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JT Leroy delivers stunning debut with "Sarah"

by Jeff Walsh, Oasis Editor

In his first book, "Sarah," JT Leroy paints a wild vision of life using lyrical prose, fascinating folklore, and unusual characters. The book details the life of a lot lizard, which is the local term for truck stop prostitutes in this West Virginia-based story. From the moment you start reading the book, you are immediately swept away into this other world of prostitution, miracles, drugs, raccoon penis bones, and longing.

The lead character in the book has a tortured relationship with his mother, but still longs to be a part of her life. She is also a lot lizard. One day, he starts using her name, Sarah, as his lizard name.

As a piece of fiction, it is remarkable in its ability to ground such fanciful and foreign characters, plot, and setting together, but still make you immediately care about the characters, and pull you through the book at a feverish pace to see what could happen next.

"Sarah" has met with amazing reviews everywhere from Spin Magazine to the New York Times, and it is currently on the Los Angeles Times Bestseller List. Many of the reviews comment on the age of Leroy, who is 20, and that a lot of the things that happen in the book are autobiographical.

"Sarah" was a therapeutic book for Leroy to write, and he's still dealing with a lot of the issues in the book, as well as how to deal with being in the spotlight because of it. He gets nervous during interviews, rarely does them in person, and even had other authors stand-in for him at his book readings, because he would be too nervous to do them himself.

The only picture of Leroy that is being used for every article written about him was taken because it is also the cover shot of Dennis Cooper's new book "Period." Cooper's book "Try" was inspirational to Leroy and the author has since become a mentor to Leroy.

Leroy only lives a few blocks away from me in San Francisco, but this interview was done on the phone. Leroy breaks the tension of doing this interview by immediately jumping in to say: "It's true. I am hung like a zebra. I'm sick of denying it."

When he answers the questions I ask, he is detailed to a fault. He wants you to understand what he has gone through and how he has arrived at the place he is now. For example, I began by asking him why we are doing this interview over the phone, rather than in person. I knew he was shy, but he said it goes much deeper than that.

"Shy is just an easy way to explain it. It's really complicated," he said. "When I was tricking, standing on the corner, you're standing there and everyone is looking you over like merchandise in a store window. And the only way I could do that was with a lot of drugs, and I did do that with a lot of drugs."

Leroy said he was rarely homeless and, unlike a lot of street punks, he never bought into the whole ideology of being homeless. He could always find some guy to get him a hotel room, and the guy he worked for also had a room. Leroy said that when he stopped doing drugs four years ago, he finally got a place to live. He then pauses, and proceeds in a more confessional tone.

"I find it very painful to be out in the world. I find it painful to be looked at. This is going to sound bizarre, but I can hear what people think of me and usually it's really bad," he said. "People look you over and you can hear what they're thinking, and even if they're being nice and smiling, they're still looking you over and thinking things about you. When I hear what they're thinking, and it gets really loud in my head, I can't turn it off. Even if they tell me that's not what they're thinking, I just can't take it. I don't like to go out in the day, I only like going out at night. I feel too exposed in the day."

Leroy said that he tends to cancel a lot of appointments with people. Many doctors in San Francisco refuse to even see him anymore because he's missed so many appointments. One time his agent set him up to meet another author he represented, Mary Gaitskill.

"We spoke (on the phone) and I really liked her and she reminded me of my mom, which was really intense," he said. "I tried to cancel, because I just couldn't show up. And I called and couldn't get her, and I couldn't stand the idea of her sitting there waiting for me, so I had to show up. So, I met her, which was terrifying, but really good at the same time. But, for the most part, I'll just cancel."

I quickly learn that calling it "shy" was definitely huge shorthand for what Leroy goes through. He said it doesn't make him happy to be this way, and it's not a great way to live.

Leroy said he wasn't even thinking about writing "Sarah" as a book initially. He has already written a book, which is coming out within the next year, which is more autobiographical about his tricking. What is now "Sarah" was initially going to be a chapter in that book.

"This one just happened by mistake," he said. "It just kind of came out, like taking a shit. You know when you sit down and think it's going to be a small one, but then it keeps coming and coming and coming, and all sorts of stuff that you ate the other day is coming out of you. It's like that."

Leroy said he never really examined how he wrote before the media suddenly became interested.

"I don't really think about it that much. I've been having to think about it more because of the press around it," he said. "It kind of ties into why I don't do a lot of face-to-face interviews with people, because 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. Before this all started, Dennis Cooper and I figured out what I'm going to do, what's safe for me to do. Avoid all contact is the safest thing, and it grew into more contact than I wanted to have, and more talking. I didn't really want all that. I have a really hard time with boundaries and sex, because I never learned to have my own boundaries around it. If someone is interested, and I'm not... especially if they are interviewing you and they're giving you attention, and it's for something different from my face, I just don't know how to handle it. I go into waitress mode. It's not like I'm so irresistible, it just has come up."

Leroy prefers to call "Sarah" autobiographical fiction.

"Everything in it I can trace to my life," he said. "My mom was a lot lizard. We drove around truck stops; we lived in truck stops... I was never a saint, or any of that. But all the folklore is real, like if you put a black snake belly up it will cause rain. I've heard from a lot of West Virginian folks and they get a lot of the in-jokes. I really love hearing from West Virginian folks. They have ramp festivals (a vegetable in the onion family), and people think I made them up. I exaggerate their pungency. A lot of things are exaggerated."

Leroy said he never really thinks about how different his life is from most people.

"I never really categorized it as, 'OK, now I'm a lot lizard.' It just was," he said, then remaining silent for several seconds, before adding, "it's pretty sad, actually. It's pretty sad."

