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Daniel Day-Lewis spoke with poet, Eileen Myles in this 2002 interview. Photography by Terry Richardson.
 

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  JERRY HALL
STEPHANIE SEYMORE
MARC JACOBS
  ASIA ARGENTO
DENNIS HOPPER
ABEL FERRARA
BRIAN WILSON
WILL OLDHAM
DJ SPOOKY

JT Leroy, 2001

WITH BRUCE BENDERSON
PHOTOGRAPHED BY ROE ETHRIDGE


In 1996 a sixteen-year-old boy named "Terminator," who claimed to be a sex worker, called me out of the blue. He was an admirer, he said, of my writing. A day later, a story he'd written about heroin and balloons rolled out of my fax machine. It was so well crafted, it blew my mind.
Little by little, I learned Terminator's story. Childhood had been a series of dark, picaresque adventures. He'd survived a free-wheeling teenage mother and her abusive boyfriends, punitive fundamentalist grandparents, dangerous truckstop adventures in the sex trade, chemical addictions, and hustling on the street.
After being abandoned at a San Francisco shelter, he met psychotherapist Terry Owens. In a remarkably short time, Terminator began the daunting task of making sense of his life. One of the most useful tools became the process of writing. With precocious lucidity, he began turning nightmarish memories into stunning prose.
The rest, shall we say, is history. I passed his work to writers Laurie Stone, Joel Rose, and Catherine Texier, and a few months later, our favorite young writer had a publisher. After that, he dropped the street name Terminator, and began to sign his work "JT LeRoy."
JT's first book, the novel Sarah, was published last year. It's a dizzying ride with a teenage transvestite truckstop hooker in the backwoods of West Virginia. Sarah bursts with inventive dialogue, rich atmosphere, and disturbingly hilarious plot twists. JT's new book of short stories, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, is more simple and cruel. It recounts childhood experiences of physical and sexual abuse with deadpan clarity. Some readers may not be able to bear its stark honesty.
Despite JT's new position as one of the best young talents in literature, he maintains a Garbo-esque seclusion. Staying incognito gives him the freedom to get used to his new identity as a lauded writer; it also protects his currently stable domestic life, and allows him to experiment with new personae. Over the years, he and I have spent countless hours on the phone together, but just when I think I know the real JT, another pops into view.



BRUCE: You recently mentioned that I might not know the new you. What did you mean by that?
JT: Well, here's an example. I recently sent a thank-you gift to the first editor that my shrink, Terry Owens, sent my work to.

BRUCE: Eric Wilinkski.
JT: Yeah, Eric was the very first person to give me critical feedback. He got me writing to authors, and gave me the idea that they might respond. So I wanted to send him a gift. Now, a friend of mine owed me money, so I used his credit card to purchase the gift, and by mistake the vendor put my friend's name on the receipt. So when I talked to Eric, the first thing out of his mouth was, "Who'd you scam?" I was like, "No, he owed me money." And it made me really mad that he made that assumption.

BRUCE: So the change is from a scamming street hustler to a legitimate author and a genuine communicator?
JT: Well, I'm not saying that side is completely gone! [both laugh] But I was a really different person when I was on the street and on drugs.

BRUCE: I'll admit that I find you very different. When you were sixteen, you seemed fragmented and unpredictable, and I never knew whether you might be in trouble. I rarely worry about that any more.
JT: I still have some of those problems, but they're not as out of control. I used to feel like a car just careening, with no one driving. A lot of the time I still feel that way — but that's not the reality.

BRUCE: Right. Let's talk about your new book. Although I had read different versions of some of the stories years ago, before you'd written Sarah, I was absolutely knocked backwards by this new collection. The images are so crisp and original that it's almost unbearable to read.
JT: Well, let me tell you something. Patti Sullivan and I have a kind of test. She's a scriptwriter I'm working with on the screenplay to Sarah. If somebody says, "Oh, I loved The Heart Is Deceitful. I read it in one night and couldn't put it down," we know there's something a little wrong there. Like, there was a well-known musician who read it in one night. But she has a lot of self-hurting problems, so it made sense that she would do that.

BRUCE: I guess there are a lot of people who can relate to the kind of hell you went through growing up. For me, the first story in the new book is the most shattering.
JT: It's about a four-year-old boy who gets sent back to his birth mother, who's regained custody. Up till then, he'd lived with his foster parents, a very upper middle-class, warm, wonderful family.

