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Kissed by Success

With celebrity friends, indie-film cred and adoring fans who send chocolate and Hot Wheels, life is good for J.T. LeRoy, as he tells us in an exclusive Q&A.

Despite the rawness of his semi-autobiographical 2000 debut Sarah, which chronicles a young truck-stop prostitute's chaotic relationship with his mother and his aggrieved pursuit of love and identity, J.T. LeRoy's work and life ring with optimism and perseverance, not tragedy, as he'll tell you himself.

LeRoy (pictured above left, getting a kiss from Italian actress Asia Argento) began writing at the age of 15 as a form of therapy. Now 23, he generates stories that are crushing and tender. In Sarah, his protagonist "Cherry Vanilla" (rendered after himself) is subjected to rape, beatings, and enslavement. His second book, 2001's The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, is a prequel to Sarah that relates LeRoy's years with his drug-addled mother and her abusive boyfriends. Despite the sadism, LeRoy's characters throb with humor, humanity, and a rough immediacy that never descends into pathos or caricature.

LeRoy lives in the Mission District, is working on a new novel, and writes songs for the local band Thistle. We exchanged e-mail and received long, thoughtful answers on transgressive fairy tales, filmmaking with Gus Van Sant, the pitfalls of celebrity and his insatiable love for dark chocolate and Hot Wheels.

Q: You write in a genre that many literary critics call "transgressive." Do you think your writing conforms to that label, or do you feel it's a misinterpretation?

People who've never read Sarah probably read the back of the jacket and think it's going to be some transgressive hell. But I think it's really sweet actually, it expresses who I am better than any interview ever could. To me, it's so much about love and desire.

Many people refer to Sarah as a kind of fairy tale or like Alice In Wonderland. I didn't set out to do that. I read this book by [psychologist] Bruno Bettelheim and it talks about how fairy tales are part of the collective unconscious. He says that personalities determine which fairy tales people gravitate to, depending on what stories they tell themselves in their lives or how they think of themselves. I have a thing for Hansel and Gretel. Peter Pan, too. Those two stories capture a lot my fears and everything. Hansel and Gretel, think about it, a daddy gets married and decides to abandon his children in the woods because his new wife doesn't want them. And this witch wants to cannibalize them. These are the types of things we tell children. So how can you look at my book and call it transgressive fiction! It's not that bad. And no one's being threatened with being eaten.

Q: You wrote the original screenplay for Gus Van Sant's film Elephant (which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2003), and you were the associate producer as well. How did this collaboration come about?

I pursue what I'm moved by. Gus Van Sant moved me and I pursued him. I asked everyone I knew who had a possible link to Gus to please ask him to read Sarah. We became very close friends and worked together on a number of projects. He told me my writing reminded me of Tennessee Williams and he took me under his wing. When Gus takes you under his wing, you launch pretty fast, pretty high. One of the first projects we started working on was this idea for a movie, working at HBO with Diane Keaton and Bill Robinson as producers, based on the incident at Columbine High School.

I'd never written a film script before. Gus had faith and acted as a Dumbo feather allowing me to believe, too, that I'd be able to do this, to actually pull this off. During the year Gus, as he put it, went through a portal and began to explore his craft and, for the time being, decided that working with a script placed a limitation on his film making that he no longer wanted. I then moved into a producer capacity to help birth this film, feeling like, ok, well maybe it won't be my exact words that get used but my sperm is still in there. I'd rather see the baby born with part of my seed.

Q: Your third novel will be published by Viking in 2005. Last Gasp will also be releasing your novella, Harold's End, in September 2004. Can you give me a synopsis of both?

The Heart is Deceitful is the prequel to Sarah. The book I'm working on now for Viking is the next part. "Harold's End" is a story that I originally wrote for McSweeney's. Then it was published as a novella in Italy...I knew it had more to offer. I had been approached about doing it as a movie but I didn't want that. Then Last Gasp contacted me about doing an illustrated novel. I had just gotten a copy of Oyster, an Australian magazine that I write for, and in it there was an article about this artist, Cherry Hood. Just check out her work and you will see we were made to work together. We plan to do other books together. And the fact that we found each other just reinforces to me certain spiritual principles I hold to be true and self-evident, uh, when I am not in my crap. When I can step out of my head and connect with that.

Q: A lot of your writing is about the way we grapple with the senseless tragedies in life -- violence, addiction, abandonment, et cetera. Do you have any interest in a different direction?

I envy writers who sit down and say, "I'm going to write a book about a man and a woman and they do whatever," and then they write it. I can't do that. I have my obsessions. For novels I still have stuff to vomit, so to speak. I'm still not done. I can work outside my direct experience, I did so with Elephant and that won the Palme D'Or. I think there is a lot of humor in my work, and I plan to follow that more. I am working on some children's projects, mostly coz I am child-like and stunted, if'n I do say so myself.

Q: Your craving for community has led to a web of connections with luminaries like Madonna, Courtney Love, and Winona Ryder. Do you ever find yourself in disbelief at the caliber of stars you've attracted?

It all came about in a real organic manner. After the very incredible writer Bruce Benderson did a story on me for New York Press, they started me doin' writing for them, interviewing folks I liked. I was always very into music, as was my mother, so it was swell to get to talk to folks I was in awe of. Some of them we just struck up a connection. When Sarah was in manuscript they asked to read it, that's what happened with Suzanne Vega. She wrote saying she would support me in any way to help get my book out there. When they wanted me to do readings round it, I told them I can't do readings, Mary Gaitskill offered to read for me coz she knew I just could not. I throw up. We asked Suzanne Vega and it all just started from there.

I've done some readings since, in Europe on my tour (and I threw up before). We did a reading in NY, a benefit for the adolescent unit here in SF, The McAuley Institute, run by Dr. Terrence Owens, the therapist that got me writing in the first place. He saved my life. No doubt about it. Danielle Steele donated $20,000 to it, as well. Fucking great. It is the only one for kids that need in-patient treatment like that. They always need stuff, Shirley Manson donated all these signed records and posters from all kinds of bands, like from Metallica. Most programs don't have the time or resources to bother to find what will open a kid. It is like picking a lock. Dr. Owens had the saint-like patience to try to reach me and not a day goes by that I don't thank God for him.

Q: In a lot of ways, you're part of the cult of celebrity and our culture's worship of youth and tragedy combined. What's your reaction to that?

I think folks are into my work. They might read about me in some mag, or get into my work 'cause they read that an artist they admire is into my work, how different is that then a trusted friend recommending a book? But what keeps folks reading is they are moved by the work, that's when I hear in all the emails I get. I am NOT a tragedy, and there is a real element of hope in all my work, so I don't think that applies.

Q: You've said in past interviews that you crave a lot of attention. How do you fulfill that craving?

I really crave attention and I am really terrified of it at the same time. John Waters told me that the most un-American thing you could do is reject fame. Well, I feel pretty un-American. I used to wait for it all to fix me. But when my book hit a bestseller list, shit didn't change. I was still in my skin hating myself. Nothing fixes it but the work with my shrink, the inside work. And AA, that keeps me sane too. If I were out there getting applause, I'd be back on drugs in no time.

I have a discussion group on Yahoo called Terminator2. A lot of my life has been about setting up family and community and the people on the Terminator list feel like that. There are artists, musicians, mothers, fathers and just plain folks there. The community is vital and alive. So far as connecting with my fans, I always remember my past and how much it meant to me to make a connection with an artist whose work I admired. It's hard to be available to everyone but I try. As long as my fans continue to send me dark chocolate and Hot Wheels cars all will be well.