Leroy's first book (which will come out second) is more autobiographical than Sarah. It will cover his tricking in San Francisco on Polk Street, and other "fantasy-based" things, he said.

"I'm going to call it fiction, because it's too painful to do it otherwise. I really like having a lot of screens between me and it," 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."

Leroy is referring to some of the speculation that he doesn't exist, and that he is just a pen name for Dennis Cooper; speculation that is also fueled by the fact that very few people can ever recall meeting him, or seeing him.

Leroy said he stopped tricking four years ago, because of a "very big event" that changed his life, which he won't discuss. He said it was the "most radical change you can imagine." He does offer that he still tricks occasionally.

"I still do little things here and there, but it's more like barter, like... I really want a DVD player, so... ," then he laughed, and said, "So everyone has to go buy Sarah, so I don't have to be a prostitute again."

He laughs, but adds that some people in San Francisco would like it if he were a prostitute again. He said it was difficult tricking in San Francisco because he looks so young. The cops always gave him a hard time, none of the escort services would work with him, and a lot of guys figured he was a decoy for the police.

Leroy said it is also "intense" dealing with all of the e-mail he is getting from people who have read the book, as his e-mail address and Web site (www.jtleroy.com) are printed in it.

"I get a lot of e-mails from folks, and I really like hearing from people, because it gets me out of my shit," he said. "I feel like people gave me their time, and I owe them. But at the same time, I need to write, so I'm trying to find a balance."

Leroy is quick to admit that he is not a disciplined writer, to say the least.

"I hate writing. If I was a runner, I would be on crutches. I hate starting. Once I'm in it, I'm in it and it's cool," he said. "I will look at fucking Fingerhut catalogs and Martha Stewart magazines before I start to write. I'll pick my nose. Anything to not have to write. It's a really excruciating process."

While he is usually critical of everything he writes, he actually enjoys "Sarah."

"I really like Sarah. It kind of scares me, because I'm not used to liking my own work. It feels like something that came from me like a baby would, it has its own life," he said. "That's why I can be an advocate for it, because it feels like it's not mine. I know that sounds fucking bizarre. I read it very detached, and it doesn't feel like something that came from me. If anyone wants to understand who I am and what I am, it's all there. I really feel that when you read people's books, whether they are autobiographical or fiction, they are flavored with someone's guts inside. There's no way they can't be, whether they are really cynical or whatever. And I feel this is so much of who I am in this book, and that's a little scary having it out there. It's a little overwhelming.

"When I was writing this, it was like walking in fog, and I didn't know what was going to happen," he said. "I wanted to finish, and I would race to the finish line, but then a voice would tell me I had to go in this direction first, and I would be like, 'Oh, fuck!' but it was really sweet, too. I could only see like five feet ahead. My voice shifted. It was very different than the other voices I used, so it gave me distance. And because of that distance, I was able to go back and sit in more of that stuff because I had the distance. It was kind of cool."

Leroy is currently working on adapting Sarah as a screenplay, as a production company has already expressed interest, and he's heard that Gus Van Sant likes it a lot. After the screenplay, he plans to write the sequel to Sarah.

"I get e-mails from people who want me to write more mainstream, but I can't write romance novels or whatever the hell," he said, laughing. "I can only write what's inside me. I didn't plot this out, and make it gay in subject or transgendered. It's not that. It's just people who are outside society. I don't know how to write anything except what's inside and I don't even know what that is. And it scares me that maybe there's nothing more inside me, but I know that's not true because I'm still really, really, really super fucked up. It's odd, I resist writing like crazy, but when I'm writing I'm the most sane and less self-destructive."

Leroy said that writing the book, as well as doing all the interviews talking about the book, are helping him come to terms with the life he's led so far.

"It helped me peel back some layers and deal with stuff. It helped me learn about my relationship with my mother. Every time I do an interview, I learn stuff," he said. "That's why sometimes I resist interviews, because I have a hard time... I guess if you do a million of them, you get your rote answers. But I'm honest, I guess, and sometimes that can be painful. It usually is, because you're going to places you don't want to. There's no way I can explain who you are, what you are, and who you've been. There's a lot of people who think I'm Dennis Cooper, and that's cool, too."

In the book, Sarah, although a boy, is thought to be a girl by a lot of the truck drivers she tricks with. Leroy said that comes from his real life, sometimes he would trick as a girl, and other times people would just think he was a girl, and he didn't correct them.

"I would just wear jeans and a shirt and people assume I was a girl," he said. "I liked the way people would treat you when they think you're a pretty girl, they're just nicer in general."

When Leroy said that he didn't set out to write a gay or transgendered novel, it begged the question of how Leroy quantifies his own sexuality.

"I don't know... you know you're the first person who's actually asked that question? I've kind of been dreading it. I don't know... I'm not straight," he said. "I've been attracted to women, but not in the sense that I actually want to have sex, I just fall in love. I think it's important politically to define yourself, but if it wasn't for the politics, I guess I wouldn't do it. Being gay or queer, you're so marginalized in this culture. In that way, I think everyone should wear their armband when it comes time. But I have a hard time saying... I've never had sex with a girl, and I've had sex with lots of men."

Leroy had to go then, so we ended the interview. But his book and his words continued to swirl around in my mind long afterward. When I was reading a book of "fiction," I was in an amazing world that I found beautiful and entertaining. When I was on the phone with him, I got a glimpse at the reality behind the fiction, and it wasn't as entertaining. And then I hoped that my bookshelf would someday be full of JT Leroy books, each one helping him peel back more and more layers, until he felt loved, and safe, and happy. I hope that day eventually comes.

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Let Jeff know how you liked the article, by mailing him at jeff@oasismag.com


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