BRUCE: And the birth mother is not prepared to take care of a four-year-old child.
JT: She doesn't have much money. She doesn't have much support from anybody. She's working as a waitress. And all of a sudden she has a kid who doesn't know her, and only wants to go back home.

BRUCE: She doesn't know any better, but her strategies for trying to get the kid to stay with her feel sadistic, and ruthless, and so frightening. They create such terror and guilt in the kid that it's almost impossible to comprehend. She gives him speed. She makes him wear his soiled clothing until he learns not to wet the bed. She tells him the police are literally going to crucify him if he tries to go back to his foster parents — his "fucking fosters."
JT: Yeah. But I also see things from her point of view. She's a little — I mean, not a little — but she's off. And she's doing what she feels she has to do.

BRUCE: You wrote most of the stories five or six years ago, right when you were getting off the street.
JT: I wrote them, then I put them away. But these are the first stories that my editor, Karen Rinaldi, bought.

BRUCE: There's another story in which the boy's mother marries a sort of redneck. They go to Atlantic City on their honeymoon, and they leave the child locked in their house. After about six days, the redneck comes home alone and he rapes the child. Then he puts the child into a car and abandons him. And as a reader, you absolutely identify with the child. You imagine what it would have felt like to have the man come back without your mother, after you'd waited for six days, with a diminishing food supply, for someone to come and save you, and then to have this man abuse you while you were in that emotional state …
JT: I had a hard time rereading that story. When I wrote it, I really didn't feel much. It was all written longhand, kind of vomited, and it just went from my brain to the paper. At the time, if I showed that story to someone and they had an intense reaction, I'd think, "What's their problem?"

BRUCE: For you it described everyday reality.
JT: Yeah, I didn't feel like it was a big deal. On some level I did, obviously, because there's emotion in there, but it wasn't connected. One reason writing was so good for me was that the emotion came out there. It was almost like ventriloquism — when I wrote, there was feeling. But it wasn't wired up to my emotional center, my brain.

BRUCE: That's really interesting.
JT: If I was asked how I felt about what happened in the stories, I would kind of shrug. It wasn't until they were given back to me to edit, years later, that I thought, Jesus Christ. There are a lot of problem areas that I left in the book because I just couldn't go back and read the work again and again, the way I did with Sarah. I think anyone would be freaked out by those stories, and now I finally am.

BRUCE: Right. Well what you have so-called "vomited out" are these perfectly crafted stories that evoke the inner state of this helpless and captivating character. They're very literary.
JT: Thanks, yeah.
BRUCE: I'm wondering how you discovered the craft of writing?
JT: Early on, when I lived in Seattle, I was attempting to steal a copy of Try, by Dennis Cooper, from a bookstore. And a guy was following me around the store, because I didn't look like someone who was shopping. And I just thought, fuck, because I had the book in my hands. So finally the guy asks if he can help me, and I think maybe he wants to trick, so I kind of respond. And now he's really about to get gnarly. So I ask, "Do you know where I can find transgressive fiction?" I'd just learned that term, and I felt like a bad-ass bandying it about. I held up the book. And all of a sudden, he changed his attitude. It was like pressing buttons on a robot. He was like, "Transgressive fiction, must help." I turned from a suspect into a person he had to assist. And then he gave me several books, including Mary Gaitskill's Two Girls: One Fat, One Thin. I actually felt like I had to buy them at that point to hold his respect. So I bought them, plus the copy of Try that I'd been hoping to stuff in my bag while he wasn't looking.

BRUCE: That's when you started thinking about writing as an art?
JT: That's the thing. One book was about a guy who was in prison, who'd had this horrific childhood. But I realized I didn't give a shit about his story because it was written so badly. It had no beauty, it did not engage me. And then I read Mary Gaitskill's book, and it was beautiful. She wrote about characters that I would not have cared about normally, and I cared. That's how I learned the power of craft. Before that, I was just addicted to having people respond when I wrote for my therapist's class.

BRUCE: How did that come about?
JT: Terry kept telling me, "Write, write, write." Because he felt I had a problem with continuity between our sessions, even though they were only, like, a day apart. At the time, he was teaching a graduate psychology class at the University of San Francisco and he said, "Here's your chance to tell people the real deal, to educate them." And that excited me, the idea of getting back at the social workers, telling them what assholes they were, or how they could do a better job.

