An Interview With Fiction Writer JT Leroy

Litsa Dremousis

P&W: There's a sociological theory that people adapt the fastest during wartime. I think that's apt with The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things because in a sense, it was war on a personal level.

JT: Yeah, and you adapt.

My father grew up under Nazi occupation in Greece when he was a kid, and he says the same thing, that at the time, you don't stop to think about it. You can't. He says exactly what you're saying, that it hit him when he was older. When the war was going on in Bosnia, it dredged it up for him again. But when he was a kid, he said he just lived it moment to moment. He knew that if he stopped to think, he'd be dead.

JT: Yeah, exactly.

P&W: Where do you see yourself 25 years from now?

JT: I don't know.

P&W: You've done so much with the first 25 years. It's pretty remarkable.

JT: Yeah, I know. I don't know. I'd like to be alive. You know, I've hit so many points where I'm like, "That's it, I'm gonna die, I'm suicidal." And then, two weeks ago, I almost got hit by a car. And it was really close. This woman ran a red light. And I really got this sense of how much I wanted to live. I talked to my therapist about it, about how much I really want to live. I want to live. At the same time, I feel like there's things I cannot tolerate, I cannot take. I'll survive. But I feel like I've gotten a lot softer, like my ability to cope is not the same.

P&W: Because you're not in that moment of crisis?

JT: Because I've been shown a better way. I could not go back to living in the street. Fuck, I don't like sleeping on certain sheets. I mean, if you give me the wrong pillow, I'm like all pissed. [Laughs.]

P&W: You've joked before that your chocolate has to have at least 70 percent cocoa.

JT: [Laughs.] Oh yeah, it's amazing. I can be a bigger princess than anybody. It's hard to stay in the gratitude. Sometimes I'll talk to my shrink, and I'll be like "Jesus Christ, was it really that bad?" We're comin' up on eleven years of working together and I'll ask him, "What was I like? Tell me what I was like." Because, you know the difference between a three year old and a ten year old? That's what it's like for me in this space of time, with my functioning. And people just don't understand that. And I need people who will remind me of that, because they were there and they know. They know how bad it was. They were there with me through it.

P&W: And there might be a need to distance yourself from it a little bit.

JT: Oh, yeah. I mean, like with people who went through periods of hunger, it's a progression. I don't have to store food under my bed anymore, you know?

P&W: Right.

JT: I couldn't sleep last night because I was convinced there were ants crawling on me, because we've got a problem with ants. It used to be when we had ants, everyone else in the house would come in and yell at me and ask, "Where's the food? Where do you have it hidden?" And I'd be like, "What food?" And they'd follow the ant trail and there it'd be. But I couldn't not do it.

P&W: My dad says the same thing. They had to sleep outdoors [during the war] and the rats would chew on their ears at night. And for years, if he turned against the pillow in a certain way, for instance, he'd wake up and think rats were chewing on him. I think experiences like that never quite leave someone. They might be put into perspective but, you know, people talk about closure. I think there's closure on a practical level, where you're not still putting the food under your bed. But sure, it's still going to be something that stays with you.

JT: I heard Billy Corgan at a book reading, and a guy asked him if working on a certain record—I forget which one—was cathartic, and Billy said, "No! It's not." I forget all what he said, but I'll put it in my own words: Writing about all this stuff, at the time, it's not cathartic. But later, it comes back and teaches me stuff, like, oh, this is how I felt.

P&W: James Ellroy has said something very similar to that. Have you read his memoir My Dark Places?

JT: No.

P&W: His mom was raped and murdered when he was ten. He wrote The Black Dahlia, in part, because the story was so similar to his mother's, and it was a way of tackling some of his issues surrounding his mom's death before he could actually write about it. In My Dark Places, he writes about her murder directly, and he says the same thing about closure and catharsis. By writing about it, he could give it a beginning, a middle, and an end, but, like he says, it's never completely gone. You know this pop psychology idea that if you try hard enough you can let go of everything? His theory is that you're not going to let go of it so much as find a way of incorporating it into your life that's healthier and less self-destructive. I'm not trying to knock the new age-y stuff, but it doesn't recognize that profound trauma cannot be reduced to these bite-size, fortune-cookie salves.

JT: Right.

P&W: Is there anything you'd like to answer that you haven't been asked yet?

JT: I don't know. Let me think.

P&W: Like something you'd really like to talk about but no one's ever asked you?

JT: Yeah, about how much I like chocolate. [Laughs.] I put a solicitation for chocolate in the back of my book.

P&W: [Laughs.] You do that in every interview.

JT: I know.

P&W: On one hand, it's kind of childlike, and on the other …

JT: … it's so me. You know, if someone's got a habit… When I first went on tour, there was this association of me with the street. And a lot of people would bring me drugs. Expensive shit, too. And I'm like, wow. Even famous people, they'd meet me and they'd hand me a bag of stuff. And that was not good for me. And I realize that the way I am with chocolate and with my teeth is the way I used to be with drugs. I didn't ever give a shit about drugs really. Drugs were something I did because I didn't have food. I much prefer food.

P&W: That makes sense.

JT: A lot of people who went with tricks did it for the drugs. I went with tricks who gave me food. With chocolate, my habit is way more expensive than I can afford. So, I need help. The thing is, I need the chocolate to write. I've been writing to Zadie Smith about this: How do you fuckin' write without eating? And she said, "I know. It's really hard." It's fuckin' impossible for me. I'm getting fatter and fatter.

P&W: I can be really good during the day when I'm writing. But you know when it's four in the morning and you're on vapors?

Yeah. [Laughs.]

That's when it's hard not to go, "Oh look, peanut butter M&Ms." I want to touch on something else: I've recommended The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things to friends and they'll start reading it and stop and say it's too dark. And that drives me nuts because none of your work is nihilistic.

JT: The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things is really fuckin' dark.

P&W: Of course it's dark, but not in a way that makes darkness trendy or palatable or something cool. It's a dark story, but it's transforming, too.

JT: Right.

P&W: I felt like I'd gotten inside of someone else's head. You can never fully know what it's like to be someone else, but it offers insight and empathy.

JT: I think there's a lot of hope there.

P&W: I've noticed that artists tend to pick up on your work faster than anyone else.

JT: Actors and musicians, yeah. But sometimes other writers seem a little bit threatened.

P&W: There tends to be competition within an art form.

JT: But in the beginning, everyone who championed me, they were all writers, you know? Writers, then musicians like Suzanne Vega. I once had this kind of Sophie's Choice dilemma. Billy Corgan wanted me to go back to the hotel, but Dave Eggers was waiting for me at the restaurant. And you know what? I went to the restaurant.

P&W: That's totally Sophie's Choice.

JT: It was, and I chose literature over rock and roll.