. And they filmed the whole thing, so there was fact, a concretized fact. And they got depositions from everyone there.
P&W: And everyone had a different point of view?
JT: No one got things correct—what they wore, things like that. Each experience was really personal and subjective. So, if my mother had written a book, it would be very, very different, you know? [Laughs.] I remember going to a [Narcotics Anonymous] meeting and at first they were dealing with substance abuse. And the next thing you know, they have vague memories of being raped by a tribe that practiced devil worship. And I think they felt that way, you know? And maybe there was some form of molestation, but a lot of times …
P&W: … there's a power of suggestion?
JT: Yeah. I had a lot of doctors—when I'd go into hospitals—try to suggest to me the satanic abuse thing because they saw the marks on my body, which I did myself. Or mostly I did myself. I finished what was started because I'm a perfectionist like that. But anyway, it was like, um, sure. And people get really into it and you can input memory.
P&W: Especially with a kid.
JT: Oh, yeah. But anyway, the main point is that I think that a lot of what people experience, it's all very subjective and a lot of it is metaphor. And that's why everything I publish will always be fiction.
P&W: I've seen The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things in the fiction section at bookstores and I've seen it in the memoir section. Does that bug you?
JT: Nope. People can make it whatever they want.
P&W: As long as they're buying it?
JT: With Sarah, I've had people ask questions like, "How did you walk on water?" People like R. Crumb have read the books and he liked them but they really disturbed the fuck out of him. And he was really concerned that people like this existed and I had to assure him that Sarah was fictional.
P&W: [Laughs.] I love R. Crumb, but it cracks me up that you were able to disturb him.
JT: I know.
P&W: Have you seen the short stories he illustrated for Bukowski? The ones that Black Sparrow press put out? There's a bookstore in Seattle, Arundel Books, that carries every bit of Bukowski or John Fante you could hope to find, and it carries all of the Bukowski/Crumb stories. They're more like vignettes, instead of fully developed presentations like your work with Cherry, but they're great. Speaking of illustrations, I could see you and Art Spiegelman collaborating.
JT: I first contacted him when I was sixteen. Fifteen, actually, and he signed my book and he wrote, "To Terminator from Ruminator." And he said that he'd been asked to participate in this museum exhibit, "A Day Without Art." Not "Art" like "Art Spiegelman," but "art" like "artwork." He said that originally he didn't know what he was going to do, but he said, "Now I know. I'm going to hang and frame your letter."
JT: And this is when I was fifteen.
P&W: Right. I know you've talked about this in your online diary and in other interviews, but has that shock started to wear off—the surreal experience of having Art Spiegleman hang your letter when you were fifteen? Does it still hit you out of the blue or are you used to it?
JT: It does still hit me out of the blue sometimes. It's nice. There's this part of me, like when I walked the red carpet at Cannes—that felt very fuckin' surreal. That just felt really punk rock.
P&W: Weren't you behind Angelina Jolie?
JT: I was, yeah. It's like today, I've gotten emails from Heather Graham, Liv Tyler, Dave Eggers, and it's kind of like, there's a part of me, like if I step back, that goes, "What the fuck?" And you can adjust to anything. I remember one of the questions that I got in Cannes was, “How do you know that people adjust so quickly? Did you study social-whatever?” I was like, "No, I fuckin' lived it." People are very adaptable, and they're very much in whatever their experience is. You either adapt or you die.
“I also think there's no such thing as autobiographical writing.”