BRUCE: So writing began as a therapeutic tool, and then you thought of it as a way to communicate to others, and then finally you got involved in the craft.
JT: Right. But I first became aware of good storytelling when I lived with my grandparents. We had to write biblical scenes. Like, "Moses meets Jesus: Write a scene." I learned that if I could write a powerful emotional story that was beautiful as well, I got more response. Otherwise, there weren't many pats on the back.

BRUCE: You wrote for positive attention.
JT: I was really starved for it. I was used to getting attention for my body, or for sex, or for bad behavior. But not for something like this.

BRUCE: You've made no secret of how you survived on the street. Some of it had to do with prostitution. I wonder if there's any parallel between the activity of prostitution and the activity of writing?
JT: Big time.

BRUCE: You've written about how you created characters for yourself when you were tricking. You fulfilled other people's fantasies by pretending to be who they wanted you to be, making up false names and stories about yourself …
JT: Yeah.

BRUCE: Maybe that's hard to talk about.
JT: It is. Someone once told me I'm "a very baitable worm" — meaning I have a lot of bait parts that the media would be interested in. When Sarah first came out, I made a pact with Dennis Cooper that I wouldn't talk too much about certain things — because opening up to an interviewer can give me the feeling of sitting down with a trick who wants to get a lot out of me. Not with you, you're a friend. But, you know …

BRUCE: Well, the autobiographical nature of your writing makes you especially vulnerable to the media.
JT: The thing is, I always want to become friends with the interviewer. I find myself wanting that attention, that connection, especially if they're cool. It's very hard when I feel they want something from me, or have expectations. It's hard for me to hold on to what I want to say and what I want to give. Like some interviewers only want to talk about prostitution, and I don't want to talk about that. One article was all about how the interview took two hours because I kept hanging up. That interview really upset me. Because people can worm in on me — I'm not good at boundaries. I tend to say stuff that I don't want to say.

BRUCE: Well, let's talk about something different but related. I have never encountered another writer who has, in such a dynamic and enthusiastic way, sought out so many of the creative artists that have been inspirational to him. You've become friends with most of the people you've sought out. What do you get out of contacting these people?
JT: It makes me feel like a real person. When I read a work that impresses me, I want to consume the book. I want to memorize it. I feel a desire to connect with that person.

BRUCE: Once you connect, what's it like?
JT: Often it's really amazing. Like, I read Mary Karr's book, The Liar's Club, years ago. It really changed how I wrote. So I contacted her, and now we've become really good friends. Mary Gaitskill and Dorothy Allison too. They all educate me, steer me towards books, offer wisdom. I feel like a hungry fucking sponge — I'm in awe of these people. And besides that, they all have experience with the industry. Like I went through this period where I had to figure out how to work with an agent. In A.A. they call that a "high-class problem," but it was very upsetting. So I was able to call Michael Chabon and Tobias Wolff and some other people and ask, "What do I do, what do I do?"

BRUCE: Your most intimate friendship with a writer is with Dennis Cooper. How did you find him?
JT: I went to the library and I asked, "If you wanted to write to an author, what would you do?" The librarian looked in a book, wrote down the agent's number, and I just called. I was so scared. I had stolen — well, borrowed — a calling card.

BRUCE: You just called Ira Silverberg?
JT: Yeah. He told me to fax in a request. And so I went to Kinko's and all that. Later that night I spoke to Dennis, and we just connected. His novel Try meant everything to me. At that time I was still tricking, using the name Ziggy — which is the main character's name in Try. And then later, Dennis sent me your book, User. And I experienced that strong feeling of wanting to know what you knew.

BRUCE: I'll never forget the first time you called me. Your voice sounds incredibly young, so when you told me you liked User, which was about Times Square hustlers and crackheads, I thought, "My god, this kid in junior high is telling me he likes my X-rated book. Could I get arrested for discussing it with him?" But that was just the beginning of a very deep relationship for me. Because the more I heard about your life, and the more I saw of your work, and the more I talked to you, the more I realized that you were influencing me in a really meaningful way.
JT: It was amazing for me to have that kind of a connection with you, as a writer. It was powerful that you cared about me without it having to do with, like …

BRUCE: Sex.
JT: Right. You were like my Jewish mother. [LAUGHS] And I'd never had one of those, so that was really an experience.

BRUCE: Well I know I fit the bill physically. [both laugh]
JT: But seriously, I never had the experience of going to school and having classmates to ask, "What do you think of this thing I'm working on?" So I'd wait for you to wake up in the morning, or I'd call late at night. I'd read to you, because I really needed permission. I'd write a paragraph and need permission to go on.

