The JT Leroy Interview

July 30, 2004

Today is the day to lay on a chaise.

Buy my book!

Today's C-note interviewee is a former teenaged street hustler, now an accomplished artist at 24, with a new novel coming out in 2005.  On screen, he's co-produced Gus Van Sant's "Elephant", which won the Palme d'Or last year, and co-written script (based on his book) for "The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things," which premiered this year at Cannes. And he writes online and in print because he's obviously got too much time on his hands. JT's first novel, Sarah, on the syllabus for courses at Stanford, Duke and Wesleyan, is a modern day fairy tale, full of emotions and undercurrents that anyone can relate to, find humorous and be moved by  He's pals with folks like Courtney Love and Winona Ryder although he doesn't want to be famous for it, and he speaks in a soft, sweet Southern twang. He was originally supposed to be an interviewee of mine somewhere in the 60's, but I'm glad he stuck around to be today's.

The irony (in the Alanis Morrisette way) is that for today's big interview, I used a tape recorder for our phone conversation, and of course it crapped out on me, so I had to rely mostly on my sketchy notes, so I managed to distill my special hourlong phone interview with one of today's most interesting figures in literature and pop culture down to a not-so-long-or-detailed transcription. But don't let that reflect on my interviewee. And don't let that reflect on my interviewing skills. Let it reflect upon my use of a tape recorder. Oh well.

The JT Leroy Interview: It's About 20 Questions 

What can you tell us about your upcoming book Haroldís End? Why did you choose to make it a novella, rather than a short-story or a full-length novel?
Iím not sure what the difference is between a short story and novella, and why people decide to put things out as novella. So I guess you could call it a short storella.  Itís about a boy on the street whoís disconnected from everything, and heís longing for a safe place. Like all his friends have a pet, and that seems normal to him, so he wants one.

Do you like Forster? 
I love him. I really like Maurice.  I like that British style of writing.

Do you find screenwriting pretty different or difficult, compared with prose, or does it come easily to you?
Iím pretty good at dialogue, so it comes pretty easy to me.  I kind of write them more like theyíre novels, though, because I like a lot of description.

Whatís the most common misconception about you, either as an author or a person?
That I live in this big celebrity world, and that Iím only friends with famous people.  I have a lot of friends who are talented and who happen to be celebrities, but to me theyíre artists. I am also friends with a lot of artists who arenít famous. 

Whatís the last song youíve written with your band Thistle?  Whatís it about? 
We just finished one called ìMattress,î and itís really playful. Itís about a girl waiting for a boy, and itís fun, kind of old-fashioned.  I havenít written a lot of love songs. I used to write a lot of songs about my mother.

What have you been listening to lately?
A lot of Morrissey. I love him and the new album. Thereís a band called Smoosh thatís two 12 year old girls.  I write a lot of bios, too, and Iím working on one for Bryan Adams and thatís really fun. Also Bright Eyes and Nancy Sinatra.

 In regards to your celebrity supporters and fame, itís been written of you, ìAt times the hype surrounding LeRoy seems to obscure his work, and itís likely that more has been published about him than he himself has written.î  Do you think itís true?  Are you concerned about making sure your work keeps up with your notoriety, or is fame fame?
Thatís probably true. You sometimes lose a certain amount of people people with the hype.  Zadie Smith and Nick Hornby both told me that they liked my stuff but were turned off by the hype.  

Those are two interesting people to lecture you on hype.
You're right, I've never thought of it that way. Anyway, a lot of times, when something is celebrated, thereís a reason for it.  But I still wanted to make it about the craft. I got a book deal at 17 but I held myself back a few years until my work had more solidity.  But I understand. I had heard so much about Mary Karr that I was reluctant to read her but then I read Liarís Club and I was like yeah, yeah, yeah, but then I read it and thought it was amazing.  But mostly I want to hone my work and my voice.

