Not sure if people follow this sort of stuff, but author JT Leroy was recently profiled in New York magazine as a potential fabrication.
To people familiar with him, this isn’t news. There has been speculation from the beginning that he isn’t a real person, but a pseudonym for everyone from Dennis Cooper to Gus Van Sant. It was something he encouraged all along. When I interviewed him for Oasis in August of 2000, his novel Sarah was getting a lot of buzz, both for the book and the possibility that he didn’t write it because, well, he doesn’t exist.
In my interview, he said: "I like having questions about who actually wrote Sarah. I like having questions
about who am I actually. I like having the fiction thing. It makes it a lot
safer. The more of that stuff, it’s fine with me."
JT and I have remained in contact, all e-mail of course, save for a few phone calls around the time of that interview. I think I even gave him a free ticket to a Weezer concert once, but I can’t be certain. One Thanksgiving weekend, as I stayed home and worked on my novel, JT did the same as he worked on edits to Harold’s End for Dave Eggers, for when it was originally published in McSweeney’s. Everyone else we knew seemed to be out having turkey, and we were both locked in front of our computers, working on fiction between sending e-mails back and forth about why anyone would possibly choose to be a writer.
JT has read the short story that is the basis for my novel, and has always been very encouraging. On some level, it always seemed strange to receive encouragement from him, because his writing was trying to move huge obstacles in his life that have left him shattered. While my fiction has some real components, I have no hesitation to classify it as fiction. Most of my drama is made up, and the characters aren’t me (which I keep having to explain when people ask who I would want to play "me" in the movie version of my book).
So, I have always believed in JT. He has always brought out a maternal and nurturing spirit in me when we spoke. I wanted to protect him from… something, even though most of the stuff he was running from was all in his past. I would always defend him in the endless conversation his identity has wrought on San Francisco literary discussions.
I have friends who went through a similar situation with Anthony Godby Johnson, also a young, sexually abused person who ended up writing a supposedly powerful memoir (I’ve never read it) of his abuse. Except, of course, he never existed and was the creation of his supposed adoptive mother.
Even JT has been rattled by the story, dumping his usual stance of enjoying the ambiguity of it all and instead posting quotes from people such as Shirley Manson (lead singer of Garbage, who wrote the song Cherry Lips about JT), Mary Gaitskill (refuting some of what she said in the New York piece), and others on his blog.
I think the entire issue comes down to two camps. The people who believed there was a JT, and those who didn’t.
As much as JT might like to think he was just the author of Sarah (which I far prefer to his second effort, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things), I think the problem is that when I read Sarah, I read it with full knowledge of its author. It was not some fanciful story detached from its creator. The beauty of that book is that JT was able to take his pain and mold it into something so touching and haunting. I didn’t experience it as something separate from him. The two are one.
I can’t really speak for the other side, because I never read a JT book not believing there was a JT. I don’t know if I can, although the question still remains how I will approach his next novel.
The shift in JTs in the article is something I also felt for a while. Many times his blog was like a Page Six item. In fact, I think on some occassion, he even mentioned that and did bold the names of the celebrities he had interacted with, from someone in Sigur Ros sending him chocolates to whatever else. But I just figured it was him getting caught up in the moment, although it always seemed strange that someone so nervous and mortally shy could hang out with Billy Corgan with no issue, but said if we ever met he would either throw up or end up sleeping with me (I assumed those were always two separate options, but who knows). At the time, he said:
"I have ended up having sex with some of the people I have done interviews with, and it comes up a lot. For so long, my face was all I traded on. There was nothing else. So when I know someone is interested, it clicks in for me, and I go into nurse mode. Well, not nurse mode, more waitress mode — ‘We’re here to serve. I know what you want and I’ll do it.’ It’s hard for me not to. I have a really hard time with boundaries and I’m trying hard to learn about them."
OK, still though, you can meet your rock idols but not some local guy who has a little gay youth magazine? It just never entirely adds up.
I never really got into the cult of JT, either. I went to one book event in San Francisco, where as per usual, someone read a note from JT at how he wished he could be there but of course couldn’t, and then a bunch of local literrati would be reading from his stuff instead. The place was packed. People hung on every word. A microphone was near the speakers, so that Jt could later hear the event himself.
And, I just bailed. To me, book readings are connecting with the author. Not personally, but just connecting the flesh to the word. I tend to go to the "celebrity" book readings in town, and skip all of the unknown authors (unless I’ve read or heard good things about their books). When recently, I had two book event options in one night, and one was Bret Easton Ellis and the other was Karl Soehnlein, I went to see Ellis. I mean, I see Karl at the gym all the time, so I don’t really need to connect the dots between the words and their creator.
Most of the time, I go to just size the person up, humanize them. There’s no better way to deflate your idols than to just go see them in person. I always have enough ego to go to something like the Ellis reading and, despite his years of experience that I lack, know that the only difference between us is that he puts the time in, and has perfected this. It reinforces that it is attainable for me, too.
So, for JT, all I have is the e-mails we’ve shared, the phone calls, and his words. When I read a piece at A Different Light a while back, I sent out a quick e-mail in case people wanted to hear me read. Sorted by city, JT showed up on list of local people I could add to the e-mail, so I did. Hell, never having met him, he could easily pop in, pop out, and I’d have no clue. He didn’t, of course, but wrote back a few days later that he hoped it went well and congratulated me on getting published in the anthology. Like I said, he’s always been very encouraging.
But, a lot of the people who doubt his existence only dealt with him through e-mails and phone calls, too. I mean, Dennis Cooper, who was an early mentor to JT, recently wrote on his blog about the whole ordeal: for me the progression from knowing and caring about a seemingly real 14 year old kid who claimed to have been horribly abused his whole life and was living on the streets and who claimed he was going to die of AIDS any minute and who could nonetheless and quite remarkably write well and honestly and sometimes beautifully about his life to watching this seemingly same kid transform into a fame and fashionability and money chasing alternative culture mini-Paris Hilton to discovering that the entire thing was probably a heartless and greedy if rather brilliantly carried out scam has not been fun at all."
Compared to his relationship to JT, I don’t know JT at all. So, if he’s gone that far to the other side, it certainly raises questions. Last time I called his publisher for a review copy of JT’s latest book, the publicist even added a "if there even is such a person" after saying JT’s name.
But I think there will have to be resolution on the matter soon. Definitely before his next book is published, unless they want every review to be half about whether he exists and half reviewing the book. But even more than that, as much as some people will argue to the death that the opposite is true; for me, a JT book is not a piece of fiction that takes me into another world. I read it as a fictionalized journal entry that has hopefully made JT closer to sorting out his problems. That said, it is powerfully written, raw, and makes you question the humanity of a world that would make someone suffer through some of these things.
And that’s the real problem for me. The book will never be separate from the author for me and if, when reading his next book, the main thing crossing my mind is whether I’m really reading the words of the pained boy I got to know a little bit over the years, or whether it is all just some older woman pulling an elaborate hoax, then the battle is already lost.
But, at this point, I still want to believe there really is a JT. It’s just getting really difficult.