BRUCE: The prose in The Heart Is Deceitful is very different from the extremely constructed, sophisticated, musical prose in Sarah. In a way, Sarah can be read as entertainment. It's about an under-aged boy who dresses as a girl, and is a truckstop hooker — yet you come out of it entertained and amused. The new book leaves you with your mouth gaping, devastated.
JT: I think people also come out of Sarah pretty devastated. I've gotten a lot of e-mail from people — I put my e-mail address in both books because I really wanted to make myself available — and the response has been mostly a combination of devastation and hope.

BRUCE: Sarah's a very fanciful book, and it's got lots of satire and funny scenes.
JT: Yeah. That's one thing that reading Mary Karr and Frank McCourt has taught me — humor makes the story more powerful. You reach a saturation point with pain. Like, how many stories can you read in The Heart Is Deceitful? If you have humor, you can take people further with you on your journey. You won't trip their wires.

BRUCE: Do you feel that the public and the press understood what you were trying to do with Sarah?
JT: Yeah, I've learned a lot from the press. I got maybe five bad reviews for Sarah. Otherwise, I've gotten all these amazing, analytical reviews. And people talk about these new stories being so structurally well-crafted too. But the truth is, when I sit down, I have only a vague idea where I'm going. When I wrote Sarah, I really didn't have it plotted out.

BRUCE: That relates to what we were saying before: your sense of craft is intact, but on an unconscious level.
JT: Having a story inside is not something I enjoy. With Sarah, I felt like a dog had a hold on my throat and was shaking the hell out of me. All I wanted was for it to be done, but the story kept saying, "No, you have to go here." I was driving in thick fog — I couldn't see far ahead.

BRUCE: Things have changed so much for you since we met. In the beginning, a large part of your life had to do with pretty risky street experiences. They involved tricks, some of whom were dangerous. They also involved your own impulse to get yourself in trouble. And then you hooked up with a bunch of people, including a couple with a child, whom you live with now.
JT: It's like I have a family.

BRUCE: And that child is considered "yours" too, right?
JT: Very much so.

BRUCE: That's pretty wonderful. I heard Gus Van Sant is making a film of Sarah.
JT: Yeah, we're also working on an HBO movie. And he gave me a first draft of a script of his that he wants me to work on. And he optioned "Meteors" and "Baby Doll" from The Heart Is Deceitful. He wants to make those into one small film.

BRUCE: How'd you hook up with him?
JT: He was always my dream director, but when my agent sent Sarah to Gus, it got a pat rejection from his office. But my mama taught me that "no" can mean maybe, or "no" can mean yes. So I just started my own campaign to get people to pass him the book. And the funny thing is, somebody I didn't know suggested my book to Gus first, and then he got it from people I knew. So everywhere he went, he was hearing about it.

BRUCE: You know so many high-profile people, and yet you've kept fairly anonymous. There are very few pictures of you. You don't do public readings. You rarely give live interviews.
JT: There have been all these rumors about who really wrote Sarah. I like the idea that people think Dennis Cooper actually wrote my books …

BRUCE: But that's different. Why do you stay incognito?
JT: I keep my life very controlled. I don't leave the house that much. When I was on the street and doing drugs, my life was outside. That was how I functioned out there. So now I keep my world really small, because I'm still learning. I went from doing drugs, to being out of control, to being in a parental situation and having a book come out, to dealing with the media and the press, all in a really short time. And that's pretty fucking heavy to deal with.

BRUCE: Even though you love and need attention, you just don't want to be recognized.
JT: I have such mixed feelings. I really don't want people to come up to me on the street, or in the outside world. I don't like being looked at physically. When people look at me, I think they're thinking really horrible things. I take medications that help, but oh my god, if I had to do a reading and have people look at me, and hear what they were thinking … I mean, I'm still figuring out who I am on so many levels. If I were out there getting all this attention, and people were telling me, "Oh, you're wonderful, you're great," I'd be back on drugs so fucking fast it wouldn't be funny.

BRUCE: So instead you circulate misinformation about yourself.
JT: Yeah, I really like the idea that if I need to escape, there are lots of people who will come forward to claim that they wrote Sarah, that they wrote everything. I've laid the trail.


© index magazinegelatin1
JT Leroy by Roe Ethridge, 2001
© index magazinetobias
JT Leroy by Roe Ethridge, 2001
 
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