Sarah is largely autobiographical and described by some as a coming-of-age story.  What are other memoirs and autobiographies that youíve enjoyed?
Liars Club.  Angelaís Ashes. Anything by Alice Munro.

Why was ìTerminatorî your nickname when you lived on the street?
Because it was so unlike me.  Somebody gave it to me and it stuck, and some people still call me that, like Dennis Cooper. I havenít been Terminator for a long time, though. I was a lot more fucked up then, and pretty wild.

ìThe Heart is Deceitful Above All Thingsî seems like it got some mixed reviews at Cannes.  Are you pretty good at handling critique, or is it very rough for you, especially when based on something that came from your own life?
It really didnít get mixed reviews. It got really good reviews. A few reporters who didnít even see the movie wrote some bad stuff about it and then it got picked up in the media, as a couple other reporters promoted that article. But really, the movies getting really good reactions. I think some people just canít handle that itís not a movie that paints people in black and white, and thatís directed by a woman, [Asia Argento].

Otherwise, Iíve been pretty lucky that I havenít had that much criticism. I had one guy write a review of my book and I contacted him and thanked him.  I didnít agree with his review but I thanked him for being thoughtful. 

  I just have no time for people who judge things before seeing them.   Itís so easy these days to talk shit and be snarky than it is to be reflective. And Iím not a snob; I love pop culture.

  And as for the movie, Iím not making any extra money for saying itís good. If it were bad, Iíd definitely try and distance myself from it, but itís notóitís really good.

You disguise yourself in a lot of photos, often donít read at your own readings and apparently donít do many in-person interviews.  Are you private or shy or something else?
Everyone talks about that so much, but I donít know why that canít just be an aspect of me, you know?  Actors, when they go on talk shows or are in movies or whatever, can say, ìOh, thatís just a character I play,î but I donít have that.  Itís just a way to be protective.  I donít want to go out in public as myself and have people say shit to me.  Susan Dey told me once that whatever age you get famous at, folks will hold you to that. I dont want to be held to anything.

Speaking of which, I feel I know a lot of personal stuff about you. Is there anything that you donít feel comfortable sharing with people in your writing?
Not really. I feel like my personality, I just come through in my writing, and I canít hide that.  There are some writers out there who just love life and people and it comes through in their writing, like Stephen King, and I really admire that.

Whatís one particular style of writing that you wish you were better at?
I wish I were one of themÖI wish I were more scholarly. I'm really jealous of people who are very educated.  It would be great to be in an institution where you can get constructive feedback from a teacher.

You have been compared to Andy Warhol.  Do you think everybody gets their 15 minutes of fame?
I think that everyone wants their 15 minutes.  People are so obsessed with wanting to be heard.  The thing is, working on a craft is too difficult, so people say, ìAh, fuck itÖIíll just get on a reality TV show.î  John Waters once told me, ìThe most American thing you can do is reject fame.î  I donít want to do that, but I do want to make it about my work.

Are most of your friends women?
I think soÖI never really thought about it. I used to not be friends with any women.  I didn't really know how to talk to them, and I had to learn how to have a conversation with them after a while. Before that, I just was friends with men who wanted to have sex with me.  But I think now it's just a coincidence that I have so many female friends.

Whatís your schedule? How do you have time for writing, corresponding, thinking, music, hobnobbing and sleep?
Iím constantly stressed, Iím doing too much. I try to keep up with lots of chocolate and green tea. Right now Iím working on a piece for the New York Times book review section about my favorite author Breece D'J Pancake. But Iím kind of overworked right now.  

Are there any questions youíre sick of people asking you?
It'll happen more with roundtable type interviews, but I get kind of sick and bored with people who arenít really up to date on their press on me and they ask me the same questions all the time. I'll kind of get bored.

Whatís something that youíre good at that your fans might not expect? Football? Knitting? Pastry cooking?
Running.  Itís more running than jogging, though.

How does it feel to be the 100th person interviewed for
Iím really honored.  Thanks for asking me!